Crossing Divides

by Karim Dajani and Eyal Rozmarin

Dear Eyal,

It is very hard to find a beacon in such dark times. I am glad we have decided to talk to one another while acknowledging how impossible it might be. The Palestinians in Gaza are being mass-murdered and ethnically cleansed as I write these words. And the basic humanity of the Palestinian people is being systematically erased via a coordinated campaign of suppressing any mention of their humanity, their history, their plight, their pain. I object.

What is unfolding in Gaza is linked to the unbelievable suffering your people were made to endure. The fact that Israel is creating a humanitarian catastrophe by decimating a helpless population does not change the basic facts of anti-Semitism, dispossession, and the genocide your people endured in Europe. The active position of fomenting genocidal intent and engaging in genocidal actions is linked to the passive position of having been exposed to genocide after a millennium of racist oppression. Are we doomed to repeat and in the process break the whole world? It is not looking good right now.

Much has been written about “the conflict.” None of it has reduced it or made it less malignant. To think that you and I, two individuals, can move the needle toward recognition and cooperation is…necessary despite the impossibility.

I am interested in taking the issue up analytically. The typical ways have failed. We need something new. I feel some glimmer of hope here, as I think our nascent conversation will help me learn more about psychoanalysis, cooperation, and liberation.

I came into the field of analysis because I thought the ideas were fascinating, and the opportunity to help people reach new depths of understanding and new ways of engaging the world and expressing themselves drew me. More importantly, I came into analysis looking for personal liberation. You see, I have been obsessed with freedom ever since I can remember. My first memories are of being a very small child lying down next to my father’s body, listening to the radio and talking about Palestine and the day we will live there again in freedom. Freedom became a guiding principle, an unabating desire.

The materiality of my earlier life was spent running away from oppression and toward freedom. I had the problem of being stateless, a refugee, a person who belongs to a dispossessed and hated group. Then the problem of surviving Lebanon’s civil war. War restricts freedom. For years, I was not able to move beyond a two-mile radius. Then the problem of poverty. Refugees escaping war and dispossession who do not traffic in violence and arms face bleak economic conditions. Again, all these constrictions are social in nature. They come from outside of me. They are about collective actions and movements that are beyond my control; and yet these material constrictions structured my mind, shaped my feelings, and defined my horizon (to a large degree). They were imported into the deepest and most intimate aspects of my “individuality.”

With a belly full of pain, a mind torn asunder by war, dispossession, subjugation, and poverty, an irrepressible curiosity, abundant energy, and a deep desire to learn everything about everything, I became a student of psychoanalysis alongside other liberatory disciplines such as Buddhism and Sufi Islam.

At first I thought perfecting my body and cleansing my mind would liberate me from psychic pain, a pain I carry deep in my soul. I became a karateka and lived a disciplined life of practice, meditation, and study. I learned a lot. My abilities and capacities expanded. I made friends, cohered a self capable of existing between two worlds, and managed a constant feeling of dislocation. With time, I began to see the contours of a successful American life.

In pursuit of a more perfect individuality, I kept studying and striving. I got a doctorate,
developed a full private practice, became faculty, taught scores of students, made some money, and bought a house. My friends, many of whom are psychoanalysts, were doing the same things as me. Everyone was in pursuit of a more perfect life, more success, more distinction, more individual achievement and satisfaction.

Despite all the promises of what psychoanalysis can do for me and all the toil and treasure spent, a virulent strain of psychic pain remained lodged deep in my soul. What is the source of it? How do you address it? Why is it that my training and my personal analysis are not touching it? For a long time, I thought it was due to my defectiveness and inferiority.

Wa Do Ki Kai is the name of the karate-do system I learned from Jorge Aigla in New Mexico. It means to learn from all things. Karate-do is a system that comes from collectives. It is transmitted by individuals to other individuals. Its internalization is personal. It shapes your body and your perception of your body. From that practice, I learned to trust my body and to see my emotions as sources of information about the state of my body in relation to others around me (and in me).

