Do not confine Jews to the couch

Jewish intellectuals who criticise Israel in psychological terms are wrong-headed

By David Hirsh, April 7, 2009
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A therapist guides us on a journey to the frightening places inside ourselves and helps us to find ways to live with our demons. While we might do well to examine our own crazinesses with our therapists, we do not expect to have to answer for them in public and we expect our therapist to be on our side. Philosopher Michel Foucault warned that the sciences of the mind are also techniques of power and they have hostile as well as healing potential.

Jacqueline Rose, a professor at London University, argues in her book, A Question of Zion, that Israel should be understood psychoanalytically. She says the trauma resulting from the Holocaust is the root cause of the difficulty Israelis seem to have in living peacefully with their neighbours. Recently, she inspired Caryl Churchill to write the play Seven Jewish Children, which portrays Jews bringing up their children in a neurotic, dishonest and dysfunctional way and which many have said is antisemitic. Rose herself briefed the actors at the theatre.

In The Independent last month, Antony Lerman, former director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, also used psychology to explain current events, offering his own version of what Israeli psychologist Daniel Bar Tal reports about Israeli Jews. Lerman cheekily extrapolates the results to apply to British Jews. The consciousness of Jews “is characterised by a sense of victimisation, a siege mentality, blind patriotism, belligerence, self-righteousness, dehumanisation of the Palestinians and insensitivity to their suffering”. Lerman believes it to be a scientific discovery that “the Jewish public does not want to be confused with the facts.”

Yuck, I’m beginning to dislike these Jews already. If this collection of stereotypes came from David Irving, we would doubtless dismiss it as antisemitism.

I think critics of Israeli policies should make their arguments politically and with reasons. They should avoid ascribing to Jews collectively a pathological inability to act rationally. Israel is a state and acts according to what its leaders and its electorate calculate to be its national interest. Israel may be wrong. It may even be very wrong. But making peace with its neighbours is a matter for politics, not for therapy.

These three intellectuals all imply that Jews indoctrinate their children to be indifferent to non-Jewish suffering and that this is the key factor explaining Israel’s attack on targets in Gaza and on the civilians near them.

Leaving aside his cod-psychology, Lerman offers two arguments. One, with which I agree, is that the Israeli project of settling the West Bank is wrong, morally and pragmatically. His other is that Jews should stop saying that criticism of the occupation is antisemitic. Actually, Jews do not often raise the issue of antisemitism to de-legitimise criticism of Israel, not because they support the settlements, nor because they are psychologically damaged. The usual reason for Jews to raise the issue of antisemitism is that they are concerned about antisemitism, even when it resembles criticism of Israel.

Meanwhile, in her book, Rose argues that Zionism was from the beginning less a political movement than a messianic one; not rational but more like a religion. The Holocaust, she thinks, rendered Zionists even more irrational. And, after Gaza, she asked how the most persecuted people in history became “violent oppressors”.

If we heard President Ahmadinejad call Jews “violent oppressors”, we would surely respond by saying that it is not “the Jews” but the occupation which is oppressive. We would contextualise the conflict historically and say that neither “the Jews” nor Israel are more psychologically prone to oppressiveness than anyone else.

Leaving aside the vile implication that the Jews are the new Nazis, the idea that Jews should know better after the Holocaust is astonishing. Auschwitz was not a positive learning experience. Many Jews, traumatised perhaps, but not necessarily either mad or bad, learnt that it would be better to have a state and an army with which they could defend themselves if need be.

But Rose thinks that the Jews’ inability to put the trauma behind them in a psychologically healthy way explains Israel’s attack on Gaza. She does not explain how “Germans” have been able so successfully to recover psychologically from their part in the Holocaust and to build a peaceful and multicultural society. Can we congratulate post-national Europeans for having learnt the lessons of Auschwitz while we berate “the Jews” for having failed to do so? And how have Rose and Lerman themselves emerged so healthily from the traumatic family history which so damaged the rest of us?

Anthony Julius has shown that there is a long tradition of antisemites using Jewish witnesses against “the Jews”. Rose and Lerman’s allegations about how Jews indoctrinate their children are reminiscent of this insider testimony. But the problem is not that they speak publicly; the problem is that they transform political questions into psychological diagnoses.

David Hirsh is a lecturer in Sociology at Goldsmiths and the editor of Engage, at His ‘Anti-Zionism and Antisemitism: Cosmopolitan Reflections’ is downloadable from the website of the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism

    Last updated: 4:48pm, April 7 2009