Israeli Writers and Anthropologists on Health and Trauma: A Critical Lens on Dehumanization and Healing

“To live in a disaster zone means to be clenched, both physically and emotionally. The muscles of the body and the soul are alert and tensed, ready for fight or flight… Indeed… one is constantly on guard, and one’s entire being anticipates imminent pain, imminent humiliation… It is difficult to determine the moment at which the cruel reversal occurs. When is the question of whether the pain and humiliation will in fact occur no longer significant because, either way, you are already deep inside them, even if they themselves remain only possibilities? For you have already created them inside you. You are already maintaining a routine that is saturated with humiliation because of the constant fear of humiliation. You no longer realize to what extent your life is largely conducted within the fear of fear, and how much the anxiety is slowly distorting your nature—as an individual and as a society—and how it is robbing you of your happiness, of your purpose in life,” (Grossman 2008: 44-45).

In the mirror that Israeli author David Grossman holds up to Israeli society, readers come face to face with the psychic pathologies engendered by constant war. He details the anatomy of wounds inflicted by languages of hate – the clichés and stereotypes that spread from the media to individual minds, eating away at the capacity for empathy. As people increasingly come to expect aggression from the Other, they excuse it in themselves, filling the world with a banal ugliness. Grossman traces these symptoms to their root cause – the hostility and hubris of nationalism – which he exposes as a creeping, fatal tumor traversing the body politic. The dehumanization of the Other, he shows, is the dehumanization of the self.

The act of holding a mirror to one’s society is a form of protest and a demand for justice that many Israeli writers and anthropologists undertake. Amidst the world’s understandable outrage at Israel’s Occupation and military aggression, the significance of their work deserves highlighting. They have taken the courageous step of identifying the reality of their society as a “disaster zone.” They establish a vocabulary that demystifies clichés, and a grammatical scaffold for building subtle analysis. They challenge familiar modes of thought with meta-languages that confront the moral questions at stake in Israel’s political, economic, and social dynamics. This essay draws on Grossman’s writings and the work of Israeli anthropologists to illuminate these practices. We argue that anthropologists committed to peace and social justice in Israel/Palestine should seek ways to strengthen the work of these Israelis, our colleagues who face frightening threats and intimidation by their government and nationalist compatriots.[i] Academic boycott, by contrast, is a strategy that produces isolation and exclusion. It is grounded in the same logic of reductionist, black-white thinking as the clichés of the right.

Literature and ethnography convey nuance and contradiction – they displace sloganeering and discredit reductionist thinking. These genres awaken writers and readers, students and teachers to new ways of seeing, thinking, and being: they open minds, enabling people to reach beyond the confines of the self to understand and appreciate the viewpoints and suffering of others. Grossman captures some of the most important ways these forms of critique work in Israel:

“Not infrequently, we tell ourselves that we are committing an act of violence or brutality, only because we are in a state of war, and that when the war is over we will go right back to being the moral, upstanding society we used to be. But we must consider the possibility that the enemy—toward whom we direct these hostile and violent acts, and who thereby becomes their permanent victim—senses long before we do how much these behaviors have become an integral part of our being as a nation and as a society, and how deeply they have seeped into our innermost systems. It is also possible that reversing our point of view, by looking at ourselves through the eyes of the nation we are occupying, for example, can sound the alarm bells within us, enabling us to understand, before it is too late, the depth of our denial, our destructiveness, and our blindness… When we are able to read the text of reality through our enemy’s eyes, it becomes more complex, more realistic, allowing us to recover the elements we suspended from our world picture. From that moment, reality is more than just a projection of our own fears and desires and illusions: when we are capable of seeing the story of the Other through his eyes, we are in healthier and more valid contact with the facts. We then have a far greater chance to avoid making critical mistakes and perceiving events in a self-centered, clenched, and restrictive way. And then, sometimes, we can also grasp—in a way we never previously allowed ourselves to—that this mythological, menacing, and demonic enemy is no more than an amalgamation of people who are as frightened, tormented, and despondent as we are. This comprehension, to me, is the essential beginning of any process of sobriety and reconciliation,” (Grossman 2008: 55-56).

