What the SPR doesn't want to know

March 5, 2016
Sarah Benton
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Child arrest in Jerusalem. Photo from AFP

To Professor J. Christopher Perry

President, Society for Psychotherapy Research
McGill University

January 23, 2016

Dear Professor Perry

I write on behalf of Jews for Justice for Palestinians (JfJfP) to express our profound concern at the decision of the Society for Psychotherapy Research (SPR) to hold its next international conference in Jerusalem. We ask your organisation to review this choice of conference location as soon as possible.

JfJfP is the pre-eminent network of Jewish people in Britain committed to the achievement of a just and peaceful resolution of the conflict in Israel/Palestine. We comprise Jews who are practising and secular, Zionist and not, and we bring together Jews from across the religious and political spectrum. We have many signatories in our network who are psychotherapists and other mental health professionals.

We would be very pleased were SPR demonstrating a specific interest in the psychological health of Palestinians living in Israel and in the Occupied Territories (Gaza and the West Bank including East Jerusalem); there is no lack of relevant issues.

Thus, within the Occupied Territories, health services have insufficient trained personnel, supplies of medication, infrastructure and financial resources and many clinics and hospitals have been destroyed. Gaza’s Palestinian health staff (like their patients) have no freedom of movement, while within the West Bank, Israeli checkpoints make it a daily struggle even to get to the next West Bank town for work and study. Palestinians have no democratic control over any of this, as the real ruler of the Occupied Territories is the Israeli state via the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF).

Moreover, within both Israel and the Occupied Territories, Palestinians are denied the security of a safe home to which they can retreat. Instead, they experience arbitrary and unregulated invasion by the Israeli Defence Forces; house demolitions for the purpose of facilitating Israeli settlement; demolition of the family homes of those suspected – not convicted – of offences designated as ‘terrorist’ by the IDF (such collective punishment of families being totally illegal under international law); and near total refusal of building permits, so the rapidly expanding Palestinian population is experiencing ever more squalid and overcrowded living conditions.

Arrest of minor in Jerusalem, 2015. Photo from Ma’an /AFP

The result, as many studies have detailed, is immense psychological suffering among Palestinians as they deal on a daily basis with insecurity, despair, frustration, helplessness, humiliation, family tension, disrupted child attachment and trauma.

Figures vary, but all report high rates of PTSD associated symptoms – depression, anxiety, an inability to concentrate, sleep disorders, and family conflict. As informed commentators emphasize, these are responses to a traumatising environment that is relentless and cumulative.

Jews for Justice for Palestinians is sure that psychotherapists and other mental health professionals have a very constructive part to play, not only in supporting service development, but in analysing the destructive dynamics at work in the deeply asymmetrical relationships between the Jewish Israeli and Palestinian communities and in researching the mental pain that results for all concerned.

A seven-year old boy is arrested outside Al Aqsa mosque, June 2015. Photo from ISM.

However, there is no evidence that any of these concerns informed the Society for Psychotherapy Research decision to locate its annual conference in Jerusalem. Quite the opposite. SPR’s website’s conference publicity material displays either remarkable ignorance of reality or a disturbing attempt to mislead. Thus,

 Jerusalem is presented solely as a wondrous tourist attraction: ‘a city suspended between heaven and earth, East and West, past and present – parallel universes of flowing caftans and trendy coffee shops’.

 There is no indication that only a few hundred yards from the conference itself, Palestinians are being forced from their homes to make way for Israeli settlements. East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan are regularly torn apart by army and settler incursions. This cannot be unknown by informed and literate outsiders, much less your Israeli organising committee: forced house dispossession has received world-wide attention, in large part owing to fierce support given to Palestinian residents by famed Israelis like novelist David Grossman.

On all this your conference publicity is totally silent. Surely it would interest your members that incalculable mental anguish is being caused by Israeli policies and actions towards Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents, in particular their children, who live their lives in constant fear of Israeli settlers and soldiers.

