By Martin Kemp
My first public intervention regarding Israel/Palestine appeared in the International Journal of Psycho-Analysis in 2005. I wrote a letter challenging the IJPA’s dismissal of the academic boycott of Israel on the familiar grounds that politics should not be allowed to intrude into the realm of scientific endeavour[i]. The sacking of two Israeli academics from the editorial boards of international journals had been the precipitating cause of the ‘special editorial’[ii]. Its wording, published simultaneously in ten psychoanalytic journals, for me exemplified a determination not to engage with a tragic and enduring crisis for which the West had a particular responsibility. Rather than effectively reinforcing the status quo by denouncing the boycott, I urged that the profession ought to engage with the arguments for and against taking action[iii].
Close friends warned me to expect a robust response. My major fear was that my argument would be demolished. The loss of my political virginity, when it came, was not nearly as painful as I had anticipated. In a pompous and aggressive dismissal, the US psychoanalyst, Warren Poland, decried my ‘passionate prejudice’, ‘intemperate partisanship’ and ‘incendiary provocations’, and implied my letter had been composed by someone unfit for clinical practice. Little attention was paid to what I’d actually written.[iv]
The Journal’s editors, Glen Gabbard and Paul Williams, sought neither to defend their decision to publish nor to protect their correspondent from this unprincipled assault. Instead, presumably bowing to pressure, they made their own abject apology: ‘The Editors regret publishing Kemp (2005) that contained partisan hatefulness.’[v] My italics: they would not deign to making a frank accusation of anti-Semitism, but the euphemism conveyed their meaning clearly enough. At this point, the editors declared the discussion closed: it took the threat of legal action (backed by a solicitor’s opinion from Liberty[vi]), and an intervention over their heads by the President of the British Psychoanalytic Society, the journal’s owners, to secure an opportunity to reply.
In 2008 I travelled to Palestine with a group of health professionals: we were hosted by two Jewish Israeli[vii] human rights organisations[viii]. As well as visiting medical and community facilities in the West Bank, we met professionals at Israeli facilities in Beersheba and Jerusalem. Unable to cross into Gaza – this was in the run up to ‘Cast Lead’ when entry was impossible, even for humanitarian workers and journalists – we visited a new health centre serving a Bedouin community in the Negev/Naqab[ix]. A few weeks later it was flattened by Israeli bulldozers, along with the rest of the village, in the ongoing process of ‘judaizing’ the land. (The settlement building in the West Bank provokes more international attention, but the taking of land for Jewish-only towns continues inside the ‘Green Line’ too.)
During that trip I grasped, experientially, the meaning of ‘secondary trauma’[x]. It was not only the encounter with preventable suffering: it was coming to terms with the totality of a system consciously designed to inflict maximum fear and insecurity, distress and humiliation, grief and pain. It seemed that no opportunity, no matter how petty or trivial, was let by to impress upon the Palestinians their status as non-humans. What was and is happening there goes beyond any rationale that could be considered acceptable or sane. It had nothing to do with enhancing security – if that was the intention, one could hardly imagine a more self-defeating approach[xi]. What aggravated the difficulty in containing one’s outrage was the knowledge that Western politicians and journalists knew what was going on, or had made a conscious choice not to know.
The totalitarian nature of Israel’s attempt to degrade Palestine’s indigenous population plays in the oppressor’s favour. If one attempts to detail the myriad ways in which the misnamed ‘Occupation’ works, to describe it as a system, one is bound to sound fanatical, deranged[xii]. As Chomsky keeps saying, what happens inside the 1967 borders of Israel is an apartheid system, what happens in the West Bank and Gaza is ‘much worse’ – but what is it? The manufactured hysteria linking anti-Zionism with Judeophobia is – I am sure – intended to frighten away those tempted to enquire too closely.
