Mental health professionals demand cancellation of Israel conference

A Palestinian boy plays on the ruins of houses destroyed by Israeli shelling last summer, in eastern Gaza City, 8 July.

Ashraf Amra APA images

More than 200 leading mental health professionals from around the world have signed an open letter calling for the cancellation of a European psychotherapy conference scheduled to be held in Jerusalem in August.

In the letter, published in the UK newspaper The Independent, the psychologists and psychoanalysts, many from the UK, France and the United States, urge their colleagues to respect the Palestinian call for boycott and stay away from the conference should it go ahead as planned.

Meanwhile, leading actors, authors, academics and architects in the UK have put their names to an open letter to David Cameron, urging the UK prime minister to push for immediate EU sanctions on Israel until it abides by international law and ends its occupation and siege of Palestinian territories.

The two letters, with their diversity of signatures, highlight how the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) is growing in range and scale.

Israeli propaganda

Palestinian and Israeli psychotherapists and psychologists are among those who have signed the letter calling on the European Association of Behavioural and Cognitive Therapists (EABCT) to relocate or cancel its annual congress this year.

The EABCT’s website advertises the congress as taking place in “Jerusalem, Israel,” ignoring the fact that no country, including the UK, recognizes Israeli sovereignty over the city.

Israel conquered and ethnically cleansed the western part of the city in 1948 and occupied the eastern part in 1967. East Jerusalem is considered under international law to be part of the occupied West Bank.

Echoing Israeli government propaganda, EABCT describes Israel as a “modern, multicultural, ‘startup nation’” and Jerusalem as “an ideal city to tour.” The congress website even hosts an Israeli government promotional video about the country titled “Small but Outstanding.”

Israel’s occupation, systematic demolitions of Palestinian homes and other severe restrictions on Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents are not mentioned.

And, in a nod to normalization, EABCT states on its website that its 45th congress will be “committed” to presenting psychotherapy’s “related potential to peace-making and conflict resolution.”

Psychological suffering

In their open letter, the mental health professionals write:

Last summer over 2,200 persons, including over 500 children, died in Israel’s appalling assault on Gaza. We can only imagine the ongoing physical and psychological suffering of those who survived. Just one year on, the European Association of Behavioural and Cognitive Therapists has chosen Israel as the location for its 2015 annual conference.

Rather than help participants acknowledge the dire psychological consequences of the occupation, the organizers invite overseas participants to regard Israel as a successful, vibrant, multicultural tourist destination.

Therapeutic work is an ethical practice that protects against the possibility of replicating or legitimizing abusive power relations between unequal participants. While psychotherapists instinctively endorse efforts at conflict resolution through interpersonal contact, to promote ‘dialogue’ in the abstract shows a deplorable lack of attention to these principles.

Rubbing salt in wounds

Explaining why she put her name to the letter, US psychoanalyst Nancy Hollander said: “The aim must be for Palestinians to enjoy equal civil liberties and social justice in a land that belongs to them as well as to Jewish Israelis. As an American Jew, I want the Israeli state to know that, along with many other Jews, I oppose the repressive policies that it carries out ‘not in my name.’”

Israel was chosen as the venue for the European conference – to be chaired by Sofi Marom, of the Israel Association for CBT [cognitive and behavioral therapy] – in 2014, despite its location in the Middle East.

At its annual general meeting that year, the British Association of Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapists passed a resolution condemning the choice of venue.

Writing in the association’s journal in December 2014, Mohammed Mukhaimar, who seconded the motion, described movingly the challenges of psychological therapists in Palestine, who face the same traumas as their patients.

“Our colleague in Gaza, Yasser Abu Jame, a psychiatrist, has lost 26 of his family members, while Hassan Zeada, a psychologist, lost his mother and five members of his family in the current Israeli attack on Gaza,” Mukhaimer writes.

“Compared to their Israeli colleagues from established and supported mental health services, Palestinian therapists face the challenge of limited access to mental health training and ongoing supervision made worse by limited resources, restrictions on movement and siege,” he adds. “And here comes the EABCT congress next year in Jerusalem to add more salt to the wound.”

The letter to The Independent was coordinated by the UK-Palestine Mental Health Network. In a press statement, spokesperson Eliana Pinto, a retired psychotherapist, said: “It is not enough for mental health professionals to respond clinically to the psychological damage caused by the occupation. It is important that we organize to address the causes of such preventable suffering.”

Sanctions on Israel

Addressing the sanctions part of the BDS call, Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) coordinated a letter to the UK prime minister, calling for immediate sanctions on Israel.

The letter was signed by authors Tariq Ali, Selma Dabbagh, Ahdaf Soueif and Benjamin Zephaniah; actors including Miriam Margolyes and Samuel West and musician Brian Eno, among others.

More than 20,000 members of the public put their names to a petition which accompanied the letter, and which was delivered to Parliament during PSC’s national lobby of lawmakers.

Explaining the reason for demanding sanctions, PSC Chair Hugh Lanning said: “It is clear that this Israeli government, like others before it, has no commitment to international law or any kind of ‘peace process.’ It is now imperative that our government pushes the EU to impose immediate sanctions on Israel, including a full two-way arms embargo.”

Ending impunity

Award-winning architect Will Alsop, also a signatory to the letter, said in a statement issued by PSC: “I have signed the petition as I object to the people in the Gaza Strip being forced to live in a prison camp.”

Explaining why he added his name to the petition, director Ken Loach said: “When political leaders tolerate such brutality, civil society must take action. That means an international campaign of boycotts, disinvestments and sanctions to show the Israeli government that it cannot act in this manner with impunity.”

