Director’s Report: Democracy Under Fire, Citizens Fighting For Their Values

PCCA virtual conference, October 20-23, 2023
Follow up, November.

The inspiration for the conference came from a 10 months’ long intensive protest movement in Israel, where citizens came out in their hundreds of thousands to defend democracy, protesting against a duly elected government that used its majority to change the distribution of power, hence paving the way to a possible tyranny.

Similar processes have been taking place in recent decades in many countries globally. Over the last 30 years this has resulted in 2.8 billion citizens living in countries with governments that are more autocratic than democratic. The lockdown through Covid 19 provided an opportunity for more authoritarian regimes to limit the fundamental rights of their citizens and to suppress criticism. There seems to be a global attraction to strong leaders advocating dictatorships, especially in the younger generation.

An attack on democracy is not only an attack on a system of governance, but it also represents intolerance towards differences within and between ‘us’ and ‘others’ suggesting an imaginary stability through enforcing one picture of reality and preventing citizens from having freedom of choice, speech, and way of life.

PCCA decided to offer an online conference on this topic, with the Primary Task:

To explore, share and reflect together on the conscious and unconscious effects of current political trends on us as individuals, on our roles as citizens and on our societies.

A Yiddish saying goes: ‘Man thinks and God laughs’ – by the time the conference took place Israel was literally under fire, following a barbaric attack by Hamas on October 7th, that resulted in the horrible deaths of 1200 people and the kidnapping of 239 babies, children, women, adults, and the elderly. Israel declared war against Hamas in Gaza.

When we started the conference on 20th October, the war was in full swing. The staff foresaw a possibility that in case of an escalation in the war, the Director might not be able to direct the conference. The decision, agreed with the staff group, was that in that case Olya Khaleelee, in her role of Associate Director, would take over.
This situation did not happen. There were moments during the conference when the Director had to go to her “shelter room” for 10 minutes at a time but she was able to continue to hold the sessions from there.

As far as we know this was the first time in Group Relations history that such an issue arose with a conference literally taking place in the middle of a war.

It took an effort to hold the conference and keep its focus on the Primary Task for which members had registered, and to not let the war and the Israeli-Hamas conflict hijack the conference. Although members and staff alike worked toward this goal and the conference focused on Democracy Under Fire, the war was inevitably in the background and acted as an eco-chamber, constantly present, with the possible connection that the war had to do with the attacks on democracy that preceded, attacks that divided the country and were perceived as weakening it. The war seemed to have amplified processes like splitting and lack of tolerance that would have happened anyway perhaps in a milder form.

For full information on the conference see the conference website:

Democracy Under Fire


As we thought that this topic is important,, we turned to our usual sponsoring organizations which also supported us in this project: DPV; DPG and IPS. We thank them. This financial support enabled us to lower the fee, and to give generous bursaries so that the fee would not be the barrier to participation.
We are very appreciative and thankful to them.
The Sponsoring and supporting organizations allowed us to use their logos and were active in promoting the conference to their members:
IPA; EPF; APSA; THIR; OFEK; OPUS and AKRI, we thank them as well.

51 members from 16 countries attended, ranging from the West coast of the USA to India. There were more women than men, and the age range was wide: 24 years to 84 years, with a wider than usual participation of younger members.
13 members paid the lower fee or received bursaries. 6 Israelis who could not participate due to the war situation, were reimbursed.

Staff consisted of 12 members:
Directorate: Mira Erlich-Ginor, (Israel) Director, Olya Khaleelee,(UK) Associate Director, Carlos Remotti Breton (UK), Administrator, Technology Director, Ollie Burton (UK) Technical Assistant.
Consultants: Louisa Diana Brunner (Italy), Shmuel Erlich (Israel), András Gelei (Hungary), Oren Kaplan (Israel), Iwona Soltysinska (Poland), Nadine Tchelebi (Germany); Dorothee von Tippelskirch-Eissing (Germany), Kathleen Pogue White (USA).

The Conference was designed to have 6 hours of meetings on 3 consecutive days and a follow up meeting of 3 hours, one month later.
The main conference was composed of Plenaries, Large Groups, Small Groups and a Societal Event. (see time table in the link of the conference).

The semi-structured questionnaire invited feedback and reflections.
We received 33 responses by the deadline and 10 more later.
All in all, those who replied to the questionnaire were appreciative of the conference, its operation and what they gained from it. For some it surpassed their expectations.

Selected points:

  1. Reason for attending:
    The responses show two main reasons for attendance: participants felt the topic was very timely and many made explicit that they wanted to attend a PCCA conference. The latter indicates the good reputation of the quality of our work: “the experience of previous PCCA conferences, which helped me to understand more about difficult group processes and my being in them”.
    The online working also meant less hurdles for participation for a lot of people: “Accessibility because it was a virtual conference, and the urgency of the theme… it worked almost like a physical one”.
    Members expected to be able to gain different perspectives on current global affairs and the trend towards more threats to democracy worldwide. Given the attacks of 7th October, some also came with the hope of finding room to digest experiences:
    I looked forward to being with Israelis and to some comfort of community in crisis”. There were very few members with no or unclear expectations. Most expectations were met. A lot of praise was given to staff for being able to contain and run the conference in such difficult times: “I don`t feel that the staff being under fire posed a problem for the work task. On the contrary, the escalating war in relatively well-established democracies is part of the contemporary reality of democracy under fire”. Only few voices raised concerns and did not feel safe, which was linked to the felt inability of staff to be neutral.
  2. Learnings:
    Building on that, members narrated their learning on different levels. Some explained that they have gained a disillusioned understanding of democracy:
    the higher the expectation of perfection in democracy, the greater the sense of helplessness and dependency in the members (/citizens)”. Others claimed to have learnt a lot about themselves and their behaviour in groups when faced with disagreement. This, in turn, they were able to link to the dynamics of democracy itself:
    My learning was that every individual had their own fears in their own ways and in spite of the differences it was the safety, security, belongingness and togetherness that united us.”

