EssaysThe PsycheThe Radical Imagination

Talking about Gaza in Psychoanalysis

Politics is usually absent from explicit discourse in psychoanalysis. I say explicit, because obviously we all live in socio-political contexts that signify and structure our roles in any setting. There is a long history to the retreat of politics and political thought from the psychoanalytic clinic. But suffice it to say that, especially since psychoanalysis became a Central European refugee in the post WWII anti-socialist US, everyone has been careful. The allusion of scientism and the ideology of neutrality have been a good defense.

But days like these complicate the picture. Being a New York based Jewish-Israeli therapist with a sizable cohort of Jewish-Israeli patients, nowadays there is no avoiding discussing current events. My patients’ family and friends are living in varying degrees of alert and panic from flying rockets. Rockets that for the most part do not hit but are intercepted and loudly exploded above their heads. Soldiers that might be one’s brother or cousin or nephew are killed and wounded. There is new vehemence to the public discussion in Israel which everyone follows, and obvious manipulation by the government. And there is constant exposure to the carnage inflicted by Israel on Gaza. Destroyed neigbourhoods and lives and immense suffering are on everyone’s mind and conscience. No one can keep away. People are relentlessly engaged and deeply troubled. They feel scared and angry and guilty and ashamed. At the same time they are often isolated in environments that are either ignorant of the events or avoidant. They want to talk about what’s going on, to figure out how they feel and where they stand. Some of them have an urge to go there. Some feel Israel is slipping away as a place of attachment and belonging. They are anxious to imagine solutions. Most of all, they want to not be alone when all of this is happening. And they need me to be present in many ways, including as s trusted compatriot with an opinion. I do have my very strong feelings and opinions. But what is the place of it all in our analytic work?

I refuse to treat such concerns as only grist for the mill of a purely psychological interaction. To consider talking about war, our war, a matter for psychological exploration should be a part of what we do. But it would be oblivious and unethical to end there. When people speak about the reality and politics of a war in which they are intimately implicated, they are not only enacting personal dramas, although they invariably do. They are also wondering, sometimes desperately, how one aught to live in this world as one of many, as a social, ethical being with collective identities. Life is singular and social. Subjectivity is made in intimacy and in public. When we talk about the war we talk about personal experiences, about identifications with victims and perpetrators, about the conflicts of power and fear and empathy and shame that are already part of one’s being as a subject. For my Israeli patients there are always also formative memories. Fathers absent for months while enlisted in conflicts, like those of 67 and 73, the fear and worry and excitement of a child exposed to such circumstances, and often one’s own army service with its dilemmas, and excess and danger. Deep and sometimes dissociated traumatic conundrums come to life again.

But when we talk about the war, we are also talking about belonging and alienation, about conforming and resisting, about our place in a collective that has its own history and conflicts, and anxieties and madness. There is not a single Israeli I know who does not feel implicated and accountable for what’s going on in Israel and Gaza these days, in both the personal and political sense. There is a set of collective identifications, and a complicated feeling of collective responsibility, and an urgent need to make sense and explain. There is, in other words, sharp awareness that one is a political being, that the very meaning and feeling one has of himself, that one’s very existence, take place in a social-political universe. And this universe is undergoing a violent upheaval. We should be able to address this register of human experience in our work.

But if psychoanalysis has had some good 100 years developing ways to think about the traditionally “psychological,” we have nearly nothing with which to address the experience and ethics of life in the sometimes routine, sometimes exploding social-political register. How to explore, what to share, when, if ever, to take a stand? In other words, what is the knowledge or insight one aims for, and what is the ethics one stands for as a psychoanalyst?

It has been my conclusion that if I want to address the questions of the political in psychoanalysis, I need to move beyond psychoanalysis. To engage critical theories that attempt an account for the link between subjectivity and the social. To apply social thinking to my effort to understand the conscious and unconscious dilemmas that impel and oppress what appears, what perhaps masks, as purely subjective. Psychoanalysis’ most basic premise is that people are helped by making the unconscious conscious, recognizing and dispelling certain kinds of apparent givens, creating new potentials for signification and agency. And so, in this context, my concern for knowledge is a concern vis-a-vis what might be construed, implicitly or explicitly, as the socially unconscious. Or looked at from another angle, ideology. In the context of war, of our war, the historical and current work of ideology is so brutally apparent, that it is actually not difficult to see and talk about. Every singular perception, every singular experience, is built around a massively ingrained and perpetuated collective narrative. What “they” want, what “we” want, what “they” are doing to “us,” what “we” don’t want to but must do to “them.” The government pronounces, the media bombards, family and friends rehearse; competing traumatic histories and pleas for historical justice.