As I faced the reality of my pain, I had to look inside, because the dominant narrative and praxis were not helping. I had to trust my body, my own mind, my own movement, and my intuition. I had to lean on the disciplined practice and inquiry that I had learned from Sensei Aigla and other notable teachers I was fortunate enough to know and work with.

As I was becoming an international man, a successful man, a liberal thinker, a person capable of working across the spectrum of difference, I was seen by my collective of successful analysts in San Francisco as a fellow analyst, an intelligent individual who is hardworking. My difference was relegated to ideas like quirky, unusual, unique, troubled, narcissistic, and so on. No link was ever made between me as an individual and my occupied, dispossessed, humiliated, and oppressed collective. No conception was ever introduced or considered that the radius of my pain included transindividual elements: included collectives, cultures, and history.

“The self is made up of non-self elements” (Thich Nhat Hahn). I heard these words uttered during a meditation retreat. They came back to me. Maybe the pain in my self is linked to elements that are not my self. The breath that animates the self comes from where? Is it yours? The people who are your mother and father and the people who birthed and loved them are where? Are they outside your self? Are you, in some real way, discontinuous from them, a unique entity who dwells in a separate body? Are the bodies of helpless Palestinian people being incinerated in Gaza, thousands of people decomposing in rubble, outside of me, are they separate from me? Can I really live my life here as though they are over there, far away from me? They are in some real sense because I can eat when I am hungry and sleep in a quiet bed when I am tired, while they are being starved, tortured, and killed. But with every breath I take, a sharp pain seeps in, and a residue stays and builds. Their agony is inside me. Their screams are in me. Their desperation cloaks my being.

Being Palestinian in a field that is mostly Jewish and mostly committed to a Zionist political ideology is not easy. For many years, when asked where I am from, I would respond: I was born in Lebanon. The response is true, but it fragmented me. Liberty or safety? To say I am Palestinian, which I am—it is a hard fact—I risk fragmenting my social and professional world because Palestinian is relegated to a dubious category of human being. We can be human as long as we do not have a history, a claim on Palestine, or any palpable anger toward Israel. Basically, we can be human if we disavow our ethnicity and history.

This is a multifaceted problem—social, moral, material, ideological, collective—but is it also an analytic problem? In other words, can what we know and are learning about the social basis of consciousness help us understand and cope with this problem? Can it help us recognize one another across a divide? Can it help us make and use the psychoanalysis we need but do not yet have?

I am an individual because I have impulses, desires, drives, defenses, and a particular character. I am also an individual because breath was given to me, because people came together to conceive me and raise me, because I acquired cultures and languages that I use in the most intimate of ways but that came from outside, from others, from collectives, and from history. The psychoanalysis we have is one that helps us mitigate our impulses and engage in ethical dyadic and familial relationships. That is good. But the psychoanalysis we need is one that helps us see what is hidden in plain sight. We are made up of collectives and are dependent on shared systems of meaning-making to cohere a self and engage the world. In other words, the psychoanalysis we need is one that teaches us how to be human across the spectrum of human differences, between collectives and ideologies.

It has been very difficult for me to think and write during these few months because the thousands of dead children who are lying in the rubble of blown-up buildings in Gaza are decomposing in my body, my very unique separate self. I am trying to survive a sepsis of the soul because the toxicity is overwhelming. Can you help me locate these dead bodies, give them a proper burial, grieve them, and find a path toward something new together—a way to live together in historic Palestine, where we are all free from the River to the Sea?

Karim G Dajani
Made from Palestinian Parents

December 27, 2023

Dearest Karim,

The word “sepsis” feels right. To know that Gaza has been bombarded by the Israel-American war machine with the equivalent of two nuclear bombs, with so many dead and injured, most of its population displaced, and 70 percent of its buildings destroyed; to know that the majority of Jews in Israel-Palestine (and far too many people in the so-called West) feel it justified and that a coalition of fear and fearmongering, of political interests and power, is leading this insanity while doing its utmost to deceive us that we must – we are indeed being buried under the rubble of a very dirty bomb. There are no good enough adjectives to describe the feeling. The heart needs an ICU, but the hospital is in ruins.

