Living and Working in Israel in Terrible Times

Living and Working in Israel in Terrible Times
byHenry Abramovitch (Jerusalem). May 2002

Murray Stein has asked me to write about what it is like to live and work in Israel during these terrible times. My report is a purely personal statement but it is informed by discussions at a recent meeting of the Israel Institute of Jungian Psychology devoted to the topic of "Personal and Therapeutic Coping in the Shadow of Terror Attacks, the Occupation and a Sense of Helplessness."

My first and most pervasive reaction to the repetitive suicide bombings is a daily encounter with death. Everyday I wake with a clear and present sense that today may be my last. I may never again see my wife, my children, my friends and dear ones. This death imprint is no paranoid fantasy but very much based on the sense that "my death" seems to be getting closer all the time. A horrid devastation occurred in a popular café, meters and minutes away from where I regularly attend demonstrations against the Occupation. A second bomber entered another popular café near my office. He asked for a glass of water which aroused the waiter's suspicions and in the ensuing struggle, his device synchronistically failed to function. An even more recent bomb, which with a certain poetic justice killed only its perpetrator, was targeted for a bus whose route runs right past my house. Most spiritual traditions see great value in the continuing confrontation with mortality. The Hebrew phrase is "Repent on the day before your death," and since we never know the day of our death, we should imagine that today is prime time for "returning" as repentance is called in Hebrew. It does help clarify priorities and give life an immediacy and richness lost in daily routine. Confronting violent demise on a daily basis may be good for the soul, but it takes its toll. We are all living on borrowed time, waiting till the next bomb. This chronic death anxiety sometimes gives daily life an "as-if" quality of provisional life. Escape fantasies are not uncommon. Daily life does go on. Patients come for sessions. But the basic sense of security is undermined.

The confrontation with death has direct impact on my clinical work especially around temenos issues (Abramovitch 1997; 2002). It is often difficult to maintain the proper mental state necessary to provide the holding so necessary to constellate a healing temenos. Any loud noise can send my consciousness flooding with anxiety. After each bombing, I agonize over which one of my patients might be nearby. Although none of my patients have been killed or injured, not all of my colleagues have been so fortunate. As analysts we often feel complicit in the deaths of our analysands, that somehow we did not protect them from their fate. Violence and analysis do not mix.

With my own patients, I discover strange and unfamiliar counter-transference reactions. Towards sensitive patients who feel ashamed of focusing on purely personal problems when the collective is in such a state of disorder, I usually feel rather comforting, suggesting that life must go on, and how stress at the macro level often exacerbates difficulties in the micro. I usually have more difficulty with self-absorbed patients who immediately launch into their now seeming trivial petty issues. It is not without difficulty that I contain an angry counter-transference thought: "How can you be so focused on yourself when others are people who are truly suffering all round!"

Another threat comes from the recurrent threat of recollectivization, in which the individual is swallowed up by their collective identity. The media only reinforces this tendency. I feel this regressive force most strongly with my Israeli Arab clients, who may suddenly perceive me not as a caring analyst but as the "Jew"; and I struggle against a similar regressive tendency toward recollectivization in which I perceive them not as an individual struggling to individuate, but as one of "them". The atmosphere of violence and counter-violence makes the work of individuation difficult, but all the more rewarding.

Another pervasive concern is the confrontation with evil, both the evil done to us but also the evil which necessarily arises by occupying another people. Jungian psychology has much to say about evil but I feel we in Israel are having an intensive daily workshop. Many Israel Analysts have a direct connection with the holocaust as either child survivors or as children of survivors who live and work in the shadow of that Evil. Dr. Avi Baumann in his talk, "Can Evil be Extinguished?" described the interplay between archetypal Evil and personal Evil. Archetypal Evil is an unconquerable and supra-human force which functions in a way similar to the monsters of Greek mythology. Personal evil, on the other hand, can and should be resisted. The ever-present danger is to be drawn into the clutches of archetypal evil under the control of the victim-victimizer archetype. In this pattern, an endless cycle of violence is created in which victims of violence victimize others out of a consuming sense of their own victimhood. The dehumanizng acts of one side draw out an inhuman response by the other. This situation is made all the more poignant for those of us who have sons serving in the Occupied Territories. The current situation also reawakens dormant trauma from wars past.

But perhaps the worst thing is to feel helpless and without hope that there will be an end to the suffering. There are, it is true, many, many unreported activities of cooperation such as interfaith bilingual schools, peace schools, convoys of medicine and food to villages under curfew, and much more. But the failure of hope is the greatest victory to the fanatics, of the dark side, and all of us struggle to search for embers in the dying ashes of the peace process.

In Jungian style, let me close with a dream of a patient, reported by one of my colleagues, Dr. Beni Mor. In the dream, the dreamer comes to a crossroads or perhaps a checkpost--he is not certain. Somehow, he is not quite sure how, he shoots both Sharon and Arafat. The aggression in the dream expresses collective rage at the current leadership. But the setting of the dream, "a crossroads or perhaps a checkpoint", clearly indicates a wish for a new direction and a new beginning.

Henry Abramovitch
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Abramovitch, Henry (1997). "Temenos lost: reflections on moving" Journal of Analytical Psychology, 42, 569-584.

Abramovitch Henry (2002). "Temenos Regained: Reflections on the Absence of the Analyst" Journal of Analytical Psychology, Oct. in press.