Israel Lobbyists Tried to Cancel an Event on Mental Health and Palestine – But Failed

'Psychoanalysis at large often takes an anti-Palestine position.'

by Sophie K Rosa

28 March 2024

Photo: Flickr/ Matt Brown

Israel lobbyists targeted a sold-out event on Palestine at London’s Freud Museum earlier this month, but ultimately failed to stop the discussion from going ahead in an important moment for Palestine solidarity within a divided discipline. 

UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLFI) wrote to the museum, based in the former home of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, the day before the event, which sought to draw attention to Israel’s genocide in Gaza, in a field in which Palestinian voices are rarely heard.

“Psychoanalysis at large often takes an anti-Palestine position,” said organiser Luke Manzarpour, from “collective of communist mental health workers” the Red Clinic. In this context, the event held particular significance – which is perhaps why it was targeted.

In a letter sent to museum director Guiseppe Albano on 14 March, and shared with Novara Media by the Red Clinic, UKLFI – a lobby group which describes itself as a “voluntary association of lawyers who support Israel” – urged the venue to “cancel this event in order to protect [its] reputation”.

UKLFI director Caroline Turner singled out panellist Lara Sheehi, who was at the centre of a dispute that sent ripples across the discipline last year, bringing psychoanalysis’s fraught relationship with Palestine to the fore, even before 7 October. 

Sheehi was a clinical psychology professor at George Washington University when, in January 2023, Israel lobby group StandWithUs leapt on the concerns of a few Jewish students about a talk Sheehi helped to organise. The pro-Israel group complained to the US education department that Sheehi had discriminated against Jewish students by refusing to accept their definitions of antisemitism.

Sheehi said she experienced a “global smear campaign … by Zionists” as a result of the incident. Since 7 October, she said, there has been “a sharp uptick” in “abuse” – part of an agenda to “intimidate [and] suppress dissidents and purposefully harm anti-Zionists”.

In a press release published on UKLFI’s website ahead of the Freud Museum event, Turner echoed this “campaign”, calling Sheehi “an extremist speaker” with an “antisemitic and pro-terror history”, below a photograph of the author, used without her permission. 

Sheehi said: “Anyone who expects me to dignify the specious, Islamophobic and anti-Arab hate-mongering allegations made by a group of pro-Israeli genocide vigilantes who are best known for forcing the removal of paintings by Gazan children in a hospital in the UK (well before October 7) has already chosen the wrong side of history” – referring to past actions by UKLFI, which has targeted hospitals and art galleries. 

Although the Freud Museum ultimately let the Red Clinic event go ahead, organisers were initially concerned enough to enquire about hosting it elsewhere, amid what Manzarpour said was an attempt to “bully the museum with escalating threats at the last minute”.

In a discussion with the venue, the Red Clinic was asked to provide written assurance that the event would comply with terrorism legislation, to share the names of attendees and to refrain from recording or streaming the event – although the museum later backed down on some of these demands. 

Crucially, the Freud Museum asked that it be publicly stated that the venue was not in any way associated with the panellists or their views. 

“The Museum has received a significant number of complaints about the event from patrons and visitors to the Museum,” it said, in an email to Red Clinic organisers, adding that someone had threatened to report the venue to the UK Charity Commission for hosting the event. The venue said it was “not at liberty to say who made the threat,” but stressed that it was “taken seriously”.

When it did go ahead on Friday 15 March, the event saw almost 70 people – the museum’s maximum capacity – pack out the event space, and – after a negotiation with the venue – around 100 more join online. 

Sheehi and her partner Stephen, co-authors of Psychoanalysis Under Occupation: Practising Resistance in Palestine, were joined in conversation by Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, an Israeli-Palestinian feminist scholar. Like many in the room, all three wore keffiyehs. 

“The Freud Museum was challenged to bend to a fascist wielding of power,” Stephen Sheehi told the audience, but it “stepped up and did the right thing”.

It is significant that the Freud Museum defied pressure to cancel the event and agreed to host – as Sheehi put it to the audience – “three Arabs being asked to say we are not terrorists”. Palestine solidarity has – at best – been sidelined within the psychoanalytic discipline. 

On 8 October, the International Psychoanalytic Association (IPA) released a statement condemning the Hamas attack, but it still has not condemned Israel’s genocide in Gaza. In a newsletter, the IPA president referred to murdered Palestinians as “non-terrorist Palestinians” – insinuating the default is for Palestinians to be terrorists. 

To many psychoanalysts, the IPA’s stance was not unexpected; despite professionals claiming political neutrality, examples of anti-Palestinian racism in psychoanalysis date back far before October.

In 2001, the Sigmund Freud Museum in Vienna cancelled an event by Palestinian-American scholar and activist Edward Said after photographs emerged of him throwing “a tiny pebble” in a “deserted area” at Lebanon’s border with Israel. 

“I was described as a rock-throwing terrorist, a man of violence … in the familiar chorus of defamation and falsehood known to anyone who has incurred the hostility of Zionist propaganda,” Said wrote at the time. 

The London Freud Museum stepped in, offering to host Said, and the event eventually went ahead. But for the Red Clinic, the incident speaks to a broader trend. 

The idea of ‘clinical neutrality’ can be central to psychoanalysis. But while this might refer to a therapist’s attempt to remain impartial – insofar as that as possible – it “is often a guise in which prejudice is allowed to be expressed,” Manzarpour said. 

Groups like the Red Clinic seek to address this failure to acknowledge power within the discipline, including by showing explicit support for Palestine. Although they are in the minority, the history and present of psychoanalysis is replete with practitioners like Manzarpour and Sheehi who understand their radical politics as inextricable from their clinical work. 

For Sheehi, centering Palestine is obvious. “If we’re attentive to the ways in which systems of oppression, whether that is racism, capitalism, imperialism, or settler colonialism, are central to the creation and perpetuation of psychic distress, it becomes an easy jump to be attentive to the ways in which Palestine needs to be centred in our fight,” she said. 

Sophie K Rosa is a freelance journalist and the author of Radical Intimacy.


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