The usually quiescent world of psychotherapy has been struck by a blast of anti-occupation activism, in the form of a petition signed by over 300 psychotherapists opposing the choice of The Society for Psychotherapy Research (SPR) to hold its annual meeting in Jerusalem this June.
The idea for the petition got started on the joint initiative of the UK-Palestine Mental Health Network and a more loosely affiliated group of anti-occupation therapists in the US. One prominent American psychoanalyst who has been outspoken in his opposition to the Israeli occupation wrote to J. Christopher Perry, president of the organization, detailing the reasons he believed Jerusalem to be a bad choice for the meeting. He cited not only the likely difficulty any Palestinian mental health workers interested in attending might encounter given the manifold barriers to free movement imposed by the occupation, but also the deleterious effect of the occupation on the mental health of the Palestinian inhabitants of Jerusalem. The choice of an organization dedicated, broadly speaking, to human welfare to hold its annual meeting in such a besieged city would be bitterly ironic, to say the least. (SPR’s website describes it as “an international multidisciplinary scientific association dedicated to research in psychotherapy” that aims “to enhance the empirical basis of the effective practice of psychotherapy worldwide.”)
Perry’s politically tone-deaf response to the letter explained that as an organization that “promotes the free exchange of research and ideas” the organization’s conference committee rotates annual meeting sites among disparate cities and regions in order to draw the widest range of potential attendees from across the world. Perry assured that the organization planned to “reach out to any potential Palestinian colleagues who may wish to participate,” avoiding mention of the overpowering context of the occupation and the obstacles it would likely impose on the actual attendance of such Palestinian colleagues.
Thus begat the idea to write a petition protesting SPR’s decision, with the aim of collecting signatures and disseminating it as widely as possible. A collective effort on the part of ten anti-occupation activist psychotherapists, the text reads as follows:
Move this conference away from Jerusalem
We, psychotherapists, researchers and other mental health professionals, write to express our dismay at the decision of the Society for Psychotherapy Research (SPR) to hold its next international conference in Jerusalem.
Israel’s policies in the Occupied Territories, including house demolitions, movement restrictions and imprisonment without trial, cause insecurity, despair, helplessness and humiliation. They create family tension and widespread traumatization, and disrupt child attachment. The calamitous impact of Israel’s occupation on the psychological health of the Palestinians is well documented.
This conference would be taking place a short walking distance from neighbourhoods where Palestinians are currently being dispossessed of their homes to make way for Israeli settlements, one among many strategies that pose a threat to their very survival in Jerusalem. SPR’s collective denial – or indifference –is evident in the conference publicity published on its website. Jerusalem is here pictured as “a city suspended between heaven and earth, East and West, past and present – parallel universes of flowing caftans and trendy coffee shops”.
We are shocked that, replying to concerns already raised, the organizers consider it adequate to promise to assist Palestinian psychotherapy researchers to attend the conference. This may ease SPR consciences but it is as nothing weighed against the political message they will be sending by meeting in this beleaguered city.
SPR’s name ought to be synonymous with intellectual honesty, independence, and a courageous resolve to deal with the truth. Hence we call for the conference to be moved to another venue, following the lead given by the World Association of Infant Mental Health in similar circumstances.
Circulated among colleagues, the petition garnered the signatures of 300 mental health and psychotherapy professionals, including not only Western but also Palestinian psychotherapists, 32 professors and 27 consultants (senior doctors) among them. The petition was published as a letter to the editor in The Independent in early March, and elicited from one of the paper’s readers the eminently reasonable suggestion that the conference site be moved to Bethlehem!
While no formal response to the petition has been forthcoming from Perry or anyone else within the SPR, the current online edition of the organization’s newsletter acknowledges that the choice of venue for the conference has been questioned. Nevertheless after discussion that took place “over many emails” the organization has decided to stick with its decision to hold its annual meeting in Jerusalem. Skirting the substance of the issues raised in the petition, the statement reasons that:
Every country and society has a need to improve the effectiveness and delivery of psychotherapy which addresses major concerns of public health. Psychotherapy is based on open dialogue, and like psychotherapy itself, providing a forum for open dialogue is SPR’s best contribution to issues that both Israeli and Palestinian colleagues and others may share.
The other authors of the petition and I plan to disseminate our petition/letter as widely as possible over the coming months in advance of the conference. One of us attempted to post it on the allegedly open and unmoderated SPR list serve as a way of publicizing the issue to members who may not be aware of the controversy, but was blocked from doing so. So much for the “free exchange of ideas” and “open dialogue.”