That message – of using BDS to challenge Israel’s impunity for its crimes against the Palestinian people – is now being heeded, not just by growing numbers of people across the globe, but, as these two open letters show, by an increasingly diverse and prominent range of people, all of whom are keen to stand up for Palestinian rights.

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The hypocrisy of the congress' organisers is astounding. What kind of a place do they think they're assembling in? And what do they imagine has been going on there? They've chosen as a site for their professional gathering (and holiday) a global symbol of state racism, military oppression and ethnic cleansing. What sort of people are these "behavioural and cognitive therapists"? Have they no awareness, no concern that their hosts are war criminals of the most grievous order? They should be shamed out of this commitment and made to haul their dirty convention elsewhere. Perhaps Guantanamo Bay, or one of the CIA black sites, will do by way of a substitute.

Mention is made in this article that the organisation in question is European in composition, yet chose a Middle Eastern location for its gathering. This is in keeping with the false position of Israel itself, which operates as an outpost of Western influence in the old established manner of settler colonial states of the past. Israelis often remark that they live in "a dangerous neighbourhood" while carefully avoiding the direct attribution of Middle Eastern identity themselves. A clear distinction is always maintained. It would never do to be seen going native, you know. Many Israelis harbour ambitions to actual membership in the EU, and the country regularly applies for inclusion to European programs in trade, cultural exchange, sport and the like.

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This is nonsensical. Would you argue that the conference shouldn't be held in the US because the US invaded Iraq? Or the UK, France, and Germany because these countries participated in it? I'd bet the war caused psychological trauma in more than a few people. In fact, the psychological trauma caused by Israel is numerically insignificant in comparison to most other conflicts.

You could disqualify any country as the host of this conference based on disagreement with government policy. What makes Israel so special?

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Israel can never be held accountable for any of its crimes because- well, because others are guilty of crimes Israel's apologists hold to be more severe. We shouldn't arrest arsonists because it allows murderers to get away. And we shouldn't go after one killer because it diverts attention away from five others. That's pretty much the moral logic at work in this particular piece of hasbara. Just leave Israel alone to collect its annual military subsidies from the US and wage its campaigns of slaughter in Gaza and the West Bank (as well as Lebanon from time to time). But the real piece de resistance was your breezy contention that "the psychological trauma caused by Israel is numerically insignificant in comparison to most other conflicts." Numerically insignificant. Absolutely nauseating.

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Thanks for that last point. I have had discussions with Germans (filmmakers, artists, academics, politicians....) over a long period of time about the "I cannot talk about Israel and Palestine because of the Holocaust" and have filtered out a similar kind of justification: compared to what happened to the Jews over centuries, the Palestinian situation is insignificant. It actually took me a while to get someone to say it, but it was evident in the unsaid. I call it racism.

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You called it exactly. Playing the numbers game over people's anguish is utterly racist. Trivializing Palestinian suffering by use of this tactic is despicable. And it's led to a situation in Israel in which both religious and secular authorities have pronounced that only Jewish lives have value.

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Since Israel is not being held accountable for any of its crimes, the boycott is a necessary weapon.

Russia = international sanctions
Iran = international sanctions
North Korea = international sanctions
Sudan, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba...

Israel = nothing.

Don't you see a major discrepancy?

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Favourable comparisons with other countries' misdemeanours routinely made by Israel, together with the impunity with which she acts against Palestinians are propped up by the U.S. and supine governments in Europe. How special can you get...?

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Obviously they are convinced Jerusalem is in Israel. As are so many we are unaware of. I remember watching "Patti Smith: Dream of Life" and during the end credits the words popped out: Jerusalem, Israel. It was the last place I would have expected that. Maybe it slipped past the director, Steven Sebring, and Patti Smith would never have okayed it, but how did it get there in the first place?

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What makes Israel so 'special' is that this ethnic cleansing campaign has been ongoing since 1948. Sanctions, disarmament and prosecution for war crimes are long overdue. Pointing the finger at Syria for the supposed use of chemicals weapons on civilians while ignoring Israel after documented proof is hypocrisy at its most disgusting. How many more Palestinians have to be maimed, tortured, kidnapped, die. A land ethnically cleansed of Palestinians is the ultimate goal of this regime and it must be stopped.

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If the relevant Israeli organisations publicly state they refuse to support current Israeli policies and actions - the racism, apartheid and murder of Palestinians then they would deserve respect. Until then the organisations should be totally boycotted

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WHAT A BIG SHAME ....if you just have a look to the EABCT website and video on Israel, you feel it is an unrealistic and disgusting presentation...a big SHAME and LIE. Are there any Palestinians living there, any mention of them?! what about the apartheid they are suffering, what about children in jails, about administrative detentions of many prisoners, the daily army exactions, the impunity of soldiers and army officers,the way the soldiers and the army protect the violent settlers versus Palestinians,the demolition of houses, the murdering in Gaza and wherever in West Bank, the illegal settlements,the lack of water for Palestinians unless settlers can get it as much as they want, the settlers violences, the Jordan Valley land robbery,the Bedouin expulsions for whatever reasons, the impossibility to move freely, to collect your olives,to go to hospitals when you are stopped in checkpoints, etc...and so on..I have been in West Bank as a psychotherapeutist so I just think indecent and awfull to imagine to set up a congress in Al Qods.
I can just ask you to join BDS in your own country. Citizens have to make the difference unless our governments close their mouth, their eyes and ears about the Israeli army and governement, not so see all the violations of Human rights, international and humanitarian law and Geneva Conventions...The listing is very very large unfortunately.

Amena Saleem

Amena Saleem's picture

Amena Saleem is a journalist and activist, working with Palestine Solidarity Campaign in the UK. She has twice driven on convoys to Gaza with PSC. More information on PSC’s solidarity work is available at www.palestinecampaign.org