The alternative awareness I experienced when I first drank ayahuasca was paradigm shifting. I am confident in this brew’s potential for revealing to the drinker things about herself, her culture and community, and her cosmos that not only elicit the deepest of wonder, but may serve as keys for all kinds of transformation and healing.

When “shamanistic” Amazonian practices are extracted and transposed into a different context, the experience becomes clothed in familiar garb taken from one’s own language, social practices, and cultural and political discourses. In the Israeli context, Dr. Leor Roseman (a postdoc at the Centre for Psychedelic Research, Imperial College London), Natalie Lyla Ginsberg (Director of Policy and Advocacy for the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies), and Dr. Robin Cahart-Harris (current head of the Centre for Psychedelic Research, Imperial College London) conducted collaborative research between the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) and the Centre for Psychedelic Research (CPR), “to understand if and how psychedelics could play a role in moving towards a more peaceful and equitable society for Palestinians and Israelis.” Participants in this study stated “that they were drinking [ayahuasca] for personal and psychospiritual reasons, not with political or peace-oriented intentions,” and all participants were experienced drinkers.

The following response is based on Ginsberg’s article published in 2019 in The MAPS Bulletin, entitled, “Can Psychedelics Play a Role in Making Peace and Healing Cycles of Trauma? Early Reflections on Interviews with Palestinians and Israelis Drinking Ayahuasca Together,” in addition to Dr. Roseman’s presentation at Breaking Convention 2019 in London.

Two caveats: First, it is not my intention to delegitimize the psychedelic experiences of Palestinian or Israeli participants. Second, it is not my objective to question the intentions of anyone involved. I am critical of the methodological approaches of this study that are ahistorical, as they deflect discussion from the physical and material realities of the occupation to superficial psycho-spiritual narratives of self-redemption (and self-blame). This deflection mobilizes—from a place of power and privilege—unfledged New Age frameworks to discuss complex altered states of consciousness. The methodological shortcomings result in-part from the researchers’ lack of engagement with discussions in cultural, political, post-colonial, and religious studies, and partially from their disregard of studies that focus on the conflict itself, which could further nuance the discussion and evidence even more problems with this study.

Ginsberg’s article begins by evoking indigenous mobilization of ayahuasca to resolve conflicts: “For example, in Colombia, councils of indigenous communities are joining together to hold yagé (ayahuasca) ceremonies to bring together those fighting on opposing sides of the civil war.” Evoking indigeneity in the conversation of the Palestine-Israel conflict approximates the occupation to a civil war, implying an ontological symmetry in self-determination in relation to land. As widely recognized, indigeneity has become a signifier that is imbued with meanings derived from different political narratives and aims. Biblical autochthonous indigeneity has been mobilized for the Zionist movement, whereas currents of Palestinian resistance use indigeneity to call out Israel as a settler-colonial state.

These discourses of indigeneity were ignored by the conductors of this study, who nonetheless admit, “Present throughout our brainstorming and conversations was the foregrounding that this conflict, like most, is in fact asymmetrical, and the power differential between Israelis and Palestinians is vast.” However, this vast disparity was not taken into account in the design and the objectives of this empirical study, nor does it play a part in the assessment of the conclusions presented thus far. But as Claire Timperley shows, “Defining indigeneity has at least two important consequences: (a) it affects who has access to resources or rights reserved for Indigenous peoples; and (b) it shapes the kinds of privileges and resources available to Indigenous peoples.” The researchers perpetuate a vague notion of indigeneity that dilutes the issue in a way that seeks to dissolve the political and material realities of marginalized and oppressed peoples.

 

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By failing to factor in these considerations, the researchers ignore Palestinian positions of political subordination. The participants’ very Palestinianhood is sanitized by the imposition of a nebulous hyper-humanist and universalist discourse.

One Palestinian man cited in the article explained:

“My activism has changed tremendously…a big part of what I realized was how much this activism, and even non-violent activism, was motivated by hatred towards the other. And my activism as non-violence meant that I would expose them and I would amplify how terrible they are. So it was more of a demonizing non-violence motivated by hatred, not by love and compassion.”

Another Palestinian man is cited saying: “Focus on yourself, and make inner peace with yourself first, the peace starts within us. Each one will make the peace within himself. That is peace.”

At work here, by the authors of the study, is the narrative of the “good” Palestinian; one who defers responsibility for the violence inflicted against them onto themselves. One Palestinian woman described experiencing “moments of love and open-heartedness…there is no ‘you are Jewish, Arab, Muslim, Christian.’ Everything was stripped, all this nonsense was out, and only acceptance and love were present.” This fits well with the statement by another Palestinian man: “I cannot go to a checkpoint and be like, ‘I’m a human being let me go through I’m a spiritual light being you know?’” The material realities and torments of maneuvering apartheid—and thus fighting against injustice—are neutralized in the seclusion of a retreat and spiritual siblinghood.