Not long after returning from Palestine, with these impressions still fresh, I found myself talking to a London-based Jewish Israeli psychotherapist at a conference in London. I was keen to discuss our visit – the Jewish clinicians we had met in Israel were as dismayed as we had been by what was happening. At first this colleague treated me as a well-meaning simpleton who had been misled by sinister extremists. In an attempt to educate me about the true nature of the problem, she told me a story. Her family had lived in Tel Aviv and had employed an ‘Arab’ domestic. They treated their employee well and thought they had a good relationship. One day, he poured concrete down the toilets and other plumbing facilities around the house, and disappeared. I had no reason to disbelieve her – in fact, given what I knew of the nature of inter-communal relations in Israel/ Palestine, the story didn’t surprise me at all.
I asked her why she thought her employee had behaved in this way. This seemed an obvious question to ask – we were at a psychotherapy conference, presumably attended by people with an interest in motives and meanings. But no, I had misunderstood the moral of the tale: my discussant became angry, and abruptly walked away from the conversation with the taunt: ‘You won’t be happy until another twelve million of us are fried in the ovens’.
Later that year I co-authored a journalistic piece called ‘To Resist is to Exist: notes on the psychological impact of military occupation of Palestine’. It was accepted, warmly, by Therapy Today, the magazine of the British Association of Counsellors and Psychotherapists, BACP[xiii]. It was not particularly original, merely reporting what was widely known to anyone who took a direct interest in the subject. But, it seems, facts and opinions that were supposed to be kept outside of polite society had been smuggled into a mainstream professional magazine, circulation over 30,000, with open online access. There were howls of protest. The British Zionist Federation complained, along with the Board of Deputies of British Jews and large numbers of individuals, some of them members of the BACP. Again, few attended to the content of the article. Its poisonous nature was so self-evident that their ire was focused on the editor who had allowed its appearance. Didn’t they realise this was anti-Semitic?
You have to laugh; or cry, perhaps, because the shock and fear inflicted on unsuspecting publishers by these tactics is real, and the strategy is successful. I doubt if another clinician approaching Therapy Today with an article about Palestine would be welcomed as we had been.
During this furore the London-based Jewish Chronicle printed a little article under the headline ‘Therapists’ Nazi Slur‘, which took exception to the fact that we had ‘claimed there were “strong echoes between the period of Nazi rule from 1933 to 1938 and what we witnessed”’[xiv]. Why had we written in such a provocative and offensive manner?
At Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum we had watched video testimony from men and women who, when young, had been stoned on the way to school in Nazi Germany: the day before we’d talked to elderly Jewish Israeli women who travelled to Hebron each day to protect local Palestinian children from being stoned by Jewish Settlers[xv]. This too was documented on video, filmed on cameras provided to Palestinian families by the Israeli human rights group, B’tselem[xvi]. It would have been an act of self-censorship not to note the parallel. But for the Jewish Chronicle the stoning of Palestinian kids was only ‘alleged’, sinister accusations whose authors were to be the focus of concern, not disturbing possibilities to be investigated. We were also taken to task for reporting that we had heard comparisons made between Gaza and Warsaw. Again, the paper showed no interest in wondering why such links were being made[xvii].
In 2014 I was involved in the formation of the UK-Palestine Mental Health Network, a group committed to raising awareness about Israel/Palestine amongst British colleagues[xviii]. We hired the hall of The Guild of Psychotherapists, a training organisation based near London Bridge. Immediately afterwards, The Guild received a number of complaints, some posed in the most lurid tones. Sometime later, a colleague published a letter in the magazine of the British Psychoanalytic Council expressing concern that one of our professional organisations could have hosted an event that dabbled in anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial and attacks on psychoanalysis![xix]
I became interested in the poisonous nature of public debate about Israel/Palestine in the West, and produced a couple of papers for peer-reviewed psychoanalytic journals which offered an explanation in terms of the difficulties that large groups have in acknowledging guilt and managing shame[xx]. The West’s problem with its anti-Semitic past is often commented upon. Since the Holocaust, Judeophobia has become taboo, so much so that we haven’t been able to address it in the mature and reflective ways that we’ve been able to engage with white-on-black racism. As a psychic ‘no-go area’, we are left incapable of acknowledging its presence or exploring its nature, of mastering it in
such a way that our understanding of it could help inform our moral sense. The Zionist claim that Israel speaks for Jewish people everywhere, though easily disproved, has gone by default: as a result, accusations of anti-Semitism against those who challenge this political ideology are easy, obvious and effective ways of neutralising Western criticism of Israel. Rather than grasping the ghastly potential of any racialised nationalism, (surely the true lesson of the Holocaust), we have embraced one version in an attempt to shield ourselves from the consciousness of our collusion with another. Our culpability in the perpetration of a further extended process of ethnic cleansing and settler colonialism reinforces the need of both Jewish Israeli and Western consciousness more generally to deny the legitimacy of Palestinian rights by blaming – and demonizing – the victims.
