Shalom Lappin: “Therapists to the Jews: Psychologizing 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.

Find out what they are on normblog.

16 Responses to “Shalom Lappin: “Therapists to the Jews: Psychologizing the ‘Jewish Question'””

  1. Susan Says:

    One additonal feature of all this psychoanalyzing is that none of its practitioners bothered to check if there was any validity to their theories. Where are the facts to back it up?

  2. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    “[Psychologizing the ‘Jewish Question’] is, in fact a vintage case of pseudo-science in the service of prejudice.” How well put by Shalom Lappin. It is intriguing to note that there a paucity of genuine psycho-therapists to be cited as taking the psychologising stance. Rose, after all, is an English Literature specialist (clearly a vital qualification for this of exercise), Anthony Lerman is a social scientist (but not, apparently, a psychologist) and Caryl Churchill is a playwright, but not, until now and “Seven Jewish Children”, one who appears to have written historically-based plays.

    Intriguing how people can claim such _public_ expertise in areas in which they have absolutely no publicly recognised qualifications.

  3. j.r. Says:

    Churchill and Rose can at least claim a precedent within English literature for their psychological fable: Shylock reacts to his persecution with disproportionate anger and violence because he is morally inferior as a Jew. The psychologising of Jews and Israel has itself been the subject of psychoanalytic discourse – Antisemitism (Falk 2008) surveys the literature and polemic, including the response to Rose’s book on Zionism.

  4. JG Campbell Says:

    By the way, there’s an excellent review debunking both the general thesis and detail of Rose’s Question of Zion by Emanuele Ottolenghi in a recent issue of the journal Israel Studies.

  5. zkharya Says:

    Are these interesting?

    Now to the blood libel. I’ve noticed that the antisemitism watchers think they’re on to a winner here. Everytime someone mentions the fact that the Israeli armed forces kill a child, the antisemitism watchers say it’s the blood libel. If ever you wanted an example of how the cry ‘antisemitism’ is being used as a cover for war crimes, this is one. The blood libel was a myth. It disseminated a lie. It told a story about a minority that ‘explained’ one part of a mystic view of the world based on sacrifice and redemption (christianity). The sacrifice-redemption story has its devils and demons. We know that power sustains itself through the identification of devils (enemies within, dark strangers etc). What’s going on now is that armed Jews have been killing children. It doesn’t matter one fig that once upon a time, Jews in Europe had the role of the devil within who threatened the sacrifice redemption story. It isn’t the same Jews! It’s armed Jews acting on behalf of a Jewish ruling class (remember there never was one of those in Europe!). It’s no surprise that children are being killed by armed forces anywhere. That’s what they do when they’re not in their barracks. It just so happens that this lot call themselves Jews who have various histories where their forebears were often (but not always) victims and people told lies about them. So what?

    Face up to it. Some armed Jews have been killing children. That’s not blood libel. It’s the truth.
    Michael Rosen | Homepage | 19 May, 16:03 | #

    I know Jews (perhaps you do too) who a) think of themselves as part of ‘a’ or ‘the’ ‘chosen people’. I know Jews who believe that there is a plot of land that belongs to them because a) they are the chosen people (ie they are fulfilling the word of God and no one else is) and b)their covenant with God entitles them to that land – and this is written down in sacred texts.

    Following from this thesis, such Jews (not all Jews – I’ll return to that), believed they were entitled to expel or terrorise the inhabitants who lived on that land. Ever since this tragedy (do you think it’s a tragedy, John?), there has of course been conflict. Some Jews have nothing better to offer this situation than – tough shit, the ‘arabs’ can go and live in Jordan, they aren’t a ‘people’ like us, the land isn’t theirs, etc etc. Every single conflict since then has been about this issue and indeed about the further taking of land that the people living there thought was theirs.

    The Jews who created this nation state and the many Jews all over the world who support those who created the state and those who defend that state take part in the myth of the ‘chosen people’. They may or may not sign up to every clause in the deal, but it’s part of what coheres this ideology.

    I have not a scintilla of a problem with a playwright who takes the combination of ideas that I’ve expressed above and turn it into something that someone says in a play.
    Michael Rosen | Homepage | 19 May, 17:02 | # ”

    http://leninology.blogspot.com/2009/05/subtle.html

  6. Saul Says:

    No one is saying that children have not been killed in Gaza. What is objectionable is the idea that the aim and purpose, or the sole consequence of the attacks on Gaza was the killing of children.
    It is this that connects it with history of the blood libel (see. e.g. quotes regarding “Tel Aviv’s blood lust”); a history,that Rosen, like Lerman, thinks ended in 1945 or 1948.

  7. owlminerva Says:

    “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.”

