Do psychedelics and psytrance alter Israelis' attitudes to war?
Rick Doblin hopes psychedelics will help people transcend national identities and move to a sense of global unity and pacifism. Israel's psytrance scene is an interesting place to test this hypothesis
This is an article about the Israeli psychedelic and psytrance scenes, and how they interact with the military-political ‘situation’ in Israel and Palestine. It asks the question: does the psytrance scene in Israel support the hypothesis that psychedelics can resolve national differences, and draws together some academic researchers’ responses to this question.
From The Times of Israel, 29th of November 2020:
When Rick Doblin was in his early 20s, he had a dream in which he was escorted back in time to witness a Holocaust survivor’s narrow escape from the Nazis.
In his mind, Doblin traveled to Eastern Europe to witness thousands of Jews lined up alongside a mass grave as the gunners open fire, toppling the bodies into the earth. The man spends three days alive underground before emerging and fleeing to the woods, where he survives the war in hiding.
The man then tells Doblin that he survived this horror only to deliver a message that Doblin should devote his life to promoting psychedelics as a cure for human ills and an insurance policy against another Holocaust. Then he expires.
Doblin took the advice to heart. “I’ve always felt that the response to the Holocaust is helping people realize our common humanity,” Doblin said. “And that there are many ways to do that, and psychedelic mystical experiences are one of the ways. And so I felt like what I’m doing is to try to prevent another Holocaust and that that’s the deepest motivation.”
Today, Rick Doblin is perhaps the leading figure in the psychedelic renaissance. His organization, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), has raised several million dollars in funding and has nearly completed a study of MDMA for PTSD, which could be the first psychedelic therapy to get FDA approval in the US. Doblin’s dream is to see psychedelic clinics on highstreets across the world. But medicalization is just the gateway – his bigger dream is for psychedelics to catalyse a shift in human consciousness, helping us transcend our national and religious differences and come together in a global spirituality based on a direct experience of mystical oneness.
At the heart of this inspiring vision is a hypothesis – do psychedelics make people less nationalistic, less militaristic, and more globalist and pacifist? Israel itself might provide an interesting field-study to explore this question. It has perhaps the biggest psy-trance scene in the world, with outdoor psy-trance parties happening most weekends during the summer months of the year. Israelis played a leading role in the development of Goa trance in the late 1980s and 1990s, and several of the leading psytrance acts in the world are Israelis.
Why is psytrance so popular in Israel? One could point to the millennia-old traditions of ecstatic dance in Jewish culture. There are probably more instances of dancing in the Torah / Old Testament than any other sacred text – King David dancing in front of the Ark, the Psalms exhorting Jews to praise the Lord with dance and timbrel (tambourine). There’s the tradition of ecstatic dance in Hasidic Judaism:
Hasidic dance assumed the form of the circle, symbolic of the Hasidic philosophy that “every one is equal, each one being a link in the chain, the circle having no front or rear, no beginning or ending.” The Hasidim would start their dancing in slow tempo, and as the music became faster they held arms upwards and leapt in the air in an effort to reach spiritual ecstasy.
The ‘functions’ of Judaic ecstatic dance are complex – transcendence of self, worship of God, cathartic release, and strong communal bonding. It also, in the Torah, has a military function – music is a weapon against the enemy (as in the horns of Jericho) and a celebration of military victory. When David and Saul returned from the battle with the Philistines, ‘the women came out of all the cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet King Saul, with timbrels, with joy, and with rattles’ (Samuel I 18:6).
Release the pressure
The reason most often given for the popularity of psy-trance in Israel is the ha’matzav (‘the situation’), i.e the decades-long hostilities and military conflict between Israel, Palestinians in the occupied territories, and neighbouring Islamic countries. Every Israeli must do military service when they reach 18 – three years for men, two years for women, and some return to military service later on. This is an intense rite of passage for every Israeli youth. There is then another rite of passage - known in Hebrew as tarmila’ut – where Israelis go travelling after military service. Nir Tadmor, the Israeli psychedelic harm reduction expert I interviewed last week, told me:
It’s almost an obligatory tradition to travel for a few months after the army. Young people who lived in a very confined strict environment for two or three years then go out to the world, to the most exotic and free places like India and South America. And in those places, often people meet psychedelics for the first time. Then when they come back to Israel, they gravitate towards the psychedelic trance scene.
The psytrance scene operates as a pressure-valve release for a very pressurized society. Ofer Dikovsky, music producer and writer of the documentary ‘Free People’, which looks at the Israeli psy-trance scene, told i24 news:
Why is psytrance so popular? It suits the Israeli character. The life is not easy. It’s not a quiet country. We have the years in the army. And after all this and all the wars and always being worried and under pressure, people find in this music a place to free themselves and get a quiet vibe.
