When the “Enemy” Inside Meets the “Enemy” Outside: Therapy in the Context of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

by Keren Friedman-Peleg

Entering a bustling shopping mall on the west side of Manhattan after a beautiful walk on the High Line, I was struck by the sight of a large, multicolored mural (by the artist Jamilla Okubo). It featured a woman looking into a mirror, but, instead of seeing her face, she saw the words: “When there is no enemy within, the enemy outside cannot hurt you.” I was surprised and fascinated to find, in the middle of a vast urban shopping mall, a message addressing the intimate life of the passerby as a psychological being rather than merely a consumer. For days afterward I thought about its message and about the ubiquity of such pop-psychological encouragements to think of oneself as a vessel carrying an “inner self”—a notion that still has a great deal of currency in mainstream psychological thought: the notion that this “inner self” is the principal source of our feelings, thoughts, and behaviors; the place where secret, internal enemies accumulate and thrive, threatening to harm us and daring us to conquer them.

As I have with my students both in the U.S. and in Israel, I’d like, here, to focus on this notion as a way to stimulate conversations about psychological language and its role in our lives—as targets of advertising, as patients in therapists’ offices, as teachers in classrooms, and simply as human beings. I tell my students that, rather than being thought of solely as a scientific study of the inner self, psychoanalytic psychology should be understood as operating within various systems of meaning that are co-constructed by individuals and groups at particular points in time and in particular social and political circumstances. What systems of meaning, I ask them, might help generate this mural’s apparent message that we alone are responsible for protecting ourselves from external “enemies” by eliminating the “enemy within”?  What are the implications of such thinking for our experiences of the world’s injustices—so many of them based on distinctions of race, class, sexuality, gender, ethnicity, nationality, and institutional circumstance over which we have little or no control?

Often, in facilitating discussion of these questions, I’ve found it helpful to share with my students various case studies from the private confines of the consulting room, which I’ve gathered as an anthropologist studying trauma in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The story of Ibrahim is one of the most powerful I have in my pedagogical toolkit. An Arab-Bedouin psychologist I met while conducting fieldwork in Israel’s southern periphery, Ibrahim was born and raised in a state that defines itself, first and foremost, as a Jewish state, and which, for more than 70 years, has been in virtually continuous conflict with the Palestinian people and neighboring Arab states, all broadly perceived by many Israelis as the “enemy.” During an interview, Ibrahim shared with me his fractured sense of home and belonging: as a child his family had been forced by the Israeli government to move from an “unrecognized” Bedouin village in the northeastern Negev to a permanent, Israeli-created town, despite their strong reluctance to move. Years later, Ibrahim received his academic training at one of Israel’s leading universities, and, in recalling that period of his life, he described how hard it was it “to gain acceptance in the department of psychology at Ben-Gurion University. It was very homogeneous in terms of the students.” He told me that “people who look a certain way, from certain places—there was a particular stereotype of people who came from what we call ‘good areas’ [Jewish towns and cities in the same area of Israel’s south, most of them identified with the upper-middle class]. And in all of this I was the only Bedouin. I felt that there was a difference. [After all] the image of an ‘Arab Bedouin’ is very far from the image of a ‘psychologist.’”

As I explain to my students, in Ibrahim’s case it’s impossible to draw a clear line between the “enemy within” and the “enemy outside”—between the forces creating the challenging circumstances of his daily life, shaping his academic training and, ultimately, his professional identity, and some putatively separate “inner” self. Moreover, drawing such a line was no easier for Ibrahim’s patients. After he obtained his academic degree and professional credentials, Ibrahim took a position as a psychologist at an elementary school in the Jewish city of Be’er-Sheva in the south of Israel, near his Bedouin hometown of Rahat, where the threat of rocket fire from Gaza toward Israel had significantly impacted residents’ daily lives. There, enemies both “internal” and “external” abounded—and could not be sharply differentiated, as Ibrahim explained:

I had a Jewish patient, a young boy, and his mother called me, she was in such need, desperately in need of help, and right away, in the beginning of the conversation, I said “Hi, it’s Ibrahim speaking,” and I emphasized the [Arabic] accent, so she would know, so that the shock would not be in the room, that she would understand her son’s therapist is an Arab-Bedouin. In our first meeting, I asked [the boy]: “Can you describe for me what you feel right now?” And the boy said: “I’m afraid.” I asked him: “What are you most afraid of?” And he said: “Of Arabs.” I looked at him and didn’t know what to say. I’m an Arab, an Arab-Bedouin, his therapist is an Arab. Then the boy, he’s a very smart boy, asked me: “What’s your name?”—even though I guessed his mom had already told him my name, and maybe she had already told him that I’m Arab. But I answered his question directly, and I said: “My name is Ibrahim.” And the boy looked at me and asked: “Can I call you Avi?”