‘Re-defining’ anti-Semitism not only silences criticism, it also reassures those identified with Israel that it is they who are the object of aggression, that they have no reason to reflect on the morality of Israel’s behaviour or the rightness of their political affiliations. Jewish Israeli society has been built – and is being built – on a legacy of murder, expulsion and plunder, and here walls have to built around the truth both to ensure Israel’s continued acceptance as a ‘democracy’ and to ward off the emotional consequences of its being revealed as an apartheid ethnocracy. The myths that accompanied the birth of the new society have long been invalidated by historians, but the challenge of re-constructing a national narrative that incorporates this knowledge has proved too difficult for the majority. Those Israelis who do so – who have recognised the Palestinians as people with rights like themselves – are dissidents, and are treated as traitors. More commonly we encounter self-idealisations accompanied by an extreme sensitivity to criticism. From well before the Holocaust and the establishment of Israel, the premier strategy used to obliterate all consciousness of wrong-doing, and the possibility of being held to account, has been the demonization and dehumanization of the Palestinians[xxi]. (To listen to all the things that Israel accuses the Palestinians of as a projection makes for an interesting exercise: who is promoting states of terror? who wants to drive who off the land?).
Reactions to this model have provided some evidence for its veracity. After presenting a paper at a congress of the International Psychoanalytic Association, my thesis was ignored while members of the audience – oblivious to the racism inherent in what they were saying – gave lengthy speeches explaining the conflict’s longevity as a consequence of the hatred and violence fostered by ‘Arab’ child-rearing techniques[xxii]. A short while back, at a friend’s birthday dinner, I got into conversation with an academic guest about the pleasures of writing. I was asked what I wrote about and began to describe the ideas outlined above. ‘I have to stop you there’, my acquaintance announced, before I had proceeded very far: ‘The Palestinians are evil… Look at the people they elect as their leaders.’ It all makes sense so long as the Palestinians are the source of everything bad: their humanity, above all, is not to be encountered, our compassion and principled curiosity must not be diverted towards an understanding of their situation. To humanise them, it seems, evokes the feeling of having been attacked.
While the Zionist theory of history retains its hegemonic status it is, paradoxically, the advocates of universalism who can be portrayed as the splitters, lost in a world of idealisation and denigration. Their efforts have to be racialised, (as white supporters of reform in South Africa were once called ‘kaffir-lovers’), because Israel’s adherence to those ideals which are supposed to characterise Western society cannot be questioned or investigated. This is one of those ‘malignant normalities’ described by psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton: a situation where, while we confuse Power with the Truth, we are in danger of losing our moral bearings.
Lifton has used this concept to explain the scandal of APA psychologists assisting in the torture of detainees at Guantanamo Bay[xxiii]. In the case of Israel, the damage to ethical practice extends well beyond the borders of Palestine itself. Readers will have their own experiences of authoritarian practices employed by liberal institutions to cope with these difficulties. When the decision by the International Association for Relational Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy to hold a conference in Tel Aviv was questioned in January 2018, an open debate on the IARPP members’ listserve was closed down in less than twenty-four hours[xxiv].
An instance of censorship that particularly riled me was the successful lobbying by the Anti-Defamation League that prevented the worldwide broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer in November 2014. It was said that this work of art indulged terrorism, and that there was a danger that its showing – especially in Europe – would encourage anti-Semitism[xxv]. The opera’s offence was to include a Palestinian narrative alongside a Jewish Israeli one: to show Palestinians as human beings, who had been wronged. Even this creative attempt to contextualise the hijacking of the Achille Lauro is subversive of a Zionist narrative where the past suffering of Europe’s Jews provides sufficient justification for anything done in their name. Once the contemporary ‘other’ is discovered to be human the whole propaganda facade, and the set of psychological constructs that buttress it, begin to crumble.