Omri Homsy Harari, founder of one of Israel’s first psychedelic magazines and a producer of psy-trance festivals, tells Red Bull Magazine : ‘Israel is a special place, but it’s also full of stress. We’re always stressed. People need an outlet to find peace and rest in an extreme way.’ The DJ and producer Zirkin, who founded the Doof psy-trance festival, told Tablet Magazine: ‘Israeli people live under loads of pressure. Psytrance is quite big in Israel because we use it as a pipe to connect to something else, and to release this pressure.’ Doof’s motto is: ‘Everybody needs a place where they can go insane peacefully.’
In this sense, Israeli psytrance provides catharsis, a Greek word used by Aristotle to describe the ‘purging’ of the discontents of civilization via ecstatic rituals like dance and theatre. And it’s interesting that ancient Greek tragedies were seen as a collective way to confront and process the trauma of war – tragedies like Sophocles’ Ajax, Philoctetes and Antigone explored war trauma, for an audience that would (like Israelis) all have served in the Athenian army, gone to war, seen and done awful things, and needed a way to deal with that. Elinor Carmi, a former psy-trance raver turned academic, and the author of TranceMission, a book on the scene, says: ‘Trance culture was a sort of therapy treatment for [Israeli youths]: you dance and do not need to talk’.
Sometimes this means that war traumas can emerge during trips and raves in an overpowering and unintended way. Nir Tadmor provides psychedelic harm reduction at festivals in Israel, and he tells me:
Sometimes people confront their traumatic experiences for the first time during a party, and they never went to therapy, and of course that wasn't necessarily their intention. I wrote a chapter in the book that Tim Read and Maria Papaspyrou published (Psychedelics and Psychotherapy) about a guy that we met in a party, who four months before lost two of his friends in front of his eyes and got a bullet in the shoulder. During the party he took some MDMA and LSD together, and he felt so much shame for surviving [the war incident] that he wanted to kill himself. It was a very, very intense process to support him. I feel that psychedelics allow this very extreme expansion and freedom after years of being confined and in war, wearing uniform, following orders, and it suddenly allows a completely different reality. And sometimes it's really hard to hold both realities together, and it can lead to a very kind of fragmenting experience, like ‘I'm not sure what is real, how am I integrating all these personalities in one body’.
Peace, Love, Unity and Respect?
To return to Rick Doblin’s hypothesis - do psychedelics make people less nationalistic, less militaristic, and more globalist and pacifist? Could this be empirically tested? Could one do a survey of Israelis’ attitudes to the war and the occupation before joining the army, after serving in the army, and three years later if they have taken psychedelics?
I’m not aware of any existing empirical field studies on whether and how psychedelics have changed Israelis’ political attitudes, but there has been a lot of reflection and some anthropological work on this question. Historically, the psytrance scene has been regarded as a form of rebellion against the status quo, as a deviant scene, one that the Israeli authorities have often sought to quash. In a famous article of 2000 called ‘Dionysus in Zion’, journalist Assaf Sagiv wrote of the trance scene:
The burden Israeli society places upon its youth has played, no doubt, a decisive role in the Dionysian outburst of the past decade. The political, social and economic realities that surround the young Israeli have made him particularly vulnerable to the charms of the god of wine and fertility. However, the response to his call would not have been so overwhelming had Israeli society not failed to provide its young with a viable alternative ethos. The neo-pagan ecstatic revival has filled the vacuum left by the demise of the old Zionism, and has been fuelled by a mistrust felt by many youth towards anything reminiscent of the grandiose slogans and utopian promises of an earlier day.
The anthropologist Bryan Meadan likewise sees psytrance as a rebellion against Zionist identity:
the Zionist identity, which brought them to join combat units or volunteer for extended service in the military, begins to falter and fade. Its significance to the trancists lessens, and the events they experience at the parties, particularly the intrusion of the police, raise serious questions regarding their loyalty to the Zionist dream. […] Since this feeling is so common among the trancists, they develop between themselves tools to enhance this alternative subculture, and therefore strengthen their collective escape from Israeli society. […] In addition, an ideological worldview stressing ‘peace, love, unity and respect’ become common slogans within the community, and help provide the trancist with a reason to belong. The world, according to the trancist, is better off with trance.
Portuguese anthropologist Giorgio Gristina notes:
Somehow in continuity with the hippie discourse that characterised the context in which psychedelic parties were born, the international psytrance network today allegedly embraces a sort of syncretic spirituality, which freely mixes elements of different religious traditions and meditation practices from all over the world. Similarly, a pacifistic and inclusive ethos is considered to be at the basis of [Israeli] psytrancers’ lifestyle, and is expressed through a rhetoric of tolerance and togetherness, revolving around concepts like “unity” and “oneness.” This whole set of ideas is often referred to in media and online resources as “PLUR philosophy” – the acronym standing for Peace, Love, Unity and Respect – and represents a sort of unwritten code of conduct which participants are supposed to follow.
