I am writing to share my personal narrative and reaction to recent events at APsaA and in the Middle East. I am Jewish, and I lived in Israel from the time I was five, when we immigrated to Israel from Romania in the midst of the Lebanon War, to the time I was fourteen, when we left as the sirens wailed during the Gulf War. I watched Holocaust documentaries every year on Remembrance Day from the time I was eight years old. I dressed in white and blue and celebrated every Independence Day. I was taught that the State of Israel is essential to the safety of Jews worldwide. I loved the beautiful land around me, the wildflowers in the spring after the rains, the deserts and oases of the Negev, and I was grateful to the Israeli government for getting us out of Communist Romania. In school we sang of the land of milk and honey, and we told stories of our victory over the Arabs, of the Zionist heroes who had conquered and cultivated the land, turning it from a malaria-infested marshy swamp into the shaded lush green country we inhabit today. There was pride and strength and victory in those stories that overcame the darkness of Remembrance Day. Those stories and songs and narratives of Israel manifesting our destiny, the happy ending that our people deserve after generations of suffering and exile, the ruins of Masada, and the stories of the Temple, shaped my reality. But then this narrative began to crack. There was the rising of the intifada, the “problem” of the Palestinians, the bus stop ads warning us to suspect a bomb in any bag left behind, my three-year-old brother playing war games, and my father’s rifle in the laundry room.
When the Gulf War began, everything shut down. Schools closed, wandering far from home was ill advised, and we ran to our sealed room every time we heard a siren. I can still picture my five-year-old brother wearing a gas mask. Turns out we weren’t so safe. We left in a hurry, boarding a plane while my father stayed behind to handle our affairs, hoping he was safe. We flew overnight, and as we approached Montreal, a desolate landscape of snow stretched before us, and I knew my life was once again about to change drastically.
Fast-forward thirty years. I am listening to an episode of the podcast Couched and hear Dr. Lara Sheehi’s voice. She is in Lebanon, on the other side of the border, probably no more than a two-hour drive north of the town where I lived. Her play outside her home is interrupted by the piercing noise of Israeli warplanes. She is evacuated from Lebanon twice, leaving behind the land she loves as it is bombed. She, too, immigrates to Canada, to a culture vastly different from hers. The parallels in our story make her voice strangely familiar. She is no longer other. We share commonalities. Her story helps me imagine: Palestinian children also singing their songs and telling their stories, of a beautiful land from which they were exiled; Palestinian families living under inhumane conditions, humiliated and endangered every day of their lives, without electricity for much of the day or access to medical care when they need it; mothers in Gaza knowing that any day, a bomb could fall on their house, killing their children in their sleep. Their situation seems hopeless and endless. I remember a close friend, also an analyst, telling me of her experience of Islamophobia, especially after 9/11. I remember the travel ban that separated families, leaving them to sleep in airports. I begin to think of what it must be like to be Palestinian in America and particularly what it might be like to try to give voice to the plight of Palestinians in America in general and within the American Psychoanalytic Association (APsaA) in particular.
Psychoanalysis for me has been a way to hold on to conflicting world views, a way to make sense of my fragmented past and the pluralities of my identity. I was disappointed and heartbroken when I heard that Dr. Sheehi could not present her analytic work with Palestinian patients at APsaA’s June conference. I didn’t want anyone to give up their political or religious beliefs. I just wanted a place where I could come and be moved by hearing how a Palestinian woman living in the occupied territories makes meaning of her life, a conference where Lara and my realities both mattered. I wanted a conference where we could hold these conflicting realities in mind and discuss them openly. After all, isn’t that the mission of psychoanalysis? To talk about conflict in order to make it more tolerable?
One thing I have learned from working with people who have been othered because of their gender or disability or neurodiversity or physical difference is that their reality is vastly different from mine and that I am actually harmful to them as a therapist if I cannot surrender my world view long enough to understand theirs—what we call a trial identification. We also cannot help anyone else if we cannot as a people, as analysts, see our own trauma, the transgenerational effects of the Holocaust and its aftermath. I understand the chilling effect of Dr. Sheehi’s tweet “f** Zionism.” I understand the pain it caused and the wish to protect ourselves from such pain. I also understand that many confuse the age-old dream of our people to return to Jerusalem, to Zion, with the political movement of Zionism, which was deeply immersed in nineteenth-century colonialism and aimed to establish a Jewish-only state in the land of Palestine. Can we also understand what it was like for Dr. Sheehi to sit for eight hours at a checkpoint and be verbally abused and threatened by Israeli soldiers, which is what provoked those tweets in the first place? We have so much to offer the world if we can each hold our own traumas while making room for everyone else’s. We may even find some commonality, and that is the last step of healing from trauma, as a patient of mine reading Judith Herman reminded me.
Personally, I do not believe that Israel is a bulwark against repeated danger or suffering for my people. Israel will not protect my children from being bombed at a synagogue, from climate change, or from another pandemic. The Jews in Israel are living in constant danger, lives defined by threat, fear, and hatred. The conditions in the occupied territories, the ongoing expansion of settlements in the West Bank, and the open bombing of civilians in Gaza are fueling not only Palestinian pain but also hatred and creating a people who have nothing more to lose. Israel in its current manifestation, a Jewish-only state that claims to be a democracy, was a dream created by a traumatized people that worked for a while for some while traumatizing many others and now no longer works at all: “As former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, hardly a leftist, has noted: ‘As long as in this territory west of the Jordan River there is only one political entity called Israel, it is going to be either non-Jewish or non-democratic. If this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state.’” We are not the chosen people literally. We do not get a happy ending no matter the cost. We are interdependent with the rest of humanity, and our actions toward our fellow humans matter. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is how interconnected we all are. I did finally find what I was seeking, a place of healing where both people’s traumas could be acknowledged, where seeming contradictions and opposite world views could both be held, with the Combatants for Peace’s seventy-fifth-year Nakba ceremony: “Like a ghost in the cellars of collective consciousness this anxiety haunts us, threatening to erupt, but repression and denial only increase the fear that runs rampant in the darkness. It is time to open the door to the cellar and wash it in light…” (Combatants of Peace activist Avia Meira Hirschfeld). What could be more psychoanalytic than that?
- Diana E. Moga, MD, PhD, received her medical and doctorate degree in neuroscience from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and completed psychiatric residency and psychoanalytic training at Columbia’s Presbyterian Hospital and the Columbia Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research. She is currently an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University and teaches courses at the center as well as across the country on sexuality, gender, and critical theory. She is the co-chair of the writing curriculum at Columbia and the Roughton Award at APsaA and has just become a training and supervising analyst at Columbia.
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