We can hope that, eventually, shifts in public opinion and the persistence of those who insist on the right to challenge the ideological basis for Israeli policies, will weaken this complex. For the moment, these psychological constructs can rely on what one Haaretz writer described as a ‘powerful right-wing slander machine’ working in their defence[xxvi]. While deeply conservative in its purpose, however, maligning Israel’s critics it is not a tactic restricted to the political Right: self-styled ‘liberal Zionists’ are, perhaps surprisingly, active in giving the slander machine credibility. The demonization of the Palestinians and their allies is, I suspect, particularly necessary if one’s self-image incorporates both Zionism and a belief in universal human rights. The most prominent liberal Zionist in the UK, Jonathan Freedland, protests vehemently against Israel’s plan to deport its African refugees on the grounds that this is racist and a betrayal of Jewish values[xxvii]. Yet he has been a leading proponent of the notion that those who protest when this racism is directed against the Palestinians are infected by a ‘left anti-Semitism’[xxviii]. Jewish non-Zionists, of course, frequently cite Zionism itself, and Israel’s treatment of its own racial other, as a betrayal of the self-same values to which Freedland claims allegiance. Right wing Zionists, meanwhile, have less difficulty in accepting that to maintain a Jewish majority State in Palestine, Israel needs to violate Palestinians’ human rights[xxix].
There are two assertions, I think, that form the basis for claiming that ‘anti-Zionism = anti-Semitism’. First is the belief, sometimes made explicit, that adherence to Zionism is an aspect of being Jewish and always has been. The violation of the historical record is, in the current context, a minor offence, but still worth noting: this is a formula that does violence to Jewish history and to the complex and evolving allegiances of Jewish people in the West, and even to Jewish opinion within Israel. The second allegation, whose loud proclamation does not make it any more true, is that there are only two options: a Jewish State, allowed to break whatever rules it feels necessary to guarantee an ethno-religious majority, or the elimination of the Jewish Israeli community. There is no intellectual or psychic space for visions of a non-racist future, and those who look forward to a unitary state guaranteeing the rights of both national communities are, consciously or unconsciously, wishing only for ‘the destruction of Israel’. From this blinkered mind-set, the branding of all non-Zionists as racists naturally follows.
Last Spring, Steven Botticelli suggested that the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) could become a potent ‘moral third’, forcing open a space between these two concretely held alternatives of Israel-as-it-is or Armageddon[xxxi]. Netanyahu’s dogged attempts to upset liberal sensibilities, and in particular the successive, terrible onslaughts on Gaza, have contributed to a strengthening of this non-violent, rights-based solidarity movement, and the attempt to close this space has led to an intensification of irrationality and intolerance. While the equation ‘anti-Zionism = anti-Semitism’ has been kicking around for a long time, a sinister shift has taken place in its use. From being a defensive strategy employed to confuse and silence, it is now being elevated to the position of an official truth, with teeth. The coercive power of the State is being mobilised to police the public mind. A raft of laws are being proposed across the Western world to restrict the right to protest against the Occupation, based on the binary thinking described above.
As the Chair of the UK group Campaign against Anti-Semitism, Gideon Falter, wrote in a chilling letter to the Guardian: ‘The particular brand of antisemitism that disguises itself as discourse about Israel is finally becoming political, social and professional suicide.’[xxxii] We have arrived back in the world brilliantly portrayed in the 2015 film Trumbo. It was shocking to be described as an anti-Semite in 2005. Now it’s reached the point where, if you’re not so described, you feel you can’t be challenging racism effectively enough. However, whereas in 2005 the danger seemed limited to public ridicule, today banks are refusing to provide services to civil rights groups and even humanitarian charities, activists’ social media accounts are being closed, and people are losing their jobs. It is unclear how my own psychotherapy registration body would respond to a formal complaint about my “new anti-Semitism”.
