Palestine Genocide: Regressive Responses from Major Mental Health Organizations
Howl, howl, howl!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou ’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never.
— King Lear on the death of his daughter. Shakespeare
Right now in Gaza, at least 40% of the casualties are Palestinian children. Israel justifies this atrocity as killing future terrorists, including even fetuses. How can this be?
I am a psychoanalyst/psychotherapist and am outraged that the organizations representing my field (psychiatrists, psychologists, psychoanalysts, psychotherapists, social workers) are either silent, blind, or utterly unfeeling about this reality. Few people in my field sign statements protesting the genocide or the siege, or calling for a ceasefire. Protests from millions of ordinary people worldwide name this a genocide and demand a ceasefire and the end of the siege. Statements come from thousands of individual physicians and health professionals, and organizations representing journalists, economists, labour unions, writers, artists, academics, and Jewish people. Here in Toronto, I have protested Israel’s horrific assaults in 2006, 2009, 2012, 2014, 2018, 2023 and never have I seen so many Jewish people protesting, many wearing shirts that say “Stop the Genocide.”
Freud, Freudians, centralize the maturational capacity to differentiate fantasy from illusion. Freud’s letter to B’nai Brith 1929 explains why he refused to sign a petition supporting the Jewish agency when 116 Palestinians and 133 Jews were killed in riots in Jerusalem: “It would have seemed more sensible to me to establish a Jewish homeland on a less historically burdened land. But I know that such a rational viewpoint would have gained the enthusiasm of the masses and the financial support of the wealthy. I concede with sorrow that the baseless fanaticism of our people is in part to be blamed for the awakening of Arab distrust. I can raise no sympathy at all for the misdirected piety which transforms a piece of a Herodian wall into a national relic, thereby offending the feelings of the natives.” Freud saw the fanaticism, understood Arab mistrust, and saw Palestinians as the native people (vs Golda Meir’s “a land without people”).
Anna Freud, one of the first child psychoanalysts, co-wrote in 1973 about the Israeli state’s disregard for and collusion in the killing of children while prejudicially removing racialized and impoverished children from their homes for purported reasons of neglect.1
Fact – children killed:
- 2023 November 15 – UN 4,506 Gazan children killed (+incubator deaths, children buried under rubble). No Israeli figures on Israeli children killed
- 2021 Israeli war – 67 Gazan children killed and 2 Israeli children
- 2014 Israeli war – 582 Gazan children killed and 1 Israeli child
- 2009 Israeli war – 345 Palestinian children killed, 0 Israeli
- 2006 Israeli war – 56 Gazan children killed by high accuracy missiles, 0 Israeli
At previous vigils and protests, I’ve seen counter protests by members of the Kahanist Jewish Defense League, often making obscene gestures, looking like Hells’ Angels. At a Toronto vigil after a Palestinian doctor’s three daughters were killed in 2009 Operation Cast Lead, a group of cheerleading chanting and dancing Jewish youth held a counter demonstration. Our terrorist nation states: Biden has taken the Kahanist organization off the US terrorism list, and Israel classifies Defense for Children International a terrorist organization.
Current context: As of November 14th, Israel has identified 839 people killed on October 7th (original figures 1400). As of November 10, OCHA (UN) fatalities in Gaza stood at 11,078, of whom 4,506 were said to be children and 3,027 women. About 2,700 others, including some 1,500 children, have been reported missing and may be trapped or dead under the rubble, awaiting rescue or recovery.
204 healthcare workers have been killed in Israeli airstrikes and bombings. In addition, many more healthcare workers have been injured or remain under the rubble. At least 101 UNRWA workers have been killed, which exceeds the losses in any comparable period in the history of the organization. Israel is conducting a bombing campaign that targets hospitals and other health facilities in Palestine. At least 20 of the 35 hospitals in Gaza along with 120 clinics are now completely non-functional as a result of these indiscriminate aerial bombardments, compounded by the long-standing blockade of medical supplies, water, electricity, and fuel. This is a violation of the 4th Geneva Convention and constitutes illegal collective punishment in Gaza.
Al-Shifa and Al-Quds hospitals have closed as Gaza’s health system collapses under relentless Israeli bombardment and blockades. At least six premature babies and nine other patients have died at Al-Shifa due to shortages of electricity. Photos show premature babies removed from their incubators and placed together on a bed for warmth as the last remaining hospital workers are forced to resort to desperate measures. Medical staff say Israeli forces have entered hospitals and fired at patients and forced hundreds of others onto the streets. Doctors and officials with the Palestinian Ministry of Health pleaded with international actors to allow for the safe evacuation and treatment of patients. By November 15, the IDF had killed nearly 200 medical staff in Gaza. Today’s news: “Thousands of people, including patients, are trapped inside Gaza’s largest hospital amid deadly Israeli siege, with decomposed dead bodies buried in a mass grave on the hospital premises.” The hospital also has 36 premature babies who were recently removed from their incubators because the station supplying them oxygen was destroyed in Israeli shelling.