 Jerusalem is described in your conference publicity as the ‘capital of Israel’. The UN, the EU, and every country other than Israel rejects this designation: there isn’t a single foreign embassy within the Jerusalem boundaries. For SPR publicly to designate Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is not a neutral act – it firmly locates the SPR as a supporter of the Israeli government’s solitary position.

 Nowhere does your conference publicity acknowledge that Jerusalem is a divided city, where Israel’s claimed incorporation of East Jerusalem (including the most important tourist area, the Old City) is, again, rejected by the entire outside world.

 Except as colourful residents of the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, Palestinians are pretty much airbrushed out. Indeed, from reading your website, nobody would realise that at least 37% of the population of Jerusalem is Palestinian, with this figure rising to 90% in the Old City.

 From the names given on your website, it appears that not one member of the local organising committee is Palestinian. Both Israel and the Occupied Territories possess competent Palestinian health professionals. So either you – or the committee – didn’t look for Palestinian committee participants, or found that Palestinians wanted nothing to do with such an event. Either way, this should have rung alarm bells.

 We see similar exclusion regarding arrangements for conference accommodation. No Palestinian-owned hotel businesses appear to have been included. Were any attempts made to offer them your valuable custom? If not, why not, and if offers were made, why might they have been rejected?

 Then we come to leisure options: in its recommendation for tours that participants might wish to take, the SPR website ignores the bulk of East Jerusalem entirely, as well as the wide range of tours offered by Israeli groups which provide a truly valuable introduction to the impact of the Occupation.

The only East Jerusalem area your website mentions is the Old City. There, visits to Jewish locations are given first recommendation, Christian locations, come second, with Muslim areas dealt with the most briefly and selectively at the end (for example, not a word about al-Haram al-Sharif, though its fabulous mosques figure prominently in the imagery used for the conference). Yet, to repeat, around 90% of the Old City population is Palestinian: of these, around 80% are Muslim.

Sultan Suleiman I, Ottoman emperor, ordered the magnificent rebuilding of the Old City walls. The work took from 1537 to 1541.

We understand that earlier criticisms of the Jerusalem location have prompted conference organisers to promise to ‘assist’ Palestinian psychotherapy researchers to attend. We fear this response is worse than inadequate.

 First, and most important, it does nothing to minimise the political message that is being sent by choosing Jerusalem as a meeting venue. Jews for Justice for Palestinians knows from long experience that any prestigious international event located within Israel is seized upon by the Israeli government as an opportunity to trumpet the achievements and ‘normality’ of a state that is anything but.

 Second, it shows SPR to be perfectly aware of the actual circumstances of Palestinian professionals, but willing to hold a conference in a city where such professionals might need special ‘assistance’ to attend (e.g. in securing visas, getting though checkpoints, etc). In other words, SPR is knowingly locating its conference so that, living in Ramallah for example (just eight miles from Jerusalem) and being a suitably qualified professional, isn’t enough to ensure attendance – special ‘assistance’ is also needed.

This is the easiest way for young local Palestinians to get into Jerusalem – here clambering over the wall to reach the mosque for Friday prayers during Ramadan. Photo by Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org.

 Third, SPR can offer to assist – but this is an offer on which it cannot meaningfully deliver. Were Palestinian psychotherapeutic professionals in the Occupied Territories even contemplating attending, on past experience, we would anticipate the following: few if any being allowed entry by Israel; any entry being highly selective; agreement to entry being withdrawn at the last minute. What would SPR’s offer be worth if nobody was allowed entry, or only a handful, or nobody from particular places (e.g. Gaza, Hebron, Tulkarm), or if would-be participants armed with entry permits/visas were to be turned back at a checkpoint just as the conference was ready to open?

For women, children, the elderly, the disabled, the only way to get to Jerusalem is to endure the horrific crush at Qalandia checkpoint. Photo by Clare W.

 Finally, any discussion of SPR’s offer of assistance is likely to be moot.

