The road leading to the conception and implementation of the conference “Germans and Israelis – the Past in the Presence” (the so-called Nazareth Conference) represents a confluence of different themes, events, and personal as well as institutional contributions stretching over a period of roughly 15 years. Perhaps the most amazing aspect of this work is the fact that these different strands eventually managed to unify and form a comprehensive and viable project. No less is the concomitant emergence of a consolidated group, united in its dedication and conviction about the need and significance of this project. I will trace some of the developmental lines that chart this evolution.
In Germany, the post-war formed German Psychoanalytic Association initially regarded itself as “clean” of the blemish of cooperation with the Nazi regime. Gradually, however, there was growing recognition of a shared burden of unbearable guilt. The presence of colleagues, mostly Jewish analysts from England and Israel, helped German analysts to begin to recognize their guilt and inhibitions. In Israel there was an unspoken taboo on dealing with Germans, including German language and culture, which extended to German psychoanalysis. The first breach of this Israeli refusal and German fearful abstention took place in 1987, when Rafael Moses organized a conference in Jerusalem under the aegis of the Freud Center, titled “The Meaning of the Holocaust for Those Not Directly Affected by It”. Several German analysts, as well as a few from other countries, took part in this conference. It marked the first time that German analysts were formally invited and actively participated in a conference in Israel. For the Israelis who attended, all of them from mental health workers, and many first- and second-generation offspring of Holocaust survivors, it was a novel and startling experience to meet Germans and speak with them on a close personal basis. It was similarly a moving emotional experience for the Germans, who came to Israel with much fear and trepidation. While the conference stirred up and released strong feelings and experiences, it could not work them through because of the way it was structured: There were plenary lectures on Holocaust related topics, and small discussion groups into which the emotional upheavals were channeled, but it lacked a clear primary task. Nevertheless, this conference provided a genuine initiative that called for further work.
At about the same time, connections were formed between the Freud Center and the Ulm psychoanalytic research group. This led to a cooperation which developed into mutual visits and an invitation to Shmuel Erlich and Mira Erlich-Ginor to the Ulm psychoanalytic “Ski Seminars”. In the three years in which SE and MEG attended this seminar, and especially in the informal time, there was considerable pressure for sharing very personal painful experiences with them. It underscored the need of German colleagues “to use” the presence of this Israeli-Jewish couple to unburden themselves of feelings they had never been able to discuss even in their personal analyses. Clinically, there was a notable unspoken collusion of German analysts to leave out and blank the years of the war and persecution untouched in training analyses, in case presentations and family histories.
This personal experience demonstrated that German colleagues badly needed the actual presence of their Jewish/Israeli counterparts to begin to work through difficult Holocaust-related personal and professional burdens. SE and MEG felt that a parallel need existed on the Israeli/Jewish side. As founding members of OFEK, experienced in Group Relations conferences in Israel and abroad, they suggested the Group Relations (GR) methodology as the most promising and suitable way to approach and work on these highly charged issues with both Germans and Israelis.
Among the numerous reasons for selecting this approach was the fact that GR is psychoanalytically informed; it makes use of concepts such as transference, projection and splitting. This, it was thought, would make it amenable and attractive to psychoanalysts, who were at first the exclusive target population. Furthermore, the structure of a GR conference offers clear and strong boundary conditions which would help contain and protect the work with the anticipated enormously powerful destructive fantasies and emotions that might be unleashed. In addition, the stress in the GR approach, unlike most group dynamics events, is not on cathartic “emotional experience” or on intimacy and closeness, but on learning from one’s experience. We were aware of work that had already been done with Germans and Israelis, in which the emphasis was on producing mutual “understanding” with subsequent “forgiveness” and “reconciliation”. In contradistinction to that, the GR method provides a relatively “safe” setting in which anything that members may wish to address may come up, and the attempt is to understand and interpret systemic dimensions and unconscious processes, fantasies and defenses, with the aim of learning about and from them.
Much work had still to be done once the decision about using the GR method was reached. A meeting with colleagues indicated that the German analysts interested in the project had no experience with this method. It was mandatory that the German colleagues acquire this experience to enable them to become full partners and for the work to continue. This they willingly did, attending GR conferences of OFEK and the Tavistock Institute, gaining the experience that enabled them to work as staff.
A still more difficult problem was the adaptation of the GR method to the special requirements and constituency of the proposed conference, which differed from the usual GRC in two important respects: rather than being open to all, it aimed at and recognized two conflicted nationality groups – Germans and Israelis. And instead of the usual focus on authority and leadership in groups and organizations, it had a different aim, which at least overtly did not focus on these issues. The task was assigned to Dr. Eric Miller, Director of the Tavistock Institute GR Program, who was nominated to direct the conference. Eric Miller, together with colleagues in Jerusalem and Berlin, adapted the structure and spirit of a GR conference to serve the aims and needs of this conference. The process by which he worked within an international network presaged the working group as well as the working mode that supported the conference.
The last important stage in this road, which spread over several years, was to enlist the support of sponsoring organizations. We had the administrative resources and backing of the Freud Center at the Hebrew University which Shmuel Erlich directed and the professional support of OFEK, the Israel Association for the Study of Group and Organizational Processes. Most importantly, we received the endorsement and financial support of the psychoanalytic societies directly involved: the German Psychoanalytic Association and the German Psychoanalytic Society and the Israel Psychoanalytic Society. Without their devoted support this work could hardly have proceeded and been successful.