Here are the unfounded allegations, amounting to illusions, from leading mental health organizations:
- From the International Psychoanalytic Association: “The IPA condemns the unprecedented massive attack on civilian territories and on hundreds of helpless people in Israel – launched by the terrorist group Hamas. At least 2000 have been wounded, more than 600 have been killed, and there is an untold number of hostages – men, women, and children – who were kidnapped from their homes and are still held by Hamas. This brutal attack on helpless persons is a reminder of the darkest moments in human history when splitting [into good and bad people] and projection [Hamas sees all Jewish people as evil] become so extreme that they lead to a complete demonization of civil populations as part of the “bad other”. It is the unrestrained release of the death instinct to cause harm to the innocent with no regard for moral standards or other psychological balancing forces.” When Freud in his late work speculated about a death instinct, he wrote that there is no “pure culture” of aggression. [References on Hamas.2]
- From Israeli psychoanalytic organizations: “asking for solidarity with our plight for the immediate release of the hostages (babies, toddles, children, adults, and holocaust survivors, aged 9 months to 89 years) held in Gaza by Hamas, and in expressing condemnation of the atrocities and crimes against humanity that Hamas unleashed on October 7th and continues to unleash, using innocent civilians as human shields. We hope that you will share it with North American Psychoanalytic Societies… We are sending this statement to all IPA societies. You are our psychoanalytic family, in times of our distress, this is where we turn to. We are also profoundly distressed and aware of the unprecedented wave of antisemitism that Hamas’s attack and Israel’s defense has unleashed in Europe and the USA. Signed on behalf of the Israel Psychoanalytic Society.”
- From the American Psychiatric Association condemning the recent terrorist attacks in Israel: “Innocent civilians should never have to endure the violence and chaos that happened last weekend. APA sends our support to all those affected in Israel and around the world. We mourn those who were lost and call for the immediate return of all hostages to their families. The scale of this terrorist act and the harm it is causing is unfathomable. Antisemitism and all forms of prejudice and hatred are unacceptable, and we stand with the Jewish people, now and as always. The brutalities of Hamas must end. It is our firm hope that one day we can see peace between the Israelis and Palestinians and an end to the violence in the Middle East. For those directly impacted and for those deeply impacted around the world, know that these horrifying events may affect your mental health.”
- From the American Psychological Association: “In response to the violence, loss of life, and trauma caused by the ongoing conflict in Gaza and Israel, the APA expresses its deep concern for all the Israeli, Palestinian and other people impacted. The APA urges that aid to the most vulnerable in the region be top priority. Finally, while we support the first Amendment right to protest, we reject antisemitism and Islamophobia in all its forms. For those experiencing the mental health impact of this tragedy, please find resources here.” Note APA silence, condoning and complicity with torture, and the smear campaign against Palestinian psychoanalyst Lara Sheehi.
Many responses are wholly incommensurate with the genocidal reality.
- From the Anna Freud Centre: “Specialist online support resources can have a role to play in helping adults support affected children and young people. The UK Trauma Council, with a project of Anna Freud, has developed free, evidence-based resources to support schools, colleges and practitioners working with traumatically bereaved children and young people and these can be accessed online. The UK Trauma Council is currently producing a dedicated portfolio of free resources to support adults working with children and young people directly affected by war and conflict. These will be released in the coming weeks.”
- The hateful immorality: About ninety Israeli doctors told the Israeli army that it must bomb Gaza’s hospitals, stating that “the residents of Gaza” have “brought their annihilation upon themselves” for allowing hospitals to become “terrorist nests.” Israeli right-wing journalist Amit Segal shared a letter from 45 influential Israeli rabbis (initial list) to Israeli leaders explicitly affirming the right of the state to bomb the Al-Shifa’ hospital in Gaza – the main hospital in the strip.
