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The Psychopathology of Revenge

In my recent article, Obama-Netanyahu Feud: Contrived Bruhaha, I pointed to commonalities between the US and Israel on geopolitical aims and conduct and the mutual pursuit of counterrevolutionary goals and practices (each nation feeding on the other’s hubristic posture in the world), that made the leaders’ well-publicized differences over the latter’s upcoming address to Congress mere cosmetics in no way undermining solidarity of purposes in executing regional and global policy. As I wrote, there appeared in the New York Times an op-ed article by Isaac Herzog, the leader of the Labor party in Israel, which mildly criticized Netanyahu for making Israel’s security a partisan issue in American politics while actually their overriding position on crucial global matters was the same. This confirmed to me the absence of basic differences, hence, a monolithic mindset, among Israelis, when it came to the domination of others, an abnormal—if you will—penchant for cruelty and insensitivity to the killing and maiming of, here, the people of Gaza, but in fact a disposition to support Rightist governments and parties in the region and beyond. Israel had almost from its founding become a miniaturized America, each one reinforcing and drawing spiritual nourishment from the other’s militaristic ethos and claims to moral superiority.

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Before exploring what I am terming the psychopathology of revenge, I turn briefly to Herzog’s article to illustrate the operant consensus within Israel, a consensus that has left Gaza a bloody mess of displaced people, a widespread landscape of rubble, social misery, compounded by the destruction of hospitals and loss of essential services, as in the bombing and/or shelling of water treatment plants and electricity grids, and the systematic killing (as in UN shelters) of readily identified civilian targets. By itself, this puts meat on the skeleton of psychopathology—not a word on Gaza, for example, in Herzog’s demur over the Netanyahu visit.

Instead, a disagreement over tactics. Isaac comes from Israeli royalty: “My father, Chaim Herzog, first went to Washington in 1950 to help open the Israeli Embassy. Throughout his life, he was committed to the American-Israeli alliance and did his utmost—as a general, diplomat and president of Israel—to maintain the deep bond between the Jewish democratic state and the United States.” (The preceding obligatory reference to “democratic” is a case in point of arrogance and self-delusion, especially in light of the notable lack of dissent on policy including the peace process.) Israel can do no wrong, but more important, nor can America, a marriage of political virtue among the blessed. Thus he writes: “[Chaim] realized the intimate relationship between the two countries was based not only on immense strategic interests but also on shared core values. He also knew that Israel must always be grateful to America, which has stood by us since the moment our country was born, and that support for Israel must be a nonpartisan issue in the United States.” There, and only there, is where Netanyahu errs. His speech “to the Republican-controlled Congress next week [violating “the bipartisan approach” of his father and of “Israel’s other founding fathers and mothers”]—an invitation he accepted without consulting America’s Democratic president—is a major mistake.”

The content of the speech, however, is not. “I, too,” Isaac writes, “am concerned about the possibility that American diplomats could be tempted to accept insufficient guarantees [with respect to Iran’s nuclear program] of our safety.” Therefore, “Instead of creating the false impression that our interests are allied with only one American party or interest group, we should be reaching out to all Americans—Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, hawks and doves.” Not difficult to accomplish, in light of shared principles and strategies. Calling Israel “an oasis of liberty” and, “not only a rock-solid ally in a stormy Middle East but a fellow democracy that upholds the self-evident truths that America is based on… freedom, human rights and the pursuit of peace,” there is little that can shake the belief in a psychological-ideological rectitude characterizing the partnership. Yes, have some form of negotiation with Iran, but “keep all options on the table” while, the implication here, shifting emphasis to punitive means of securing cooperation. Like Netanyahu, Herzog does not trust Obama and wants the US to be firm—the hallowed special relationship, America and Israel, still honored, but needing reinforcement.

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In my earlier article I referred in passing to Israel’s having rendered Gaza “the Bergen-Belsen of the Arab world,” a very harsh statement, but one on further reflection I believe is justified. How explain not only the merciless killing but also the indifference to it on the part of Israelis? Initially, as I over time became more critical of Israel, I ascribed the behavior to the psychodynamics of introjection: the gut-wrenching, anguished, unspeakably cruel experience of the Holocaust, a process of dehumanization which left the individual in a state of extreme ego-loss powerless to resist both the degraded image of the self and the external penetration of the total context of repression into the psyche, notably, the value system of the oppressor, the jailer, the Nazi. This grounding down of the human personality cannot but leave its scars, as though in struggling for a return to wholeness some of the internal poisons remain. One should not blame the victims for the brutal crimes practiced on them. They are entitled to understanding, at the very least, and actually a good deal more. But the historical experience etched into the mindset of the survivors and passed on to future generations could, and I think did, take on a perverse course, at first, largely unconscious, but then hardened into place as the group-memory of genocide remained in force and the experience of renewed persecution either persisted or threatened.

At this point, clearly not explainable by some form of psychological determinism, but nevertheless, by a natural drive for self-protection, victims find within themselves transformative powers, as in the resolve, “Never again,” to liberate themselves from societal- and self-captivity to become strong, if need be, by overcompensating from previous weakness, with the result of adopting for themselves the mindset that had been responsible for holding them down. The toughness of the Israeli is legendary, a toughness, however, drained of the humanistic, life-giving impulses that had heretofore characterized Judaism and its embrace of the stranger, its inceptive radicalism and call for transcendent brotherhood, its respect for the arts—all thought softness today and ill-fitted for present reality. Sartre once described the anti-Semite (which we can enlarge to include the authoritarian personality) as one attracted to the durability of stone.

This is where, I’m afraid, we’re at: the prostitution of “Never again” into a solipsistic credo of what might best be called, defensive aggression, which turns out to be not defensive at all. Gaza is like a laboratory of cruelty, different from the gas chamber in quantity more than in quality, a possibility actualized only because of or through the debasement of religious teachings preceded by the breakdown of personality structure and value system under the weight of the Holocaust. Can the spell be broken, the historical- psychological continuity of suffering-transformed-into-revenge likewise broken? I fear that introjection has become a runaway process, that at this point revenge has eliminated an initially passive response to psychological impoverishment, so that the presumed emancipation from the past, the conversion from weakness into strength, takes the hideous form of recapitulating that past under Israel’s own auspices as reproducing the Nazi experience in the modern era: Bergen-Belsen qua Gaza, an assertion of might, a warning to all enemies, real and imagined, and proof-positive of the requisite hardness worthy to being taken as America’s staunchest ally.

Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

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Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

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