We, you and I, are lucky. We live behind, not under the killer jets and the guns. Behind, where these jets and guns are being manufactured and sold at a handsome profit that then goes on to grease the wheels of American politics. We are part of this madness in having people with whom we belong whose lives are destroyed or just deeply traumatized. We live from one earthquake to the next, in never-ending aftershocks of hate and violence. And yet there is so much life and beauty there as well, and this, too, animates us. We are doomed but also fortunate to belong together in Israel-Palestine.

We are part of it, this war, this conflict, this colonial nightmare, as immigrants who are now subjects of a money-weapons-ideology apparatus to which we cannot help but contribute. Our tax money pays for the bombs that our people are using to kill one another, that my people are using to kill yours, that is. The Iranians and Qataris are paying for the weapons Hamas is using on us.

It is hard to sleep at night. Yet our roofs are still over our heads. Unlike most of the Gazans, unlike the 200,000 Israelis who live near the border with Gaza and Lebanon, who have been evacuated since Hamas and now Hezbollah attacked.

The net of attachments holding me in place, already torn and burning before this war, is now so damaged that I don’t know if it could or should ever be repaired. I have dreams that I am arguing with people in ashen underground spaces. The images of death and destruction and helplessness that are coming out of Gaza are so undigestible that they remain repressed even in my sleep. But I look. There are brave journalists reporting on the carnage on Instagram. The last one I saw was of a dying baby with shrapnel lodged in his forehead. I saved that image.
Who to blame? Israel, Hamas, the United States, Iran, the money-military-industrial complex, the oil kingdoms, the religious fanatics, the political-ideological-financial conglomerations they serve? Clearly all the above, and the people who operate them – in faith, misguided or not – or because it is simpler to follow orders: soldiers, workers, educators, journalists, bureaucrats, social-media creatures, artists, politicians. But what are the forces that control these big collective machines and the people who participate, who are perhaps trapped in them – the forces that make them so destructive, so dangerous that they risk the existence of humanity itself?

For me, the war between the Jews and the Palestinians, or perhaps better said between the totalitarian-supremacist Jews and the totalitarian-supremacist Palestinians, is a morbid symptom, a scapegoating process, where our civilization manifests its terminal sickness, yet again. Sad for us, very sad. But it also means that we, Palestinians and Jews, are the ones urgently tasked with trying to understand this sickness. History, as its catastrophes pile up in front of us and over our heads, demands it. And we need to survive. It is for us to ask: What is it about human society, about civilization, that makes us so cruel to one another, so senselessly destructive, so dangerous to ourselves?

Freud tried to tackle this question, especially after living through WWI. He started with “Thoughts for the Times, on War and Death” and ended, though hardly finished, with Beyond the Pleasure Principle and Civilization and Its Discontents. Like the astrophysicists who could not understand why the heavens behave as they do until they surmised the existence of black holes, he had to invent the death drive, that black hole of the soul. But since then, perhaps because the task is so daunting and because psychoanalysts are no more immune to the allures of tribal ideologies than other people, our psychoanalytic trajectory has been a constant retreat into the entrails of family romance and the parent-child dyad. If we started as a renaissance of sorts, striving to make the unconscious conscious, we found ourselves in an interminable Rococo, enamored with psychological interior decoration. Oedipus became a cathedral. The mother-infant relation was painted from as many angles as that of Mary and Jesus. This tendency is now, thankfully, slowly reversing. At least it seems so from where I stand. People are tired of being seen through unquestionable prisms of social domination. We have our feminist mothers and sisters to thank for this change. They opened a gate that the rest of us, otherwise than hetero-European men, can now pass through.

And as I write this line, I think of those tears in the fence around Gaza through which mayhem broke out/in on October 7. I then think of an Israeli friend who told me yesterday that the good news of the week was that her son’s friend was injured in Gaza – good news because he was not killed and is now out of that hell. Then I think, my nephew is seventeen. Next year, if he does not refuse, he will go into the army. This is my family, as I write to you. If it were me, I would do anything I could not to go. I managed to get myself out of the army when it was my time. It was 1980. It required all my willpower and taking some big risks with my sanity and family. Some things broke. It remains the worst time of my life. And yet this is my family, these are my people, and although I have deep, gaping disagreements with most of them and belonging with them is sometimes excruciating, I will not write them off.