However, Gristina suggests the reality may be more complex than the simple equation: war + psychedelics = peace, love, and global unity. He suggests there are multiple different meanings and emotions found in the psytrance scene, and points to a more dark, disturbed, militaristic or violent tone that can be found in Israeli psytrance, in the names of albums, artists or events like Expression of Rage, Psycho Sonic, Deeply Disturbed, Becoming Insane, Smashing the Opponent, Conquering the Israeli Desert, Groove Attack, We’re Dangerous, We Must Evacuate, Ground Zero, NuClear Visions of Israel and so on. Gristina writes:
it can be noticed how, beside the usual themes that characterise the whole psytrance visual imagery, Israeli artworks and designs are filled up by another set of themes, revolving around the symbolism of the nation. Quite uniquely, I believe, among the other local manifestations of the international network, the Israeli flag, and in particular the figure of the Star of David, are revived in dozens of different versions: decomposed in fluorescent fractals, but also transfigured into metallic, camouflage or mechanical structures
Assuming there is a connection between “the situation” and the exceptional spread of psytrance parties seems reasonable, but the idea that psytrance would stand in a relation of opposition/subversion with a daily condition marked by the burden of conflict and soldiering, implicit in many interpretations, appears too simplistic when confronted with this plurality of discourses. It seems instead that the experience of conflict and soldiering is sometimes transposed indirectly into the phenomenon on a symbolic level
One can find many videos of YouTube of Israeli soldiers dancing to psy-trance while waving Israeli flags. This doesn’t mean they necessarily hold militaristic or right-wing attitudes to the ‘situation’, or that they’ve ever taken psychedelics. But one can reflect that the relationship between ecstatic states and national identity, and between ecstatic states and war, is complicated. One cannot say that trance or ecstatic states naturally and inevitably liberate one from national identity or militaristic attitudes. In fact, as Yuval Harari noted in an early paper before he got mega-famous, war is itself one of the oldest means for reaching ecstasy. Armies train humans to transcend their individual selves and merge with a collective self, and they have relied on ecstatic techniques like intoxicants and moving in time to music to inculcate this collective ecstatic self. So ecstatic / trance states could help to strengthen a national and military identity – like King David dancing after defeating the Philistines.
The same is true of Palestinians’ use of psychedelics. Imperial College’s Leor Roseman has studied ayahuasca ceremonies in which Israelis and Palestinians participate together. His work has attracted a huge amount of attention as potentially providing evidence for Doblin’s dream – psychedelics as a path beyond war and national disagreements to global spiritual unity.
In a much-cited 2021 paper, Roseman et al write:
psychedelic ceremonies have the potential to contribute to peacebuilding. This can happen not just by ‘dissolution of identities,’ but also by providing a space in which shared spiritual experiences can emerge from intercultural and interfaith exchanges.
However, in another paper published the same year, Roseman et al note:
The ritualistic use of ayahuasca can induce a feeling of unity and harmony among group members. However, such depoliticized feelings can come in the service of a destructive political status quo in which Palestinians are marginalized…Kept strictly “apolitical,” the gatherings, directed by the Israeli organizers, carefully maintained a discourse of denationalized unity. “Mysticism unifies, while politics divide,” was a statement occasionally heard while conducting fieldwork in such mixed groups.
In other words, in Israeli psychedelic ceremonies (and perhaps in psytrance culture more generally) there is a sort of quietly-enforced apolitical ‘mystical unity’ which silences Palestinian resistance in the interests of the Israeli status quo. The paper explores occasions when Palestinians have, during ayahuasca ceremonies, experienced ‘revolutionary revelations’ – rather than transcending their national identity into global mystical oneness, they have felt a strong identification with the historical pain of Palestinians and anger at the injustices visited upon them by Israelis, prompting them to move to a more politically-activist Palestinian and Muslim identity:
the revelatory experience stands in a dialectical phenomenological tension with the mystical union, as they serve opposing political processes. Unlike the abstract mystical union, the prophetic revelation comes with a concrete ethical-political message. While the archetypical mystic aims to dissociate from worldly matters and transcend good and evil, it is the archetypal prophet who cries out against atrocities and injustice.
It would be very interesting to test Dobln’s dream empirically, through a longitudinal survey of Israeli attitudes to ‘the situation’, before and after military service, and before and after taking psychedelics. From the anthropological evidence, the situation may be more complicated than a simple psychedelic voyage from military and nationalistic aggression to Peace, Love and Global Unity. If psychedelics are cultural amplifiers, then they may sometimes amplify group, racial, national and military identities, as well as sometimes dissolving them.
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