    Actually this is an incorrect phrasing of the syndrome. A cheap shot if you ask me. It is obviously not “most Israelis, and the Jews who are concerned about Israel’s continued existence” that seem to be displaying a pathological syndrome but those Israeli and Jews that don’t seem to care much for the fact that the existence of Israel is at the EXPENSE OF ANOTHER PEOPLE.
    It is not the love for one’s country that makes one pathological, it is the extent to which one is willing to go to serve nationalistic aspirations, it is the willingness to overlook the brutalizing of people, stealing land, apartheid in order to fulfill these aspirations that makes one pathological.

    I frankly can’t believe anybody would take offense at this analysis. Isn’t it completely obvious that some sort of abuser-abused dynamics is going on here?

    • Brian Goldfarb Says:

      Owlminerva “I frankly can’t believe anybody would take offense at this analysis. Isn’t it completely obvious that some sort of abuser-abused dynamics is going on here?”

      What an innocent owlminerva (herinafter owl) is. Further, the classical allusion doesn’t fool anybody, because the owl is clearly not wise, and references to apartheid are plainly absurd: see only Benjamin Pogrund, passim, on these pages.

      Owl is clearly in need of a history lesson. The land between ‘the river and the sea’ has had Jews in it for the last 3000 years, and thus is hardly “at the expense of another people”. For 300-500 years, until the Northern Kingdom (“Israel”) was destroyed by the Assyrians (as recorded in the Assyrian Chronicles, accepted by historians as essentially accurate) whole of this area was occupied and ruled by Jews (and also extended into what is now Northern Jordan). The Southern Kingdom (“Judah”) survived, now larger, now smaller, for a further 7 centuries. This was despite the Babylonian conquest and exile. At no time was the land, north or south, empty of Jews. Even the Assyrians left behind Jews, although those taken into exile vanished from history as a separate people.

      If this isn’t enough historical evidence, owl might care to read Yigal Yadin’s publications, especially his major book of Hazor in the north of Israel, where firm archaeological evidence for the existence of the Davidic and Solomonic eras was revealed by careful, modern, archaeology.

      Even the Romans didn’t depopulate the land of Jews, despite Hadrian’s massacre of 600,000 of them (source: British Museum exhibition “Hadrian”, 2008). Although the Romans renamed the land ‘Palestina’ (extinguishing the name ‘Judea’), those owl calls “ANOTHER PEOPLE” (owl’s capitals) didn’t arrive until the Arabian Peninsula-based invasion of the 7th century CE, which introduced Islam to the place.

      Even so, a Jewish presence remained. For instance, Sephoris, close to Nazareth, recently excavated, was where the scholars evacuated to during the last Judaic revolt against the Romans. The latter didn’t destroy it: it was buried by later building. And there is, for example, a synagogue on the Golan Heights that dates to the late First or early Second Millennium CE – I know, I’ve visited the site.

      Further, Jerusalem has had a Jewish majority since at least the early 19th Century. Given all this, and the knowledge that there never has been an independent or autonomous ‘Palestine’, perhaps owl could and should think again about “ANOTHER PEOPLE”. Not only are they late-comers to the area, they have consistently rejected all opportunities of a state of their own alongside a Jewish one. At best, they want the peace treaty before last – the one that’s no longer on the table.

      Given all this, and that this is supposed to be about Shalom Lappin’s article, can we concentrate on the false “psychologizing” of Zionism as, somehow, a neurosis of the Jewish people, but that no other people in vaguely similar positions suffer, only Jews.

      Strange that, it’s always only Jews who are somehow different and peculiar. Owl, you have no idea how I long to be regarded by the likes of you as so normal as to be ignorable. Why the hell 0.025% of the world population cause you and those like you such problems is beyond me.

      But then, I’m not a “psychologizer”.

  8. zkharya Says:

    “A cheap shot if you ask me. It is obviously not “most Israelis, and the Jews who are concerned about Israel’s continued existence” that seem to be displaying a pathological syndrome but those Israeli and Jews that don’t seem to care much for the fact that the existence of Israel is at the EXPENSE OF ANOTHER PEOPLE.”

    Well, that pathology is easy to explain: for most of Christian and Islamic history, Palestinian Christians and Muslims have been content to believe that their habitation of the land was at the expense of a dispossession Jews had deserved for their rejection of Jesus and the prophets. And Jews’ dispossession, or worse, from just about everywhere since.

    That is in no small part why the Palestinian Christian and Islamic national leadership tried to exclude Jews’ living in the land in other than tiny numbers, deny them refuge, even from genocide, and, in a significant case endorse and promulgate Nazi policies not only for the Jews of Palestine and Europe, but also the non- or anti-Zionist Jews of the Arab world.

    Which is why approximately half Israeli Jews descend from most of the latter.

    The “psychosis” of Zionist or Israeli Jews derives from their being regarded or treated as “Palestinians” for most of Christian and Islamic history.

