- Israel’s Psychedelic Community and Jerusalem’s Protesters Join Forces - October 9, 2020
As COVID-19 destroys the rave scene, leaders of psychedelic peer-support initiatives came up with a way of utilizing their skills to assist activists protesting against a corrupt government. As described in the article, The Spiritual is Political, usually, these two populations don’t cooperate much. But, as Israelis hit the streets to take down the Netanyahu regime and police reacted violently, this seemed like the natural path to choose for those who usually spend their summers providing care for festival goers who have encountered an extra challenging trip.
Many Israelis feel that, since the outbreak of COVID-19, their reality has turned into a bad trip; protesting against the government’s handling of the country’s coronavirus crisis and charges of Netanyahu’s alleged corruption are the initial topics that encouraged protesters to leave their house amid a pandemic but, since then, many other topics of injustice—racial, legal, and economic—have been an integral part of the protests movement. I offer my accounts of this new phenomenon that is part of a greater movement from my personal perspective;
I’ve been walking up Agron Street in Jerusalem right after the sun sets every Saturday evening for the past two months, the time when the Sabbath is believed to leave the Earth and return on the following week. As I approach Paris Square, where the protests against the current political leadership are taking place, the volume gradually ramps up. Horns, drums, whistles, improvised brass orchestras, megaphones, people yelling and chanting, and even banging on pots and pans: every form of noise that people could come up with starts rising as my friends and I near the barriers that the police erected to limit the roaring crowd into a defined space.
In past years, summer was devoted, by many young Israelis, to music festivals; but this year, they’re banned, and we have bigger issues to attend to anyway. However, that gradual influx of individuals drawing closer and closer to the music and noise, eventually congregating in one space to celebrate life and freedom, feels somewhat familiar. While I muster up my freedom-fighter energy, I pass a small park right outside the area of the square, in which they will violently attack anyone who remains therein after 11 p.m. Right there, at the edge of the park, is the last component that makes this a festival to me: The Safe Space.
The Safe Space is an initiative formed by individuals to provide emotional care for protesters. Of course, alongside the sense of unity and rush of adrenaline we protesters get from exercising our democratic right to engage in civil disobedience, there are harsh consequences for those who take it upon themselves to stay after the “curfew” that law enforcement has set. Every week, 30,000 or more citizens come together and protest peacefully. After a certain time, most have left the scene, knowing that if they don’t, they will be violently evacuated. Some might sustain violence from law enforcement even before this, or get a general overwhelming feeling. For this, The Safe Space was formed.
The leaders of this initiative use the model that they know so well from holding space at music festivals and raves, which at times can feel celebratory and at times can turn into a very bad trip. In this case, however, it isn’t caused by using substances, but by fighting for democracy. These may sound like very different “drugs,” but once people need help, the same principles apply: creating a safe space for compassionate care; talking through, not down; sitting, not guiding; and knowing that “difficult” is not necessarily “bad.” Implementing these four guidelines, volunteers have been providing a safe space for activists to sit and process the sometimes-extreme circumstances that they encounter during the protests.
In Israel, the phenomenon of psychedelic peer support has been evolving over the past decade, amid a rich history of trance music culture.
In Israel, the phenomenon of psychedelic peer support has been evolving over the past decade, amid a rich history of trance music culture. The first group to operate in this context was Anashìm Tovìm (Hebrew for “good folks”), which formed within the framework of Elem, an organization assisting at-risk youth. At the annual Midburn Festival, a six-day-long official regional Burning Man event held since 2014, a Safe Zone existed from the first Midburn and gradually became more extensive and organized. In 2016, a group of therapists founded Hof Mivtachìm [Hebrew for “safe haven”] at DOOF, Israel’s largest trance festival. Two years later, they began facilitating weekend training sessions open to the public, enabling the formation of a pool of potential volunteers for festivals throughout the year and the country.
This group of safe space organizers were joined by leaders of The Healing Temple, a similar initiative at festivals, and experienced activists to form an adapted version of these safe spaces that could support protesters in a similar manner to the way that they have supported ravers. I spoke to some of these facilitators, leaders of the various grassroots initiatives who have come together to pool their knowledge in an effort to support this movement. Shaun Lacob, a harm reduction educator and co-founder of Anashim Tovim, shared some thoughts about this initiative:
We’re trying to provide this service for the long run in a more sustainable manner. We still don’t know if this will last a few weeks, months, or more. Our intention is also to build something that can be implemented anywhere and everywhere: a model.
What’s really special for me is that the psychedelic community is acting outwards and not putting their heads in the sand. We are aware and we want to be part of a greater movement, and not to ignore what’s happening around us.
