Freudian Questions About Israel’s Killing

“I concede with sorrow that the baseless fanaticism of our people is in part to be blamed for the awakening of Arab distrust.  I can raise no sympathy at all for the misdirected piety which transforms a piece of a Herodian wall into a national relic, thereby offending the feelings of the natives.” Freud’s response to a request to sign a petition condemning the Palestinian riots of 1929 against Zionist colonization.

Freud’s psychological discoveries begin with the human body. First question: how does the Israeli body politic treat the Palestinian body?

The impetus of this article is the ICC investigation of Israeli war crimes and the highly publicized criticism of Israel for charging six human rights NGOs with terrorism. Six months prior to charging the NGOs, six other Palestinian and Israeli NGOs demanded that Israel provide Covid vaccines to Palestinians. This demand was about the health emergency due to Israel’s withholding vaccines from Palestinians. At the time Israel was also killing Palestinians with yet another massacre in Gaza, there was an upsurge of vigilante killing in Jerusalem and the West Bank, and all this killing was on top of Israel’s continuous covert ways of killing Palestinians (which Israeli historian Ilan Pappe calls incremental genocide). The human rights situation in Israel is of course dire, but why so often has there not been comparable attention and unambiguous condemnation of Israel’s endemic killing, its entitlement to kill?

A panel of Palestinians interpreted the timing of Israel’s criminal charges against the NGOs with the ICC investigation of Israel’s war crimes. The panelists identified intensified vilification of any criticism of Israel since the 2009 Goldstone investigation of Israel’s war crimes in Gaza.

These are the six human rights NGOs charged with terrorism in October 2021: Defense for Children International/Palestine section, Al Haq, Addameer, Bisan Center for Research and Development, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, and the Union of Palestinian Women’s Com

These are the six NGOs in March 2021 petitioning Israel’s High Court of Justice for life-saving Covid-19 vaccines: Physicians for Human Rights Israel, HaMoked: Center for the Defence of the Individual, Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, Gisha – Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, and Rabbis for Human Rights.

The questions here are about the omissions and evasions by many people and groups about what is startlingly observable – the almost daily killing of Palestinian people. How, who, and why can anyone think that a 14-year-old Palestinian child throwing a stone, who was killed by an Israeli soldier, could be a threat to Israel’s existence or to Jewish existence? Israel, the world’s largest per capita exporter and importer of weapons, with a nuclear arsenal condoned and uncensured, is threatened by a stone? Are Israelis and other Jewish people honestly feeling endangered when widely circulated photographs show Israelis sitting on lawn chairs here to watch the spectacle of white phosphorus raining down on an elementary school in Gaza? Or seeing the photo in the Jerusalem Post of an Israeli school girl drawing graffiti on artillery shells that kill children and their families here?

From listening to children, we can speculate why a Palestinian child would want to throw a stone and why a Jewish Israeli girl would want to kill Palestinians. The Gaza stone-thrower likely knows that Palestinian children are arrested in the middle of the night without warning and taken to military prisons where they may be tortured. A child would know about intentional lack of medical care and healthy food since Israel doctors put Gazans on a barely survivable diet. Most children in Gaza have lost friends and family members and have likely seen mutilated bodies in the five terrifying military attacks since 2006 involving the use of prohibited weapons. The late Tanya Reinhart [1] identifies the strategy of killing a small number of Palestinians every day and of inflicting devastating injuries on children’s eyes, heads, or knees. For the blind, crippled, and maimed, she writes that ‘their fate is to die slowly, far away from the cameras….they cannot survive crippled amidst the near starvation and infrastructure destruction that is inflicted on their communities.” Incremental killing is strategic as it’s “not yet an atrocity” (p. 112-116). The child might have night terrors, bed-wetting, and hearing loss because Israel’s midnight low-flying aircraft’s sonic booms aim to terrify children. Children would have witnessed Israeli soldiers humiliating their fathers and mothers and might have heard about Israeli soldiers defecating in Palestinian homes and government headquarters.