- Notable dissent: Noted psychoanalyst Hanna Segal helped found an NGO to protect Palestinians (Hamoked). She authored an article “Silence is the Real Crime.” Israeli psychoanalyst Ruchama Marton founded Physicians for Human Rights/Israel. US and UK Palestine Mental Health Network: The moral bankruptcy of Psychoanalysis. “Psychoanalytic concepts were instrumentalized to crank up the IPA’s demonization of Hamas, asserting that its operation represented. We ask whether the shallowness of this position, adhering closely to the stance taken by all Western governments to mobilize and justify Israel’s bloody response, violates moral and professional ethics? Israel’s President denied that there were any innocent people in Gaza; Defence Minister Yoav Gallan described the Palestinians as ‘human animals’. Such sentiments were repeated at all levels of society, as the pain and anger of the Jewish Israeli public was whipped up into a frenzy of vengeance, with many calls for the wholesale demolition of Gaza and destruction of its people. …on behalf of the leading psychoanalytic and Jungian associations this letter described the Hamas operation as being ‘like a violent eruption of a volcano, the earth unleashed the most absolute explosion of evil’. Also see the Red Clinic “Psychoanalysis in Solidarity with Gaza.”
I want to insert here my experience with my psychoanalytic organization. In 2009, I, together with a Jewish physician and a Palestinian therapist, wrote a health professional petition in response to Operation Cast Lead, when Canada was the only country on the UN Human Rights Council to vote against a ceasefire. We documented the horrific health effects of the siege, the destruction of infrastructure, the use of prohibited weapons including white phosphorus, Dense Inert Metal Explosives (DIME), Flechette shells, and the targeting of UNRWA schools.3 I sent the statement to all the members of the Toronto Institute. A prominent member immediately wrote that the letter was “inflammatory” and not “nuanced”, and there followed an outpouring of outrage about my inappropriate use of the membership list, that the list was for Society business only. The following email was from the president: “This email is about a party!” Not one member signed the statement, though several literally whispered to me their astonishment about the reaction.
I’ve again sent around a statement about the current situation, and several analysts have written to me to express their shock at Israel’s actions.
I realize that there are many reasons for a person to be silent, even in the face of knowing incontrovertible facts. I sharply disagree with generalizations about ‘human nature’, including Adorno’s authoritarian personality or Arendt’s extension of Eichman’s pathology to other genocidaires. People are different and group processes are obscure. There is much excellent research on historical and psychological complexity.
It is also highly disturbing that there is a great deal of knowledge from Freudian therapists, from the work of attachment and infant research, from careful historical studies of other extreme genocidal situations, that are not known or not used. I speculate that there is a hegemony of psychological assumptions about people: deterministic biological reductionism, quantifiable measures, or postmodern subjectivity. In contrast, Freudian psychology (not the separate schools such as Lacanian, relational) posits a maturational capacity to perceive reality, to have a constant sense of other people’s reality, a capacity for usable guilt and for ambivalence.
Early on, Freud described the characteristics of thinking in dreams and earliest childhood: not differentiating human and non-human (snakes, insect), not differentiating animate from inanimate (humans as elements), or not even perceiving anything (scorched-earth killing is called mowing the lawn). Words are equivalent to things, or as having magical power to destroy (e.g., BDS), or are parsed to mean their opposite. Words and their meanings are conflated and combined: e.g., Palestine is conflated with ancient Philistines, as eternal enemies of Jews. There are applicable insights about guilt, such as when guilt about a lesser crime obfuscates a bigger crime: apartheid and settler colonialism does not include the greater crime of genocide.
For Palestinian children and their loved ones killed by the ‘most moral army’, ‘the light onto nations’, a culture that atones but one day/year:
The majesty and burning of the child’s death.
I shall not murder the mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth…
After the first death, there is no other. — Dylan Thomas
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born? — W. B. Yeats
Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,
Out of the mocking-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle,
Out of the Ninth-month midnight,
Over the sterile sands and the fields beyond, where the child leaving his bed wander’d alone, bareheaded, barefoot,
Down from the shower’d halo…
Death, death, death, death, death. — Walt Whitman •
- Joseph Goldstein, Anna Freud, Albert J. Solnit, Beyond the Best Interests of the Child, the Free Press, New York, 1973.
- Henry Siegman Israel’s Lies, Sara Roy Hamas and Civil Society in Gaza, engaging the Islamist social sector, Princeton U. Press, Princeton, 2011. George Awad in Ramzy, N., Awad, G. A., Strenger, C. & Portuges, S. (2007) The Application of Psychoanalytic Thinking to Social Problems: Analytic Perspectives on the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict. International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies 4:286-294. Also see references documenting Israel’s strategy of surreptitious provocation, and questions raised by Jonathan Cook.
- There is much about Israel’s weapons. For example, on youtube The Lab, Antony Loewenstein, The Palestine Laboratory: how Israel exports the technology of occupation around the world, Verso, London, 2023. Jeff Halper, War Against the People: Israel, the Palestinians and global pacification, Pluto Press, London, 2015. Eyal Weizman, Forensic Architecture: violence at the threshold of detectability, Zone Books, New York, 2018.