According to the public articulation of the study, the psychedelic experience suggests an expectation from Palestinians to “strip their identity” and surrender their anger by “retreating from the divided political reality.” According to Dr. Roseman’s presentation, the outcomes include “Reduction or Transformation of activism” and the “erasure of the definition of political identity.” The transformation expected of the Palestinian thus becomes a radical reconfiguration of trauma and religious identity with its connections to land. The Muslim ought to become less Muslim or a different type of Muslim, which I will discuss more below. This is noticeably contrasted with statements by Israeli participants, one who recalls: “All become more believing, but somehow less fundamentalists. In a sense I am much deeper in Judaism than I was.”

An Israeli soldier who realized the terror he inflicted on a Palestinian family during a house arrest—and the hatred that filled his heart—still sees in the anger and pain of the family, “three generation of terrorists who will surely hate me.” Despite appearing terrible to his own internal eyes, he was unable to understand their anger and hatred at an IDF soldier who, in his own words, had “shattered” an entire family. If the Palestinians don’t “focus on themselves” and expunge their hearts of hatred, then he becomes the victim and they the terrorists.

In Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Hate, Michael Taussig writes, “By and large anthropology has bound the concept of ritual hand and foot to the imagery of order, to such an extent that order is identified with the Sacred itself.” Here, Taussig is critiquing Falk Moore and Barbara Myerhoff’s conviction that, “collective ritual can be seen as an especially dramatic attempt to bring some particular part of life firmly and definitely into orderly control” (p. 442). In the case of the MAPS/CPR study, the order is set up according to appropriative models that have become characteristic of European and American “shamanized” “neutral” settings (such as retreats). Moreover, the demographic of Palestinian participants is limited mostly to those with access to and familiarity with these models and their jargon.

The majority of the interviews were conducted in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. The researchers interviewed 18 Jewish Israelis and 13 Palestinians about their experiences. Of the 13 Palestinian participants, six were Muslim and seven were Christian. Nine Palestinians interviewed live in Israel with Israeli citizenship, while four Palestinians live in Palestine (West Bank) and do not have Israeli citizenship. Ginsberg admits that, “though less than 2% of Palestinians are Christian, Christian Palestinians are overrepresented in our interviews, possibly because of their relative privilege and access compared to Muslim Palestinians.”

There are a number of problems here that should be immediately evident. 2.16 million Palestinians live in the West Bank, 1.84 million live in Israel, and 1.79 million live in Gaza (total: 5.79 million, 2017). The Palestinians over-represented in this study reflect the privileged few with access not only to ayahuasca, but the terminology (“tribes,” “Pachamama”) associated with these psychedelic experiences through media and literature. This is the language of West-centric spiritual currents that have appropriated “shamanism” as a way to manifest the memories, images, signs, aspirations, and anxieties largely associated with the culture of classes with better access to capital, which facilitates participation in or exposure to these rituals and terms. Furthermore, no background is provided for the Palestinian subjects. Based on the article and presentation, the profile of most Palestinians in the study is what would be perceived as the compliant and “westernized” Arab: a colonialist-orientalist construct—as Edward Said emphasized—that seeks to “gaslight” the subject’s experience of personal and generational traumas by positing “western” values as desirable instruments of “freedom” (pp. 307-8).

It’s disappointing that scientists, including Dr. Robin Cahart-Harris—whom I admire and respect—relaxed their strict empirical criteria for an obviously faulty study. Dr. Cahart-Harris has been leading the pursuit towards understanding the relationships between neurological and chemical activities and “set and setting.” He proposes that the pro-plasticity effects of serotonin and the agonism of the 5-HT2A receptor, “renders the psychedelic experience exceptionally sensitive to context,” adding that, “insufficient appreciation of this principle may lead to risky and potentially harmful applications of psychedelics—which could jeopardise the healthy progress of psychedelic research—as well as the mental health of anyone who misuses these drugs.” The context here is the clinic, which is the only setting Dr. Cahart-Harris is qualified to discuss in a scientific paper, but the responsibility surely extends beyond the clinic.

