Acknowledging the Other’s Suffering: A Psychoanalytic Approach to Trauma in Israel/Palestine

In the aftermath of the Israeli ground invasion into Gaza in 2008, the BBC filmed Palestinian psychiatrist Eyad El-Sarraj standing amid the rubble. Placing his hand on his heart, he said, “I do believe the Israelis are more insecure than we are.”

Drawing entitled Jerusalem: A City Disunited by Sivan

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Now, nearly two years after his death, I remember that speech as one of the many moments in which El-Sarraj demonstrated how the moral can be practical, how our ideas of good can direct our actions, and how even though we are scared and flawed, we can live by those ideas.

I started working with El-Sarraj back in 2005, when we began the Acknowledgment Project, a series of dialogues between Israeli and Palestinian mental health practitioners. The aim of our work was to enable Palestinians and Israelis to create a connection with each other that would allow them to grapple with their collective trauma. Specifically we sought to enable them to acknowledge having caused harm and injury and to recognize each other’s suffering, while being aware of the power asymmetry and the need to come together in the opposition to the Occupation, rather than being separated by it.

In this work El-Sarraj encouraged me to stand for the recognition of all injuries while at the same time being clear that one side (the Palestinians) was coming from the position of the occupied and less powerful, whereas the other side (the Israelis) was occupying and dominating. Ultimately this is what is at stake in nonviolent resistance: all injuries have to be equally respected. Injuries cannot be used to justify retaliation and further violence, because using our injuries in this way is to place our injuries above those of others. In other words, all violence, regardless of whom it injures, is equally important. While this sounds easy, in practice it is difficult for us to give equal weight to the suffering of those who have harmed us or who have been portrayed as enemies and therefore as less human.

This practice of acknowledgment (the act of dignifying and validating others’ suffering with our attention) is often impeded by reactions of denial and dissociation. As a result, the very fact that some people are subjected to great suffering and helplessness makes them and their injuries appear less worthy to those who are safe. The challenge lies in working to overcome denial so that more people can acknowledge their own responsibility for that suffering.

How do we create a partnership between two sides that are so unequal but that both need recognition from the other? How do we understand the different needs of each, yet come together in a third space that honors the struggle of both?

The Psychological Position of the Moral Third

The psychological position of the “third space” transcends the oppositions of us/them (doer or done-to). It is the position from which violations of lawful behavior and dehumanization can be witnessed or repaired. This is a fragile position that is hard for both individuals and collectives to maintain.

The moral third acknowledges violations of lawful behavior while it affirms the contrast between the reality of how things are and how they ought to be, holding the tension between is and ought, thereby fostering truth and affirming lawfulness while opposing denial.

The third position transcends binaries such as good versus bad and us versus them. It is a position in which we encompass the ordinarily split positions of perpetrator and victim, bad and good. However, “good” and “bad” refer to psychologically complex constellations, not merely righteous versus wrongdoing, but also clean, safe, and pure versus abject, contaminating, and dangerous. There is more implied in the ability to hold opposites than merely recognizing one’s own capacity for destructiveness or wrong action.

What makes this position of “acknowledgment” possible and what prevents it? One thing that prevents us from being able to occupy this third space is seeing ourselves as victims, which can interfere with our ability to identify with the suffering of others. When we self-identify as victims, the fear of not being recognized as such, and of being blamed for injuring others in the name of protecting the self, leads to a terrible dilemma. Overcoming this fear requires a trust or belief in the moral third, yet this trust is not always present for us; rather, we have to return to it, repair it, rediscover it. Holding the third in mind makes it possible to move beyond self-interest to identification with the other. Only then can we begin to imagine that both we and the other can share at a level that makes safety and compromise possible.
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