Let us honor Eyad El-Sarraj, MD's vision together.
PSYCHIATRIC VIEWS ON THE DAILY NEWS
“If I diminish you, I diminish myself.” - Reverend Desmond M. Tutu
Since we began to do eulogies of psychiatrists about a decade ago, they have always been about those who recently passed away. I sometimes regretted missing some of those who had come before this initiation, and wondered if it would be possible to cover some of those missed.
Today, we do make an exception due to its relevance to the current Middle East war and my intent to cover Jewish and Muslim psychiatrists who are working—or had worked—together as colleagues or cross-culturally with patients, as exemplified in our last column on Tuesday.
Hearing of my project, a Jewish colleague sent me information and an obituary on the Palestinian psychiatrist Eyad El-Sarraj, who died in December 2013 at the age of 70. What grabbed my attention was the beginning of an old New York Times article from December 18, 2013, titled: “Eyad El-Sarraj, Psychiatrist Who Fought for Palestinians’ Rights, Dies at 70.”1 Specifically, it was this statement in the first paragraph:
“. . . an internationally recognized human rights advocate, criticizing both the Israeli and Palestinian authorities . . .”
Note that he was not criticizing the individuals or the helpers, but the “authorities.” As a political independent, Dr Sarraj emphasized nonviolence and democracy.
As a child and adolescent psychiatrist, he was particularly concerned about the trauma that children experienced and was almost prophetic in his concerns. Starting in the late 1980s, he focused on the traumatic effects of the Israeli and Palestine conflict on their mutual children. He did so again in 2009, when he imagined the grim future for many of these children of the times. That future is now, and we now see what happens to children and leaders raised under hate and conflict, reinforced with the intergenerational transmission of trauma. But we know there is still also a potential for change and posttraumatic growth.
Dr El-Sarraj was born in Beersheba, studied medicine in Egypt, and psychiatry in London, where he married an English woman. Later, he founded the Gaza Community Mental Health Program to help “victims of organized violence and torture.” The Gaza Mental Health Foundation still exists, “Healing the Spirit and Instilling Hope.”
Given his prior perspective, it seems likely that were he alive now, that he would again constructively criticize both the Palestinian and Israeli authorities, perhaps especially when hospitals become a center of the violence. Since he is not, let us honor his vision together: Jewish, Muslim, and other psychiatrists for interfaith peace and healing. Like any Campbell heroic journey, obstacles and challenges will occur along the way, but that is just what we help our patients process and accomplish. Now we must also help the pubic and ourselves as well. Those that can cross party lines like Dr El-Sarraj are essential for such success.
I wrote this as I was watching the March for Israel on Wednesday. My vote for the worst that I heard: that a delegation of 900 people from Detroit were turned away in protest by their bus drivers at Dulles airport after they arrived to go to the march. The best out of many, many candidates? The Muslim American woman from Pakistan, proclaiming solidarity with Israel and Jews.
Given this example and model, if you know of psychiatrists who have passed away and whose career had relevance for current societal issues like this one, please let us know.
1. Akram F, Kershner I. Eyad El-Sarraj, psychiatrist who fought for Palestinians’ rights, dies at 70. The New York Times. December 18, 2013. Accessed November 16, 2023. https://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/19/world/middleeast/eyad-el-sarraj-psychiatrist-who-fought-for-rights-of-palestinians-is-dead-at-70.html