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.