The Lara Sheehi Case – an Analysis

Cary Nelson, the author of this piece, is a former president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). His exhaustively detailed case study of the tweeting, teaching and scholarship of Lara Sheehi documents the impact of faculty anti-Zionist, and arguably antisemetic, social media, publication, and classroom practice on Jewish and other Zionist students. In the final part of his essay (VI) he deals with matters of particular interest to readers of CTA – the recent political/social turn in psychoanalysis. Below is a verbatim extract from that section – (the full essay is published on Fathom) – and included is a reference to the CTA book Cynical Therapies (3rd para, reference 12).


It is now time to shift gears and give due consideration to the coauthored book, Psychoanalysis Under Occupation: Practicing Resistance in Palestine (2021), that elaborates in detail the anti-Zionist passions that animated Lara Sheehi’s tweets for a decade. Published in 2022 as a relatively expensive hardback, not a trade book, it could only have limited circulation, but it has since been reprinted in paper and can have a wider audience among both faculty and students. If the views Lara Sheehi promotes in assertive tweets are to have any professional credibility, it should be found here.

Zionist settler colonialism in their view encompasses ‘the technologies of occupation, and the inchoate processes of enclosing and asphyxiating Palestinian communities’ (4). ‘Asphyxiation’ is one of the book’s most persistent and recurrent metaphors, referring to ‘the politics of asphyxiation imposed upon the Palestinian people, physically and psychologically’ (76). Thus the term is more than metaphoric. Asphyxiation imposes a kind of living death on Palestinians; it aims ‘to control how much and when they can breathe’ (12), literally killing many. That ultimate consequence permeates all daily life; ‘death is an ever-present condition of the necropolitical regime of power imposed upon Palestinians’ (19). The Israeli regime ‘intends Palestinians to die’ (8).

Several of Lara and Stephen Sheehis’ chapters are built around individual case histories of Palestinians who struggled with psychological problems. They draw on local clinicians’ accounts of patient histories, adding their own interpretations and conclusions. Their overall aim is to argue for the destructive impact of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian psychology and mental health. These case histories are the critical core of the book for a number of the clinicians I consulted—not only because they address the authors’ professional competence but because they reveal the therapeutic perils of combining anti-Zionism with a social justice agenda.[12]

There is a fundamental—and likely unresolvable—contradiction built into this agenda. The Sheehi’s political convictions lead them to see all Israelis, whatever their job titles, as undifferentiated, interchangeable agents of the occupation. In ‘The Islamophobic Normative Unconscious,’ she properly condemns the belief system that ‘collapses Islam into a monolithic entity with an essential potentiality for violence’ (162), but she embraces that very prejudice regarding Israelis. The pressures psychoanalysis might exert toward individuation have no impact there. Similarly, both as victims of Israeli oppression and as avatars of ‘resistance,’ Palestinians become interchangeable in their eyes. But here the pressures of their training—and of Lara Sheehi’s clinical practice—motivate them to see Palestinians as individuals. Much like social-justice therapy, with which liberation psychology partially overlaps, however, they are impelled to impose an identity-driven narrative on all Palestinians. As Sally Satel writes, ‘Instead of treating each client as a unique individual and working collaboratively, the social-justice therapist reduces them to avatars of gender, race and ethnicity.’ For the Sheehis instead there is continuing tension between individuation and political generalisation.

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