Israeli anthropologists also strive to rouse their society, to make it possible to “see… the story of the Other through his eyes.” They are key agents in a courageous internal dialogue among the Israeli public replacing jingoistic refrains with culturally salient moral discourses. Their methods are varied, rich, and practical.[ii]

In a 2015 survey of anthropologists employed in Israel, I sought to understand their strategies of bringing anthropological insights to university settings.[iii] The vast majority of respondents wrote about their efforts to use anthropological principles to open up new ways of thinking about familiar scripts, because they felt their work was strongly influenced by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and war. Respondents described using examples of Israeli-based structural inequality, from “discrimination at work & in land-leasing, to the impossibility of non-Jews working in the electricity and defense industries;” they gave examples of using anthropological texts to reframe their students’ ethnocentrism and to challenge the hierarchies that get smuggled into a space of learning. One respondent simply stated, “All my teaching is built on questioning the ethnic, religious and national boundaries that are so taken for granted in Israel.”

Israeli anthropology classes are a space where members of distinct religious, ethnic, and national groups debate cultural and political phenomena. A class may be composed of Ultra-Orthodox Jews, modern Orthodox Jews, secular Jews, immigrants from a range of countries, Palestinians from diverse backgrounds, and observant Muslims, presenting faculty with immense challenges and opportunities. In this survey, Anthropology professors described persistent efforts to break down stereotypes and promote mutual respect, empathy, and deep listening – in the classroom, on field trips, and in their student advising. They considered the principles of our field to be powerful tools for “reading the text of reality” through the Other’s eyes.

One professor who teaches introductory anthropology to nursing students recounted:

“I tell the students, ‘we’re going to put on our anthropological lenses,’ put away our ethnocentrism and look at how people live, as part of the broader context of their values. You must not assume a person shares your cultural values. This isn’t a theoretical issue, but a tool for life. It frees you because it enables you to understand others.  You can still believe in your own cultural values while respecting others.

[In one session], an Ultra-Orthodox woman raised the issue of female circumcision among Bedouin, and this created an uproar. The discussion became very heated and at a certain moment, I lost control of it. They got into all kinds of issues. The Ultra-Orthodox woman contrasted Jewish, male circumcision with what she erroneously labeled “Muslim circumcision,” claiming that male circumcision was central to Jewish identity and a health benefit, but that “Muslim” [sic] circumcision harms women, robs them of pleasure. She made all kinds of patronizing comments about it. The Muslims in class did not support this practice, (Palestinians do not practice female circumcision and researchers among Bedouin in Israel have found that they do not practice it, either[iv]) but the Muslims in the class felt compelled to defend their religion against the more general message being conveyed that Islam is barbaric. Additionally, the Muslim students responded to the power dimension at work in the class: ‘We’re the ones who decide what is right and not right for our community,” they said, and “the [Israeli] media doesn’t portray this issue accurately”—they insisted.

We worked on this issue using anthropological principles. “Why is one kind of circumcision “barbaric” and another one not?” I asked the Ultra-Orthodox student—“Explain it.” And she could not. As the discussion continued, she came to understand that for those who practiced female circumcision, it held the same kind of value as male circumcision did for her community. In later sessions, this student began to sit next to the religious Muslim woman she had argued with, and as the semester continued, they began to talk together after class. It is the kind of thing that, even as an anthropologist, you find difficult to understand…”

In the professionalization-based curriculum of Israeli nursing schools, an introductory anthropology class of this sort may be the single experience in which students are asked to think critically about the “disaster zone” in which they live. Presenting anthropological perspectives—bravely holding up this mirror– is a political act. This is how anthropologists make a difference.

Holding up a mirror also means conducting research and making visible the injurious and abusive practices of Israeli policies toward Palestinians. Israeli anthropologists and social scientists have provided invaluable documentation and analysis of health inequalities and the dire health outcomes of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian people and land. Israeli researchers have analyzed the Israeli health system (cf. Filc 2009), historical and current health conditions in Palestine (Borowy and Davidovitch 2005 eds.), critical reflections on mental disorders (cf. Friedman-Peleg 2014) and ground-breaking revelations on the field of forensic medicine (Weiss 2014). They publish in English, providing evidence and inviting medical anthropologists worldwide to take action and defend Palestinians’ rights. They also publish in Hebrew, educating Israelis about the political system within which they live.

There is also a new generation of medical anthropologists, recent PhDs and doctoral students who critically examine Israel’s health policies. They examine Palestinian alternative medicine (Popper-Giveon and Ventura 2008), Palestinian-Bedouin women’s access to prenatal health (Gottlieb et al 2011), organ trafficking in Israel (Orr 2014), Palestinian physicians’ frail political positioning (Shalev 2016) and the exclusion of Palestinian Bedouins through biomedical discourses (Razon 2016).