What contributes to the Jewish girl’s wish to kill Palestinians? Nurit Peled-Elhanan, here, professor of education whose daughter was killed by a Palestinian terrorist, writes that Israeli school books teach Jewish children that “massacres confer dignity and pride in the military, that the military is the idol, role model and god, that Jews are superior and emblematic of universal values whereas a Palestinian life does not count as life.” Jewish children learn inaccurate history, conflating Palestinians with all enemies of the Jewish people. A documentary about the education of Israeli children from toddlerhood through late adolescence shows that they learn about ‘Samson the Hero’, revered for his strength as he was able to kill thousands of people by pulling down the temple’s pillars in his vengeful suicide. A Jewish child may learn that the first commandment is ‘Thou Shalt not Kill’ but that God commands Abraham to kill his own son. Jewish children learn that Hannukah celebrates military victory and miraculous oil, and they would likely know that the simultaneous Christmas celebration is about a child’s birth.

Freudian questions ask whether the fact of killing people is seen, twisted, rationalized, or denied. Early in life there begins to develop a capacity to reality test, to differentiate animate from inanimate, human from non-human life, to distinguish words from actions, to see other people as real and complex. Freud called dream construction and early childhood thinking ‘primary process’, where words are conflated with things, meanings are reversed, and there is belief in one’s omnipotence and omniscience. Some of the maturational capacities to reality test are intermittent or skewed in people who wield power and influence as evidenced in their words and actions, and this is incredibly dangerous. Israel’s influential people talk about people as non-human or inanimate: ‘mowing the lawn’ means massacring a group of people; Palestinian mothers bare “little snakes” and must be killed. Military budgets in most countries monetize humans as inanimate objects in which the cost of killing is exchangeable with other costs (goods and services!); Israel’s weapons technology is battle-tested in Gaza, and each war increases weapons sales – more kill/$.

Killing Methods

Covid-19 vaccine apartheid:

More than half of Israel’s 9.2million people received two doses as of 25 March 2021. Of 5.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, only about 120,000 people received vaccines. Israel had sent vaccines deep into the West Bank but only for Jewish settlers. In June 2021, the Palestinian Authority announced that the delivered vaccines were not usable as they were about to expire. Gaza is one of the most densely populated areas in the world with little space for social distancing, and because of the siege its people are especially vulnerable due to poor nutrition, sanitation, and medical care. In March 2021, a UN special committee was set up to investigate Israel’s donating surplus vaccines overseas while failing to fulfill its legal responsibility and obligation to ensure the vaccination of the Palestinian population. Israel sent surplus vaccines to Guatemala and Honduras, the two countries that moved their embassies to Jerusalem. Previously Israel sold arms to these countries ruled by dictators.

Military assaults

Israel launched Operation Guardian of the Wall here in May, 2021, an eleven-day full-scale assault on Gaza targeting children, women, people with disabilities, paramedics, medical facilities, media and education institutions. Israel killed 278 people, wounded 9,000, displaced 77,000 people, and damaged 30 health facilities. The May 17 attack alone in the early hours obliterated multiple generations of families. Israeli warplanes fired 50 missiles, hitting residential buildings, killing 43 people including 18 children, 12 women, and two top doctors who were overseeing Gaza’s pandemic response. The Israeli assaults on Gaza on 17 May 2021 destroyed Gaza’s only Covid-testing lab.

Typical cases of vigilante and military violence at this time:

12 May 2021 Palestinians protesting forced evictions were attacked by vigilantes, police, and the military using live and rubber bullets, beatings, and “kharara” (the ‘skunk” spray, at times lethal).

17 August 2021, teens from Silat a-Daher in Jenin District set out to picnic on village land. Settlers who came to the scene grabbed one of them, knocked him down with their car and tied him to it and then drove to the former site of the settlement of Homesh where they abused him until he lost consciousness. They beat and kicked him, hung him in the air, cut his feet and burned them, and pepper-sprayed him in the eyes. He was handed over to soldiers who passed him on to family members.

