Thursday, May 21, 2015

Pilgrimage 5: An Emotion-Focused Therapy Interpretation of the Conflict between Israel and Palestine

--> Entry for 18-22 May 2015:

This is a continuation of my previous entry on the history of military occupation in Israel.

During the time we’ve been on pilgrimage in Israel, we’ve learned a lot about its ancient and recent history.  As part of this, I’ve reflected on my many Jewish friends and colleagues, whom I’ve known and loved over the years.  I’ve also read up on the history of the 1967 and 1973 wars here.

And I’ve been mindful of the many parallels between the history of Israel and that of the United States and the British Empire, their relationship to native/indigenous peoples, and my part in that as someone who lives within the privilege of a majority culture. For example, I’m aware of the claim (made in 2008 by the SNP) that in East Glasgow, not far from my office, the average life expectancy for men is lower than it is in Gaza (Channel 4 News, 2008). 

What I’m left with about all this is a sense of mutual tragedy and sadness.  My understanding of the psychological basis for this tragedy has several other sources:
• My work as a psychotherapist for many people with trauma histories, especially over the past 30 years of my practice as an EFT therapist;
• My work with people with social anxiety over the past 8 years;
• The study that my PhD student Robin Hinson and I did in the 1990’s on working with prejudice, which we carried using an experimental one-session EFT protocol for working with “difficult people”;
• Charles Eisenstein’s analysis of the ultimately self-defeating nature of what he calls the agenda of control in Ascent of Humanity (2007); and
• Psychotherapist Al Pesso’s analysis of the roots of terrorism in childhood exposure to narratives of injustice and cultural trauma (which I talked with him about last year in Berlin) (Pesso has developed a form of Empty Chair/Self-Soothing Work for addressing this.)
All of these have given me an acute sense that in some way the Tragedy of Israel and Palestine is something shared and deeply intertwined. 

Here is what is emerging for me: The peoples of Israel and Palestine are locked together in a deep, shared history of mutual trauma and injustice, leaving them feeling broken, violated, distrustful, afraid and angry.   Over millennia, each has suffered repeatedly at the other’s hands; and these events have been lovingly preserved and rehearsed from generation unto generation, without understanding or forgiveness. 

For example, in the case of Israel, there is very much a sense of national trauma going back for thousands of years, but reawakened in the 20th century, first by the Holocaust and then strongly reinforced by the 1967 and 1973 wars.  Human beings are powerfully evolved to learn rapidly and often rigidly from situations in which their very existence is threatened.  One-trial learning is generally sufficient in this case to lead us to put strong protective measures in place so that such threats will “never again” happen.  In the case of Israel, such learning has happened repeatedly in living memory.

These traumatic events and the associated vulnerability have resulted in victims becoming perpetrators, over and over again (as I noted in my previous entry), thus creating a cycle of abuse, which I am hypothesising may have led to a deep sense of emotional and spiritual impurity, whose source is a vague sense of guilt that has been pushed out of awareness.

Instead, eternal vigilance and readiness to take offense have been the rule.  Each feels threatened at an existential level by the other, and seeks to both make themselves safe and to claim and control what they feel is theirs.  The more they seek to do this, the more they threaten the Other, causing them to become more vigilant and to try to gain more control over the Other.  It is this constant guarding and seeking control that is the heart of the problem, because it continually makes the problem worse by threatening the Other. 

In Emotion-Focused Therapy, with both individual and couples, such negative cycles between partners or between parts of the self are common and feel wholly intractable to those involved (and often to the therapist).  However, according to EFT “the only way out is through”:
• First, we offer a situation in which all parts of the self (or both members of the couple) feel deeply and credibly understood and validated. 
• Second, this enables the person or persons to slow down and become more deeply aware of their core painful, stuck emotions.  In this case, we have among other emotions, lingering anger at old injuries and fear of the Other as dangerous.  These emotions have to be understood and accepted, but by itself this is not enough to change anything. 
• Third, with seemingly intractable problems, it appears to be important to spend time developing an appreciation for the cost that maintaining a stand based on these emotions has had for the person. (I thank Laco Timulak for making this point explicit.) 
• Fourth, for emotional transformation to take place, there must be another step, to identify alternative, more adaptive emotions.  In this case, these include: curiosity about the Other and what they may have to offer; sadness at disconnection and separation; realistic fear at the long term consequences of one’s own intransigence; genuine empathy and compassion for the Other’s suffering; and perhaps even appropriate, motivating guilt for the role that one has played in the bringing about or allowing the Other’s suffering. 
• Fifth, by creating an atmosphere of mutual openness, this emotional transformation makes it possible to begin a process of negotiation and resolution. 

I’m not saying that such a process is easy; it isn’t.  But I’m not sure that I see any alternative other than despair and giving in to a continuing cycle of traumatising interactions, which only perpetuate and deepen the problem.
Wall Art, Wall of Separation, Bethlehem


Channel 4 News. (2008).  FactCheck: Glasgow worse than Gaza?  Retrieved 21 May 2015, from:
            Eisenstein, C. (2007). The Ascent of Humanity: Civilization and the Human Sense of Self.  Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books.

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