When I asked how this differs for them from a rave or a festival, Lacob replied, What’s really special for me is that the psychedelic community is acting outwards and not putting their heads in the sand. We are aware and we want to be part of a greater movement, and not to ignore what’s happening around us.
What Lacob raises, about not focusing only on inner healing but daring to be political, is a connection that others in the core group see as well. Tani Rothman, a psychotherapy student and long-time activist, recounts a struggle in which she had a leading role a little over two years ago:
I want to remind myself and everyone around me that in every political struggle, people are the most precious resource.
I’ve been an activist for human rights since I was 16, but this was taking a toll on my mental health. I was drained, and signs of depression and secondary trauma were starting to show. Everyone around me was in the same state, and this cannot be sustainable to keep pushing and fighting without taking care of ourselves. It doesn’t mesh to work relentlessly toward a better world but have the people doing the work burn out on the way. I felt a calling to integrate the world of mental health, support, and community care into the world of activism. Not only did I not want others to hit rock bottom, but I wanted to change the way we perceive activism; the way is no less important than the end goal. If we want to create a world where people care about each other and support each other, this has to be part of the way we get there, part of the “how.” I want to remind myself and everyone around me that in every political struggle, people are the most precious resource. If we are fighting for human rights, be it refugees, Palestinians, workers, or climate change, we cannot afford to wear each other out as we progress. This is why I’ve started facilitating workshops about this topic and implementing Non-Violent Communication [tools] into my activist circles. When these protests began, I asked myself how I could contribute and found that this is the best thing I can do, not only to support the activists onsite, but to spread a message to them: You are important, and you need support, and it’s OK to admit it.”
As Tani’s path crossed with the Safe Spaces initiatives, they were able to create a hybrid project, assisting each other with their past experience and knowledge.
Liron, another leader of the project who is also a longtime activist, took care of coordinating their activity with law enforcement, enabling the safe space to operate without fear of being evacuated. In the past month, they have been providing compassionate care in a pop-up staffed under the canopy in the park adjacent to the protest, and report that most police officers who they have encountered have been respectful and know of their work. Ma’ayan Shenkar, a social worker who has been leading Anashim Tovim in the past two years, shared that she’s pleased to have the opportunity to collaborate together as safe spaces for the first time: “Until today, our different initiatives operated in different spaces so as to try and cover the needs of as many different rave and festival scenes as possible. But now we have an opportunity to collaborate, and I’ve been experiencing great growth and learning from the different groups.”
Yael Elad has been heading the Midburn Safe Zone for the past few years and is using her experience as a professional group facilitator who works with victims of sexual violence and as a sex-positive educator and advocate to assist people in need of a safe space in trying times.
Even though the leaders of this group are experienced with both activism and holding space at festivals, they have been encountering new and challenging situations in their work alongside the protests. Yael Elad has been heading the Midburn Safe Zone for the past few years and is using her experience as a professional group facilitator who works with victims of sexual violence and as a sex-positive educator and advocate to assist people in need of a safe space in trying times. Elad was traumatized by a particularly violent encounter with law enforcement at one of the first protests in July and arrived at the conclusion that the protests are in need of support of the kind that she has been providing together with her team. She recalls last Saturday’s activity vividly:
At the point where police started violently evacuating protesters, a woman fell to the ground and passed out. Many people were trying to help her, but were actually overwhelming her and not giving her space while we were waiting for an ambulance. Simultaneously, more police were running around and pushing everyone in the crowd, and it was hard to keep everyone off of her amid the chaos. I was there with her, trying to hold space for her while people were falling over on us. This, of course, did not prevent the trauma she experienced, but I did my best to be there for her even an hour after the paramedics treated her, and made sure she had people who could support her and take her home. This was not easy for me to say the least, but I feel like we’re getting better at this every week. We’re thinking of ways to implement several tools together to build a training program for safe spaces specializing in social activism.
In a reality where healing society is taking a step forward, some Israelis want to link this shift to inner healing in an interconnected manner, instead of walking down the old path in which the two are separate.
Apparently, others are excited to join the team and contribute as well: Over 140 people have volunteered to join the shifts in the space and provide a “mobile safe space,” walking around the square, deep inside the protest with their white vests and signs letting activists know that they have a place to rest if they need it. In a reality where healing society is taking a step forward, some Israelis want to link this shift to inner healing in an interconnected manner, instead of walking down the old path in which the two are separate. As a protester making my pilgrimage to Jerusalem every Saturday, I feel safer and more held knowing that this team of innovative thinkers and compassionate fellow humans are working tirelessly so that we all have someone to lean on.
Art by Mariom Luna.