    And, dear alleged Owl of Minerva goddess of Wisdom, your patronizing orientalizing view of Palestinian Christians and Muslims treats them as but passive victims and not as active moral agents.

    They have had the chance for an independent state existence, for the first time in Palestinian Christian and Islamic history, in at least 1937. 1947 and 2000. In arguably at least the first two occasions, their leadership thought it more important to deny that right to Jews than acquire it for themselves. With tragic results.

    And silly, patronizing, western (cultural Christian?) orientalists like you seem to insist or drive on their repeating the same error all over again.

    With friends like you, what need have they of enemies?

  9. zkharya Says:

    It’s ironic that the owl of a goddess of those who dispossessed the Jews of Judea, created Palestine in the first place, enshrined the dispossession of Jews as their proper lot in the civilization of Christendom (and, arguably, as Muhammed took it over, then in Islam), then seems to regard the lengths Jews will go to restore themselves to the land of which they were dispossessed, while attempting to compromise with their historical displacers and excluders, and then to defend themselves agains those who have often openly declared their aspiration to exclude, dispossess them or worse.

    Dear Owl, I suggest you return to your mistress and learn the history of her people, culture and civilization she helped spawn.

  10. zkharya Says:

    omission:

    then seems to regard the lengths Jews will go to restore themselves to the land of which they were dispossessed…as unreasonable.

  11. Fred Says:

    Keith , i hope i don’t offend you but you’re article says almost zilch about the debate.

  12. Bill Says:

    Zkharya,

    Well, that pathology is easy to explain: for most of Christian and Islamic history, Palestinian Christians and Muslims have been content to believe that their habitation of the land was at the expense of a dispossession Jews had deserved for their rejection of Jesus and the prophets. And Jews’ dispossession, or worse, from just about everywhere since.

    And let’s not forget that Minnie’s religious subjects are also the ones that not only whipped and nailed a that particular prophet to a tree and then played dice while he was slowly tortured to death, they then tossed the whole blame, not on humanity (which was the whole point as I was taught), but on the Jews to justify their intermittent scourging while letting them sleep on the metaphorical park bench as provisional citizens till it was time to blame them for something again and again and again…

    Care for a little starch with your irony?

    • Brian Goldfarb Says:

      And, as I commented elsewhere, we only have the Gospels’ word for it that it was the Jews and not Pilate that substituted Jesus for Barrabas on the cross. I have a student of politics suspicion that Pilate, being a wily and long in the tooth politician (he’d survived Rome for a few decades) was the one who did the substituting. An ideologue is potentially a lot more dangerous than a rebel who goes around killing a few people. He (the ideologue/prophet) might actually change people’s minds against the benevolence of Rome’s rule.

      Given that “good rule is no substitute for self-rule” (Lord Acton), that ideologue disguised as a religious reformer could cause a whole lot more trouble than someone who kills a few roman citizens.

  13. MITNAGED Says:

    Susan, there aren’t any hard facts to back up these assertions. These people are extrapolating from their limited grasp of individual psychology onto what they want to be the psychology of a whole people or group. This sort of reasoning represents a category mistake of the first order. Their interpretations show a shallowness which is breath-taking, and, as a psychologist myself, I am disgusted that they bring psychology into disrepute in this way.

    Their arguments seem to start off from two fundamentally flawed premises, (1) that the abused invariably go on to abuse; and (2) traumatised people equally invariably identify with the aggressors in order to deflect the worst of the abuse.

    As well as being fundamentally flawed, the two above show generalisation to an absurd degree. In my own work I have met people who have been horrendously abused but who have not only survived but have gone on to do magnificent things. From what I gather (and research bears this out) this is the norm rather than the exception. Likewise adult survivors of abuse do not invariably take on the characteristics of those who abused them in order to ingratiate themselves and take on their abuser’s power.

    Most of my patients feel flawed, and the damage from the abuse they suffered affects every facet of their lives. However, almost all of them manage to contribute in some way to the betterment of others.

  14. Iain Says:

    The whole issue is, to be blunt, crap. I am a Scot. We are (more often than not) raised with a knowledge from our parents that the English have oppressed us for centuries, have murdered our people, killed our leaders and tried to stamp out our nationhood. No one has ever written an article to say that all Scots are psychologically unbalanced and prepared to commit and endorse actions of extreme violence against our neighbours; the fact is that we did, by being a major source of funding and of refuge for the Protestant terrorists in Ulster during the Troubles. In view of all this, as a non-Jew, I would respectfully submit that any suggestion of pathology on the part of Jews is purely antisemitic and should be treated with the contempt that it deserves. Where the history of oppression of the Jews is significant is that it provides Jews with a very substantial body of evidence that there is no guarantee of safety for Jews in Europe, and that when people say they hate Jews and want to destroy them, they probably mean it. To react against constant assault such as the rocket attacks through violence does not require cod-psychology to explain.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: