A few weeks after returning home from the 2010 Conference in Cyprus: ”Repeating, Reflecting, Moving on: Germans, Jews, Israelis, Palestinians, Others – Today,” I received an email and questionnaire “as a means for developing the Nazareth Conferences Project and for working on the next conference.” That night, I had a dream: I opened the attachment (which I, in fact, had not) to read the first question: “Have you had direct experience and loss as a result of the Holocaust?’ For me, therein lies the rub.
I attended my first Nazareth conference in 2008 and my second in 2010. Consciously, I was drawn to the conference by the opportunity to think about the relationships – among Jews, Germans, Israelis, and, this time, Palestinians – that seem bogged down in a history of enmity, guilt, shame and brutality. As an American Jew, I longed to transcend my sense of geographic and cultural isolation, to join with others to study, to remember, to repeat, perhaps to think about for the first time, and to work through. I wasn’t always clear, though, just what I longed to study, remember, repeat, and work through.
Once I got to the 2008 conference and took my place in the various groupings, I was struck by a feeling that I had no relevant story. My ancestors migrated from Russia, Poland, Lithuania, and Austria at the turn of the last century to escape pogroms, persecution and poverty. They built comfortable lives in the US and, through luck and good timing, bypassed a direct experience in the Shoah. But I don’t believe my family escaped unscathed. My father grew up in Texas, in the heart of the angry Southern Baptist Bible belt. Despite being part of a somewhat sizeable Jewish population, he was likely met with the same antagonism that met Blacks and Catholics. My father never put his experience in words but rather wore it (or so I believe) in his braced body and emotional vacillations between extreme, withdrawn (depressed?) silence and violent (paranoid?) rage. While I’m sure some of this was a product of his family life and his personal psychology, some I suspect was a residue of centuries of unmetabolized exclusion, persecution, and hatred that has been passed from Jew to Jew, l’dor v’dor.
While I was able to offer up this narrative in the small group during the 2008 conference, in 2010, my non-story felt too thin to reiterate. Nor did another narrative take shape within me during the conference. I suspect that my silence was reinforced by that fact that in both conferences, my small group – which most closely resembles a family group -- was facilitated by the same staff member, who, in 2008 also consulted to my Review and Application Group.
In the 2008 conference, the membership included Jews from the States, Canada, England, South Africa, Germany as well as people who lived outside of the German, Israeli, Palestinian triangle. Nevertheless most seemed to feel passionately affected, interested and included in the conversation. In 2010, I was the only one, but one, from the States and felt increasingly weighed down, sorrowful and terrified by a sense of exclusion, irrelevance, and uselessness.
I therefore found myself entertaining questions in a more animated and, at times, discomfited way. While I reconnected with and felt connected to a number of members (mostly German) from the earlier conference, I consciously wondered: what am I doing at a conference that speaks to specific atrocities? Where do I, an American Jew, belong? With the Israelis? With the others? With my colleagues in psychoanalysis? If I claim a place of belonging, what is my role, and what do I carry? I wondered with a grimace if I was, in some way, enacting a form of emotional voyeurism or the desire of the American Jew to write ourselves into the story of the Shoah. Am I allowed to feel attached, concerned and affected from across the ocean, in Diaspora, in displacement? Do I deserve to be considered and protected? Or do the facts of my family history and my geography (some privilege, some distance, some exclusion) put me beyond consideration and protection – outside of the explicit narrative of the conference.
Three experiences speak to these questions.
It seemed to me that the staff interacted differently with the membership than they did two years earlier. The 2008 conference staff was led by a British director, and it felt to me that we were left to work things out largely for and by ourselves. With the stated task, to study enmity, I felt a push from the consultants to “make nice.” Yet, increasingly the members fought, most vigorously in the large group – yelling, pointing fingers as if they were guns, walking out on each other.
The day’s eruptions became the night’s party. Instead of working through the enmity, we danced together in a fevered, frenzied way. Fighting in the day, dancing in the night – the swing felt, to me, heated, concrete, and manic – altogether confusing. Feelings – aggression, enmity, maybe even libido – seemed to get enacted more often than represented in language. We allowed ourselves, it seems, very little thought and honest conversation. Instead of using the conference to reflect and learn, many in the membership seemed to act in response to a felt urgency, as if hammering out a solution there and then to the conflicts and problems between Israelis and Arabs in the conference would magically resolve those in the larger world. The dynamics between the Jews and Germans were largely (at least visibly) put aside. The tool of the symbolic register remained largely unused.
