Psychoanalysis in the Seams: Dialogue and Collaborative Research between Israelis and Palestinia | Henry Abramovitch

IARPP 17th International Conference

Imagining with Eyes Wide Open: Relational Journeys

June 20 -23, 2019 – InterContinental David, Tel Aviv

I want to begin with an active imagination,

Think about a time when you stood in silence for a memorial event. What went through your mind as you stood there in silence?


I want to begin with a quote:

Israel [and Palestine] are not only a place but an obsession. That makes total claim on those who live there. Israeli [and Palestinian] politics are saturated with mad intensity of victims and perpetrators…(Ullman 2013:98). [1]

I want to explore psychoanalysis in the seams through an extraordinary session with a Palestinian analysand.

Mohammed, (the name he suggested I use when he gave permission to present his material) was a young man, in his late twenties. When I asked him why he had come to a Jewish Israeli analyst, he said that he knew Palestinian therapists but did not trust them to preserve his confidentiality but preferred someone from outside his community. He was university graduate who worked as a teacher in high school. He had grown up in a traditional Arab town in Israel but lived in el kuds is Arabic name for Jerusalem. The issues that brought him into analysis was his search for a loving, life partner, or in Jungian terms to heal his wounded anima. He had a deep fear of repeating, the deeply unsatisfying and abusive marriage relationship of his parents, governed by victim and victimizer archetype. His first memory was of his mother leaving him with his father and his family.– in Islam, children belong to the Father and only months later his mother being forced back to her abusive husband by her own family. His anima sought out Jewish and Christian women as girlfriends and lovers from outside his Muslim cultural heritage. Never someone he could commit to, nor who could commit to him. Yet, he struggled to mobilize healthy aggression sufficiently to break off these relationships once and for all. He felt doomed never to marry.

 Highly collective societies, like Mohammed’s are characterized by “ collective ego identity” in which the collective expectations dominate the individual’s ego. In these situations, the individual’s journey to individuation is often blocked by cultural complexes and group norms that demand allegiance and submission (which is the meaning of the word, Islam) within an established hierarchy. The alternative is to face expulsion and psychological damnation, something Mohammed felt acutely in his own struggles.

He brought an initial dream in which he is walking on a boardwalk with his parents walking somewhat behind him. He then looks down under the boardwalk and encounters a wounded child from whom he flees. The dream clarified the therapeutic agenda of both separating himself from his inner father and mother, while finding and healing his inner child.

In addition, he had underlying issues in self-esteem and vulnerability that clashed with the cultural construction of an Arab male as strong and impenetrable. He would often make a gesture of holding his thumb and pointer to define a tiny space, saying in silence, “ I feel this small.”  That silence was deafening.

Cultures differ dramatically in how they express feelings, in their affective styles. Swiss tend to be rather reserved and value privacy. In contrast, Israelis prefer “dugri” or  “straight talk” where one may speak freely, without too much regard for the feelings of the other. Outsiders may easily experience dugri as rude. But for insiders, it embodies a sense of solidarity as if we are all in the same family and relationship are robust and can contain conflict. In contrast, Palestinian culture, places great emphasis on politeness and deference to authority. Anyone who is superior in status, or age, even if only slightly, deserves great respect and should never be never directly challenged. From Israeli patients, I expect directness of dugri; from Palestinians, I understand that speaking their mind itself involves certain violation of a cultural code.

His silence was related to the cultural taboo of directly expressing negative emotions,

My patient explained that according to Islam, one may not express angry directly toward parents, something forbidden by Qu’ran[2]: [And dutiful to my mother, and He has not made me insolent, unblessed.” (Surah Mariyam Qu’ran 19:32. “One who displeases the parents, (it is as if) he has displeased Allah. One who angers both his parents (it is as if) he has angered Allah.”;] To anger parents, even staring angrily is as if you are angering Allah since parents are seen as carrying the imprint of the Self.

This cultural attitude expressed itself in analysis. It was very difficult for Mohammed  to express anger directly toward me who carried a positive, paternal, deference transference. When he did feel angry in sessions, he often could not speak at all; rather, he felt an immediate intense urge to get up and leave the room abruptly in the middle of a session, to walk out on the analysis. He struggled to learn how to speak of his anger without offending me and his cultural codes. A few times, he got up to leave, but fortunately, the analytical temenos was able to contain him.

Then, synchronistically, something happened which forced us both to confront collective identities. It was session that took place on Israel’s National Day of Mourning or literally, Day of Memory, yom hazikaron. The collective marker is a siren that sounds for two minutes. People stop and stand in silent remembrance; even people driving on highways, stop and stand next to their cars. It is a moment when the power of the Israeli collective is most strongly felt.

