The Humanitarian Politics of Testimony: Subjectification through Trauma in the Israeli–Palestinian Conflict

Peer Reviewed


The witness has become a key figure of our time, whether as the survivor testifying to what he has lived through or as the third party telling what he has seen or heard. Publicly bearing witness of suffering and injustice is precisely what departs the first (International Red Cross) and second (Doctors without Borders, Doctors of the World) ages of humanitarianism. Based on an etymological inquiry of the word in Greek and Latin and on an ethnographical investigation into the production of documents on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, this analysis of the politics of testimony shows how the humanitarian agents define the legitimate manner to tell the world the "victims' truth." In particular, the increasing presence of psychiatrists and psychologists on the field introduces a new vision in which trauma appears less as a clinical category than as a political argument. This process of subjectification of Palestinians but also of Israelis as victims, which institutes their experience and condition as shared, leaves aside both the individual and collective histories of the subjects.

"Palestinian Solidarity." August 2008 via Didier Fassin.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published a range of essays on humanitarianism. See, for example, Peter Redfield’s “Doctors, Borders and Life in Crisis” (2005), Sherene Razack’s “From the ‘Clean Snows of Petawawa’: The Violence of Canadian Peacekeepers in Somalia” (2000), and Michael Barnett’s “The UN Security Council, Indifference and Genocide in Rwanda” (1997).

Cultural Anthropology has also published many essays on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. See Ilana Feldman’s “Difficult Distinctions: Refugee Law, Humanitarian Practice and Political Identification in Gaza” (2007), Iris Jean-Klein’s “Nationalism and Resistance: The Two Faces of Everyday Activism in Palestine” (2001), and Julie Peteet’s “The Writing on the Walls: The Graffiti of the Intifada” (1996).

About the Author

Didier Fassin is Professor of Sociology at the University of Paris Northern and Director of of Studies in Anthropology at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris. He is a trained sociologist, medical doctor and anthropologist. During the 1980s he practiced medicine while concurrently studying social science. He has been the director of Cresp, Centre of research on public health issues, of the University Paris North and French Institute of health and medical research and he has served as the Vice-President to Doctors Without Borders. His books include: Pouvoir et maladie en Afrique, L'espace politique de la santé, Les enjeux politiques de la santé, Des maux indicibles and Faire de la santé publique.

Links from the Essay


Gaza Community Mental Health Programme

UN Department of Political Affairs: Division of Palestinian Rights


"This is Not Your War"

Alternate Focus -

"Shoah": A film by Claude Lanzmann

Media Links

Les Temps Modernes


The Palestinian Chronicles: Trapped by War

Organization Links

American Psychiatric Association: Disaster Psychiatry

International Human Rights Federation: Israel & Occoupied Palestinian Territories

Médecins du Monde: Palestinian Territories

Médecins sans Frontières

Palestine Red Crescent Society

Maison de la Mutualité

Institute for Interdisciplinary Research on Social Issues

United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East

Additional Works by Didier Fassin

(2007), "Humanitarianism as politics of life." Public Culture, 19 (3).

(2006), "The end of ethnography as collateral damage of ethics regulation?" American Ethnologist, 33 (4) : 522-524.

(2006), "Riots in France and silent anthropologists" (éditorial invité), Anthropology Today. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 22 (1), 1-3.

(2005), "The truth from the body. Medical certificates as ultimate evidence for asylum-seekers" (avec E. d’Halluin), American Anthropologist, 107 (4), 597-608.

(2005), "Humanitarian exception as the rule: The political theology of the 1999 ‘Tragedia’ in Venezuela" (avec P. Vasquez), American Ethnologist, 32 (3): 389-405.

(2005), "Compassion and repression: The moral economy of immigration policies in France." Cultural Anthropology, 20 (3), 362-387.

(2004), "Plumbism reinvented: The early times of childhood lead poisoning in France 1985-1990" (avec AJ Naudé), American Journal of Public Health, 94, 11, 1854-1862.

(2004), "Public health as culture: The social construction of the childhood lead poisoning epidemic in France." British Medical Bulletin, 69: 167-177.

(2003), "The South African politics of AIDS. Beyond the controversies" (avec H. Schneider), British Medical Journal, 326, 495-497.

Questions for Classroom Discussion

1. How has the 'witness' become a key a political figure in the contemporary public arena? What is the role of the witness for the organization of Doctors without Borders?

2. What does the concept of 'political subjectification' mean for Fassin? Why is it important in an understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

3. Discuss the difference between the figures of the testes and the superestes. Why might the differences between the two figures be important in a political arena? How do these figures differ from the Arabic figure of the shahid?

4. What is the relationship between hero and victim in the chronicles of everyday life in the Palestinian territories produced by the UNRWA?

5. Describe what Fassin means by a 'politics of compassion.'

6. What has been the traditional role of organizations like the International Red Cross? What is different about the role of contemporary organizations like Doctors without Borders?

7. How has trauma become an essential factor in the work of international humanitarian organizations? What is Fassin's evidence for this claim?

8. Why is the 'symmetry of assessment' problematic in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Do you agree or disagree with Fassin's position?

9. What are the challenges for history, and the historian, in the context of a crisis such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict according to Fassin?

10. Discuss how the video This is Not Your War supports or contradicts Fassin's argument about the role of the witness in humanitarian intervention.

Editorial Overview

What does it mean to bear witness to violence using the language of trauma? What role does psychology play in the practice and politics of humanitarianism? Didier Fassin broaches these questions in an essay in the August 2008 issue of Cultural Anthropology focused on the role of psychiatrists and psychologists in humanitarian initiatives amidst the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Fassin shows how the new forms of expertise and authority brought by mental health specialists have been used less for clinical purposes than to create a new mode of legitimately witnessing violence.

Starting with an etymological analysis of the word ‘witness’ in Greek and Latin, Fassin traces the historical evolution of the idea of witnessing to suggest that in contemporary usage the boundary between the figures of the testis and the superstes, one of whom testifies on the basis of observation and the other on the basis of experience, is becoming blurred. The truth that is now sought is not the objective truth of the events themselves, but the subjective truth of the experience of them, based on traces left on the psyche, which paradoxically objectify social realities lived by individuals. Psychologists and psychiatrists thus become authorized to speak in the name of those who have experienced traumatic events, as expert observers of experience and its effects. As Fassin explains, “they occupy the structural place of the testis but employ the language of the superstes”.

Fassin’s essay shows how contemporary humanitarianism (exemplified by the work of Doctors Without Borders and Doctors of the World) differs from earlier humanitarianism (exemplified by the work of the International Red Cross) in its emphasis on bearing witness to suffering and injustice. He notes both the value and limits of this new emphasis, describing humanitarian testimony as a “truth ordeal” producing “utterances having the value of truth which do not reflect the social world but rather transform it.” He also describes how this regime of testimony, by focusing exclusively on the traumatic experience and by asserting the equivalence of sufferings of all the victims, come to abolish the historical meaning and the political sense of the situation it bears witness to. (Shailaja Valdiya)

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