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Psychologists for Social Irresponsibility By: Irwin J. Mansdorf
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, November 25, 2005

As noted in FrontPageMag, the group Psychologists for Social Responsibility (PsySR) last week launched an incendiary attack against Israel when it charged the Jewish state with waging “pernicious psychological warfare” against Palestinian civilians in the Gaza strip.

At the core of PsySR’s demarche is its claim that the sonic booms—triggered by low-altitude flyovers by Israeli jets as part of Israel’s response to an unabated storm of lethal Qassam rocket attacks—exact horrific consequences on Gaza’s civilian population. The sonic booms, according to PsySR, have resulted in numerous “psychological effects,” ranging from enuresis in children to poor appetite, insomnia, fear and general panic.


These are indeed serious charges. But are they true?


There is considerable cause for doubt. Although PsySR does not directly say so, the only mental health professional that has provided any “evidence” of the alleged effects of the flyover is Gazan psychiatrist Dr. Eyad El-Sarraj. The head of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, he is a vocal opponent of the use of sonic booms. In early November, he petitioned the Israeli High Court to condemn the flyovers as illegal in an effort to halt further flights. Of the use of sonic booms, El-Sarraj maintains that “there is already evidence the flights are triggering in young children poor concentration leading to low academic achievement... fear of losing a close relative... fantasies, nightmares, depressive thoughts, glorification of violence, increased feelings of vulnerability and alertness.”


In actuality, the scientific literature on noise exposure shows that sonic booms can at times lead to a variety of physiological effects. El-Sarraj’s dramatic allegations, however, rest on nothing more than his personal observations. That suits anti-Israel media outlets like London’s left-wing Guardian just fine: The paper has duly embraced El-Sarraj’s testimony as evidence of the Israeli military’s “terrifying” tactics.


Yet El-Sarraj is no disinterested observer. On the contrary, he disapproves not only of Israel’s self-defense measures but also of Jews generally. Among the hypotheses that drive his “research”: “Are they evil by nature, these Jews? Or are they stupid, born mentally subnormal?” El-Sarraj has asked. His diagnosis: “I found after long, long thinking about it that they are not born evil. And they are not stupid. They are psycho-pathologically disturbed."


Notwithstanding his hateful motives, critics of Israel have long seized on El-Sarraj’s findings. PsySR appears to be the latest group to do so. At times, its statement condemning Israel’s use of sonic booms reads like a digest of El-Sarraj’s previous statements. Where El-Sarraj speaks of “phenomenal” stress caused by the sonic booms, PsySR's statement accuses Israel of causing “devastating” psychological effects. Adopting almost verbatim El-Sarraj’s litany of psychological symptoms in children, the statement also describes children who are “…restless, crying, frightened...afraid to go to leave home and refuse to go to school.”


To be sure, PsySR proffers no evidence for the prevalence of these symptoms among Gaza residents, let alone for its claim that they are caused by Israeli flyovers. That, too, calls to mind El-Sarraj’s reports on the effects of the sonic booms, which are riddled with inconsistencies. For example, El-Sarraj asserts in one report that the booms are “…timed when children are on their way to and from school.” Yet, in another report, he states that “[t]he Israelis do it after midnight and then every one or two hours.”


That neither El-Sarraj nor PsySR can produce any evidentiary basis for their harrowing claims is not surprising. Indeed, a large body of scientific knowledge and prominent research studies disprove the notion that sonic booms have serious physiological effects.


For instance, in one of the largest studies conducted on the subject, 1,253 sonic booms tests were conducted over Oklahoma City during a six-month period in 1964. The Federal Aviation Administration, which conducted the tests, concluded that “the overwhelming majority (of people) felt they could learn to live with the numbers and kinds of booms experienced”. About 73 percent of respondents said they could live with eight sonic booms per day and while 3 percent filed complaints. Significantly, not one Oklahoma City physician or health institution registered any complaints about physical side effects.

Another study looked at data on sonic booms in Nevada between 1969 and 1986. Concluded the study: “From the data collected, no convincing evidence was found to prove or disprove the existence of adverse health effects due to exposure to sonic boom. If such evidence exists, it is most likely to be found only in a prospective study of a substantial sample of individuals over time.” Consistent with the abovementioned studies and with the preponderance of the evidence, researchers at the Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory in Ohio have concluded “that even sonic booms of the maximum intensity presently feasible do not produce direct medical injury.”


Few would dispute that the booms are terribly annoying. Which is why, during the testing in Oklahoma, residents tried to stop the tests. But the injunction was denied. The reason? District Court Judge Stephen Chandler concluded that the plaintiffs failed to establish that “they suffered any mental or physical harm.” To condemn Israel’s of sonic booms as a general nuisance, moreover, is altogether to miss the point. Israel intentionally uses the sonic booms to avoid inflicting physical harm to Palestinian civilians while concurrently sending a message that an occasional barrage of concussive noise is the price to be paid for harboring and supporting the Palestinian terrorists who seek refuge in Gaza.


Of course, the psychologists of PsySR are unlikely to dwell on such mitigating factors. Just as PsySR has failed to verify, study or otherwise provide evidence for its claim of “devastating” damage to the residents of Gaza, so does it propose political solutions based on little more than its political views. Thus the group has already concluded that the Israeli “occupation” is to blame for the terrorism that the sonic booms are meant to root out. According to a previous PsySR statement, “The [Israeli-Arab] conflict can be resolved only with an end to the occupation and the establishment of an independent, contiguous, and viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, with its capital in Jerusalem.”


Curiously, the PsySR’s mission statement includes an assurance that it will rely on “relevant information from psychology” when formulating its public pronouncements. But if its baseless and unscientific statement decrying Israel’s use of sonic booms is any indication, relevant ought not to be confused with accurate. So much for social responsibility.

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Dr. Irwin J. Mansdorf is a psychologist and directs the Jerusalem Project for Democracy in the Middle East (www.JPDME.org)

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