In the past few years an interesting mode of discourse has gained currency among some critics of Israel. It consists in characterizing most Israelis, and the Jews who are concerned about Israel's continued existence, as suffering from a deep collective psycho-pathology that conditions them to commit or to endorse systematic brutalization of the Palestinians. It takes Israel and its supporters to be acting out the effects of a long term historical trauma that reached its climax in the Holocaust. They are deflecting the intense anger, helplessness and shame accumulated over centuries of persecution in Europe on to innocent Arab victims in Israel/Palestine. These victims are surrogates for the real but no longer accessible oppressors of the Jews. The analogy driving this discourse is that of the abused child who grows into an abusive adult, imposing his childhood experiences of violence on members of his family and his adult environment.
Three clear examples of this psychologized view of the Israel-Palestine conflict are
- Jacqueline Rose's book The Question of Zion (Princeton University Press, 2005),
- Caryl Churchill's play Seven Jewish Children, recently staged at the Royal Court Theatre, and
- Anthony Lerman's article 'Must Jews always see themselves as victims' (The Independent, March 7, 2009).
Churchill adapts this diagnosis of Zionism to Israel's recent offensive in Gaza. She portrays Jewish children as obsessively raised with the collective memory of historical trauma as the pervasive background against which Israeli acts of murder and expulsion are justified or denied.
Lerman invokes the work of Israeli political psychologist Daniel Bar Tal to claim that the inability of Israelis and Jews to deal adequately with the experience of the Holocaust has given rise to a persecution complex that is responsible for Israel's perverse behaviour towards the Palestinians, as well as the willingness of Jews abroad to support this behaviour.
There are at least five features of the psychologizing discourse worth noting.
First, it provides an ostensibly scientific basis for attributing negative properties to an ethnic group. Inter alia, most (but not all) Israelis, and many of their Diaspora Jewish supporters suffer from a blood lust. They are insensitive to the suffering of innocent Palestinians. They are exclusively concerned with the welfare of their own people. They engage in illicit lobbying and hysterical political campaigning to promote a narrow and destructive group agenda. They refuse to acknowledge the normal constraints of universal human rights and morality. These are, of course, versions of longstanding anti-Jewish bigotries that infect European and Middle Eastern history. They are, however, rendered opaque and acceptable through translation into the psychological symptoms of a disturbed group. The painstaking clinical studies required to support serious psychological diagnoses are singularly absent from the psychologizing discourse. It is, in fact, a vintage case of pseudo-science in the service of prejudice. It does, however, serve an important political and cultural role. It renders acceptable attitudes and assumptions that would be inadmissible if expressed in traditional terms.
Second, the practitioners of psychologizing discourse do not, in general, present themselves as adversaries of Israel and the Jews. On the contrary, they are therapists moved by the highest motives of public responsibility. They seek to cure the patients of their collective disease by getting them to see the full extent of their malady and to recognize its roots in a historically disordered collective spirit. They do not see Israel and the Jews as evil, but as deeply pathological and in need of proper care. That they may, in many cases, prescribe a therapy that requires the patients (in the case of Israel) to cede their own collective existence is not an expression of hostility. It is a desire to free the patients from the agony that they are inflicting upon themselves and the rest of the world.
Third, this discourse is a particularly effective method for shutting down serious political discussion and controlling reaction. If members of the deranged group dissent from this account, their comments are summarily dismissed as the delusional resistance of patients to the benign efforts of the therapist to treat their illness. Moreover, events like Israel's operation in Gaza are not construed as the destructive and misguided actions of an unpleasant government, phenomena common enough in other parts of the world. They are taken to be direct expressions of a perverse national psychology working itself out with the grim inexorability of a medical condition. They require not the sort of criticism appropriate for normal people and countries, but a complete quarantine of the patients for their own good, as well as that of everyone else. Jews and Israelis do not act from the same motives that determine the behaviour, good or bad, of balanced people. Their conduct is the result of a diseased nature that requires radical revision to restore them to health.
Fourth, the psychologizing discourse contrasts with 'root cause' explanations applied to terrorist violence and extremism from oppressed groups. These explanations use past persecution to exculpate the agents of violence from responsibility for their choices. The actions that they commit are ultimately reduced to the oppression that they or their people have experienced. The therapists to the Jews do not treat Jewish suffering as a basis for mitigating Jewish or Israeli misbehaviour. Instead, it is used to highlight the depth of the pathology that generates it, and to focus on the need for drastic corrective measures, where these frequently require that Israel be politically eliminated as the best way of eradicating the disease.
Finally [fifth], the use of the psychologizing discourse for the Israel-Palestine conflict is sui generis. If anyone were to construe other conflicts in analogous terms, they would be quickly dismissed as racists or neo-colonialists. Imagine, for example, how progressive opinion would receive the suggestion that Africans were disposed to mass murder and civil war because they had been traumatized by centuries of colonial rule and so had internalized the treatment and mores to which Europeans had subjected them. Similarly, it seems unlikely that any attempt to analyze the contemporary Muslim world as suffering from a collective psychosis brought on by the trauma of European violence over the centuries will meet with much enthusiasm among people who regard themselves as politically enlightened. But it is precisely the fashionably 'progressive' who accept as the height of wisdom the psychologizing discourse about Jews and Israel.
Using group psychological profiling to attribute to Jews an unnatural and diseased nature is not new. In 1901 Otto Weininger published Sex and Character in Vienna ...distinguish[ing] between 'Aryan' and Jewish characters... Weininger wrote in turn of the century Vienna, when pseudo-scientific theories of race and sex were invoked to support racist anthropological views and misogynist attitudes towards women. These cultural themes defined the context in which Weininger formulated his ideas. They also provided the basis for Nazi policies in the following decades.
...[In] the psychologizing discourse that has emerged in recent years ...traditional anti-Jewish prejudices are effectively legitimized through a pseudo-scientific exercise in collective psychological portraiture ...[offering] an exit from group stigma through recognition of the pathology that provokes it, and the adoption of an alternative set of cultural commitments. For the Jews among the therapists, this is a route out of quarantine into the mainstream of civilized opinion. No wonder, then, that it should prove to be attractive in the face of a hostile social environment.
Most therapists to the Jews ...have apparently failed to examine the defining assumptions of their enterprise. Should they do so, they may well be surprised to discover the deeply racist nature of some of these assumptions.