The Past and the Present in International Conflicts and Individual Psychotherapy


Can the foundations of psychotherapy provide insight into today's conflict?

Cienpies Design/Adobestock

Cienpies Design/Adobestock


In psychiatry, generally speaking, there are 2 major kinds of psychotherapy. One is the version begun by Freud, which is some sort of in-depth psychodynamic psychotherapy that includes processing the crucial influence of a patient’s past development and conflicts. The other, slightly newer kind is more focused on the present, as best exemplified by cognitive behavioral psychotherapy (CBT), in which erroneous thinking is more positively reframed. There are also versions of that lie in between, like short-term brief psychotherapy, in which the past is kept in mind, but time constraints generally allows for a focus on the present. Deciding what kind of therapy to choose often results from the clinician’s expertise and the nature of the patient’s problems, although psychodynamic therapy is often thought to be more complete in its effects. Although these psychotherapies are most often individual, the same principles can apply to family and group interventions.

In terms of the Israeli and Palestinian conflicts, since the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, there has been debate about whether to focus exclusively on the present problems. The other point of view is whether the 2 sides can move forward together without reckoning with the past, akin to the psychodynamic process. The proposed solutions to the conflict are numerous, but the obstacles have persisted—and perhaps even worsened over the new millennium.1

I wonder now, given the lack of progress over time that has culminated in what Israel calls a “war,” whether the past needs to be processed further and, if so, how to do so. This consideration includes an assumption that what helps individuals can also be adapted to psychologically help countries.

If the past is examined, it seems that it may have to go all the way back to a creation story and the influence of the founding family members. The 3 so-called Western regions—Judaism, then Christianity, and then Islam in their order of connected development—seem to have much in common, including a monotheistic belief in a God. The story starts with Adam and Eve. Much later, after their expulsion from a Garden of Eden, Abraham is called by God to form a new nation, and over time comes to be viewed as the father of all the ensuing Abrahamic Western religions. That suggests a time of more human unity, which in history may resonant with humans coming out of Africa, traveling, and expanding world-wide.

So far, so good in the story. Actually, maybe such a story is best viewed as a warning parable about what not to do, as so many of the Biblical personal and family interactions seem to be. But first in the Jewish Old Testament (Torah), the major family conflicts that we psychotherapists find in our practices start in Abraham’s family and children. When Abraham’s wife Sarah cannot conceive a child, she and Abraham decide—with God’s involvement—to have a child via their servant Hagar. At the time, that looks to continue the family lineage and produces Ishmael. Years later, Sarah is able to have a child of her own with Abraham, namely, Isaac. Sarah then puts some blame on Ishmael and gets him and Hagar expelled. In the wilderness, God helps them and promises that Ishmael will lead another people, often thought to be Arabs.

Could a family conflict and division be the narrative paradigm of the Jewish-Islamic and Israel-Palestinian relationships over the centuries? We know how volatile and long-lasting family conflicts can be, so do we still have a challenge to find more peace about this story? Perhaps it is obvious that the Palestinian desire for “right of return” has a narrative connection to the Biblical story. As fanciful as it may seem, is there an apology—or apologies—needed, along with some mutual forgiveness, not only for that story ending, but many more unnecessary relationship relapses and exacerbations in order to move more successfully toward peace and mutual cooperation?

Dr Moffic (he/him/his) is an award-winning psychiatrist who specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry, and is now in retirement and retirement as a private pro bono community psychiatrist. A prolific writer and speaker, he has done a weekday column titled “Psychiatric Views on the Daily News” and a weekly video, “Psychiatry & Society,” since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. He was chosen to receive the 2024 Abraham Halpern Humanitarian Award from the American Association for Social Psychiatry. Previously, he received the Administrative Award in 2016 from the American Psychiatric Association, the one-time designation of being a Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Speaker of the Assembly of the APA in 2002, and the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill in 1991. He is an advocate and activist for mental health issues related to climate instability, physician burnout, and xenophobia. He is now editing the final book in a 4-volume series on religions and psychiatry for Springer: Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, Christianity, and now The Eastern Religions, and Spirituality. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times.


1. Bar-Simon-Tov Y (ed). Barriers to Peace in the Israel-Palestinian Conflict. The Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies; 2010.

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