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Psychological Complexities of Violence and Revenge: Israel/Palestine

Updated: Oct 23, 2023

Judith Deutsch

Contributed article for the Nonviolent Resistance Working Group. Judith Deutsch is former president of Science for Peace, and a psychoanalyst in Toronto.

 IDF Spokesperson's Unit via Wikiemdia Commons

Preventing recurrent, predictable catastrophes must come with eliminating their causes, including complex psychological motives for both revenge and violence. Unlike the Holocaust defense of “not knowing”, people in Israel and defenders of Israel cannot claim ignorance about Israel’s scorched-earth wars on a captive civilian population. Almost all Jewish Israelis serve in the military, and upwards of 90% repeatedly support these wars.

There is much public knowledge about Israel’s brutal treatment of Palestinians. For example:

· Einstein, Arendt et al 1948 letter to the New York Times: “Among the most disturbing political phenomena of our times is the emergence in the newly created state of Israel of the ‘Freedom Party’ (Tnuat Haherut), a political party closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties.

· Ha’aretz 22 September 1967: “ Our right to defend ourselves from extermination does not give us the right to oppress others. Occupation entails foreign rule… Repression entails terror and counter-terror. The victims of terror are mostly innocent people. Holding on to the occupied territories will turn us into a nation of murderers and murder victims… “

· 2004 Olga Document signed by over 100 prominent Israeli Jews: “The State of Israel was supposed to grant security to Jews; it has created a death-trap whose inhabitants live in constant danger, the likes of which is not experienced by any other Jewish community. The State of Israel was supposed to tear down the walls of the ghetto; it is now constructing the biggest ghetto in the entire history of the Jews; The State of Israel was supposed to be a democracy; it has set up a colonial structure, combining unmistakable elements of apartheid with the arbitrariness of brutal military occupation…”

· Daniel Barenboim, Jewish Argentinian Israeli concert pianist, close friend and colleague of Edward Said. His 2004 speech to the Knesset on receiving the culture prize: ”The Declaration of Independence was a source of inspiration to believe in ideals that transformed us from Jews to Israelis. This remarkable document expressed the commitment. ‘The state of Israel will devote itself to the development of this country for the benefit of all its people…’ I am asking today with deep sorrow: Can we, despite all our achievements, ignore the intolerable gap between what the Declaration of Independence promised and what was fulfilled, the gap between the idea and the realities of Israel? … Can the Jewish people whose history is a record of continued suffering and relentless persecution, allow themselves to be indifferent to the rights and suffering of a neighboring people?” [The answer, sadly, is “yes.”]

· Benzi Sanders is a 19 year old survivor of the Hamas massacre at kibbutz Be’eri. She is enraged, terrified, and sorrowful about what happened to her and her close friends. She said that this one night of horror is what Palestinians in Gaza suffer everyday. She blames the heavily militarized Israeli government.

Israel’s New Historians document that mass expulsion and assassination were carefully planned before the Holocaust. What followed the Nakba was the Occupation, the recurrent deployment of unconventional and prohibited weapons, the use of the most lethal advanced technology against a captive population, and disproportionate killing , incarceration, and torture of Palestinian children.

The clash between ideal and reality is a product of individual and group psychology interacting with political power. Shakespeare’s Shylock says: “and if you wrong us shall we not revenge? … If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge.”

Jewish and Palestinian violence and revenge have different psychological causes.

The late Dr. Eyad El-Sarraj, director of the GCMHP: “For many of these children (in Gaza) the most excruciating ordeal was to see their fathers being beaten by Israeli soldiers – and not offering any resistance. This is truly a terrifying experience…. This will have a lasting impact on any observer, but particularly on children. No wonder the Palestinian child will see his model not in his father, but in that soldier; and no wonder his language will be the language of force and his toys and games the toys and games of death.” He wrote that those children “were subjected to several traumatic and violent experiences including beating, bone-breaking, injury, tear gas and acts of killing and injury, all of which experiences have left indelible effects on their psyche. Yet, to many, the most excruciating experience was seeing their fathers beaten helpless by Israeli soldiers without resistance.”

Dr. Nurit Peled-Elhanan talked about the daily humiliation of Palestinian mothers in front of their children: “I have never experienced the suffering Palestinian women undergo every day, every hour. I don’t know the kind of violence that turns a woman’s life into constant hell. This daily physical and mental torture of women who are deprived of their basic human rights and needs of privacy and dignity, women whose homes are broken into at any moment of day and night, who are ordered at a gun-point to strip naked in front of strangers and their own children….” In her bereavement group of Israeli and Palestinian mothers, she writes that these same Israeli mothers, on hearing the drumbeat of war, gloat about how handsome their children are in uniform.

Freud similarly described the impact in his own life of his father’s humiliation at the hands of a Nazi, linking it with his own desire to seek violent revenge.

Israeli smugness and triumphalism is widely disseminated in photos of Israelis sitting on lawn chairs in Sderot overlooking Gaza, entertained by unconventional weapons exploding over Gazan schools and neighborhoods. How do the victims of slaughter react to these images?

Psychologically, there are various reactions to being victimized. Even after excruciating experiences, people can maintain their sense that people are still human, not subhuman monsters or animals, elements or numbers, nobodies, collateral. Or defensively, they may react to wrongdoing by doing to others what was done to them, coping with the experience by turning a passive experience into an active one by being the perpetrator and not the victim. They can feel entitled and justified to be an exception to rules and morality because of being wronged. They can identify with the aggressor as described above by Dr. El-Sarraj. [2]

In his brilliant documentary, Israeli filmmaker Avi Mograbi shows how Israeli youth are indoctrinated from toddlerhood through young adulthood with the ideal of Samson the Hero. Samson was the Israelite judge who lost his mythic strength when Delilah cut his hair. He was subsequently captured and imprisoned by the Philistines and chained to the pillars of a temple. God restored Samson’s strength and he pulled down the temple in an act of suicidal murder, killing 5000 worshippers. In the most startling scene, Mograbi shows youth indoctrinated at Masada where heroic Jews under siege and surveillance chose to jump to their death. Asked how they would react to these conditions, the majority smilingly and heroically said they would leap to their death. There appeared no connection in their minds with their brutal siege and surveillance of Gaza.