There is widespread reluctance from Palestinians (within Israel, the Occupied Territories and other countries) to take part in international events in Jerusalem or other Israeli locations. Few wish to collaborate in activity from which the Israeli state can extract huge amounts of prestigious publicity, and they reject the second class status that any Palestinian participant would inevitably possess from the outset (see all the earlier paragraphs).

In these circumstances, what should SPR do? Jews for Justice for Palestinians is asking for urgent reconsideration of the misplaced decision to hold this conference in Jerusalem. We do not ask SPR – or anyone else – to boycott Israel per se and we certainly do not want Israeli Jewish professionals to experience the second class status accorded to Palestinians.

We are simply opposed to Israel hosting important international events, like yours, that enable its government to claim both a false normality and enhanced prestige, and where the very location discriminates against Palestinians and makes their participation more unlikely. By holding this event in Jerusalem, SPR is not acting neutrally – it is colluding in the legitimisation of the Occupation.

We understand that, in similar circumstances, the World Association of Infant Mental Health moved a proposed conference from Jerusalem to Prague. We are asking SPR to think again – and to take similar action.

Even if it meant postponing the event, the contribution this would make to international human rights would far outweigh the inconvenience of delay. And were the event to be relocated, it would then be very appropriate for assistance to be provided to Palestinians who may wish to participate, but who have difficulty with checkpoints, visas, costs of travel etc.

We would hope that Israeli Jewish professionals would also take part were the venue to be moved – for unlike Palestinians faced with participation in a Jerusalem event, there would be no walls, checkpoints or political or moral objection to Israeli Jewish professionals attending at another venue.

We trust this letter will be considered by the Board of SPR at its earliest opportunity and look forward to your response.

Yours sincerely

Naomi Wayne

For the Executive, Jews for Justice for Palestinians

* * * * *

From Professor Perry
Institute of Community and Family Psychiatry
Jewish General Hospital
Montreal, Quebec H3T 1E4, Canada

January 26, 2016

Dear Ms. Wayne:

I am responding to your letter of January 23 via Susan Hajkowski, President, UK Chapter of the Society for Psychotherapy Research of December 24, 2015, which she forwarded to me. It appears that you may have seen an earlier letter that I wrote, so please excuse any redundancies with what you may already have read.

In your letter you express multiple concerns about SPR’s decision to hold its upcoming annual meeting in Jerusalem, Israel, this coming June, as well as to characterizations (including omissions with respect to Palestine and Palestinian people) of the meeting and the venue on the Web Site. I have recently consulted with the members of the Executive Committee of the Society for Psychotherapy Research and with our local Host Committee, and offer the following in reply.

SPR is an international scientific organization that promotes the free exchange of research and ideas on how to improve psychotherapy. This is of concern to the health of the population in every country. As such we view this as a valuable opportunity for participants around the world at each annual meeting, which is held in different cities and regions. This rotation enables the participation of individuals in each region who might not otherwise attend a far away meeting to benefit from the exchange of ideas.

In addition attending members from around the world learn from participants from the region. While there are diverse and deeply held ideas about the best response to the political situation in the middle east, SPR believes that proceeding with the open exchange of ideas is its best contribution.

Having said that, we are pleased to meet for the first time in the middle east, in Jerusalem, and allow individuals in the region to participate. As part of this opportunity we are also reaching out to any potential Palestinian colleagues who may wish to participate. The Host Committee will help facilitate having any interested Palestinian colleagues participate. We view this as one additional scientifically valuablefunction of the upcoming meeting in Jerusalem. Some of the actions that we began taking this fall are only now beginning to bear fruit.

I offer a recent update emailed to me by the Chairman of our Host Committee, as follows:

I can now report that we have made contact with colleagues in Bet Lehem, Ramallah and other areas in the Palestinian territories and we expect to include multiple presentations by our Palestinian colleagues in the upcoming conference. We are also working hard to both overcome all barriers (financial and administrative) in order to insure their participation. Likewise, we have been in touch with colleagues from both Arab and Bedouin communities within Israel to encourage their participation.

We are absolutely committed to using the conference as a means to learn from, as well as disseminate current knowledge to, these sectors which historically have not participated in or had access to the society’s conferences.

