Psychedelic Community Divided Over Upcoming Conference in Israel

April 15, 2024

At a psychedelics conference in Tel Aviv, Israel, this July, attendees are due to hear talks on topics including “Psychedelics, War and Conflict.” Guests at Psychedelic Medicine Israel are invited to “join us in expanding consciousness in the Middle East.”

Originally slated for December 2023, the conference was delayed after the Hamas-led attacks of October 7 killed over 1,100 people in southern Israel. Since then, Israel’s ongoing invasion of Gaza has killed more than 33,000 Palestinians, in what observers widely describe as genocide—a charge denied by Israel, but considered “plausible” by the International Court of Justice.

Fears of a much wider war continue to rise after Iran launched its first ever direct strikes against Israel on April 13, following many previous hostilities, including Israel’s April 1 bombing of Iran’s embassy in Syria.

The conflict has ignited political divisions around the world, and the psychedelic community is no exception. Consternation over the rescheduled Tel Aviv event, organized by the nonprofit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) Israel, has led several planned speakers to quietly cancel, and many who would have attended have decided against it.

“There might be a soft boycott,” Dr. Leor Roseman, a neuroscientist at the University of Exeter, who will give a keynote on ayahuasca as a peacebuilding tool at the conference, told Filter.

Roseman, a conference committee member, said that in the absence of public statements, “It’s hard to know whether those who will not attend really believe in boycotting, or whether they’re part of circles where there is pressure to boycott.”

Filter understands that the Chacruna Institute for Psychedelic Plant Medicines, a leading psychedelics organization based in California, has pulled out of the event, along with several academics.

“A conference about healing trauma in the middle of a hurricane of trauma is a good thing.”

Still, prominent figures are due to attend the region’s only psychedelics conference. They include United States-based MAPS founder Dr. Rick Doblin, a longtime advocate of psychedelic therapy in the context of Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“A conference about healing trauma in the middle of a hurricane of trauma is a good thing, and canceling it would not be helpful for promoting better treatment of Palestinians,” Doblin told Filter. MAPS Israel, an organization independent of MAPS, has been “extremely left-wing” in its approach to the situation, he added, and has conducted outreach to Palestinian therapists, some of whom were then trained in psychedelic-assisted therapy.

“I have spoken to people in Gaza and the West Bank,” Doblin said, though without yet finding high-level interest in involvement in psychedelic research. “I’m trying to talk about healing trauma on all sides.”

In a statement after October 7, MAPS said that while it recognized “psychedelic healing alone will not eradicate conflict and suffering in our world,” it hoped to do its part by focusing on treating trauma while broadly supporting healing and peace. “We facilitate the education of Palestinian and Israeli MDMA therapists, among therapists across the Middle East, and sponsor psychedelic research for individual and group trauma healing, conflict resolution, peacebuilding, and intergenerational healing,” it said.

The centerpiece of those efforts is a potentially groundbreaking new study which would use MDMA-assisted psychotherapy to treat 400 Israeli survivors of October 7, including soldiers, civilians and released hostages. It could begin in the fall, subject to official approvals.

This research has raised the hopes of advocates who believe that individual and group use of psychedelics like MDMA, known as the “love drug,” can help transform the world for the better. An early version of a website established to fundraise for the MDMA study, which MAPS Israel did not draft, envisaged “a collective celebration of creating peace in the Middle East.”

“I could not feel good about mingling with colleagues at a 4-star hotel while less than an hour away, children are having bombs rained on them.”

Many don’t think anything should be celebrated in Israel at present. Waleed Zaiter, a Lebanese multidisciplinary artist and member of the Bay Area psychedelic community, said large-scale reconciliation cannot occur until Palestinians are granted the right of return and “given their land back.”

“It’s not about an interpersonal relationship between Palestinian and Israeli communities that gets smoothed over by having their minds expanded by psychedelic drugs,” he told Filter. “It’s about returning land that was stolen. There’s simply no one on earth that gets to have an ethno-state.”

Sami Awad, a Palestinian peace activist and psychedelic therapy advocate who has organized ayahuasca retreats with Roseman, has called on Israelis to denounce the state, while noting that the majority of Palestians do not support Hamas.

“Witnessing the genocide taking place I say it is time now for Jews in the land and around the world to say that as proud Jews they no longer support Israel,” he wrote on social media in December. Awad did not respond to Filter’s request for comment on the Tel Aviv conference and whether he would attend.

Dr. Monnica Williams, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Ottawa, was part of the conference organizing committee and planned to speak, but dropped out.

“I still support the important work they are doing,” she told Filter, “but my emphasis is on racial justice for marginalized groups and that doesn’t seem to be a popular message in Israel right now.”

Williams, who is Canada’s research chair for mental health disparities, has decided to boycott the event, “since I feel that is all I can do right now as an advocate for peace. I could not feel good about mingling with colleagues over drinks at a 4-star hotel while less than an hour away, children are having bombs rained on them. I would not want anyone to think I support that, either.”

“The psychedelics movement caters to a mobile global elite that can tend to overlook land expropriation and focus on individualized healing rather than wider societal change.”

