The Palestinian Union of Social Workers and Psychologists (PUWP) issued a call on October 1, 2018, to clinicians, unions and institutions around the world to join them in boycotting the International Association for Relational Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy’s (IARPP) conference scheduled for Tel Aviv, Israel on June 20-23, 2019.

An Israeli soldier and Palestinian boy next to the separation barrier. (Justin McIntosh/Wikimedia/CC BY 2.0)

The PUWP asked those engaged ethically and responsibly with human suffering through psychological clinical work, thought and research to heed the call from their clinical colleagues from Palestine and acknowledge and act against the deleterious mental health effects of Israel’s repressive military occupation over Palestinians.

The IARPP subscribes to an expressly relational branch of psychoanalysis which is interested in, among other phenomena, addressing both the clinical and social dynamics of power relations. Unlike Freudian one-person psychoanalysis in which any enacted dynamic was believed to stem primarily from within the patient, relational practitioners adopt a two-person model, which pays special attention to the ways in which practitioners are also imbricated in dynamics of a clinical dyad, including power relations. The IARPP, nevertheless, dissociated itself from these core tenets of its practice by clinging to a decontextualized innocence even as it located its annual conference in a site of highly unequal power relations which would, by default, exclude non-Israeli Palestinians, whose movement is severely restricted by Israeli occupation authorities.

By contrast, the PUWP anchored its opposition to holding the IARPP conference in Tel Aviv squarely in the context of over a century of Palestinian dispossession, an increasingly permanent military occupation and Israel’s recent adoption of the Jewish Nation-State Basic Law which constitutionally enshrines the ethnic-religious character of Israel as exclusively Jewish while simultaneously institutionalizing discrimination against its Palestinian citizens and legitimizing exclusion, racism and systemic inequality. These manifestations of unequal power relations undergird the ethical imperative to support the non-violent cultural boycott of Israel, including international academic conferences hosted there.

The IARPP’s decision to hold their conference in Tel Aviv draws attention once again to how acknowledging Israeli-inflicted Palestinian suffering continues to be an exception among even the most progressive institutions, practitioners and theorists within psychology and, more specifically, within psychoanalysis. The IARPP’s decision also raises the question of how such a monumental human rights failure could come to transpire within a psychoanalytic practice that prides itself on being “committed to doing away with privilege and discrimination in our field” and purportedly champions “an appreciation that all ideas, including psychoanalytic conceptions and accumulated wisdom, are historical, linguistic, political and contextual.” The IARPP’s failure to heed its own practice when it comes to Palestinians is possible, in psychoanalytic terms, only through a perverse regression to the very one-person model they reject. They therefore disavow the structures that shore up unequal power relations as well as a shirk the responsibility of clinicians to actively repudiate complicity against a historical repetition compulsion to exploit.


Eyes Wide Open?

If the primary goals of psychoanalytic practice and theory include reclaiming the disavowed in the service of integration; curiosity in the service of restoring or shoring up inter-relational and intra-psychic alignment; and understanding the ways in which patterns replicate themselves against the tide of our outward desires, then psychoanalysis provides a powerful lens to read why the IARPP deliberately crossed an international picket line.

The IARPP’s 2019 annual conference theme is “Imagining with Eyes Wide Open: Relational Journeys.” The theme appears to be an invitation to acknowledge the complexities of reality while pushing upon the boundaries of vision and fantasied potentialities. Locating the conference in Tel Aviv, however, betrays the boundaries and parameters of the organization’s imaginary, specifically about whose relational journey is worth imagining. Indeed, how does one imagine a conference in Israel without also implicitly, if not explicitly, dis-imagining Palestinians?

In dis-imagining, or what psychoanalytically may also be called disavowing, one reconfigures the boundaries of reality in a bid to reestablish psychic equilibrium. The disavowal of the de facto absence of Palestinians under Israel’s apartheid system of rule is illustrated, for example, by the IARPP’s reality-defying pre-conference roundtable discussion that aimed to speak about the “absence of Palestinians to look at the obstacles to an Israeli Palestinian encounter from relational clinical and personal perspectives.” It is this same disavowal that allows relational psychoanalysts to ask absurd questions such as: “Can we create a dialogue about the absence of dialogue? Can we give presence in the absence of presence? Is the absence a powerful protest or a refusal to see another?”