I can also add that at our upcoming Executive Meeting we will be devoting considerable time to these issues. This includes considering how to handle the financial and visa issues for any Palestinian attendees who accept to come, since clearly inviting people is not the same as facilitating their attendance. We are also trying to arrange some spirited exchange of issues at the annual meeting.

From the precise enumeration and elaboration of the issues that you raised in your letter, I understand that you may not likely find this response sufficient or satisfactory. Nonetheless I offer it as a sign of our good faith in considering both these issues and your effort to bring them to our attention.

Please accept my best regards,


J. Christopher Perry, M.P.H., M.D.
President, Society for Psychotherapy Research
Professor of Psychiatry
McGill University

Perhaps the SPR will provide all Palestinians who want to attend the conference with suitable scaling ladders and an armed guard so they don’t get shot while climbing over. Photo by Sherry Ann.

* * * * *

To Professor J. Christopher Perry
President, Society for Psychotherapy Research
McGill University

28 January 2016

Dear Professor Perry,

I was pleased to receive a prompt response to my emailed letter of 25th January, but equally, very disappointed by its content.

I am sure you will agree that my letter to you was courteous, detailed and highly specific – in your own words a ‘precise enumeration and elaboration of the issues’. However, your response simply reiterated already publicised and general commitments, to ‘reach out’ to and ‘help facilitate’ participation by ‘any interested Palestinians’.

Ignoring all the specifics of my first letter does not make them go away; rather it prompts me to wonder why you did not provide equally specific answers.

I am now making a second attempt, hopefully ensuring the issues are even clearer and formulating everything as questions. I would be really grateful for a response that reflects the importance of the issues I raise.

Jerusalem: questions arising from the SPR website conference materials:

 How do you explain SPR’s presentation of Jerusalem – known  internationally as one of the most tense and conflict-ridden cities in the   world – as a place solely of beauty and wonder, with no acknowledgment
of its Palestinian residents’ misery just a few hundred yards from the conference location?

 Why has SPR designated Jerusalem as ‘Israel’s capital’? (This is incorrect under international law, and apart from Israel itself, no country in the entire world regards Jerusalem in this way).

 Where is the acknowledgment on SPR’s website of Jerusalem’s divided status, a division both in facts on the ground and in international law?

 Where does SPR’s conference material make it clear that Jerusalem’s Old City is regarded by the rest of the world, and in international law, as part of Occupied East Jerusalem, and not as an integral part of Israeli Jerusalem?

 Why hasn’t SPR’s recommended hotels list included any Palestinian hotels?

 Why, in SPR’s advice on tourist visits, have you relegated Palestinian tourist attractions, especially those relating to Muslims, to third and minor status?

 Why hasn’t SPR included tourist advice about trips that can be taken with Jewish, Palestinian and joint groups illustrating the impact – including psychological effect – on Palestinians of Israel’s half century of Occupation?

Organisation: questions arising from the SPR website conference materials:

 Was SPR aware of the exclusionary nature – no Palestinians – of the local organising committee? If so, did you think that it didn’t matter?

 What attempts has SPR made to include Palestinians in the local committee? If attempts were made, what is your response to their clear lack of success?

 Why has SPR not ensured a suitably ‘mixed’ local organising committee, in a country 20% Palestinian and a city with nearly twice that percentage?Do you acknowledge that, with sufficient Palestinians included on the local organising committee, the conference would have been organised and promoted very differently from the ways outlined above

Questions arising from SPR’s proposed ‘facilitating’ of and ‘reaching out’ to’interested’ Palestinian participants

 Given the internationally acknowledged division of and conflicts within Jerusalem, what research did SPR conduct prior to agreeing this conference location, to establish likely take up rates from (a) Palestinians living within Israel, and (b) Palestinians living within the Occupied Territories?

 Why has SPR agreed a conference location where potential participants from only a few miles away (Ramallah, 8 miles from Jerusalem; Bethlehem, even less) might not be able to attend without special ‘facilitation’ ?