In January, geographer Diana Negrin, a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, pulled a paper on land rights and psychedelics from MAPS’ academic bulletin over concerns she might be seen to support the Tel Aviv conference. It was later published by Chacruna.

“The psychedelics movement continually caters to a highly mobile global elite that can tend to overlook land expropriation and focus on individualized healing rather than wider societal change,” Dr. Negrin told Filter. “We must attend to the roots of trauma so that people do not simply return from psychedelic journeys to oppressive, supremacist societies.”

Others in the psychedelic space see certain initiatives as underlining health care disparities between Israelis and Palestinians. Some identify sentiments within the community that they consider overlook Palestinian suffering.

“I feel that some people seem to show a lot of compassion for the Israeli hostages but comparatively little for what is happening in Gaza,” one figure in the international psychedelic community, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Filter. “Promoting a conference in Tel Aviv without a clear standing on the current genocide, or treating victims of October 7 with MDMA without addressing structural sources of oppression in the region, is a recipe for greater trauma for everyone.”

Roseman said that the absence of a statement outlining Psychedelic Medicine Israel’s stance on Gaza reflected a necessary balancing act.

“A statement, which is important for internationals, might risk the attendance of local people,” he told Filter. “The solution to have a track about war trauma makes sense. Reconciliation and conflict resolution are valid solutions, but Palestinian groups are enforcing a boycott mentality even of Israeli supporters of Palestinian liberation.”

Others maintain that initiatives like the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement are important means to help compel Israel to end its decades-long occupation of Palestinian territories.

Australian-German journalist Antony Loewenstein, author of books including The Palestine Laboratory and Pills, Powder and Smoke: Inside the Bloody War on Drugs, highlights that some backers of the Tel Aviv conference, like Israeli universities, have received Israeli government funding.

“This is a direct breach of the BDS movement, which aims to economically target Israel,” he told Filter of the event. “While it’s undeniably true that Israelis are traumatized after the horrific events of October 7 and the aftermath, it’s hard to imagine [an international psychedelics conference] in apartheid South Africa when the regime was brutally repressing the Black population.”

“Members of the psychedelic community need to honor the memory of those killed at the Supernova rave.”

“Most of us Jews in drug policy reform are dismayed and upset,” Ethan Nadelmann, the founder and former executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance in the US, told Filter. “Almost everybody in the movement is revolted by Netanyahu and his governing coalition.”

But while “Palestinians in the West Bank live under a system that meets the legal definition of apartheid, Arabs in Israel do not,” he said, citing equal voting rights that led to Arab parties joining the previous coalition government, and the presence of a Muslim on the Supreme Court. “People outside Israel also ignore or forget that Israel faces potentially existential threats not just from Hamas but from Iran and others dedicated to Israel’s destruction.”

Dr. Nadelmann said he hopes to attend the conference if his schedule permits. “Members of the psychedelic community need to honor the memory of those killed at the Supernova rave, and should consider doing so by going to the only country in the region that would host a conference about psychedelics,” he said. “Hopefully, many will even join the demonstrations against the Netanyahu government, if it’s still in power.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s position may be vulnerable, but Israel’s military retains relatively high levels of support at home, even as its actions provoke condemnation across the world.

The Tel Aviv conference could help plant ideas in Israeli society and “cultivate a psychedelic consciousness” that may change the way people engage with the conflict and “influence people who can make a difference from the inside out,” Madison Margolin, a journalist who co-founded psychedelics magazine DoubleBlind, told Filter.

“Friends of mine in the Israeli psychedelic space, including at MAPS Israel, don’t shy away from talking about Gaza,” continued Margolin, who divides her time between Israel and the US. “It’s not like people are afraid to confront it, and the horrors of the situation as a whole, while also holding space for the threats we face to our safety. What’s going on is unfathomable.”

“I agree with the courageous Israelis who see no end to the brutal occupation unless the rest of the world boycotts their country’s apartheid system.”

“I feel that it’s the worst thing I have seen in my whole life,” Dr. Gabor Maté, a Canadian trauma specialist and psychedelic therapy proponent, said in late October of the Israeli response to October 7. “I’ve never seen [atrocities] so publicly committed … perpetrated on television and the victims are presented as the perpetrators.”

The Tel Aviv conference remains “in itself worthy and organized by people I respect,” Maté told Filter, but he would never attend, out of solidarity with Palestinians. “Having visited Palestine and Israel, I agree with the courageous Israelis who see no end to the brutal occupation unless the rest of the world boycotts their country’s apartheid system.”

As Israel’s war in Gaza moves past the half-year mark and famine spreads in the occupied coastal strip, Tel Aviv is bracing for further conflict, its government weighing a response to Iran. Amid the horrors, advocates firmly believe in the potential for psychedelics to ultimately facilitate peace and healing. But they hold starkly contrasting views about how best to stand right now.



Photograph of Tel Aviv by Kai Pilger via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 4.0

Mattha Busby

Mattha is a freelance journalist and author who covers drug policy, health and life. He has interviewed the family of Mexican mushroom healer Maria Sabina, biohackers injecting stem cells into their bodies, politicians in the village that banned Coca-Cola, and people who spend time in prolonged darkness meditations. He is based in Vancouver, Canada.

Disqus Comments Loading...