This piece was also published on Mondoweiss.

A few months ago, I learned from my colleagues at the UK Palestine Mental Health Network (UKPMHN) that the Society for Psychotherapy Research (SPR) intends to hold its annual conference in Jerusalem in June. Visiting the SPR’s microsite about the event, I read Jerusalem described as ‘a city suspended between heaven and earth, East and West, past and present – parallel universes of flowing caftans and trendy coffee shops’.

In other words, the SPR had nothing to say about home demolitions in East Jerusalem’s Silwan neighbourhood, settler sieges of the Al Aqua mosque, nightly raids on Palestinian homes, children tear-gassed on their way to school, aggressive settlement expansion in the West Bank, or summary executions of Palestinian youth in Jerusalem, Hebron, Gaza and elsewhere.

Nor was there any mention of the actual division between the city’s East and West; instead, prospective conference delegates were invited to regard Jerusalem as the singular capital of the state of Israel, a claim not recognised by a single nation on earth.

In response to this ethically dubious choice, the UKPMHN invited members and other concerned mental health professionals (including mere students like me) to sign an open letter to the SPR which was printed last week in The Independent newspaper.

And then a couple of days ago, I received an update from the UKPMHN which included links to a robust exchange between Jews for Justice for Palestinians, a tireless and committed group of ‘self-hating’ Britons, and SPR President Christopher Perry, a professor of psychiatry at Montreal’s McGill University who also works at the city’s Institute of Community and Family Psychiatry at Jewish General Hospital. The exchange is worth reading for the clarity, thoroughness and relentlessness of Jfjfp’s exposition and its attempt to engage in the ‘free flow of ideas’ that Prof. Perry claims as a value of the organisation he leads.

Nonetheless, you’ll probably be unsurprised to see that over a lengthy volley, Prof. Perry barely budges an inch from his defence of the SPR’s decision, other than a fig leaf offer of visa assistance to Palestinians wishing to attend the conference. Indeed, he fails to respond to a single substantive point raised by Jfjfp, including the status of Jerusalem and its characterisation on his organisation’s website.

A similar joint submission by Samah Jabr, a psychiatrist based in East Jerusalem, and Elizabeth Berger, a child psychiatrist in New York, yielded a similar response from Prof. Perry, flip flopping between obfuscation, disingenuousness and dismissal.

It probably goes without saying (but I will) that Prof. Perry’s claims about the apolitical nature of the SPR event and its work are a transparent attempt to dodge the issue, which in the end is human and relational. The UKPMHN is undoubtedly an ‘activist’ organisation, hence its Mental Health Workers’ Pledge for Palestine. But so what? You don’t need a shrink to tell you that colonialism operates at a psychological level, hence the systematic and deliberate humiliation of Palestinians, nighttime raids on family homes, erasure of Palestinian culture, and so on. To allege that objections to the conference location emerge from a position that is inappropriately ‘political’ is deliberately to evacuate these psychological gestures of both their content and their goal.

It strikes me that the effect of Prof. Perry’s attempt to shut down this debate by dodging the substantive issues is precisely the opposite to what he and the SPR presumably seek. Ultimately, his energetic semantics expose an unmistakeable grasp of what he and his organisation are up to. That sense is bolstered by the SPR’s website where one learns that the Chair of its ‘European’ Awards Committee, Hadas Wiseman, is based in Haifa. If that’s not a deliberate and politically-motivated attempt to play fast and loose with geography, history and culture, I’m not sure what is.

Contrast this state of affairs with that of the World Association for Infant Mental Health (WAIMH), which will hold its annual congress in Prague in late May. In fact, the event was originally scheduled to be held in Tel Aviv, where the theme was ‘Supporting Babies and Families in a Rapidly Changing World.’ But in October 2014, in the aftermath of Operation Protective Edge and the ongoing mundane violence of occupation, the WAIMH moved the congress location to Prague, and changed its theme to ‘Infant Mental Health in a rapidly changing world: Conflict, adversity, and resilience’. The event is still hosted by Israeli and Palestinian Infant Mental Health Associations. Explaining the change on its website, the WAIMH write,

Following the violent phase of the conflict, we are now in a phase of high uncertainty.

This uncertainty has already engendered feelings of uneasiness and ambivalence among many, including among those who understand the complexity of this deep-rooted conflict. Moreover, on the practical level, we may face a very unpleasant financial situation with last-minute cancellations of flight tickets, accommodation reservations, social events etc…

Therefore, with a strong concern for your sense of safety, together with our strong will to keep the idea of science as a bridge for dialogue and mutual recognition, the Board of WAIMH has unanimously decided to keep the joint Palestinian Israeli Local and Scientific committees but to move the conference from Tel Aviv to Prague.

Now we could argue till the cows come home whether science (or literature or classical music or dance classes) can function as a ‘bridge’ in this profoundly asymmetrical conflict. For me the notion of peacemaking through bridge-building while Israel simultaneously builds a 25 ft high separation wall and demolishes Palestinian homes and schools brings to mind the senseless battle between Sisyphus and gravity. In the event, my own views on this tactic are in the public sphere. Still, the WAIMH response at least strives to take seriously the complex ethical demands on its members, which are inherent in their work, and consequently the troubling nature of the location they first chose.

Admittedly, though, like many neophytes to a field, I’m prone to lapses of naivete about the work of counselling and psychotherapy. In fact, news of the SPR’s plans led me to read at some length about the Guantanamo Bay torture report, and specifically about the American Psychological Association’s collusion over torture techniques with the Bush administration. In short, rather than safeguarding Gitmo detainees, the APA eagerly provided moral and professional cover to legitimise the CIA torture programme, while muzzling whistleblowers who dared to speak out.

I confess I was shocked, in part because self-reflection through one’s own ongoing therapy is a requirement of this work. I found it almost impossible to imagine the cocktail of moral agility and cynicism required to reconcile this collusion in torture with the essence of ‘helping’ work. But as Forrest Gump’s mother wisely said, ‘stupid is as stupid does,’ and so the actions of the SPR and others in my chosen field have revealed precisely what some of its leadership is made of.


As soon as I’d saved the last draft of this piece yesterday afternoon, I jumped on my bike and raced to Hampstead in North London, where I was running late to meet a friend for a long-planned visit to the Freud Museum. Of course, Freud and his family fled Vienna for London in 1938 as Nazi harassment of Jews became plainer and more ominous.

Upstairs I discovered a room devoted to the work of Freud’s youngest daughter, Anna, who became a famed psychoanalyst in her own right. This was due in large part to her work with children, including her influential book War and Children.

On an old fashioned typewriter, there lay a letter which began,

‘Dear John,

You asked me what I consider essential personal qualities in a future psychoanalyst. The answer is comparatively simple. If you want to be a real psychoanalyst you have to have a great love of the truth, scientific truth as well as personal truth, and you have to place this appreciation of truth higher than any discomfort at meeting unpleasant facts, whether they belong to the world outside or to your own inner person….’

I left that shrine to the father of psychoanalysis feeling I might not be so naive after all, and that both truth and leadership are available if you’re careful where you look.