It was my experience that the staff was too tentative, too nice in all this: interpretations were often spare and thin, group dynamics were insufficiently used, and too much focus was put on the individual, individual psychology, and individual dynamics. I returned to the States with former loyalties and connections disrupted and old ways of thinking muddied. I remained in a suspended place, unable to think for a very long time. Was it the fear of overwhelming, uncontained in-the-present aggression that we defended against – looping back from fighting to dancing, from day to night, then back again? I even found myself wondering, was this a repeat of early 20C policy towards the Middle East whereby the British sat back while Zionists and Arabs fought things out? In the weeks following, the conference spilled over into unmediated online debates among some of the membership that became increasingly polarized and aggressive, concrete and accusing. Then the Gaza incursion happened and all went silent.
In 2010, it appeared that the staff took a more active and involved role. The interpretations were many, and felt piercing and skillfully rendered. The staff sought the membership out and made themselves available to us – most usefully in the Systems Events – where we were tasked with forming our own groups. In addition, the staff shared their own insights and hypotheses during the plenaries. I was both grateful for and curious about the shift as I experienced it.
In the 2008 conference, for the Systems Event, I sought out and settled for what I thought would be a safer grouping – with people from the States, people I knew from my life back home and for whom I felt affection. Perhaps, by choosing safety over learning, I shortchanged myself. This year, for the SE, the staff offered groupings, and I chose the Israeli/Jewish group. While I could easily (consciously) identify with the Other group – another category offered by the staff – and indeed it may have felt easier -- what brought me to the conference in the first place is my identity as a Jew and my desire to explore that in the context of the Shoah, German/Jewish relations and in relation to Israel. However, once the Israeli/Jewish SE group formed – with almost an equal number of Israeli and Diaspora Jews, the more vocal Israelis decided to approach the Palestinians to form a “real Israeli group.” This threatened to disenfranchise the seven Diaspora Jews.
But it wasn’t merely a benign disinterest towards Diaspora Jews that I felt, but disdain and distrust expressed in yawns and snubs, snickers and whispering behind the hand. As another non-Israeli Jew mentioned later, an Israeli in her small group described disgust with Diaspora Jews – “They’re soft,” she was quoted as saying, “the kind of Jews who’d walk into the oven.” Later I wondered how much this experience was a representation of the current complicated, ambivalent relationship between Israeli and American Jews, but at the time, it felt intensely personal.
In the small group, an Arab man who lives in the West became increasingly belligerent towards me. He spoke to me and of me with violent aggression, not only within the boundaries of the small group but in other groups as well. In the large groups, for example, I’d say something only to hear his aggressive retorts lobbed into the center of the room. He targeted me with snide remarks in Systems Events. In the penultimate meeting of the small group, he yelled over my words and thrust nasty comments at me, making it increasingly hard for me to speak. When I asked the consultant for help, he answered, “You can be an opportunity for him.” I replied, “It doesn’t feel good to be an opportunity like this.”
However much I might understand why I would become an object of this man’s projections, it did little to mitigate my grave sense of danger and exposure. In the final small group meeting, the young man declared himself a shaheed, a martyr to his violence, a witness to his fury. He raged at me in the silence created by the others in the group. I felt that my power to speak annihilated, first by the accusing exclusion I experienced in the SE group and now by the aggressive projection of the shaheed.
Between the closing plenary and the last review group I was seized by a profound, nameless sorrow. I felt terrorized and annihilated, utterly, dangerously along. During the break I began to cry from a deep, unknown well of sorrow.
When the conference ended, I joined the gathering in the lobby to say goodbye to the first departing group. An Israeli woman who was in my small group commented on her disappointment that I “spoke from the head and not the heart.” “I tried to get that from you, but I got nothing,” she continued. “Maybe if you’d spoken from your heart, I would have protected you from that aggression. Maybe the group would have protected you. Maybe the consultant would have protected you. But you didn’t, so we didn’t.” I was stunned. I could not imagine that my heart was so very hidden. Was it that I did not offer up a story – a victim’s tale? What does someone have to do, I wondered, to deserve consideration, care, and protection? Is it only the victim story that entitles one to occupy a place in a protected and protective circle?
Still carrying the sting of the experience and the Israeli woman’s comment, and fighting the invitation to blame myself for my own isolation, I then asked the consultant, also an Israeli Jew, why he hadn’t protected me. He first referred to something I had said in the large group: that I had traveled 20 hours to Cyprus to attend the conference and would travel 20 hours home. This, he heard, as a “demand for care.” I felt this to be an expression of my sense of being so far away from my home, my group, my time zone and my geography -- disoriented in terms of time and place and far from my language -- insomuch as English was the language of the conference, it was not the language of any group. Then the consultant stated that I do not expect to be protected, that I do not expect resonance. His observation chilled me, not because of its accuracy or lack of accuracy, but because, once again, I felt blamed: it was my style or my silence or my psychology that disqualified me from inclusion and protection. Therefore, I heard him say, I am not deserving of protection and consideration. While I’m not convinced that this is what he meant, his words triggered within me sadness and hopelessness. I saw with an alarming clarity how all in my small group had refused the human obligation to offer protection – not just me but me as the representation of the other. And now I was hearing the justification of that refusal. I was sad for myself – and I despaired for the world.