 What does the facilitation SPR is offering comprise?

 What will SPR do if, in spite of such facilitation, no, or just a few Palestinians from the Occupied Territories are granted entry permits/visas?

 Apart from professionals from Bethlehem and Ramallah, what effort is SPR making to secure participation from professionals in East Jerusalem, Hebron, Tulkarm, Nablus, Jenin, Qalqilya and other significant towns in the West Bank, together with Gaza (which last, under international law, is still categorised as ‘occupied’)?

 What indications does SPR have that there will be any participants from these areas?

 What contingency plans does SPR have if would-be participants armed with entry permits/visas are turned back at checkpoints (last minute and arbitrary entry refusal being, from our experience, very common)?

 You say SPR moves its conference around the world to encourage regional attendance: in this case, what is the evidence that the Jerusalem venue will increase participation from other Middle East countries? Is it not more likely that this location will exclude participation from nearly all professionals in other Middle East countries? In my original letter, I made it clear that JfJfP does not ask anyone to boycott Israel per se, still less Israeli Jewish professionals.

 Our concerns are fourfold: “the entire structure, organisation, culture and marketing of this Jerusalem conference discriminates against Palestinians.” Should Palestinians from within the Occupied Territories (West Bank and Gaza) wish to attend, obstacles arising from Israel’s machinery of Occupation will deny them equal access; your very commitment to ‘facilitation’ of Palestinian attendance, is itself evidence that our concern here is well founded.”When Israel hosts important international conferences like yours, the Israeli government uses them to claim a false normality and enhanced prestige” Palestinian attendance is likely to be low in any event, as few Palestinians are willing to collaborate in international efforts from which the Israeli state can extract prestige, publicity and any appearance of ‘normality’.Your letter to JfJfP advises that SPR believes ‘proceeding with the open exchange of ideas is its best contribution’ (to the political situation in the Middle East).

JfJfP respects and shares your commitment to international intellectual exchange. However, all SPR’s conference arrangements as displayed by your own website are already skewed, so that they act as barriers, not promoters of the free exchange of research and ideas. Adding on ‘facilitation’ of Palestinian attendance may be ‘a sign of your good faith’; a project that is inherently structurally flawed doesn’t recover with the addition of even the highest quality paint.

JfJfP is simply requesting SPR to do as others have done – rethink the conference location and move it somewhere that Palestinians and Jews from Israel/Palestine (and professionals from other Middle East countries) will feel equally comfortable and be equally able to attend. We hope the very process of answering our specific questions might point to a decision that such a move would be the best commitment SPR could show to free and open exchange of research and ideas.I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely
Naomi Wayne
For the Executive, Jews for Justice for Palestinians

From Dr. John Christopher Perry
February 18, 2016

Dear Ms. Wayne:

After our Executive meeting, I drafted a statement and then circulated it for emendation and approval. I just received the last response, so I can now reply to you. This statement is also going to be distributed to our membership, along with some material about how we arrived at it.

Here it is:

“We are a scientific organization which supports research on psychotherapy by colleagues around the world. We meet in different countries and regions to promote the opportunity to exchange ideas widely with members, some of whom may not always be able to attend far away meetings.

Every country and society has a need to improve the effectiveness and delivery of psychotherapy which addresses major concerns of public health. Psychotherapy is based on open dialogue, and like psychotherapy itself, providing a forum for open dialogue is SPR’s best contribution to issues that both Israeli and Palestinian colleagues and others may share. We therefore fully support having our meeting in Jerusalem.”

You will undoubtedly notice that I am not responding point by point to your letter. Instead our statement addresses the overall conclusion related to our decision, encompassing all considerations. I think you will understand then if I suggest that further just lead me to reiterate the above point.

Please accept my best wishes,

J.Christopher Perry
Professor of Psychiatry, McGill University, and Director of Psychotherapy Research

Institute of Community & Family Psychiatry
Jewish General Hospital

President, Society for Psychotherapy Research

See also
Psychotherapy conference must move from Jerusalem

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