There are variance and nuances, but when it comes to people’s sense of “we,” there is an inherent need of and therefore surrender to collectively, politically and ideologically generated narratives. In some ways, vis-a-vis the collective and its circumstances, it is as if people remain eternal children, in need of parental guidance in a confusing and dangerous world. For this reason, despite the apparent ease of recognizing collective ideology and manipulation, it has been my experience that questioning collective identifications is often harder, more troubling, than doing so in the context of one’s relations with one’s family. I have written elsewhere that collective identity seems sometimes as fundamental and as complicated as gender or sexual identity. It is no accident that the violence of the public discourse in Israel these days ties together loyalty and sexuality, that women protesting the militant mainstream are threatened with rape, that men who lean too far to the left are called treasonous homos, that on a radical right-wing Facebook page a woman offered rewarding soldiers on leave with sex (she apologized it could be only up to 10 a day). To challenge a patient to become critical of the collective narratives around which his identity is organized, and which on days like these amplify and harden into a shield, is akin to asking him to become politically queer. It is doubly difficult since the cost is deeply felt and the gain is unclear. The rationale for trying in such direction is also unclear. After all, it is not my role to unsettle what makes my patients feel secure.

But the people I see, none of them actually feels secure. The war is exploding the discontents of our civilized living. There is a great deal of confusion. Identifications that are usually stable or shifting in slow motion are rattled, become uncertain, emotionally urgent. There is attachment to old truths, but also a need and a will to question. There is a paradoxical reach for both the rehearsed and the new. And so we talk about “us” and “them,” about the collective narratives that infuse and constrain our existence, about the fear and confusion and anger and shame, and it helps. It helps to open up and make sense of what seems unavoidably tragic in the present. It helps, I believe, in the long run, in giving us all a sense of greater freedom and greater responsibility vis-a-vis life’s hard choices. In times like this the fact that the personal is political is painfully evident. The psychoanalysis we do these days involves talking about the rockets and the tunnels, about the finances of Hamas and the tactics of the Israeli army, about the cynical positions of the US and the EU and the Arab world. We talk about the destruction, so much destruction, and so many dead and wounded people. We talk about collective fear and collective trauma, and collective loss and collective ambition. There is immense helplessness in the face of overwhelming historical forces and criminal politics and miserable, lost people everywhere. You and I, us and them. Who and what do we feel for? Who and what do we reject? There is immense helplessness, but also resolution, chaos but also meaning. We are looking for a place from which to build our own sense of self, while still trapped facing history’s pile of debris as it keeps growing skyward. We appreciate the loss and the hope that arise when we disentangle from the oppressive truths that surround us. And we do it together, perhaps making up a new kind of together, with meaning in both the subjective and the political registers. This seems to me the right thing to do these days.

Also for you:

Eyal Rozmarin

  • Jean Walbridge, LCSW, Chicago

    With the IAPSP Conference scheduled to take place in Jerusalem in October 2014, I find your comments extremely pertinent. The theme of this year’s conference–designated at least a year ago–is: Where Do We Feel At Home?: Self Psychological Perspectives on Belonging and Not Belonging, an uncannily pertinent question to,participants. I hope the conference finds a way to reference your excellent article.

  • Micha Weiss, Tel-Aviv.

    I enjoyed Eyal’s thoughtful contribution. Allows me to reflect for myself as an Israeli in Israel about public identity.
    Just one reservation- (‘It is no accident that the violence of the public discourse in Israel these days ties together loyalty and sexuality’)- Seems to me using peripheral evidence to validate psychoanalitic, and maybe gender/sexual idiosyncracies- Or simply said, it doesn’t sound valid.

  • rivka warshawsky. Jaffa

    I would like to offer the Lacanian perspective which conceives that much of a subject’s ego is constructed with the kind of collective identifications, images and narratives that you problematize in your article. Already when Hegel introduces his new subject of desire, this latter “I” is no longer radically separated from the Other, nor something fixed and concrete, but is a “becoming” with a to and fro movement in regard to the Other. For Lacanians there is no extreme discontinuity between the political and the private, and the articulation between the social and the personal is the very stuff of what we try so hard to speak about and to analyze in the treatment. In order to treat the individual subject’s alienating identifucations with the collective narratives she was born into, we need to first “separate” from these identifications in a radical manner. That painful analytic process provides the conditions for a fresh re-connection and for the renewed option to choose an authentic comittment and engagement to our groups and our world. Thus, a Lacanian psychoanalytic treatment would ideally result in the “fall of identifications” like the peeling off of onion layers. In this vein, my own article on “Disidentification at the end of an analysis” and my lecture “On the Improper and even obscene misuses of “we” and what could be a possibly benign “we”” endeavours to address this profoundly clinical issue.