Luckily the sadness and hopelessness did not last – although the despair lingers still. What felt in the moment very personal took on emotional distance once I achieved geographical distance. Whatever my valence – an older Jewish woman, a can-do American, a privileged, opinionated, moneyed (relatively speaking), intrusive, preachy, American Jew who meddles and then goes home, a mother who does not have to send her children to the army – I, like everyone else in his or own way, hold a place and position that is ripe for projection.
As the sharp and silencing pain of rejection and attack lifted, I was able to think again. I recalled observations and interpretations made in the plenaries concerning who deserves to be wiped out and who deserves to be protected. My own experience and questions about the power of the victim led me to this thought: the power of the victim resides in the entitlement to protection. This might, I thought, leave those who are not victims out in the cold, exposed, vulnerable, and isolated. That’s certainly what I felt during the conference. No wonder there’s so much scrambling to claim the victim’s place.
This brings me back to my question: where do I, an American Jew – one who repudiated, finds little need for a victim’s story, belong in these dynamics? To the degree that people who have been victimized in the past are victims still, to the degree that “victim” becomes the experience around which identity and groupness are constructed, to the degree that “victim status” serves as currency, I chose not to belong. Insofar as the “victim badge” justifies indifference, brutality and violence towards others, I despair.
This 2010 lens allows me to look back at an aspect of the 2008 conference. At the first conference to which Palestinians and Arab Israelis were invited, I thought about the experience of the Israeli Jews who attended the earlier conferences. On a visible level, the Palestinian presence trumped the German presence and quieted the conversation between Jews and Germans. But possibly on less visible level (and, as with everything else I assert, I can only speculate here), after years of occupying the victim’s position in relation to the German participants, Israeli Jews were thrust into the perpetrator’s position by the Palestinian presence. Like Janus, Israelis looked back at Germans to see themselves as victims and forward at Palestinians to see themselves as victimizers. Who, now, are they? And who will protect them?
Indeed, if we are both and neither -- victims and victimizers – aren’t we nevertheless entitled to kindness, kinship, protection and consideration by sheer virtue of our humanity?
Perhaps this accounts for the fact, as I understand it, that in 2010 very few of the Israeli veterans of the Nazareth conferences returned.
As I look back on both the 2008 and 2010 conference and out onto the contemporary world in which I live, I recognize the shadow cast by centuries of exploitation and brutality by Western white colonial peoples against indigenous Others – often peoples of color. I see how this shadow stirs guilt, which in turn prompts defensive and compensatory activities. This is a narrative in which guilt and innocence, victim and victimizer become simplified and polarized. Surely, part of our exploration at the 2008 and 2010 conferences involved the way colonial culpability -- the perpetrator/exploiter – gets projected onto the white(ish) Western-leaning Israeli while the innocence and moral superiority of the victim onto the Palestinian and Arab Israeli. How hard it is to recall and claim the capacity in us all for brutality, exploitation, evil darkness – how easily victim/perpetrator gets split, dichotomized so that in the face of walls and checkpoints and incursions, we forget about suicide bombers at cafes, on the trains, in the air. Thus the importance of one member’s reminder in the large group – her fantasy that, by responding to the suffering and victimization of one group, we may unwittingly arm that group to victimize the other.
In light of my experience at the 2010 conference, this line of thinking loops back to thoughts about intercommunity brutality: how a group, in an effort to defend against victimization or the accusation of being a victimizer – is all too likely to displace, to oppress and brutalize its own. Difference within a group, especially – skin color, gender, ethnicity, language, ways of observing, ways of loving -- become excuses for cannibalizing.
I started this by recounting my dream. One way of thinking about the dream is to see that it recalled the shame I felt at the conference, the apprehension that I lack something – an explicit narrative that could be seen and felt as relevant and therefore justify my place. Another way of thinking about the dream, though, is to see in it an anticipatory anxiety, a shame that I brought with me on that 20 hours flight to the conference – a shame that in fact robbed me of my narrative and wiped out my ability to speak and to engage in the conversation, perhaps just as surely the self-proclaimed shaheed did.
Then again, by writing this, my story – at least in part, from one angle -- is told.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.