How I was influenced by the Change Agents Course for Mental Health Professionals

Presentation of Tova Buksbaum to the annual general meeting of associations of friends of Wahat al-Salam – Neve Shalom, May 5 2016

My name is Tova Buksbaum, I’m a clinical psychologist and I live in the North of Israel.

In 2006 I attended the first Course of Agents of Change for Mental Health professionals. The course has affected my life in many ways and it would be difficult to cover all aspects in ten minutes; therefore, I would like to choose and focus on how the course affected my identity as a leftist and my professional identity as a psychologist.
Thankfully I kept the summary I was requested to write at the end of the course, and that summary begins and ends with a dream:

The first one: I had this dream a week before leaving to Istanbul to attend the course. In my dream I was preparing myself for a war – a frightening war but I feel I’m well equipped for it, and full of confidence… back then, I saw the dream as a reflection of my expectation that in the Course I will be at a kind of war – under danger, but at the same time certain of the equipment I was carrying: Leftist views and values, knowledge, and extensive experience as a psychologist.

In the summary I wrote that at the end of it I realized that being a leftist, the equipment I took with me to the Course, was not really accepted favorably by the Palestinian participants in the meetings (not so much out of them between sessions we became good friends…) and in most instances were simply ignored. I realized that the Palestinian participants were constantly seeking during the dialogue to engage the Jewish participants with Center and Right views… that they were constantly looking for opportunities to get angry, to confront and justify extreme statements… At one of the meetings – and that’s something I find difficult to forget – I felt so helpless that I break in tears for a long hour, unable to calm down… I realized that for Palestinians there was no difference between me and the rest of Israelis… I represented Israel – the occupying power of Palestinians of 67 or Israel that discriminates against the Arabs of 48, and I gravely realized that I am unable to split this element from my Israeli identity. No matter how hard I tried. It was a harsh realization, and I tried to argue with it, but I could not ignore it …
Another dream to share was from the last night in workshop in Aqaba: in that dream I was standing on stage, reciting a scene from a Shakespeare’s play … the crowd slowly leaves the since the show is boring to them.

I wrote then in the summary: “I feel that the course placed me with a “mission” – it placed me on some stage, but I do not know what stage, I was losing my audience, I don’t feel comfortable anymore with my own friends, I don’t feel comfortable with my identity as an Israeli Leftist – since it was made clear to me that it was not sufficient. So where do I go from here? I was not sure…

Ten years have passed since then, and I have gained a perspective on what happened to me since then and how the course affected me, and what evolution and developments – some completely unexpected – had occurred to me.

I think that the most significant thing that happened is that I realized that I am also responsible and that it is not enough that I see myself as a Leftist. I learned that Palestinians expect that statements will be accompanied by action, and this expectation has become internalized and melted into me.

Working with Psychoactive

Thankfully, I joined Psychoactive – Mental Health Professionals Human Rights for Human Rights – a group of practicing and academic mental health professionals who have set ourselves the goal of being active in areas of social-political concern, especially the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Together with other graduates of the Course I was among those who gave Psychoactive energy and momentum. Among other activities, we initiated a large number of conferences designed to raise awareness of mental health professionals for the price both societies – Israeli and Palestinian- pay for the ongoing occupation and bloody conflict. The first conference was here in Neve Shalom Wahat al-Salam and it dealt with road blocks – it was called “barriers to peace”. Since then, we initiated conferences on the Nakba, the toll of the occupation, the combination of psychological and political, and more …

It is my impression that ten years of Psychoactive activity generated a change in the discourse among mental health professionals in Israel, and while many did not join PsychoActive (those days we are about 300 hundred members), you can see how other groups hold conferences affected by psycho-political aspects – and this was in the past almost not acceptable in Israel.

Today I am part of an NGO founded in New York and Israel by some members of Psychoactive called Born Equal whose goal is to advance through education, art, and the internet the idea that all children deserve to grow up in conditions of security – both physical and mental; we focus on children under the occupation, but also Israeli children. This July we will present in a conference at Salzburg University – Children and War Past and Present. Our panel will focus on Conscripted Childhood – on the life of families and children in Israel and in Palestine under political violence and militarism. My presentation will focus on a subject not often discussed: that the soldiers sent to do the work of the occupation in the name of the Israeli society are themselves still adolescents, on all this entails: impulsiveness, lack of crystallization, influence of social desirability and how it exposes them to moral injury.

Another panel in that conference will be hosted by a group of members of Psychoactive and I think that most of them, if not all, are also graduates of Agents of Change for Mental Health courses in the school of peace. This group is responsible for one of the most impressive projects initiated by psychoactive: monitoring and lobbying to media, public discourse and the Knesset of the arrests of Palestinian minors from the occupied territories, in violation of international law. This project brought a real change in reality: the Israeli courts are admitting psycho-social affidavits for Palestinian minors, which is completely customary when it comes to minors in Israel but was not allowed in court proceedings involving Palestinian minors.

I would to add a few words how the Course affected me as a professional: notably psychologists are people that often prefer to seclude themselves to the treatment room and maintain anonymity and confidentiality. It is due to the agent of change Course that enabled me to come out: my identity as a psychologist joined with my identity as an activist, and this has influenced my activities both, in and outside, the treatment room, and I am doing today whatever I can to not take the issue off the agenda of my life. For example, I joined the Bereaved Israeli Palestinian Families Forum –a group that unfortunately I have the “right” to belong to. The Form gives me the opportunity to talk to adolescents, students and adults about ending the occupation reconciliation and peace. Recently I was part of a delegation on behalf of the Forum to Italy together with a Palestinian bereaved woman and together we conveyed our vision to Italian audiences.

I have also experienced a change in my professional work: the socio-political element is always present in my work and it is enhanced by the psycho-political dimension. In this context, another interesting initiative that sprouted out of Psychoactive is a school for Political and Social sensitive psychotherapy which I am part of it staff lecturers.
I will stop here. I would like to conclude by saying that unfortunately, the political reality saw no change, rather deterioration, and the Occupations has no end in sight… One of the projects I was part of together with four other Psychoactive members was training autism child care staff in Nablus. But the lack of political change and the understandable refusal of Palestinians to normalization of relations with Israelis and joint projects – meant that the project was terminated, I feel so sorry for that as we saw how important it was for the parents, children and professionals there.

Meanwhile in Israel, anti-democratic legislation, political nurturing of a fascist public atmosphere, open racist expressions in the public discourse – have become daily headlines. Personally, even if sometimes a doubt creeps into my mind as for the futility of my activities – I do not think I can stop. Activism has become a pivotal component of my identity as a person and as a professional. I am thankful because it helps me maintain “sanity” in reality I am so vehemently opposed to… and for that I thank the School of Peace and Nava personally … and of course for her invitation to be a part of the facilitators in the staff of the School of Peace.
Thank you for listening and thank you for your caring and support for this amazing and inspiring place: Nave Shalom Wahat al-Salam.