When I first realized that the Memorial Day siren would be going off in the middle of the session. I am ashamed to confess that I tried to reschedule the session to avoid facing my discomfort of hearing that siren together. However, we were unable to find an alternative time and it did not seem right to cancel, solely because of my discomfort. What should I do? I faced a dilemma of dealing with a situation I had never faced in analysis and needed inspiration and imagination

My anticipatory anxiety triggered “cultural countertransference” in the form that Jung called  “recollectivization” : [… melting away of the individual in the collective]… in which an individual is swallowed up in collective identity.”[3] (Jung, CW 7, para. 240). Recollectivization provides a profound sense of belonging and togetherness that the abdication of individual ego may bring about, as may occur during a moment of silence. In Israel, the entire nation symbolically becomes one, facing and in communion with those dead.


In my cultural counter-transference, I feared Mohammed and I would no longer meet as patient and healer, but as victim and victimizer. I would no longer be in his eyes a caring analyst, but one of “them”, an occupying oppressor, I feared that the temenos would not be able to contain our conflicted memory about the conflict or our clashing collective identities. Instead of working to create the space for memory and transformation, we would be fighting over the nature of memory, of how one nation’s victory, was another’s nakba.

Mohammed was not the first Palestinian I have treated. Elsewhere I have written about one of them, a woman who I call Jamilla (“beautiful” in Arabic), the daughter of a person held under laws of administrative detention as a suspected terrorist, who I saw during period of suicide bombings, doing – analysis in the shadow of terror. Immediately following each suicide bombing, I felt the intense force of recollectivization when my patient saw me as the “enemy”; in the countertransference, I struggled against a similar tendency in which perceived not as a human being struggle to individuate, but as embodiment of violence. I felt a silent impasse because I sensed there were things that she was not able say. Finally, the temenos was containing enough and Jamilla broke through that silence by exclaiming, “I hate all the Jews”, expressing to me, as her own analyst, the collective hatred between our collective identities. As her analyst, I could receive her hatred and see it as a positive development within the therapeutic process. Hating, as we know from Winnicott, can be vitalizing part of healing process.

Lets return to Mohammed. At the beginning of the session with Mohammed, I said the siren would sound in the middle of the session. I told him that I would stand while he should do what he felt most comfortable doing. When the siren came, I stood and he sat. I was standing; he was sitting. I was thinking of my dead and all those who had suffered from this land of two peoples and he was waiting unmoving for siren to end. His sitting, my standing was a intersubjective moment of being separate and separated, misunderstood and misunderstanding, included and excluded, and yet somehow together.

My experience was undoubtedly affected by a previous experience I had with my clinical supervisor, himself a survivor of Auschwitz . Once during one supervision, the siren commemorating the holocaust went off in the middle of the session. It caught both of us unprepared. We rose together and in an imaginative sense I was with him in Auschwitz during the silence of the siren. When the siren ended, we exchanged a brief word, but he wanted to quickly return to the supervision work and I felt his strong desire to seal the door that had opened during the silence. At that moving moment, I think I understood there are things which cannot be spoken about even in analysis – that there are things that must be passed over in silence – not because they are unimportant but because there are no words to contain the inexpressible: the doors to Auschwitz or the human suffering within Palestinian-Israeli conflict which had opened…and then closed. For Mohammed and me, one moment we were standing and sitting separately each in our collective identities and then we were together once more, doing the work of analysis.

After the siren ended, I asked if he had wanted to speak about how he felt. He said no. Later, when he did speak, he said his “no” embodied a personal and collective anger … of being too angry to speak of his anger. But it was also a protest about the setting of the agenda. I had wanted to talk about how the intrusion of the collective made him feel but he preferred to continue discussing important personal issues he had been talking about when the siren sounded.  He had had his own nakhba. “setback”. When the siren had sounded, we had been talking about a crisis in his relationship with his fiancé. After considerable analytic work, Mohammed was able to begin a warm relationship with an archetypal “girl next door” that blossomed. Through their new, loving mutuality, the couple agreed to marry. In patriarchal, Palestinian society (where arranged marriages are still common). a man must still formally ask for the hand of his bride from her father. Normally, it is only a formal ritual act. With mystifying, negative synchronicity, the father had unexpectedly and without any explanation, refused Mohammed’s request. He was crushed. Mystified. Helpless. Victimized by Great Father, as he had been so often as a child. He begged his fiancé to elope. She could not. Even here, it was difficult to mobilize his rage at this rejection.