29 August 2021, dozens of settlers raided the community of al-Mufaqarah, stoned residents and homes, and damaged property. Several villagers were injured, including a toddler whose skull was fractured.

14 October, 14 year old Amjad Osama Abu Sultan was killed by Israeli soldiers. Israeli forces refused to turn over his body for investigation.

Incremental, covert killing:

01 December 2021 Dr. Mona El Farrah of Gaza spoke of the unreported day-to-day killing of fishermen and farmers in Gaza by Israeli forces. She spoke about the blockade causing anemia and stunted growth in half Gaza’s child population.

15 May 2021 Israel shelled Gaza’s largest agrochemical warehouse for agricultural supplies. The plant provided pesticides, fertilisers and materials such as plastic, nylon and water pipes, accounting for over 50% of all agricultural supplies across the Gaza Strip. According to the Al Mezan’s Research and Technical assistance Unit, the 4,000 sq meter warehouse stored around 300 tons of highly hazardous pesticides.

May 2021 Israel damaged 18 sewage water pumps, including six that were completely destroyed. infrastructure in Gaza: damages to some 18,734 meters of the sewage networks

From Human Rights to Human Life: The Complexity of Genocide

Paraphrasing Tolstoy’s “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” every genocide is perpetrated in its own way.

Genocide authority Leo Kuper [2] writes that there are many forms of genocide. Victims include entire nations as well as religious, racial, ethnic, political and economic groups. Perpetrators include mechanized bureaucracies, political groups and economic classes. In the post WWII period, Kuper singles out the complicity of UN voting blocs , “regional and ideological protection rackets” “that barter one atrocity for another.” Individual suffering and cruelty and evil must “be understood in its own terms”(p. 9-10) The United Nations “responds with indifference, if not with condonation “which serves as a screen for genocide” (p. 18). The aim has been not to protect the victims but the oppressors. Kuper had written this after the UN sanctioned genocidal war on North Korea and before the 1990s UN Iraq sanctions causing the death of ½ million Iraqi children.

The Complexity of Evil [3]model suggests that perpetrators of genocide include the people “articulating, rationalizing, and distributing a genocidal ideology, writing and implementing discriminatory legislation, developing and maintaining the necessary technology for killing…”P 9. Aharon Shabtai’s poem J’Accuse is about this: “The sniper who shot at Muhammad the child Beneath his father’s arm Wasn’t acting alone“. It takes people performing many roles to kill “a population of a certain size/which needs to be pounded and ground Then shipped off as human powder.”

How and why do inflammatory words penetrate some people’s consciousness and their actions and incite action rather than self-control? What shapes group behavior and condonation, and is there reality testing?

Historian and scientist Israel Shahak [4]writes that what persists to this day is due to the interaction between immediate political considerations and ideological influences, and he particularly looks at Jewish racist, chauvinistic, exclusivist, and authoritarian beliefs, prescriptions, and practices. His sources include Hebrew and Yiddish texts. He writes that Jewish xenophobia is stronger when it is “hidden from public discussion”, when its discussion is “prohibited”, when “it is taken for granted by the society which indulges in it.”(p.13) “Antisemitism and Jewish chauvinism can only be fought simultaneously”. “Our task here is to discuss historic Judaism in real terms”. (p.11)

The reality includes Talmudic and other religious texts stating that the lives of non-Jews are inconsequential and inessential. “Thou shalt love thy fellow as thyself” is an injunction to love fellow Jews but not any fellow humans. A Jew is in general forbidden to save the life of a Gentile because he is not ‘thy fellow’ (p.37). Jewish religion is not humanitarian and universalist. “Everywhere, classical Judaism developed hatred and contempt for agriculture as an occupation and for peasants as a class, even more than for other Gentiles”. “There was a lack of sensitivity for the suffering of that major part of humanity who were especially oppressed during the last thousand years – the peasants.” (p.55) Jewish leaders allied themselves with oppressive, brutal leaders, and pogroms by peasants were most often broad-based reactions to this multi-ethnic ruling class and not antisemitic per se. Zionist Israel is aligned with the world’s most brutal dictators.