Theodor Herzl, the author of Zionism in the late 19th century efflorescence of nationalism, wrote that his ideals were the German soldier and American cowboy. Modern Israel extols the ideal of strength and militarism. There are many descriptions of Israel’s disdainful treatment of caricatured weak ghetto Jews, of Holocaust survivors [3].

Strategic lies conceal surreptitious provocations to violence, as if the causes are endemic antisemitism against innocent Israel that justify massive retaliation with total impunity. Here are three examples:

· Chomsky: “Just one day before, Israel kidnapped two civilians in Gaza – a far worse crime than capturing a soldier – and transported them to Israel (in violation of international law, but that is routine), where they presumably joined the roughly one thousand prisoners held by Israel without charges, hence kidnapped.” He writes about the flat rejection of “Hamas’s call for along-term cease-fire to allow for negotiations in terms of the international consensus on a two-state settlement….” [4]

· Henry Siegman is the former director of the American Jewish Council and former Senior Fellow of the Council of Foreign Relations. He authored “Israel’s Lies” about Israel’s 2009 Operation Cast Lead: “that Hamas consistently violated the six-month truce that Israel observed and then refused to extend it; that Israel therefore had no choice but to destroy Hamas’s capacity to launch missiles into Israeli towns; that Hamas is a terrorist organization, part of a global jihadi network…” Siegman continued: “Middle East peacemaking has been smothered in deceptive euphemisms, so let me state bluntly that each of these claims is a lie. Israel, not Hamas, violated the truce: Hamas undertook to stop firing rockets into Israel; in return, Israel was to ease its throttlehold on Gaza. In fact, during the truce, it tightened it further….It cannot be said that Israel launched its assault to protect its citizens from rockets. It did so to protect its right to continue the strangulation of Gaza’s population.”

· A third example concerns the intentional and manipulative provocation of a Jewish vengeful terrorist act against Palestinians. Ben Ehrenreich describes the 2014 Palestinian murder of three Israeli youth in the West Bank. At first, there was a gag order on all news connected with this killing as if there was still time to save these youth. The following day, Netanyahu blamed Hamas for kidnapping the teenagers. For weeks, he continued to repeat, without any evidence, the same message about terrorist Hamas. 700,000 Palestinian inhabitants of Hebron were sealed off and the IDF raided every major city in the West Bank, killing and imprisoning Palestinians. “The media whipped the Israeli public into a frenzy of anxiety and rage,” and “Bring Back Our Boys” appeared everywhere with open talk about collective punishment of “cleansing the stables.” The government and media secretly knew of the murders. The IDF perpetrated massive brutalities during this fabricated “search”. Mobs carried signs emblazoned with “Revenge.” A Palestinian teen named Mohammad Abu Khdeir was martyred: the autopsy found soot in his lungs, bronchi, and throat – he was burned alive. [4]

Is surreptitious provocation, like killing Iranian nuclear physicists and Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, a frightening strategy used to provoke Iranian retaliation that would then justify Israeli retaliation?

Ambiguity about Israel’s well-documented possession of nuclear weapons allows plausible deniability about its nuclear arsenal. When asked about Israeli nuclearism, Obama infamously said “I don’t want to speculate.” Nation states and the UN collude with this claim of innocence: the US State Department reportedly banned officials from referring to “de-escalation and ceasefire” The UN Security Council voted against calling for a ceasefire. A deployment of a de-militarized peacekeeping force is never considered.

There is a huge, glaring disjuncture between image and reality: the self-representation of Jewish universal values, a light onto nations, the people of the book, “Never again” for all people, the hypocrisy of atonement. The aforementioned Olga Document concludes:

We are talking of a road that has not been tried hitherto: being honest with ourselves, with our

neighbours and particularly with the Palestinian people. If we muster within ourselves the appropriate honesty and requisite courage, we will be able to take the first step in the long journey that can extricate us from the tangle of denial, repression, distortion of reality, loss of direction and forsaking of conscience, in which the people of Israel have been trapped for generations.

[1] Judith Deutsch, “Psychoanalytic thoughts on Israel and the siege of Gaza,” in Psychoanalysis, Collective Traumas and Memory Places, 2008, ed. S. Varvin, W. Bohleber, R. Hinshelwood. Giuseppe Leo, Frenis Zero Press. Italy.

[ 2] Sigmund Freud describes the belief in entitlement, of being an exception, in his article “Some character-types met with in psychoanalytic work (1916),” Standard Edition XIV. Also see Anna Freud’s excellent chapter “Identification with the Aggressor” p. 109-121, in The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense. 1937 (1971).

[3] For example, see Haim Bresheeth-Zabner, An Army Like No Other: how the Israel Defense Forces Made a Nation, Verso, New York. 2020. Norman Finkelstein’s work on image vs reality, Avi Shlaim’s Three Worlds: memoirs of an Arab-Jew, Simon and Shuster, 2023. Also see Pappe’s Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.

[4] Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappe, Gaza in Crisis: reflections on Israel’s war against the Palestinians, Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2010. P. 6.

[4] Ben Ehrenreich, The Way of the Spring: life and death in Palestine, Penguin Press, New York, 2016. P. 327 ff.


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