Apart from two respondents, everyone who filled out the questionnaire would or has already recommended PCCA conferences further.

We learned from the 2022 ‘War in Ukraine Event’ the importance of having a
follow- up meeting, which an online event both demands and enables.
The Primary Task of the follow-up meeting was: To reconvene, reflect on the Conference, share afterthoughts and understandings about what transpired and the role(s) each one found her/himself in, share new learnings since and related to the topic, and bring the understanding to the future.

The meeting consisted of a 30 min. Opening, 1 hour Closing Plenary and Small Groups.

The follow up meeting seems to have been beneficial.  It enabled members to meet again, to check on themselves and on others and allowed understandings that the passage of time had enabled.

A conference is a way to work on a topic through experiential means that serve as an opportunity for its participants to clarify the questions at the heart of the conference. We expect a conference to provide insights that were not available before or without it.
The learning is through what is enacted through the unfolding dynamics as well as thoughts that are generated during or after the ‘here and now’ of the conferences.

The conference, Democracy Under Fire, that took place while a real ‘fire’ was going on, both challenged the limits of the containing function of the Group Relations model and served as an amplifier to questions about democracy and what attacks it.

Here are some of the insights that were gained from the conference.

  • What is democracy? Trivial as this question may be, it was easy to answer or had a self-evident answer.
  • Is democracy the preferable way of governance? that seemed to be the main question with no clear answer.

Through the unfolding of the conference we learned that when democracy is idealized it creates dependency and then disappointment. The feelings associated with failed dependency feeds the wish for a strong leader and the shift towards autocracy.

We experienced:
How easy it is to be perceived as authoritarian.
How easy it is to become authoritarian.
How difficult it is to maintain a democratic stance, defined as inclusive of people and of different points of view and ideas.
We noted both the wish for and the hatred of inclusion. And the limit of the group for containing extremes (or what is conceived as such).

The fire under democracy can be understood as the ambivalence of inclusion and of complexity, so the way out from this ambivalence is the wish for a leader who will free us from the effort needed to contain complexity.

The fight for values is, thus, within oneself: valuing complexity and diversity and not being able to maintain this position. There is an attraction to “creative confusion” as well as looking for clarity and order, that is embedded in an authoritative leader who could become authoritarian.

These understandings were formulated as part of the process of the Societal Event in the language of the working hypotheses:

  1. There is a wish for this conference to be a perfect democracy, for the system to value every position, but the institution has not been able to contain the polarities, hence we have had a pair – one a Pakistani, the other an Israeli – who had to leave.
  2. It seems that the task of understanding democracy under fire creates confusion and is overwhelming, arousing anxiety and shame. To cope with these difficult feelings, the membership is looking to the management and its conduct rather than to itself to discover what working democratically is. Pursuing this task in the midst of a war may have contributed to the difficulty, and in this sense the management has not provided a good-enough container, which has led to hope being lost.

Despite the splitting processes that took place, despite the symbolic loss of a room that housed a group named “Hope”, participants, members, and staff alike, came out of this conference not only surviving the unusual circumstances of working during a war, but with valuable, and not easily gained pieces of learning.

Maybe the important ‘take away’ from the conference is that democracy is not to be taken for granted and needs constant education and maintenance against the seduction of an easy way out that populistic leaders offer. Whilst demonstrations and fighting for our values are laudable elements of the active citizen using their authority, they can also be seen as symptoms of the failure in democracy education and the maintenance of democracy in society. This is a wakeup call!

Mira Erlich-Ginor
Conference Director

Dear Participant,

we are writing to you as a participant in the PCCA Event: “Democracy Under Fire, Citizens Fighting for their Values“.

This conference planned many months ago, unexpectedly happened during an ongoing war. The war entered the conference and made it a challenge to work on the primary task. As such it became an experimental conference.

Your experience in the Conference is important as a means to reflect on the Conference and for developing the PCCA Conferences project.

The following questions are guidelines; you may choose to write in your own way.

In the service of the work we would like to have your replies in a week time, so we can work on them before our follow up meeting.

Apart from this questionnaire, you are invited to write at length thoughts that you

 may wish to be posted on the PCCA website.

You can have a look at previous contributions: http://p-cca.org/ 

Please send this questionnaire to [email protected] 


Thank you for your effort in sharing your thoughts with us.
Best wishes,

Mira Erlich-Ginor, Olya Carlos


  1. This is my first PCCA Conference/Event
    1. This was my first conference.
    2. I participated in the following conferences (please list:
  2. How did you hear about the conference?

  3. What made you decide to register for this Conference?

  4. What were your expectations from the Conference?
  5. In what ways did the E Conference met your expectations, and in what ways did it

  6. What was your experience and learning during the Conference? What was the
    impact of the Conference on you?

  7. Can you describe a specific experience during any of the events
    which had a particular meaning or special importance for you?

  8. Were you surprised at any time during the Conference about yourself, about
    others, about the dynamics and the role you took up.

  9. Would you like to add any comments regarding the Conference (organisation
    program, duration, management, staff, brochure, etc?)

  10. Would you suggest PCCA Conferences/Events to others? To whom and why?

  11. Follow up meeting
    I will participate in the Follow Up meeting on the 25th November 2023
    I will not participate.

  12. Please add any further comments and suggestions.

Thank you for your participation.

Mira Erlich-Ginor – PCCA 2023 Virtual Conference Director

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