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Ethics and morality, Government and politics, Violence and trauma

‘Liberating’ not ‘oppressive’ over Gaza

Erica Burman, Ian Parker and others write on history, context, identity and standpoint.

07 May 2024

We originally co-authored a letter to The Psychologist, also signed by other psychology colleagues, pointing to the passing reference, in the May 2024 Special Issue on 'Being political in divisive times', to Palestine. This letter was not published. The editor pointed out our use of the term 'genocide' was contentious, and indeed it is (Palmieri, 2023). Our position is in line with deliberations by the International Court of Justice that what is happening in Gaza is genocide. This led us to the question of language organised through discourse, relating to psychology, and the editor noted that it would be better to go beyond simply pointing to an absence of discussion and action. So, what could be said by and to psychologists about Gaza? 

This is certainly a 'divisive' issue, and it raises questions about how psychologists address politics. Part of the problem is precisely that there are significant 'absences' in the psychological literature that have only recently been addressed by colleagues drawing on feminist and post-colonial theory. The demand to 'decolonise' academic and professional institutions has impacted, for example, on the work of psychologists (American Psychological Association, 2021; Wilcox et al., 2024). To speak about Gaza now should also be to draw upon and take that work forward (Hakim et al., 2021). 

Among the issues that Gaza raises are questions of history, context, identity and standpoint. We will briefly address each of these.


Psychologists worldwide are increasingly recognising that the discipline has been shaped historically, while the phenomena that psychologists describe are also liable to – sometimes rapid – change. We see this very clearly in Gaza, a territory into which hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees have been located after being displaced since the 1948 Nakba ('catastrophe' in Arabic). There has, since that time, been an ongoing conflict inside psychology about how to speak about such historical matters – one that we see, to give one example, in the development of 'community psychology' in Palestine. 

This domain of work is divided between those who would want to know and manage 'communities' (in line with the mainstream way of understanding 'community psychology' in the United States and in the Israeli state) and those who attempt to build the 'sumud' or steadfastness of the Palestinian communities facing occupation, and now the mass killing of civilians (Makkawi, 2015). The name 'Gaza' itself, in a tragic irony of history, gives us the English word 'gauze', since that area of Palestine was once a textile-producing area known for this fine medical-use fabric. We are already in the realm of semiotics, of discourse, as well as a contradictory reality.


This dispossession of the Palestinians has therefore been the 'context' for the development of psychological services in Palestine. Psychologists have, as we well know, been struggling over how to conceptualise and operationalise 'context' in their research, looking to ways of bringing about the 'ecological validity' of their work. Sometimes that attempt to contextualise entails a turning back to reflect on the way that research questions are formulated, including why certain issues are focused upon and others are 'absent'. This concern with 'context' is now charged with political meaning in Palestine, where there is an insistence by Israeli government ministers and their spokespeople that to 'contextualise' the 7 October events is illegitimate. 

The problem is that every statement about a historical event is in itself inevitably 'contextual', requiring attention to the way the claims about what happened are located in context. To speak of 7 October only as an attack on Israeli civilians, for example, is to provide a particular context and frame the event in ways that are in line with the current Israeli state narrative about the nature of Hamas. And one can both disagree over characterisations of what occurred and acknowledge the depth of oppression and distress that years of occupation have wrought on Palestinians. Mental health services have been severely impacted by the bombing of Gaza by the Israeli state, for example, way before 2023, as Palestinian psychiatrist Samah Jabr notes (Jabr, 2022). 


Palestinian identity is bound up with this history, this context, and it poses a choice for a psychologist, for any researcher or practitioner, about how to describe these identities. For instance, Maya Wind, in her recent study of Israeli academic institutions, Towers of Ivory and Steel: How Israeli Universities Deny Palestinian Freedom, describes herself in the book as a Jewish Israeli. This self-designation disturbs conceptions of the history and context of the occupation of Palestine as being about a conflict between 'two sides'. It is not. The discursive framing of the occupation as being a conflict between 'two sides', as if they were equal and inevitably opposed, is precisely what we saw enacted in the passing reference to Gaza and the accompanying photo in the Special Issue on 'Being political in divisive times'. 

We can give another example which bears on the Palestine solidarity demonstrations the photo indexes. Four of the signatories to the original letter – Erica Burman, Alison Harris, Stephen Reicher and Simon Ungar – are  Jewish, and every Palestine solidarity demonstration we have been on since 7 October has included Jews, some with banners reading 'Jews Against Genocide' and urging 'Jewish Action for Palestine'. Identity is not, as many psychologists seem to believe it to be, an easily-described 'variable'. It is complex and contested, carrying with it different stances on history and context (Henwood et al., 1998). There are many different kinds of identities claimed by Jews, for instance, including inside Israel, where there are both religious and secular 'anti-Zionist' Jewish organisations, and Jewish Labour 'Bund' organisations, members of which see that state as an 'Israeli' state, not a Jewish state. 


