The sound of silence

The fact that there aren't reported cases of trauma amongst soldiers who performed the pullout is troubling, says a grassroots investigative team.

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August 9, 2007 10:20

 
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Some people aren't taking the quiet of the soldiers so quietly. What psychologists praise as a successful mental preparation, some disengagement opponents and other psychologists are slamming as a successful mental "programming." A mixed religious and secular five-member team is spearheaded by Ruti Eisikowitch, a retired Hebrew teacher, and banded together right after the disengagement to discover the cause for what seemed to them untenable: the destruction of a vibrant Jewish community by Jewish soldiers with "following orders" as their ultimate justification. They didn't think any governmental or academic institution would critically assess the mental preparation, and they took the task upon themselves - with an admitted bias. Their work is supervised by senior educational psychologist Dr. Moshe Leibler, who has lectured about the role of psychologists in developing the mental preparation at the Sderot Conference for Society and at Judea and Samaria Research Conference. Members of the group casually dub the preparation "brainwashing," but refrain from using the term as a professional qualifier in their work. Eisikowitch is bothered by the relative silence on the part of the soldiers and the army regarding the IDF experience of the pullout. For Eisikowitch, the perceived lack of trauma is troubling. "They were robots, so there was no trauma. That's even worse." She and members of the team encountered many difficulties tracking down soldiers who were willing to open up. "Why the silence?" she asks. "I heard from my husband, sons and friends many stories of war. They weren't silent." The investigation team spent the last year gathering information and documents regarding the psychological training, and the matter engrosses Eisikowitch daily. Upon meeting her at home near Ra'anana, her living room cocktail table was covered with a number of workbooks, presentations and CDs the army prepared about a year ahead of the disengagement. She flipped through workbook after workbook, demonstrating how the army fielded any possible hesitations among the soldiers to make sure they complied. "War, which is supposed to be much more traumatic and difficult, doesn't have psychological training, definitely not to this extent and it definitely doesn't have pamphlets and lectures," she said, her anger visible. The psychological training, she argues, was required to invert the natural mission of IDF and goad soldiers to perform a task some of them considered militarily and morally unsavory. "The psychologists didn't prepare the IDF for an army mission - to protect its civilians," she charges, "but turned the soldiers into a non-thinking police force that harmed its own civilian population." The team directs most of its criticism and anger toward the disengagement psychologists, and Leibler argues they violated their ethical code, which states that psychologists must work for the emotional and mental welfare of their clients. "Psychologists, like doctors, have a particular ethical code they have to abide by," he says. "I think there's more of an obligation on us as mental health workers than the soldiers. They're subject to a different ethical code. As far as I know, psychologists are not permitted to cause harm to a civilian population." About half a year prior to disengagement, Leibler worked to raise his ethical and professional concerns, and he corresponded extensively from his Kochav Hashahar home with the chairwoman of Israel Psychology Association (IPA), Yael Shoshani, after she wrote in an IPA newsletter of the importance of the IPA's role in the implementation of the disengagement. "She understood my qualms about it. It was taken for granted this was the right way of doing things," says Leibler. The investigation team is planning to launch a complaint against the disengagement psychologists with the Israel Ministry of Health and to submit a report to the Winograd Commission arguing that the military effectiveness of the IDF during the Lebanon war was damaged by the disengagement training. HAIM OMER, co-author of Psychology of Demonization, who trained the army to minimize violence throughout the disengagement, dismisses the assault on the psychologists' participation in the mental training as a value judgment based on a political position. "They say, 'We find that this is evil and helping soldiers to do evil necessarily hurts them,'" he says. "The argument is political. According to this argument, you can't make any psychological preparation for warfare. If I try to help soldiers prepare for war, I violate the psychological code according to this argument." Omer says he has publicly critiqued as irrelevant the argument that service in the West Bank and Gaza can be psychologically damaging to soldiers. The job of a psychologist is not necessarily to prevent trauma, he says, but to assist people in coping with trauma or suffering that can arise from natural disasters or legislated measures. "Psychologists, to my mind, have absolutely no monopoly or advantage over other professionals or other people in dealing with human suffering as such," Omer says. "Psychologists cannot prevent suffering from war, from famine, from forced migration or from evacuation. At best, what they can do is to serve people who ask for their help in trying to cope better with their suffering." Dr. Danny Brom, director of the Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma, doesn't think psychologists can be held accountable for any of the trauma and difficulties evacuees might have experienced. "We did some work before the disengagement, and it was a very big problem to be accepted by the [settler] community," he says. "If you came and said a few months prior that it was going to happen, it was not really acceptable. And there were even politicians who said it won't happen, and everyone was waiting for the miracle to happen and things like that, so the preparation on the political side as well was not good. The army did take responsibility for its soldiers, but the state didn't take responsibility to give a clear message that this is going to happen and how it's going to happen." For Leibler, psychologists recruited by the army had the professional and ethical imperative to at least raise the ethical issues involved in the forceful evacuation of a civilian population. But instead the psychologists took for granted that their participation in what they perceived as a fait accompli was desirable and ethical to minimize any possible damage. "The psychologists didn't ask: Is it ethical to carry out an intervention that can cause harm to a civilian population? Harm is caused in war, and psychologists give counseling to the army. In the case of the settlers, is this war? What are the relevant ethical issues, and why were they not seriously debated? Not to consider it as an ethical issue because it's a law reeks of fascism. That says that legislation defines ethics and that ethics doesn't necessarily define legislation." Brom thinks that psychologists from all sides of the political spectrum cannot necessarily divorce their professional practice from their political opinions. "I think we're way beyond the idea that psychology is value free," he said. "Once there were opinions that psychologists have to be a blank screen and things like that. In these situations it's clearly not possible and not realistic for psychologists to say I have no political opinion."

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