Israel Isn’t a Leader in Psychedelic Healing — It’s an Apartheid State

72 years after the Nakba, the psychedelic community must stand up for human rights

Art by Nikolitsa Paranomos. Image description: Psychedelic blue and white background over the apartheid wall with Palestinian resistance art that reads, “to exist is to resist.”

Israel has recently been featured in the news, heralded as a leader for its investment in psychedelic clinical trials for MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Israel is the first national government to approve MDMA as part of a “Compassionate Use” program, which allows people to use clinically unproven treatments because their suffering is so severe and unresponsive to available medical interventions. The clinical trials enlist Israelis suffering from PTSD, including Israeli soldiers who have served in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Phase 2 clinical trials for MDMA show promise as a safe and effective treatment for PTSD.

Yet when we lean too heavily on the medical model to address mental health challenges, we often miss the root causes of a system of suffering. In this case, the PTSD is not individual pathology or sickness, rather it stems from the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestine.

Psychedelics are not and never will be politically neutral: They are rooted in indigenous practice, inextricably tied to colonialism and white supremacy. The use of psychedelics either support or upend the status quo, and the integrity of the psychedelic movement relies on human rights and equity to always be at the forefront of our work.

I agree that everyone deserves healing: PTSD is painful, no matter who experiences it or what the cause is. 18-year old Israelis must serve in the military or serve prison time — they are forced to carry out state violence and clearly the mental health toll is devastatingly high. But psychedelic healing must first and foremost be a tool to support the freedom of the oppressed — not a balm to soothe those who carry out oppression.

In a press release, a representative of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, one of the partners of the MDMA clinical trials, stated:

“A society is only as strong as how it cares for its most vulnerable communities. I am proud that Israel is leading the world in exploring new ways to support and treat people suffering from PTSD and psychiatric illnesses. The Compassionate Use program in Israel is an opportunity to help high-risk populations [emphasis mine], including IDF soldiers who have served their country, whose mental health needs are often overlooked and underserved […] over 10% of the Israeli population experiences PTSD, and this figure increases significantly in regions frequented by rocket attacks. Military service is compulsory, and most families in Israel have histories of trauma and persecution.”

The “vulnerable community” and “high-risk population” whose “mental health needs are often overlooked and underserved” with “histories of trauma and persecution” that is mysteriously absent from the press release, however, are Palestinians. Today is the 72nd anniversary of the Nakba (meaning “the catastrophe” in Arabic) commemorating the period of time when 750,000+ Palestinians were dispossessed from their homes to form the state of Israel, depopulating more than 450 villages. Now in 2020, Palestinians still fight daily for the rights guaranteed to them by international law.

Major human rights organizations are clear on the plight of the Palestinians: Israel subjects Palestinians to ongoing persecution that strips their right to personhood, freedom, health, and liberty. Gaza is the site of a major human rights crisis and has been called the “world’s largest prison” because Israel restricts travel in and out of the region, controlling and limiting the supply of food, water, electricity, and life-saving medical supplies. Israel severely restricts Palestinians’ freedom of movement and subjects them to unlawful killings, arbitrary arrests and detentions, land seizures and illegal settlements, abuse, checkpoints, torture, discrimination, and home demolitions. The refugee crisis has grown to millions of Palestinians — entire generations of families displaced from their homes. Israel enforces apartheid rule, with two very different systems for Jewish and non-Jewish people. I’ll note here that I’m a Jewish American who, like many of my Jewish peers, was raised to believe that Israel was a benevolent underdog.

If those of us invested in the work of psychedelics ignore the political realities around psychedelic healing, we can become an accomplice to human rights abuses, helping the violent status quo to strengthen and persist. This is another way that the medical model fails us: As long as systems of oppression are firmly in place, there is an endless stream of “patients” seeking medicine to manage something that is much bigger than any one individual. As Jiddu Krishnamurti said, “It’s no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

It’s also important to follow the money. Israel is deeply invested in becoming an entrepreneurial center of gravity with a booming start-up ecosystem that includes cannabis and psychedelic businesses. Psychedelic investment by the state of Israel is inextricably tied to its economic interests: An emerging wave of psychedelic Venture Capitalists and startups see a tremendous money-making opportunity in psychedelics (a story for another day) and of course Israel wants to be on the cutting edge. Note that Israel is also the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. foreign assistance since World War II, currently receiving about $3.8 billion every year ($38 billion over ten years) specifically in military funding. In this way, Israel profits from instigating military violence and it profits from healing the trauma of violence. They manufacture the illness and the cure.

It’s a compelling open question under what conditions could psychedelics help shift the minds and hearts of people who hoard resources, commit violence, or otherwise uphold oppression. But any project of that nature must be led by those most impacted by injustice, with a political framework that accurately portrays the political reality and power imbalance at play. And it must be accompanied by the understanding that the ultimate goal is to change the systemic conditions that cause suffering, not just to personally feel at peace amidst injustice.

This comes at a time when Palestinians call on the world to support their fight to hold Israel accountable to international human rights law. This is the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and it encompasses everything from musicians refusing to play concerts in Israel to universities divesting from companies that profit from the Israeli occupation. BDS is a form of non-violent protest notably used by South Africans fighting for freedom from apartheid. There is also a growing movement of allied Jewish people who speak out and Israeli teenage conscientious objectors who refuse to serve as soldiers and execute the occupation.

When individuals carry out oppression, everyone involved loses their humanity. I say this as a Jewish person who has seen Israel uphold the occupation in my name. It’s devastating to have your community face unspeakable, genocidal suffering only to turn around and become the violent oppressor. And as an American, I know that taxpayer money funds these catastrophic human rights violations. There aren’t enough psychedelics in the world to wash the blood off of our hands.

It would be powerful to see commitments from people across the psychedelic field that support the Palestinian people in their struggle for justice. It is vital that psychedelic research teams diversify by race, understand racial trauma, and expand their scope beyond the medical model to really capture the full magnitude of potential psychedelic impact on the global majority. We must always keep our eye on the systemic conditions that cause human suffering because psychedelics are not meant to heal us back into oppressive systems. We must apply our psychedelic journeys to birth better worlds. As psychedelics often teach us, our fates are intertwined: Palestinian liberation makes us all more free.

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A huge thank you to my creative collaborators Alex Bledsoe and Nikolitsa Paranomos for your support with this piece.

Abolition, psychedelics, mental health. Jewish anti-Zionist. Founder: www.psychedelicexploration.com ✨ Chief of Staff: www.vayaconsulting.com