Shrinking the gap: Our fears about the Middle East and our identity group

by Barbara Landau and Dr. George Awad
TORONTO – This article is a rather unusual joint effort by myself and my friend, the late psychiatrist and analyst, Dr. George Awad.

I met George almost 40 years ago when we worked together in the Family Court Clinic in Toronto. We spent a lot of time talking about our families and children but what we didn’t talk about at the time were our cultural identities: George, as a Palestinian, Lebanese, Arab and I as a Jew.

Many years later, we reconnected through an organisation called “Shrink the Gap”, a dialogue group of Jewish and Palestinian “shrinks”—mental health professionals—in Toronto. Our goal was to discuss the narratives and emotional issues related to the conflict within and between our various communities. Our hope was to create a bridge through a deeper understanding.

After meeting for several years, we presented papers together at a psychology conference about the subject of fear—our respective fears—in relation to the Middle East conflict. The choice of subject emerged from our discussions about how the fears of our respective groups had not been adequately recognised as a root cause perpetuating the conflict.

Sadly, George died in June 2007, a few months after we presented. George was a gifted therapist, custody assessor, prolific writer and passionate advocate on behalf of Palestinians and peace. I miss George’s passion, intellect and wonderful cooking—our monthly meetings were infused with fierce debate, interesting insights and heart-warming goodwill.

The following is the text of the paper George Awad delivered at the above-mentioned conference, which I would like to share here in honour of his memory:

“To understand the fear, one needs to understand the basic psychology of both groups. For Israelis and the larger Jewish community, the defining moment of their psychology is the Holocaust. Thus, their fear is annihilation fear.

For the Palestinians, the defining experience started with the 1948 Nakba (the disaster), when they were expelled en masse from their homeland and subsequently prevented from returning. I say Palestinian fear started with the Nakba because this was just the beginning. Their fear took on additional dimensions as they experienced further traumas.

Following the Nakba, the Palestinians were dispersed through the region, dividing roughly into six groups: Israel, Gaza, West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Each group needed to negotiate new relationships. The trauma of the Nakba gave rise to powerful collective fears, namely: loss of identity, loss of national cohesion, and loss of continuity.

Direct expressions of fears were suppressed in Arab and Palestinian communities and counter-phobic reactions replaced them. They developed the three Rs: Refusal to accept their loss, the goal of Revenge and desire to Return to their land. Such mechanisms offered concrete goals to work towards and indeed political, social and paramilitary organisations were set up to fulfil those goals. However, these processes also got in the way of being able to deal with and express the fears directly.

1967 was the second Nakba. Now three of the major Palestinian groups came under Israeli rule: Palestinian citizens of Israel, Palestinians living in Gaza, and the Palestinians of the West Bank. The occupation gave rise to new fears: fear of losing more land, fear of losing autonomy and freedom, and fear of death.

It is hard for Westerners to understand the Palestinians’ attachment to their land. Many Palestinians identify themselves with their “birth” village. This identity is handed down from generation to generation and remains strong even for those who were not born in the village or have never even visited it, or if it was one of the 400 plus Palestinian villages destroyed by Israel days after its residents were expelled.

After 1967, the Palestinians helplessly watched as Israeli settlements were built on their land. The primary goal of the settlements was to create “facts on the ground” and many of these were built strategically to surround Palestinian areas and prevent physical continuity. These days, Palestinians cannot move freely in the West Bank because of the military checkpoints. Those who experience these restrictions experience a fear associated with a loss of freedom and autonomy, which is one manifestation of claustrophobia.

More than any other fear, the one that stands out in recent years is fear of death. Palestinians were and are being killed by the Israelis. As a result, I think a form of annihilation fear has now developed although it is not the same as the genocidal annihilation fears that Jews experience. Tragically, the fears of both peoples are based on historical precedents.”

These were George’s words at the Ontario Psychological Association in 2007.
For George, trying to understand the psychological themes of the Middle East conflict was a passion. He was enormously frustrated by the downward spiral of the Middle East conflict and worried that he would not live to see a real peace, one that would bring hope, equality and justice to both peoples.

Nevertheless, George was committed to dialogue and no matter how heated our exchanges, we never went home mad at each other. Our personal caring and respect for each trumped our differences. We became role models for bridge-building and hope—something very hard to find! To quote the great thinker and anthropologist, Margaret Mead: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."


* Dr. Barbara Landau is President of Cooperative Solutions and a psychologist, lawyer and mediator. Barbara participates in several Jewish-Palestinian/Arab and Jewish/Muslim dialogue groups: Shrink the Gap, Together in Hope and the Canadian Association of Jews and Muslims. For more information please see her website: Dr. George Awad was the Director of the Toronto Family Court Service, an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto and involved with the Infant Psychiatry Program at the Hospital for Sick Children. He also had a thriving private practice. George was a founding member of Shrink the Gap. This article is part of a special series on the impact of fear in the Arab-Israeli conflict written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 09 July 2009,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.
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What Lies Beneath the Fear
Fear of the other, fear of the friend
Seeing beyond fear
The right to live! The Courage to be afraid
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Other articles in this series

What Lies Beneath the Fear by Simon Lawson
Fear of the other, fear of the friend by Roi Ben-Yehuda
Seeing beyond fear by Saliba Sarsar and Hiyam Zakharia Sarsar
The right to live! The Courage to be afraid by Jona Bargur