Our societies – national and professional – are increasingly mired in this contemporary form of fellow-travelling. The liberal intellectuals who somehow found common cause with Stalinism in the 1930s remained on the fringes of power, but those who today mistake Israel for a democratic paragon are in the mainstream. This does not make the attempt to confuse anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism any the more intellectually coherent. The partisan function of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s attempt to re-define anti-Semitism can be judged by reading through their list of ‘contemporary examples’ of the phenomenon, most of which aim to discourage thinking that undermines the Zionist narrative [xxxiii]. To take one example, one cannot ‘[claim] that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor’. While grammatically odd – how can something’s ‘existence’ be an ‘endeavor’? – the meaning is clear. Yet nowhere have I come across an explanation of how an ideology aiming to create a State with a guaranteed Jewish majority in a territory in which the overwhelming majority of people were Palestinian Arabs could avoid being racist, and of course discrimination and ethnic exclusion have been central to the policies enacted in pursuit of that goal, from the 1920s until the present day.
Strangest of all, the ardent anti-racists unearthing anti-Semitism where you least expect to find it, those who push for the direst punishment of those they implicate, do not consider Naqba-denial, or the assertion that the Palestinian people don’t actually exist, as a hate crime! [xxxiv]
My intention in writing this piece has been to ‘call out’ the mis-use of accusations of a anti-Semitism re-defined to protect a political culture that is itself, I believe, deeply imbued with racism. I would not want to be understood as denying the continuing presence and menace of anti-Semitism itself. The primary focus of Western ‘eliminatory racism’[xxxv] is now squarely directed at the ‘threat’ from Islam and Muslim communities, taking the part played by the Jews in earlier centuries[xxxvi]. We can be sure, however, that the Islamaphobe racialises – by denigration or idealisation – all ‘peoples’ – and that the resurgence of populism in Europe and North America, while appearing to benefit Israel politically, increases the danger faced by Jews, and all other ethnic minorities.[xxxvii]
The re-framing of anti-Semitism is immensely harmful. It is an attempt to exclude from public scrutiny a framework of assumptions and assertions that constitutes (I believe) a fundamental block to a future in which both Jewish Israelis and Palestinians could equally enjoy the rights and protections to which they are both entitled. It is intended as a material threat to human rights activists across the Western world, including Jewish Israeli dissidents who ally themselves with the struggle for Palestinian rights. Far more disturbing is the fact that those who are promoting this discourse are facilitating a regime that inflicts systematic damage on the bodies, minds and spirits of the Palestinians.Martin Kemp, Ph.D., is a psychoanalyst in private practice in London. He has been involved in the UK-Palestine Mental Health Network since its inception in 2014
[i] Special Editorial (2002) ‘A Boycott by Passport’ Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 83(5):1001.
[iii] Kemp, M. (2005) ‘On: A boycott by passport’ Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 86(2):551-553.
[iv] Poland, W.S. (2005) ‘On: A boycott by passport’ Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 86(3):902-903.
[vi] A body that defends civil liberties in the UK.
[vii] 20% of Israeli citizens are Palestinian. I try to avoid referring simply to ‘Israeli’ opinion as this involves eradicating the views of one fifth of the population, an intellectual slippage akin to the erasure of Palestinian culture within Israel itself.
[ix] It had been built in one of the so-called ‘unrecognised villages’ as the result of a court action by Physicians for Human Rights-Israel.
[x] This both seems an appropriate term and at the same time an absurd over-statement. I use it to convey the sense of shock and horror that burdened me after my return. For a more measured discussion of the psychological impact of the Occupation on local activists by an Israeli psychotherapist, see here
[xi] The reliance on repression and the use of excessive force of course sometimes provokes a violent response, which Israel persuades the world is primary rather than reactive, retroactively confirming that Israel only acts in self-defence and further dehumanising the Palestinians. The idea that the racism endemic in Israeli society is linked to security issues has hopefully been put to rest with the plan to forcibly deport tens of thousands of African refugees, because they threaten ‘the identity’ of Israel. See here
[xii] Saree Makdisi’s 2008 account Palestine Inside Out can be recommended. The devastating crimes committed against the two million inhabitants of Gaza is explored in Helga Tawil-Souri and Dina Matar’s (eds) Gaza as Metaphor (2016).