I write to you from New York, where I came, or escaped to, and yet from within their midst also. They, who object to the occupation, who object to this government of criminals and yet feel they need to congregate and fight, even as they know that the choices made for them are tragically wrong. Something about collectivity, about the call of the tribe, of the blood, of the group’s history (sometimes borrowed or imagined), even as it is now holding to perhaps an illusion of immense power and a wish not to lose it (the power, the illusion), and the manipulation of all those by forces in and around the group…

It feels crucial to me to understand these forces, these bonds. Partly in order to defuse them – because I think it would be better for all of us if we were less viscerally loyal, less attached, more discerning, more fluid. I wish we could all be less binary, more trans in identity, able to resist the violent, dysphoric indoctrination, to sometimes say to our collective families “No!” Our loyalties can clearly drive us mad, collectively mad. I hope you can help me.

How I wish we’d heard about Israeli soldiers refusing to go into Gaza, as already in my time there were soldiers who refused to serve in the occupied territories. But there seem to be none. The collective trauma of the October 7 attack is massive. The atrocities, and the army’s failure. I cannot begin to imagine the extent of the trauma exploded into people for three months now in Gaza. Are we destined to see these two people harden even further? I am encouraged to see dissenting voices becoming louder. There are demonstrations in Israel to stop the war. Jews demonstrating, that is. It is too dangerous for Palestinians, even those who are citizens of Israel, to show any dissent. People are being arrested for Facebook posts, fired from their jobs, harassed by neighbors. It is dark, as dark it can be in the worst of times. Do you have family members back in Palestine, 48 Palestine, the West Bank, Gaza, reporting to you what things are like for them?

As the psychoanalysts that we are, I believe it is our task to revive our original ambition, to strive, from our angle, to understand the human condition, which also means human society – the forces that pull people into communities and drive communal life. These forces are lodged deep inside us. They make us who we are no less than our biology. We are bodies with minds in societies. We are bodies with societies in mind. We have the entire fields of humanities, social science, and theory to engage with, but we need to look up and out.

The pain you write about, and its equivalent in me, but not only the pain, our entire existence as subjects in this civilized madness, they tell us that Beirut and Tel Aviv, that all the places and stories that held us, that were told to us and then told us to ourselves – they are as important to who and how we are as that Kleinian breast.

That breast, under a dress, that was bought in a shop, where the shopkeeper looked at you this or that way, as they do among your people, spoke with you in a particular accent and tone, reminded you of someone you used to know as a child, the scents, the landscape, the feelings come back – but you have to run home to feed that baby, the baby you named after your grandfather who came from another country, but you never met him, because he died in that war…

It is between our parents’ bodies and the collective industrial death machines that keep destroying our holding environments, between the will and desires of life – so strong, and the scar tissue that forms around these desires, making them harder, twisting them into hate – it is in the infinite instant between love and hate that we need to find each other.

Eyal Rozmarin
Israel-Palestine, New York

January 7, 2024

Bibliography and External Links
  • Karim G. Dajani, PsyD, is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice with a specialization in treating bicultural individuals. His research and writing include publications on psychological resilience and culture. He focuses on the role culture plays in determining an individual’s role within a collective and on the experience of cultural dislocation.
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  • Eyal Rozmarin, PhD, is a psychoanalyst and writer. He was born in Israel-Palestine and now lives in New York. He writes at the intersection of the psychological and the social-political about subjects, collectives, and the forces that drive them and pull them together and apart. He is co-editor of the book series Relational Perspectives in Psychoanalysis and on the editorial boards of Studies in Gender and Sexuality and Psychoanalytic Dialogues. Eyal teaches at the William Alanson White Institute and the Psychoanalytic Institute of Northern California. His upcoming book is titled Belonging and Its Discontents.
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