Many of these veteran and younger Israeli social scientists of medicine see themselves as both academics and political activists, taking part in public scholarship, especially through Physicians for Human Rights (PHR). PHR’s reports on the 2014 Gaza incursion, tortures, limited access to care, coercive treatment of prisoner hunger strikers and other urgent health and human rights issues have provided important documentation of human rights violations. In fact, much of the evidence on which boycott supporters rely is produced by PHR and their civil society partners in Israel (e.g., Betselem, Adalah) and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

To boycott Israeli academia is to abandon these colleagues—those who are sounding the alarm bells within Israeli society, catalyzing the emotional and intellectual transformations of looking “at ourselves through the eyes of the nation we are occupying.”

Help us instead to support their efforts, amplify their voices, strengthen them in their struggles.


Michele Rivkin-Fish is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Since 1993, she has undertaken ethnographic research on health and gender in Russia as an arena for understanding the broader social and political changes in that country since the end of state socialism. Most specifically, her work has examined Russia’s health care reforms, debates and policies on reproduction and demography, sex education,  and the daily struggles of women and men to secure well-being as privatization expands in official and unofficial ways. Her book, Women’s Health in Post-Soviet Russia: The Politics of Intervention (Indiana UP 2005) contributes to feminist and medical anthropological scholarship linking reproductive politics with transformations of the state and citizenship.


References Cited

Borowy Iris and Davidovitch Nadav (2005). Health in Palestine: 1850-2000 Eds., Dynamis (25).

Filc, Dani. 2009. Circles of Exclusion: The Politics of Health Care in Israel. Cornell University Press.

Friedman-Peleg, Keren. 2014. “Between Jewish Settlers and Palestinian Citizens of Israel: Negotiating Ethno-national Power Relations Through the Discourse of PTSD.” Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry 38.4: 623-641.

Gottlieb, Nora, Ilana Belmaker, Natalya Bilenko, and Nadav Davidovitch. “Bedouin-Arab women’s access to antenatal care at the interface of physical and structural barriers: A pilot study.” Global public health 6, no. 6 (2011): 643-656.

Grossman, David. 2008. Writing in the Dark. Translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Orr, Zvika 2014. “International norms, local worlds: An ethnographic perspective on organ trafficking in the Israeli context.” Organ Transplantation: Ethical, Legal and Psychosocial Aspects. Global Issues, Local Solutions, edited by W. Weimar, MA Bos, and JJV Busschbach. Lengerich, Germany: Pabst Science Publishers.

Popper-Giveon, Ariela, and Jonathan Ventura. “Claiming power through hardship: Initiation narratives of Palestinian traditional women healers in Israel.” Social Science & Medicine 67.11 (2008): 1807-1816.

Razon, Na’amah. 2016. Entangled Bodies: Jews, Bedouins, and the Making of the Secular Israeli, Medical Anthropology, DOI: 10.1080/01459740.2016.1138950.

Shalev, Guy. 2016. A Doctor’s Testimony: Medical Neutrality and the Visibility of Palestinian Grievances in Jewish-Israeli Publics. Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry. DOI 10.1007/s11013-015-9470-7.

Weiss, Meira, 2014. Over their dead body: power, knowledge, and the institute of Forensic Medicine in Israel. Tel Aviv: Resling (in Hebrew).


[i] For examples of specific initiatives through which anthropologists are striving to support these efforts, see Anthropologists for Dialogue in Israel-Palestine,

[ii] See also Dominguez, Virginia (with comments by Past and Present Presidents of the Israeli Anthropological Association). 2016 Preface. On Anthropology in Israel. American Anthropologist. 118(1):142-158.

[iii] The survey was announced through a Facebook page on Israeli anthropology that many professionals in the country are friends of. The announcement was in English and Hebrew, and I assume that some forwarded it on to other colleagues. The instrument asked basic demographic data that are quantifiable, but mostly consisted of open-ended questions for which respondents were asked to write responses in their own words. While the survey was in English, it allowed respondents to answer in Hebrew (which 2 did), and it allowed the preservation of anonymity. We received 18 responses and conducted follow-up interviews with select respondents.

[iv] A team of researchers in 2009 found that Bedouin in Israel do not practice female genital cutting.