[xvii] Recent definitions of anti-Semitism that seek to protect Zionism from criticism have made comparisons between Zionist Israel and Nazi Germany prima facie evidence of an offence. Meanwhile, comparisons with fascism and nazism proliferate in the Opinion pages of Haaretz. Sara Roy, a child of two survivors of Auschwitz, writes: ‘While there is no equivalence between the Holocaust and the Occupation – just as there is no equivalence between the occupier and the occupied – there are parallels. After nearly fifty years of occupation, twenty-one years of closer, eight years of blockade, and three wars waged against it in six years – Gaza pleads for those parallels to be made’. From ‘Gaza: No Se Puede Mirar – ‘One Cannot Look’: A Brief Reflection’, in Gaza as Metaphor, (footnote 12), p220
[xix] Hillel Mirvis ‘Contemporary prejudice within the profession of psychotherapy’, New Associations 15, 2014 p9
[xx] Kemp, M. (2011). Dehumanization, guilt and large group dynamics with reference to the west, Israel and the Palestinians, British Journal of Psychotherapy 27. 383-405, and (2015) ‘Collusion as a defense against guilt: Further notes on the West’s relationship with Israel and the Palestinians’; International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies. 12. 192-222.
[xxi] The splitting and denial, the idealisation and denial can, I think, be heard encapsulated in the short extract from Simon Shama’s lecture celebrating the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, at this link
[xxii] I am sure readers will have become familiar with this theme whenever the issue of terrorism is discussed in psychoanalytic symposiums: wild analysis serving to disavow the terrible inhumanity underlying Western policies towards the Middle East (in my opinion). For me, this is evidence of our difficulty in analysing the internalisation of hegemonic assumptions and its unconscious impact on our thinking. See my ‘First they came for the Muslims: the threat and the challenge of contemporary populism’, International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies, forthcoming.
[xxv] Adams protested this act of censorship: “My opera accords great dignity to the memory of Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer, and it roundly condemns his brutal murder. It acknowledges the dreams and the grievances of not only the Israeli but also the Palestinian people, and in no form condones or promotes violence, terrorism or anti-Semitism. The cancellation of the international telecast is a deeply regrettable decision and goes far beyond issues of ‘artistic freedom,’ and ends in promoting the same kind of intolerance that the opera’s detractors claim to be preventing.” See here
[xxvi] Chemi Shalev was commending Ronald Lauder for his ‘courage’ in criticizing President Netanyahu and his government’s policies. The full sentence reads: ‘Lauder surely realizes that his public rebuke could turn him into a target for the powerful rightwing slander machine that can chop him up and make a lefty traitor out of him in no time.’ It seems that even the President of the World Jewish Congress, a ‘magnate’, should be afraid of character assassination for forgetting the script. See here
[xxxi] S. Botticelli, ‘How do we talk about justice in psychoanalysis?’, unpublished paper 2017.
[xxxiv] Denying the existence of the Palestinians is becoming a trope of those standing up for Zionism, being repeated by the likes of Sheldon Adelson, Melanie Phillips and Brooke Goldstein, who organises the ‘lawfare’ project targeting pro-Palestinian activists. See here; and here One used to think that legislation on hate crime was intended to protect the powerless, but in practice it can operate the other way around. If Palestinians were powerful, these statements would be criminalized, but they’re not, so the verbal obliteration of a people is treated as if compatible with ‘our values’. We can only make sense of this by clearly distinguishing between the ‘formal’ from the ‘effective’ characteristics of the cultures to which we belong.
[xxxv] For the distinction between ‘racism of super-exploitation’ and ‘racism of elimination’ see Wolfe, P (2015) Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race London Verso, and Hage, G (no date) ‘Writing anti-racism‘
[xxxvi] See eg Plenel, E (2016) For the Muslims: Islamophobia in France Verso London, p7
[xxxvii] Cf Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks: ‘It was my philosophy teacher from the Antilles who reminded me one day: “When you hear someone insulting the Jews pay attention; he is talking about you.” And I believed at the time he was universally right, meaning that I was responsible in my body and my soul for the fate reserved for my brother. Since then, I have understood that what he meant quite simply was the anti-Semite is inevitably a negrophobe.’