From the perspective of a psychoanalytically-oriented clinician, the IARPP’s insistence upon holding their conference in Tel Aviv and their disavowal of the reality-based structural reasons why Palestinians could not be present cannot be written off as simply misunderstanding, ignorance of global issues or unconscious enactment. Rather, despite ardent protest from within the organization—and even within the IARPP board—the decision to hold the conference in Tel Aviv was a willful choice.  It was also an abuse of theory and practice and an exercise in the deeply problematic psychological gaslighting of dissenters, and, indeed, Palestinians. The IARPP, for example, sent an email to IARPP panel presenters at the 2019 New York City conference, warning them of potential pro-Palestinian saboteurs in the audience. An anonymous source also shared an email in which Israeli IARPP members were canvassing for “good Palestinians” who could attend and provide credibility to the conference.

The IARPP’s actions, therefore, reflect the familiar psychological strategies used by the powerful to perpetuate systems of oppression while insisting upon their innocence and who then resist dissent by appealing to abstract concepts of reason, civility and restraint which are encoded in racial, class and gendered ideologies. These strategies obfuscate how justice cannot exist with exceptions, and conflate the politics of resistance with rigidity and pathology, the burden of which always falls on the oppressed.

Even more notably in the context of the purported ethos of IARPP, as well as the New Lacanian Society which also held their conference in Tel Aviv, June 1-2, 2019, these actions illustrate the ways in which psychology and psychoanalysis continue to fail the most vulnerable sectors of society. In this case, they have joined in the systemic oppression of Palestinians, despite conscious and admirable global efforts from IARPP members and others to prevent this—many of whom withdrew from the conference and wrote countless protest emails to the board. This widespread dissent also spilled over into the hallways of a “Voices on Palestine” event at the IARPP 2018 conference in New York City and many signed the “Don’t Go” petition co-sponsored by USA-Palestine Mental Health Network, UK-Palestine Mental Health Network and Jewish Voice for Peace.


Dialogue Instead of Responsibility

The IARPP conspicuously framed their decision to locate the conference in Tel Aviv in magical—and indeed, omnipotent—thinking regarding their unique ability to engender dialogue despite the oppressive realities that prevent genuine dialogue. The entreaty to dialogue in the context of overwhelming oppression has long been a recourse of the powerful. If, as Fanon reminds us, “confronted with a world configured by the colonizer, the colonized subject is always presumed guilty,” then the claim that dialogue can be genuine and productive under these conditions reflects unmistakable artifice.[1] The IARPP’s call for dialogue is no exception. Stephen Sheehi, for example, calls attention to how dialogue initiatives in the context of Palestine also “function as the extension of colonial control and as an act of extractive introjection whereby the ‘peaceful’ Israelis…are able to occupy the psyche of the Palestinians, making the occupied responsible for their own guilt.”[2] In other words—Palestinians are reconfigured as the non-magnanimous oppressed, rejecting what is positioned as genuine and non-problematic efforts to reconcile under equal terms.

The perverse function of promoting dialogue in the context of oppression as not only the primary mode for psychological and political health, but also the litmus test of skilled and thoughtful clinicians, is made painfully clear in an email exchange between board members of the USA-Palestine Mental Health Network and current as well as past IARPP presidents Steven Kuchuk and Chana Ullman. In response to a December 27, 2017 email from the USA-Palestine Mental Health Network urging the IARPP board to reconsider its decision, Kuchuk and Ullman (an Israeli psychologist) responded:

Hosting the conference in Tel Aviv will permit us to welcome the diverse voices of our Israeli Jewish and Arab colleagues…We will be extending invitations to Palestinian colleagues, and we will work to enable their presence with us. Rather than foreclosing those issues and silencing conversation, we aim to create within our relational psychoanalytic conference an open and safe space in which attendees across the political spectrum can engage and exchange views. We believe that dialogue, more than ever, is needed across divides.

