Wednesday morning offered a panel on something I had always been curious about: a series of Group Relations Conferences (GRC’s) from in 90s that brought together Germans and Israeli Jews around issues of the Holocaust. The panel’s title was suggestive not just of the fraught emotional territory but also of its implications for the themes of GRC’s in general: “From ‘Authority and Leadership’ to ‘Identities and Cultures in Violent Conflict’”.
The headline of the session could perhaps be summarized: In the shadow of the Shoah, everything is different, even the typical GRC. In fact, one need not go any further than the traditional emphasis on leadership to see the problem: leader, in German, is Führer. Yet at the same time, profound work that goes deep into the darkness can teach us things that nothing else can. The detailed story told by Mira Erlich-Ginor and Shmuel Erlich made for compelling listening and is worth digging in to.
Shmuel began by telling of his first GRC, which he attended while training as an analyst at Austin Riggs. He chose his words carefully and expressed an experience that many of us can relate to:
“I came out [of my first GRC] totally bewildered, but with the strong feeling that I might finally know what a group is.”
Decades later, well into his career as the Freud Professor at Hebrew University, he started working on the idea of a GRC for Germans and Israeli Jews. He, Mira Erlich-Ginor, and their OFEK colleagues turned to Eric Miller for help. Together, they landed on a design that would recognize the two populations, combining them for some events (e.g., the small study groups) and separating them for others (e.g., reflection and application groups). The systems event would begin with the two populations separated for the event’s opening plenary, and then open the event from there. In a concession to their anxiety about the terrain where they were working, there would be no large study group.
The primary task of the conference was to “provide opportunities for participants to explore how feelings and fantasies about German-ness and Jewishness influence relations within and between the two groups.”
The conference faced familiar challenges when it came to recruiting (though perhaps for different reasons), and the membership ended up consisting of 33 Germans and 13 Israeli Jews. As if scripted by history itself, the opening plenary began with a German expressing disappointment at the comparatively few number of Israeli Jews, to which an Israeli Jew answered that if the Germans hadn’t killed so many, there would be more.
In general, Erlich and Erlich-Ginor described how the Germans felt the weight of their historical burden and the Israeli Jews played freely with their victim card. But therein lies one of the great learnings of any GRC: the deeper burden is not which role you’re cast in, but rather being stuck in a single role in the first place. In this way, Jews and Germans could engage in the work of dislodging themselves from their stuck-ness together, and this led Shmuel to express their key hypothesis: “This kind of work can best be done with the other… If two groups are in conflict, then the presence of both can make them partners in the same work, without [the pressure of] reconciliation, forgiveness, or self-betrayal.”
This last insight seemed incredibly powerful to me. Two groups can be far from reconciliation or mutual recognition, yet still be partners in shared work, if that work itself is getting themselves unstuck from from being locked into one role or another, and thereby realizing hidden parts of their own selfhood. Shmuel emphasized that the actual presence of the other in these cases is critical. If the other is only present as a fantasy, then this is something that cannot be worked.
(Digression: This made me think of a challenge laid down by Slavoj Zizek, regarding the refugee crisis in Europe. It’s certainly not the role to nationalists to protect some mythical national character from dark-skinned onslaught, he opined, but neither is it up to liberals to insist on limitless openness (in other words, to face the conundrum of liberalism: does tolerance mean tolerating intolerance). Rather, it’s up to the Hungarian villager or unemployed Greek factory worker to find shared work to do with the Syrian refugee or displaced Somali. In Zizek’s mind, this shared work is around the discovery of humane alternatives to a pernicious globalized economy that has screwed both European farmers and workers, and the global South alike. In the GRC, the shared work may be different, but the theme remains.)
Mira followed Shmuel, describing how the conferences continued and evolved: after the first two in Israel, the next one was in Germany, and later ones in Cyprus. They expanded the focus to include Palestinians and eventually founded an organization—Partners in Confronting Collective Atrocities (PCCA, www.p-cca.org) and published a book, Fed by Tears. Poisoned by Milk. Bishop Desmond Tutu writes a Forward to Fed by Tears… that offers a powerful endorsement of their work (available online, here). Their next conference—“Exclusion, Resentment and the Return of the Repressed: Europe in a Globalized World”—will be held in the Netherlands.
They concluded by insisting that theirs was only an apparent move away from leadership and authority. Shmuel described it as more of a figure-and-ground issue: leadership and authority were present, even as the task focused less on understanding groups and organizations, and more on feelings, fantasies and conflicts about identities and relationships. In this way, his insights may offer learnings for other projects that confront historical wounds and trauma, such as the “Matter of Black Lives” GRC, held last year and sponsored by Group Relations International.