Another large part of the problem with the MAPS/CPR study is its New Age interpretative framework. The languages, practices, and discourse are West-centric or aspirationally Western. The language of the retreats is that of “New Age Shamanism,” “inner-spirituality,” and “ideas of universalism,” according to Dr. Roseman. As Glenn Shepard Jr. explains, “Growing numbers of Westerners seek out ayahuasca and various shamanic traditions in search of spiritual insight, healing, or exotic experiences. This phenomenon has generated demand for ‘shamanic tourism,’ and sets local religious or therapeutic practices in a strange new relationship with global markets and European esoteric traditions” (p. 34). As noted earlier, this is the model the study is based on.

The first case mentioned—but not cited—by Dr. Roseman in his presentation is that of a Palestinian man who converted from “a nationalist atheist” to a “pacifist Muslim.” This plays directly into the imperialist, colonialist, and orientalist interpretation that the only good Muslim is an apolitical one; and in the realm of mysticism, this is usually ambiguously associated with the image of the Sufi, according to orientalist imagination. However, as Azmi Bishara explains, “so-called political Islam…is the result of a reality where religion and politics are two distinct entities,” a distinction widely understood to be an ahistorical fallacy.

We can also add to Bishara’s analysis that this is also the reality where religion and science are seen as distinct. As a scientist, Dr. Roseman reiterated this trope when he considered as one of the themes, “the contradiction that might exist between mysticism and activism.” That is, positing an inherent conflict between religion and politics. Any competent historian or scholar of religious studies can easily challenge this by drawing on a number of historical examples. Therefore, to use it as an entry point for a misconstrued ahistorical notion of universalism—suggesting that psychedelics can play a role in resolving conflicts—is dangerous whitewashing. An Israeli woman recalls:

“[At] almost every retreat, there is a moment in which [a small group of Palestinians] are comfortable enough to sing in Arabic. This is always an amazing moment…suddenly you hear your most hated language, by far, maybe the only language in the world that you really didn’t like, and suddenly it sends you to light and love.”

Is it significant that the Arabic language can sound appealing in the isolated context of a retreat? It is not my place to judge this on behalf of the speaker. However, the narrative woven within such a statement shows a change of attitude from hatred, to both “exoticizing” and “esotericizing” the Arabic language, while almost becoming detached from its speakers; diluting the political reality in a brew of naive universalism and the rhetoric of self-care and self-service.

The reality of this situation was spelled out by Dr. Brian Pace, “There have long been vague implications that wider psychedelic use will somehow inspire progressive values, universal siblinghood, and an ecotopia of overlong, platonic hugs. Psychedelics are chemicals carrying a lot of cultural baggage…In any case, evidence mounts indicating that the full spectrum of right-wing ideology, from outright Nazism to conservative-leaning centrism, is demonstrably hospitable to psychedelics–not uniquely endangered by them.”

As Israel prepares to annex settlements in the West Bank and the Jordan Valley—with US support—what is the expected role of psychedelics in resolving the Palestine-Israel conflict? Is the objective to streamline ayahuasca to Gazans to “retreat” mentally and spiritually from their painful reality? Or run ceremonies for people in Tulkarm? Christian Angermayer (founder of the for-profit psychedelic pharmaceutical company, ATAI Life Sciences) has committed £200,000 to fully fund the next two years of MAPS’ Israel/Palestine conflict resolution study. It is worth noting that Angermayer also serves as an advisor to Rwandan dictator Paul Kagame, whose regime has committed numerous human rights abuses. What outcomes should we expect from “conflict resolution” studies that are funded by advisers to such regimes, especially when they fail to meaningfully engage with sociopolitical realities?

Perhaps more progress could be made by challenging these researchers’ problematic narratives that are woven with Palestinian voices yet exclude Palestinian agency from the premise and method of the study. This framing absolves the beneficiaries of a power structure that secures their privilege and subordinates Palestinians inside and outside of Israel. By dumbing down a crucial conversation and distracting from the real work of justice, I suggest—on the basis of my analysis—that this trial risks functioning as an exercise in psychedelic lobotomy.

 

References

Rifkin, M. (2017). Indigeneity, Apartheid, Palestine: On the Transit of Political Metaphors. Cultural Critique, 95, 25-70.

Said, E. (1978). Orientalism. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.

Shepard, G., Jr. (2014). Will the real shaman please stand up?: The recent adoption of ayahuasca among indigenous groups of the Peruvian Amazon. In B.C. Labate & C. Cavnar, Ayahuasca Shamanism in the Amazon and Beyond, (pp. 16-39). Oxford: Oxford University Press

Taussig, Michael. (1987). Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Timperley, C. (2020). Constellations of indigeneity: The Power of Definition. Contemporary Political Theory, 19, 38–60

 

Editor’s note: This story initially referred to the collaborative research conducted by the CPR/MAPS team as an “experiment.” To avoid confusion about the observational nature of this research, those instances have been changed to “study.”

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