    • Juliet Rogers

      Sitting in the Holocaust Centre in South Africa, as an Australian Lacanian trying to write on the possibilities of resistance under the doctrines of psychoanalysis, I found this article and the comments very helpful. What has not been posed – and I speak also to Joel Simpsons comments above – is the stakes of resisting either Israel or the doctrine of the paranoid schizoid (Klein cannot not be employed in the discourse which defines positions over this conflict, surely). Rozmartin speaks to the possibility of being labelled politically queer. But after ruminating on Lacan’s discussion of the importance of resistance in psychoanalysis, I can only say that the frame for allowing or encouraging political ethics in one’s patients requires living with the possibility of the death of one’s patient. This, surely speaks to the Palestinian cause – and possibly those in Syriah, Egypt and Iraq even – but does it speak to Israelis’. That may be the point. Israeli’s risk being labelled politically queer. Sounds bad, but could be a lot worse!!!

  • Steve Botticelli

    Thanks, Eyal, for breaking the near-silence in our field on this matter. The latest Gaza war has been spilling all over the news and has been very much on my mind over the last weeks–but not coming up at all in my practice. It strikes me that you and your patients are doing important work here, work that doesn’t entirely belong to you. On account of our government’s massive and unconditional military, economic and diplomatic support for Israel Americans are just as implicated in the current catastrophe, even if we tend to not acknowledge this. I think here of Lynne Layton’s article from Dialogues of a few years ago on how we are implicated in each other’s suffering. Perhaps if Americans assumed more of our responsibility for this ongoing disaster, you and your Israeli patients would have less to have to grapple with.

  • As Hamlet said to Polonious: “Everything but the matter!” Rozmarin goes round and round in very sophisticated terms, but he avoids the fact of the Occupation and of the daily humiliation and deprivation it imposes on one of the two parties to the conflict. The other party lives in relative normality.

    Except that increasingly it doesn’t, and he makes note of this. But he does not look at the causes of these symptoms of what Chomsky calls “moral degeneration.” When you oppress a people long enough in a political position that contradicts your own traditional sense of morality, you decay; there’s no way around it, and this takes many forms. The problem is that that political position is taken in the name of a historical ethnic redress of grievances, the last subject of which is the Holocaust (as Dershowitz likes to point out nowadays), so it’s hard to escape, and well-nigh impossible for Jews committed to the comfort of a national/ethnic homeland.

    Yet this is the very thing that is undermining the moral fabric of Israeli society, and which Rozmarin chooses to delve into—but, as I said, he doesn’t mention the ultimate cause.

    • levbronstein

      I think, on a psychological level, the difficulty the author refers to saying that in these ideological matters it is as if people are generally like children, speaks to the difficulty in holding complex and ambivalent positions. These are, nonetheless very emotionally charged. Politically, the problem began with the notion of plopping a Jewish state in the middle of the Arab world. Israel can’t be a democratic state as long as it has to remain a Jewish state. The very logic of a Jewish state leads toward the oppression of the Palestinians. The pro-Zionist wings of the media stress how horrible the Palestinians and Hamas are and how kind and generous and humane Israel has been. The dehumanization of the Palestinians frightens me as this is precisely the kind of verbiage that precedes genocide. And the Palestinians are incredibly vulnerable. In Gaza, they are trapped in a very small space with no way to get out.

      I agree that over the decades the contradiction of being “Democratic” and yet oppressing the Arab minority and the Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank, has led to a kind of moral decay. It is a human tragedy that the victims of one holocaust were funneled into a place where they are interlopers and need to oppress others to maintain their place there.

      • Thank you, Lev. Excellent comment. We need to raise people’s awareness of both the very real oppression of Palestinians and the moral cost to the Israelis.

  • Jay Musleh

    In my viewpoint, the writer of the article as he frankly states from the
    very beginning espouses “Socio-political contexts” that
    “signify and structure” human being’s “roles in any
    setting” The focal points of the writer stress the factor of fear in
    both Israel and in Gaza alike. Families in Israel are torn
    apart. Kids are never sure if they see their dads or moms again.
    Here we have personal and collective experiences of fear due to the war.
    Some servicemen combine between the feeling of shame and guilt
    simultaneously. People react differently to rockets exploding over their
    heads. Neighborhood in Gaza no longer exists and so many people died.
    Many people feel alienated on both sides of the isle. The bottom-line the whole
    article stresses the horrors of war and this is nothing new to anyone in the
    world no matter who he is or where he comes from. War doesn’t give people
    candy bars or flowers on silver platters. Therefore, all the
    above-mentioned examples I brought about from the article prove that I have no
    disagreement with the writer on the issue of the destructiveness and the
    brutality of wars in general. Take this
    poem from a Poet and an English soldier who fought in WWI, Wilfred Owen, as a
    vivid example of the horrors of war.