To speak of these things, of history, context and identity, is either to speak as if from a point of view that is disengaged, as if from outside the world, or from a particular standpoint. This is something we learn from decolonial perspectives. We learn that to speak of genocide is to speak from the 'standpoint' of the oppressed, while acknowledging that there are colleagues who will want to speak from other standpoints. Some may wish to speak in line with the narrative that Israel 'represents' the Jewish people. We ask that this claim to 'represent' is treated as a 'claim' not as a fact, and that this standpoint is acknowledged, not concealed or disavowed. 

We learn from the work of decolonial researchers, from, for example, Lara and Stephen Sheehi in their book Psychoanalysis Under Occupation: Practicing Resistance in Palestine (Sheehi and Sheehi, 2021). Lara Sheehi is currently President of the Society for Psychoanalysis and Psychoanalytic Psychology (APA, Division 39). Their book includes detailed interview data which shows how Palestinian psychotherapists are constrained by the Hebrew-language training and supervision, finding it difficult to speak for the Palestinian patients they treat. In some cases, also recorded in the book, trainees and supervisees are trained to minimise the psychological depth, including depth of distress, of their Palestinian clients. Now that the only mental hospital in Gaza has been bombed by the Israeli state, the population are left in a dire situation.


There has been intense debate among counsellors and therapists about how to respond. There are open calls for a ceasefire signed by hundreds of psy professionals for ceasefire, including from the Red Clinic (at and by practitioners with the British Psychoanalytic Council. This is clearly a 'divisive' issue that the British Psychological Society members needs to discuss and take action on. 

Maya Wind, in her book, details how dispossession, erasure and apartheid have been ongoing since well before 7 October 2023. She calls in the book for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israeli state institutions, and she shows in detail that Israeli universities are an active part of that state apparatus. This call for BDS is, we know from discussion with colleagues in psychology, experienced by some as an attack on personal freedom. However, it is precisely the reverse, for it applies not to individuals but to institutions. 

BDS was an important part of the worldwide movement of resistance and solidarity against the apartheid state in South Africa. It puts questions of history, context, identity and standpoint to the fore, making the social conditions in which we speak and write salient rather than hidden, 'absent'. This implementation of BDS is positive action. Far from being a prohibition on speaking, BDS enables conditions for psychology that is liberating, rather than oppressive. 

Erica Burman is Professor of Education, and Ian Parker is Honorary Professor of Education, both at the University of Manchester. The signatories to the original unpublished letter who are now co-authors of this article were also Dr Bipasha Ahmed, Chair of Psychology of Women and Equalities Section (POWES), Terry Georgiou, Chartered Counselling Psychologist, Linda Goodacre, Educational Psychologist, Dr Alison Harris, Consultant Clinical Psychologist, Kirsten Lamb, Dr Miltiades Hadjiosif, Counselling and Community Psychologist, Dr Iman Idjer, Dr Evangelia Karydi, Dr Tonia McGinty, Dr Ishba Rehman, Honorary Secretary for Culture and Difference within and across Ethnic Communities (CDEC), Professor Stephen Reicher, University of St Andrews, Rylee Spooner, POWES committee, Dr Simon Ungar, University College London and Dr Laura Winter. 


American Psychological Association (2021). Apology to People of Color for APA's Role in Promoting, Perpetuating, and Failing to Challenge Racism, Racial Discrimination, and Human Hierarchy in U.S

Henwood, K., Griffin, C. & Phoenix, A. (1998). Standpoints and Differences: Essays in the Practice of Feminist Psychology. London: Sage.

Hakim, N., Abi-Ghannam, G., Saab, R. et al. (2021). Turning the lens in the study of precarity: On experimental social psychology's acquiescence to the settler-colonial status quo in historic Palestine, British Journal of Social Psychology, 62, 1, 21-38.

Jabr, S. (2022). Gaza, the betrayed

Makkawi, I. (2015). Critical psychology in the Arab world: Insights from critical community psychology in the Palestinian colonial context. In I. Parker (ed.) Handbook of Critical Psychology. London and New York: Routledge. 

Palmieri, A. (2023). Palestine: A genocide. Or when psychoanalysis forgot that every symptom is political. Psychotherapy and Politics International, 21, 3 & 4, pp. 1–5.

Sheehi, L. & Sheehi, S. (2021). Psychoanalysis Under Occupation: Practicing Resistance in Palestine. London and New York: Routledge.

Wilcox, M.M., Pérez-Rojas, A.E., Marks, L.R. (2024). Structural Competencies: Re-Grounding Counseling Psychology in Antiracist and Decolonial Praxis. The Counseling Psychologist, 52, 4, 650-691.

Wind, M. (2024). Towers of Ivory and Steel: How Israeli Universities Deny Palestinian Freedom. London: Verso.