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Therapists to the Jews

Psychologising the Jewish question

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). Rose argues that Zionism, and the country that it created, derive from the the same psychological disorder that generated the false messianism of Shabbtai Zvi and his followers. She regards it as a form of mass hysteria generated by the inability of Jews to respond rationally to prolonged suffering. 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, 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 (an anonymous English translation appeared in 1906, published by G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York). In this book, Weininger contrasts masculine and feminine character types. He identifies men with reason, virtue, heroism, ego, cultural creativity (genius) and social order. The female is weak, dependent, cowardly, amoral, lacking in ego, driven by sexual passion, incapable of genuine creativity, and subversive of order. Weininger cites a variety of biological and medical 'facts' to argue for his description of male and female typologies. He then distinguishes between 'Aryan' and Jewish characters, claiming that the Aryans instantiate male properties, while the Jews are largely feminine in nature.

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. However, it is important to distinguish carefully between some of these themes and Weininger's enterprise. While there are clear racist elements in his book, he is careful to insist that he is not characterizing Jews as a racial entity, but as an idealized psychological type, instantiated to a greater or lesser degree by actual Jews. He also clearly states that he opposes any attempt to persecute or disenfranchise Jews. He holds out the prospect of escape from their respective natures to both individual women and Jews. For women this requires adopting male values and forms of behaviour. Jews can redeem themselves from their type by converting to Christianity and embracing Aryan culture. Weininger himself had adopted Lutheranism. He identified with Protestantism, rather than Catholicism, because of a strong admiration for Kant and the reliance on individual conscience in achieving moral responsibility.

It is tempting to dismiss Weininger as a crackpot (Freud, who met him briefly, described him as 'highly gifted but sexually deranged'). He committed suicide at the age of 23, two years after the publication of Sex and Character, and became a romantic cult figure. In fact, his book had a significant impact on intellectual life in Vienna and abroad. Prominent cultural figures hailed it as a work of genius. So, for example, Karl Kraus, the noted Viennese satirist, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, the influential Austrian philosopher, expressed great admiration for Weininger's work. Like him, they were both converted Jews. Weininger's view of Jews resonated widely through Austrian literary society.

Weininger was an early therapist to the Jews. There are, however, fundamental differences between his project and that of the latter-day therapists: he regarded Jews and Judaism as a disease to be escaped; they, in general, do not, although they frequently slide into such a view of Israel. Some even present themselves as the guardians of 'true' Jewish values in the face of Zionist corruption. The traits that Weininger stigmatizes in his caricature of a Jewish cultural type are largely disjoint from those that the contemporary therapists select for opprobrium. Weininger states that the origins of the Jewish type are a mystery to him. By contrast the contemporary therapists explain negative collective Jewish features as the result of group trauma.

But important analogies do exist between Weininger's writings on Jews and the psychologizing discourse that has emerged in recent years. In both cases traditional anti-Jewish prejudices are effectively legitimized through a pseudo-scientific exercise in collective psychological portraiture. Weininger and the latter-day therapists both offer 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 would probably recoil at the suggestion that they share a common set of concerns with Weininger. They are undoubtedly sincere in their professed intention to be helpful and constructive. It is unfortunate that they 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. (Shalom Lappin, King's College, London)

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Your articles are for when it absotluely, positively, needs to be understood overnight.

Posted on 2011-10-23 21:58:49 GMT

Every anti Semite needs an imaginary reason for his/er jew hating.

Posted by EE on 2009-05-22 00:30:44 GMT

It fascinates me that some people can claim that a long history of trauma among Jews has made Jews and Israelis into insensitive brutes while these same "authorities" fail to note that an IMAGINARY history of traumatic experiences among Arabs has made them truly barbaric. All the same, from here in Israel, it would appear that Israelis DO INDEED suffer from a widespread and deep psycho-pathology. A significant proportion of the Israeli citizenry actually subscribes to the Arab world-view and adopts the most antisemitic stances, safely re-defining themselves as Israelis instead of Jews. This is seen in voting patterns supporting lunatic Leftism unknown outside the Communist world, in numerous court rulings against Rabbis and for homosexuals, in militant secularism aimed at crushing only their own religion (you should have seen how Israelis fawned over the Pope a week ago!), in revisionist historianism, in Israeli academics calling for the boycott of Israeli academics (is that cracked, or what?), in "art" that sees Judaism as the most murderous of all religions (where did that come from?). All of this is the result of Ben Gurion"s Communist secularism and his control over the State in it"s early and formative decades, and especially in it"s control of education, indoctrinating the younger generation to abandon and despise the traditions of the past and invent a new society. In the end, Ben Gurion"s secularist Communism merely demonstrates that those who have no religion do not believe in nothing, but rather that they believe in anything. The strange thing is that as clinically categorizable as Israelis are, the surrounding Arab and Islamic populations are actually worse! Somehow the pyschologizers have missed that one. Now how did that happen?

Posted by Jake in Jerusalem on 2009-05-21 15:05:51 GMT

What obscenities these pseudo-psychologists wreak in their false and deeply flawed psychological assessments of the Jewish people. Any first year psychologist would know that a true assessment cannot be based on such obviously subjective bias but rather on observable, objective evidence!

Posted by Romit on 2009-05-21 03:01:33 GMT

There is a great deal of therapy needed, but the so-called " patients" are not the ones in need. It is these self-appointed gurus who are so fixated on the Jews. In reality, their views are ridiculous, but that never stopped the arrogant from claims of superior understanding.

Posted by Roberta on 2009-05-21 01:25:57 GMT

It is often the case, when it comes to the subject of Israel and Jews, rational thinking goes out the window, blown away, never to be seen again. We witness such a case here. This is so off the mark, that one asks the ???? should it warrant a response. The problem is that such thinking has a hearing out in the market place. Make no mistake we operate in a market place fighting for clients that will "buy" our material. We need to step up the budget and improve the material we currently operate under. As a side comment. I consider myself "Israeli" and I am very glad that I "do not act from the same motives that determine the behaviour; good or BAD [Hitler, suicide bombers, rapists, etc etc] of balanced people...". If following the torah of HaShem can be called a diseased nature, then I am also happy to have this so-called diseased nature, just a pity a few more people were not open to catch it.

Posted by Philip Hammond Biblical Witness for Israel. on 2009-05-21 00:07:07 GMT

This is an excellent analysis of the pseudo-analysts by Lappin. They are sick racists who project their hostility onto the subjects of their fantasies. They follow in the ignoble footsteps of Nazi race theorists. They are too conceited and bigoted to realise that - to quote Orwell - what they spout "is so stupid that it could only have been said by an intellectual"

Posted by paul2 on 2009-05-20 12:28:11 GMT