    Wilfred Owen

    Futility

    Move him into the sun —

    Gently its touch awoke him once,

    At home, whispering of fields unsown.

    Always it woke him, even in France,

    Until this morning and this snow.

    If anything might rouse him now

    The kind old sun will know.

    Think how it wakes the seeds —

    Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.

    Are limbs so dear-achieved, are sides

    Full-nerved, — still warm, — too hard to stir?

    Was it for this the clay grew tall?

    — O what made fatuous sunbeams toil

    To break earth’s sleep at all?

    This poem speaks about the horrors of war volumes and more than
    millions of Articles Mr. Eyal Rozmarin would ever write. We are not talking
    about phoenix birds that would come back to life from Ashes. We are not talking about knights in shining
    Armors who drink stout and joust to woo young gorgeous gals into loving
    them. We are also never talking about
    Eliotesque (The Adjective is mine and it refers to the Anglo-American Poet T.S
    Eliot) saints whose “blood irrigated the Earth” for a sacred cause and whose
    shrines became a place of Pilgrimage to many believers from all over the world
    like in his Play “Murder In The Cathedral”. Take Canterbury Pilgrimage as another
    vivid example. We are not talking about all of the above-mentioned tales. Regretfully, we are talking about a sluggish,
    yucky, bloody war between two unequal parties either in power or in ethics, the
    extremist militants who are willing to die and the Israeli Government who got
    one of most sophisticated killing machine in the world. Between this and that, innocent civilians on
    both sides, but mostly in Gaza, got caught in the middle. I would never disagree with Mr. Eyal on the
    horrors of war and no one with a piece of mind on top of his head would dispute
    that.

    However, I disagree with
    him on many issues, the which is, even though he is a psycho-analyst, he
    himself got the ambivalence of discussing psycho-analysis within the context of
    politics. It is like the very old saying
    which says, “Magic turned the tables on the magician”. Mr. Eyal states that he refrains from discussing
    the political issues because he doesn’t want to go “beyond the psychoanalytical”
    practice. At the same time he is talking politics. Take his quotation from his article, “Soldiers that might be
    one’s brother or cousin or nephew are killed and wounded. There is new
    vehemence to the public discussion in Israel which everyone follows, and
    obvious manipulation by the government”.

    Moreover, from the very beginning,
    he mentioned “The Explicit Discourse in Psycho- analysis” but he never
    supported his article with a tiny example of that discourse. He even never talked about the implicit
    discourse of psychoanalysis. You cannot
    have the explicit without having the implicit the same as you cannot recognize
    the darkness without the light. Here is
    the sole ambivalence which Mr. Eyal has in his discussion. I am not going to blame him because he
    brought about Israeli Jewish Clients coming to his clinic who are victims of
    the war because I am hundred percent sure because if he were to have access to
    Palestinian victims, he would help them without a shadow of a doubt. Here comes the implicit discourse. Gazans have nowhere to go and they have zero
    options. Therefore, their fear and
    psychological complications are doubled and tripled compared to an ordinary
    Israeli civilian. It is a matter of life
    or death to Gazans no more and it is never the same as the fear of an Israeli
    who happened to hear “Rockets that for the most part do not hit but are intercepted
    and loudly exploded above their heads.” Both Israeli
    and Palestinian civilians are victims but the cases of the Palestinian victims
    are more severe because their options are zero.

    To dig deep in the explicit
    discourse, it all has to do with topography.
    The Israeli clients who have a vast amount of land and even access to
    the outside world are never the same as a Gazan whose only option is life or
    death. In Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of
    Venice” the Jewish Shylock who was prejudiced against by Christians and whose
    only option was either to lose his money or to get killed was never the same as
    the Christian Antonio whose options were multiple. Jews
    were persecuted in Europe a few hundred years ago and no one can deny
    that. To the surprise of many people, Gypsies
    in many parts of Europe are not allowed to own property or to conduct business
    in the countries where they happen to reside.
    Mr. Eyal regretfully mentions “Socio-political contexts” and later he
    denies that he is talking politics. He
    even doesn’t provide us with a single example of those contexts like the
    examples I listed above.

    To sum up, in my
    overall analysis, the article is not bad but the writer espoused so many topics
    which he were unable to discuss because he got the ambivalence between politics
    and psychoanalysis and may be because he doesn’t have access to Palestinian victims
    of the war. That is why he contradicts
    himself at times.

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