The Jewish boy’s question perfectly illustrates the intertwining of the outer world and his inner conflict, as well as the unique intermingling of Ibrahim’s personal identity as an Arab-Bedouin, a professional psychologist, and a symbol of the boy’s deepest fear. What the boy asked for was, in effect, help in breaking through the binary opposition that had long shaped daily life in Israel: between “Us” (the Jews) and “Them” (the Arabs). An individual named “Avi”—short for “Avraham,” a common Hebrew first name in Israel—fits easily into the category of “Us”: a friend, someone we can trust simply because we share similar religious roots, a common history, and a collective identity. In contrast, someone named “Ibrahim”—the Arabic version of the Hebrew name “Avraham”—would tend immediately to be identified with “Them”: those who can’t be trusted simply because they have different religious roots, a different history, and a different collective identity—in other words, the “enemy.” Well aware of the complex forces shaping the inner and outer worlds of himself and his patients, Ibrahim had emphasized his Arabic name and accent in order to minimize the surprise his Jewish patient might otherwise have experienced upon learning at the first session that his therapist—the “final figure of authority” to whom he must “tell all he knows in order to be told all he does not know” (Rieff, 332)—was Arab. As it turned out, the Jewish boy came up with a strategy of his own, couching Ibrahim’s Arab identity in a Jewish-sounding name.

In effect, the boy’s request helped him to tolerate the new situation of being with Ibrahim in the consulting room, blurring the distinctions between various perceived “enemy” forces. For the boy, the enemy outside shoots rockets from the Gaza strip towards his home in the Jewish town of Be’er-Sheva, and for Ibrahim, the enemy carries out oppressive policies against himself, his family, and his fellow Arab-Bedouin people. For the boy, the inner enemy is the traumatic fear of “Arabs”; for Ibrahim, it is the struggle involved in carrying out his mission as an Arab-Bedouin psychologist representing a Jewish-Israeli school, tasked with soothing the fear of a boy who identifies “Arabs” as the very source of that fear. These interactions meld the “inside” of the clinic and the “outside” world, where Jewish parents were raised and are now raising the boy who is afraid of “Arabs” and where Ibrahim was raised and is now raising his Arab-Bedouin children in a Jewish state.

Ibrahim agreed to the boy’s request to call him Avi, “so we could start to build something together, so we could start a process, some kind of a therapeutic process. And we did, we started. And after a couple of months, the boy suddenly said, in the middle of one of our sessions: ‘So, okay, from now on, I can call you Ibrahim.’” By accepting the boy’s request to call him by a Jewish name, then, Ibrahim not only created an atmosphere of sensitivity and empathy with his patient, but he also challenged Rieff’s strict, classical image of the analyst as a “final figure of authority,” fostering a more nuanced dynamic of power and trust between psychotherapist and patient.

Ibrahim’s story helps my students understand psychoanalytic psychology, not only as a tool for intrapsychic exploration and growth, but also as a field of knowledge-practices operating within a socio-political system of meaning. Contrasting the self-centered message of the Manhattan mural with the “thick description” of the interaction between Ibrahim and his patient allows students to reject the alluring simplicity of the binary opposition between “inner” and “outer” worlds. Ibrahim’s story gives students a sense of how psychotherapy actually works, by negotiating the complex relation of internal and external in the comparatively safe space of the consulting room.

Students also benefit from the ethnographic perspective I can share with them, helping them to “move” between the multiple, dynamic points of view of individual “social players” and to suspend, however briefly, the inclination to draw a sharp line between “good” and “bad” by acknowledging different forms of victimization and diverse experiences of violence and pain, and by exercising and expressing empathy for both Ibrahim and his patient. Ibrahim’s story helps students better understand the inevitable conflation of the intrapsychic and the interpersonal—especially under conditions of great socio-political stress—and also to understand that the clinic is part of the world, not isolated from it, and that both patient and therapist are full human subjects who both have discoveries to make about themselves and their places in the world, as well as in relation to one another. The story of Ibrahim and his young patient is not chiefly about an individual patient overcoming an “enemy within,” but, rather, about a psychosocial dialogue that takes place between therapist and patient, changing them both.

Work cited

Rieff, Philip. 1979. Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.