The illusory IARPP emphasis on favoring dialogue across divides while ignoring how structural oppression fundamentally prevents it is also hypocritical, considering the many ways the organization opposed dialogue about its own decision to hold the conference in Tel Aviv. The IARPP, for example, abruptly shut down an online membership forum within 24 hours after many objected to holding the conference in Tel Aviv. It also sent an email to its membership condemning the petition in support of boycotting the conference signed by over 1400 clinicians worldwide. In addition, it attempted to sabotage an independently held “Voices on Palestine” symposium at the 2019 IARPP NYC conference by USA-Palestine Mental Health Network. Rather than responding to earnest attempts at dialogue, the IARPP instead complained “to the hotel’s Managing Director that the ‘Voices’ forum had been scheduled to ‘interfere’ with the IARPP conference and that its goal was to ‘disrupt’ the IARPP conference.” According to an anonymous source, Steve Kuchuk—acting on behalf of the IARPP board—invoked the need for its own private security forces. Consequently, the hotel contacted the New York Police Department (NYPD) and requested that the event be held elsewhere.

It is telling how quickly events escalate with the mere whisper of Palestine. But, as clinicians interested in the ways meaning can be communicated through process and against content, was this not predictable? Surely one could anticipate that a call to the NYPD about concerns regarding any activity in support of Palestine would be heard and read against anti-Arab and Islamophobic tropes that readily saturate the collective unconscious. Indeed, not only were the NYPD present—only for the duration of the Palestine solidarity event—but homeland security was also conveniently positioned at the hotel entrance.


Collapse of (Psycho)Analyzable Space

The mere mention of Palestine often collapses (psycho)analyzable space, rendering Palestine a four-letter word that conjures militant ideological splits where clinicians—otherwise committed (at least outwardly) to contemporary theories on fluidity of thought, multilayered meaning and complexity of experience—falter in the clarity of their thinking.[3] This split is not surprising when one considers the immense psychic effort expended on retaining structural coherence within a fundamentally ideologically flawed thought process, and how the inability to do so may result in severe anxiety and cognitive slippage. Simply stated: Power proactively works to sustain itself, regardless of the psychotic-level of functioning necessary for ideological purity. It is in this way that otherwise progressive or liberal actors can come to hold the contradiction of caring for human rights while also defending the right of the Israeli state to protect itself at the expense of Palestinians and their rights under international law.

It is not that IARPP board members—many of whom made themselves known to the audience at the “Voices on Palestine” event they tried to derail—did not hear the Pakistani-Australian IARPP member who shared his unwillingness to attend the 2019 conference in solidarity with Palestinians, but also out of fear of being barred from returning to see his family in Pakistan. It is not that they did not properly metabolize the Israeli psychologist who challenged their blatant fabrications about attempting to secure permits for Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank to attend, or her attempts to explain the psychological pressures and humiliation inflicted each time Palestinians attempted to gain entry into Israel. Nor did board members fail to hear the pleas of various Arab and Arab-American IARPP members who also could not attend, the voice of the Israeli psychologist who emphasized the injustice of this exclusionary act or the Palestinian psychologist who reminded them that she is privy to the suffering of her own people.

IARPP board members, rather, showed every sign of receiving this information and rejecting it while, in their words, “engaged in an open and deliberative process before deciding to hold the conference in Israel.” They made their decision, therefore, by enacting a violent re-imagining of a relational space, one devoid of Palestinians. The effect of this deliberate decision at the hands of clinicians is not frivolous, especially when considered within the tenets of relational psychology. Rather, their decision is a clear and direct extension of brutal and oppressive Israeli policies that saturate the daily lives of Palestinians. As a result, the IARPP has lent credibility to and acted as a proxy for a state that regularly attempts to invade the province of the Palestinian mind so as to rid them of their introjected nation-state, of their national identifications and of their historical claims to the land. This is the backdrop that must be kept in mind as the IARPP 2019 conference unfolds in Tel Aviv.



 [1] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 1961), p. 16.

[2] Stephen Sheehi, “Psychoanalysis Under Occupation: Non-Violence and Dialogue Initiatives as a Psychic Extension of the Closure System,” Psychoanalysis and History 20 (2018), p. 363.

[3] Lara Sheehi, “Palestine is a Four-Letter Word,” Division/Review 18 (2018).

How to cite this article:

Lara Sheehi "Disavowing Israeli Apartheid," Middle East Report Online, June 22, 2019.

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