Synchronistically, I felt there was a symbolic connection between the Memorial siren and what Mohammed was going through. He also needed a memorial ritual– a memorial for the married life with his beloved he had believed he was about to begin. His personal and collective life was embedded in victim-victimized dynamic. Mohammed’s rejection by his fiance’s father reactivated the victim-victimizer complex which had dominated his psyche, especially his own fear of being a victimizer like his father. Within this dynamic, you are either too strong, or too weak, too aggressive or not aggressive enough – there is no middle ground, no third, not holding together of the opposites. Witnessing, memorialization, imaginative reflection, have the potential for creating that absent third perspective. Our very different experience of the memorial siren, of my standing and his sitting, close together but culturally apart, did help create new kind of space outside victim-victimizer complex and help him experience what had happened, in a new way. As a result, he was perhaps for the first time able to mobilize healthy aggression in order to truly end a relationship and then to mourn it. To symbolically move from Mourning to Independence, as Israel moves seamlessly from Memorial Day into Independence Day. Ironically, the silent encounter during the siren allowed him to engage in a process of open-ended relationships that were open-ended, where he could be strong without the fear of being too forceful or abusive.


I feel that much of the work of analysis is to put the past into the past, so that a present may unfold that is not pre-determined by the past. To memorialize is to put the past in the past so that it does not dominate the present. We stand facing the past, feel their presence and remember. In that way, memorialization, is central to the process of analysis. Finding a place for the past in the present.



In the case of Mohammed, the silence was a silence forced upon us; it was not a silence that arose from within our relationship. Silent patients often feel they have silence forced upon them growing up in families constellations where the words were taken away even before they began to speak. Forced silence is one of the most powerful indicators of trauma[4] and this collective silence was representation of a collective trauma. Some silences are silence that builds soul and builds relationship and further the healing process but other silences are destructive.

There are times when a patient has said something important and I do not know what to say. Sometimes I try to look wise and enigmatic, as if to say to them, you know the answer; I will be silent so you will speak and find your own answer.

 But sometimes, I know that remaining silent is wrong. If I do not speak then the silence will be destructive and it may swallow them,; and if I do not reach out with my words to contain them, they will fall forever.  I know I need to speak but by the time my thoughts are clarified and a response emerge, it is too late and the now kairos moment has passed. What comes out seems banal, a cliché. Or Worse. to speak or not to speak that is the analyst’s question.

I want to return to Mohammed. After the break up of his engagement, he descended to hell and there were silences of not finding words that could contain the depth of his despair. The depth of a silence is surely deeper than the depth of even the most terrible word. Sometimes we sat together in silence. I would hold my finger and thumb close together. He would nod and even cry. Grief, however, is like the weather. It starts as a tornado or hurricane that sweeps across the soul and there is no place to hide or hold onto. But then it may become a tropical storm, then perhaps a drenching storm, and then for a long time very overcast, gray, never changing, never ever…and then the clouds lighten and there is a sunny fragment quickly turning back to torrential and then another break of sun and gradually life is no longer a tornado or hurricane but cloudy with sunny periods and living becomes… possible again. And this is what happened to Mohammed, we spoke again; the silences were reduced and eventually he became engaged again; it was certainly not easy; there were deep difficulties; often he felt that it would be simpler, easier to be alone than not; but in the end, he persevered and did marry; with wordless synchronicity,

Recently, Mohammed came to his session and he told me that he is now the father of a baby boy. We sat there in silence. A silence for two.


[1] (Channa Ullman, On the subjectivity of an Israeli Psychoanalyst in Steven Kuchuck (Ed.) Clinical Implications of the Psychoanalyst’s Life Experience: When the Personal becomes Professional. London: Routledge 2013, Ch. 8, p. 98.). (Margalit 1998, Views in Reviews: Politics and Culture in the land of the Jews. NY: FSG)

[2] “And dutiful to my mother, and He has not made me insolent, unblessed.” (Surah Mariyam Qu’ran 19:32. “One who displeases the parents, (it is as if) he has displeased Allah. One who angers both his parents (it is as if) he has angered Allah.”āq-al

[3] Jung introduced this term in the context of the dissolution of the persona, writing, “For the development of personality, then, strict differentiation from the collective psyche is absolutely necessary…through his identification with the collective psyche, he will inevitably try to force the demands of his unconscious upon others for identity with the collective psyche always brings with it a feeling of universal validity “godlikeness” – which completely ignores all differences in the personal psyche of his fellows…the suffocation of the single individual, as a consequence of which the element of differentiation is obliterated from the community.” (CW 7, para. 240).]

[4] Maria Ritter Silence as the Voice of Trauma The American Journal of Psychoanalysis 74, 176-194 (June 2014).

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