An open letter from The UK-Palestine Mental Health Network to Psychological Therapists on the location of the 2015 EABCT Conference in Israel.
As Psychological Therapists we associate our roles with compassion, reflection, and integrity. Yet we know many of our professions have sometimes identified with the negative prejudices, as well as the positive values, of our social environment (e.g. in relation to racism, sexism and homophobia).
For complex reasons the West has often been an unthinking protector of Israel, and has effectively colluded with the dehumanisation of the Palestinians. So we need to take care not to find ourselves, as therapists, unwittingly endorsing the oppression of the Palestinians simply by default, through thoughtlessness. The UK-Palestine Mental Health Network is concerned that such care was not taken when the European Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Therapies (EABCT) decided to locate its 45th annual conference in Israel next year.
The conference publicity speaks in terms of Israel as a centre of modernity and tolerance, “a modern, diverse country… a multicultural country which has developed significantly over the last century, having absorbed great numbers of people from a wide variety of countries and cultures”. The accompanying promotional video describes Israel as a “bridge” between peoples of the region, as “a rainbow of cultures and traditions”. Delegates are invited to view the Conference as an inter-group relations event that might even make some contribution to “political negotiations, peace-making and conflict resolution”. It is a Conference offering “hope and compassion” to “people in conflict”.
This gives a highly distorted picture and completely ignores Israel’s signal failure to integrate those people for whom Palestine has been home for centuries, and its policies of military occupation and systematic dispossession of the Palestinians. Far from promoting inter-group integration, it pursues discriminatory policies that have led many to conclude that it meets the United Nations criteria for an apartheid society (1).
In Palestine/Israel, the norms of ethnic equality and non-discrimination that are taken for granted in Europe do not apply. The process of dispossessing Palestinians of their homes and land to make way for Israeli settlers is taking place within walking distance of the conference venue. House demolitions are a frequent occurrence in East Jerusalem, and in the Negev area of southern Israel where Bedouin villages are routinely bull-dozed to make way for Israeli settlement (2). The means used to suppress Palestinian resistance also conflict with international standards: the widespread use of imprisonment without trial and torture, and the excessive and unnecessary use of lethal force in response to demonstrations, and the persistent mistreatment of children (3). Research demonstrates the impact of imposing ‘chronic humiliation’ on Palestinians’ mental health – ‘less access to basic resources; higher insecurity or fear; higher feelings of depression; higher feelings of being broken or destroyed; higher trauma-related stress’ (4).
The obstacles to progress do not reside in the shortage of confidence-building initiatives, bringing people together to realise one another’s humanity through a mutual exploration of each group’s past historical trauma, something to mourn and move on from. The Nakba, the dispossession of the Palestinian people, did not only happen in 1948 – it is an on-going, daily process, generated by Israel’s quest to establish a ‘Jewish State’ in a country inhabited by more than one people.
Across the world a solidarity movement has grown, including numerous Jewish groups and Israeli human rights organisations, fighting to achieve justice in Palestine. 2014 has been designated the UN’s Year of Solidarity with the Palestinian people. We would urge those considering whether to attend this Conference to first explore the history, the ideological context, and most importantly the lived experience of the Palestinians. In particular we would encourage you to look at the extensive evidence of the impact of the Occupation on the mental health of Palestinians, (particularly children) (eg 5, 6, 2).
The Conference has been presented as being an inter-group event that might actually contribute to peace. In actuality, it will inevitably be a deeply divisive event. Palestinian CBT therapists who live within a few miles of the conference venue will find it almost impossible to attend because of the difficulty of obtaining travel permits and of getting through the Israeli checkpoints. Israeli therapists living in the illegal settlements in the Occupied Territories will be free to come and go. The tours offered to delegates provide a one-sided view of the realities of the situation and disguise the political and historical realities. Conference participants will not be able to avoid implicitly endorsing the illegal and inhumane policies that are doing incalculable harm to the psychological well-being of the Palestinians (and, it must be acknowledged, of many Israelis too).
It is vital, therefore, to respond to what Palestinian mental health professionals have requested of us, in their efforts to find a non-violent road to re-structuring relations between the Palestinian and Israeli communities. Their position is clear. At their last conference the Palestine Union of Social Workers and Psychologists, joining with many other mental health organisations (7), have asked that we do not participate in their oppression by normalising a status quo that means the denial of their civil rights, exclusion from the protections of international law and from the social norms embodied in the International Declaration of Human Rights. Yet this is exactly what participating in this conference would amount to.
Desmond Tutu once famously remarked that ‘If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.’ He, along with many other men and women of principle from academia, the professions, the arts, and veterans of the civil rights movements across the world (such as Stephen Hawkins, Alice Walker, Ken Loach and Arundhati Roy) have refused to respond to Israel’s efforts to present itself as an ordinary member of the international community, and have endorsed the call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.
Our message to those who are considering attending this conference is this: find out what is going on in Palestine/Israel. It is important not to protest later ‘we didn’t realise what was really happening; we wouldn’t have gone if we’d known it was like that.’ Most important, perhaps, is to find out how Palestinian mental health professionals – our counterparts – would view participation in this event and to not support those who contribute to their dehumanisation.
The UK-Palestine Mental Health Network.
London, July 2014
- Barber B. et al. The Lancet, 382, p57,5 December 2013
- Abdeen Z. et al. ‘Psychological reactions to Israeli occupation: Findings from the national study of school-based screening in Palestine’ International Journal of Behavioral Development 2008 32: 290-7