Stop Psychoanalyzing Israel

by Rafael Medoff

Here come the armchair psychoanalysts!

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell declared during his recent visit to Israel, “I understand your rage. But let me ask you not to be consumed by rage.” President Biden expressed a similar sentiment upon his arrival in Israel last month. “While you feel that rage, don’t be consumed by it,” he advised.

The notion that if Israel hits hard at terrorists, it must be acting out of some kind of irrational emotion is inaccurate and insulting. But it’s not new.

For years, some critics of Israel have advocated the idea that Israelis have been collectively traumatized by the Holocaust, a kind of mental disorder that renders them incapable of making rational decisions.

An early promoter of this diagnosis was New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman. In his 1989 book, From Beirut to Jerusalem, Friedman wrote at length about what he called “the Holocausting of the Israeli psyche,” that is, what he considered to be an excessive interest in the Nazi genocide of six million Jews. “Israel today is becoming Yad Vashem with an air force,” Friedman asserted. He alleged that Israelis’ memories of the Holocaust were to blame for their impatient driving habits, unethical business dealings, timid acceptance of high taxes, and reluctance to make more concessions to the Arabs.

Others picked up on that theme in the years to follow. Clinical psychologist Alon Gratch, writing in USA Today in 2015, asserted that “the trauma of the Holocaust has penetrated every aspect of Israeli life,” filling Israelis with “anxiety and rage” over Jewish helplessness. This supposedly has created a “psychological burden” that shapes their attitude toward Iran and influences them to vote for nationalist political parties.

Ian Lustick, a professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote an entire book in 2019 about the problems supposedly caused by what he dubbed “Holocaustia,” the mental illness that he said results from Israelis paying too much attention to the mass murder of Jews by the Nazis.

Lustick’s extreme perspective included his claim that Israel put Adolf Eichmann on trial “so as to extend the period of usable gentile sympathy and guilt.” He also invoked Holocaust-related language in accusing Israel of “the continuous mass shooting of Palestinian civilians [in Gaza]…murder[ing] and maim[ing] so many men, women and children trying to escape from the ghetto within which they have been concentrated.” Presumably his use of loaded terms such as “concentrated” and “ghetto” was not accidental.

The Israeli author Yishai Sarid wrote a novel in 2017 about an Israeli tour guide whose visits to the sites of former death camps led him to the conclusion that “we need to be a little bit Nazi, too.” It received a very positive review in the New York Times. Perhaps it is fitting that Sarid’s book is a work of fiction, since that is the only genre in which one could seriously argue that the tour guide’s remark represents how Israelis actually think.

In the years before there was an Israel, there were those who dismissed Jewish concerns about Nazism as a kind of emotional rage from which Jews just needed to calm down.

In 1934, Everett Clinchy, a prominent liberal Presbyterian minister, berated American Jewish leaders for planning to hold a public program to counter a New York City rally by pro-Nazi German Americans. “The situation is now like a tense quarrel between husband and wife in a family,” Pickett counseled his Jewish colleagues, “and when such a quarrel is at its height, the intelligent thing to do is to stop yelling at each other and wait a bit until the emotion of the situation is moderated.”

In the aftermath of the Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938, Father Paul L. Blakely, associate editor of the magazine America: A Catholic Review of the Week, warned Jews to stop complaining so loudly. Blakely charged that American Jewish critics of Hitler were trying to stir up “a fit of national hysteria” that would drag the United States into “war against Germany.”

The false diagnoses of “Jewish rage” and “Holocaust trauma” assume that all Jews think alike and act alike. Therefore, since some Jews were persecuted in the past, their descendants today must be acting out some hidden psychological problem if they cry out or fight back.

The absurdity of that argument is obvious from Israel’s demographic makeup. The Holocaust happened eighty years ago, primarily to European Jews. Most Israelis today are not old enough to be Holocaust survivors. And most of them are not children or grandchildren of Holocaust survivors—because their parents and grandparents did not come from Europe. The majority of Israelis are immigrants, or the descendants of immigrants, from Arab, African and Near Eastern countries; their relatives were not gassed in Auschwitz.

Certainly Israelis are deeply interested in the history of the Holocaust. And they may justifiably view the Nazi genocide, and the world’s reaction to it, as a cautionary tale, in the same way that many contemporary Western policymakers regard the failed appeasement of Nazi Germany in the 1930s as a lesson in how to deal with dictators today. But that is a far cry from being traumatized or mentally unbalanced as a result of what happened to previous generations.

When Israelis look at Hamas, they don’t see Nazis. They see Palestinian Arab terrorists who, just weeks ago, perpetrated mass murder, torture, rape, and beheadings of Jews. Israel’s response to them is not rage against imaginary enemies. It’s self-defense against real enemies.

(November 2023)