Shahak writes that existentialist humanitarian Martin Buber’s “sentimental and deceitful romantisation” version of Judaism retained and legitimated the extreme racism of Jewish mysticism and that Buber never gave a hint that this movement was “holding and teaching doctrines about non-Jews not unlike the Nazi doctrines about Jews….the consequences of deception are incalculable.”. Shahak writes that Hannah Arendt’s idealized version of Jewish universalism ignores the historic reality of totalitarian European Jewish governance up until the French revolution when Jews began to be governed by national, not Jewish laws. (p.27-28).

Post-modern critic Judith Butler [5] known for her work differentiating Zionism and Judaism, similarly ignores this racist and totalitarian aspect of Jewish history and religion. She writes from the subjectivist point of view about reality, as if it is not possible to differentiate what could be with what is. For example, she writes that “at stake in one part of the report [Goldstone investigation of war crimes] and its findings is whether civilians were targeted or, indeed, whether civilians were used as human shields.” She does not report that the investigation found that Hamas did not use people as human shields (p 366) but that Israel did (p 308)[6]. She asks whether the Goldstone report “asserts or even makes law” but did not state that the report does not make law. She impugns the report’s legitimacy with the circuitous question “whether Goldstone speaks or whether international law speaks when Goldstone speaks.” She does not look at facts about Jewish history but accepts the idealizing version of Jewish humanitarian and universalist values, the “Arendtian tradition within Jewish thought that binds the fate of the Jew with the non-Jew”. They both attribute these universal values to the “diasporic condition, one that includes dispossession, persecution, and exile.” (p.178-9) There is certainly a great deal of evidence that these experiences generated Jewish exceptionalism and entitlement to a closed militaristic society. Butler sees ambiguity when there is none in Darwish’s poem about Edward Said: “And scream that you may hear yourself, and scream that you may know you’re alive, and alive, and that life on this earth is possible.” Butler only focuses on the ambiguity of the word “and”, but not the unambiguous scream about life and death(p.219-220). Edward Said himself was unambiguous about killing, and he wrote that in Shahak’s work, “killing is murder is killing is murder”(p. ix).

In the Jewish religion, there is a long history of parsing out words to the effect that laws are transformed into meaningless rules that often reverse their original intention (primary process thinking). When Israel pulled out of Gaza but maintained control of all its borders and its economy, Israel invented a new legal category “parastatal entity” so that it no longer had to comply with Geneva Convention obligations of an occupying power. The Israeli documentary The Law in These Parts is about the uses and transformations of a range of laws to justify whatever serves Israeli interests.

Given the daily killing, other questions are urgent. Why did the NGOs that are vociferous and prompt in their condemnation of Israel’s criminalization of the human rights NGOs react so differently than in the 2014 war on Gaza?

Norman Finkelstein [7] documents their refusal to accuse Israel of intentionally and indiscriminately killing civilians though they acknowledged all the deaths: 551 Gazan children killed, 1 Israeli child; 18,000 Gaza homes damaged or destroyed, 1 Israeli home; 73 medical facilities damaged or destroyed and zero Israeli. He documents the work of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the UN Human Rights Council, the Lancet Medical Journal. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch rightly condemned Israel’s criminalization of human rights NGOs, but human life is different. This is a consequential omission because it involves killing.

What is the group process, the role of authority, of dissent, and of reality testing? This is a key question because individuals (including children – The Emperor’s New Clothes) and groups have innumerable times not been intimidated by authority and by manufactured disinformation and are able to perceive reality – and “scream”.

Previous to his article about Moses being an Egyptian, not a Jew, Freud interpreted Michelangelo’s statue of Moses as depicting the exact moment that Moses controlled his rage and upheld the first commandment – quite opposite the idealizing portrayal of vengeful ‘Samson the Hero’ taught to Israeli youth.[8]


[1] Tanya Reinhart (2005), Israel/Palestine: how to end the war of 1948, New York: Seven Stories Press. P 112-116.

[2] Leo Kuper (1981), Genocide: its political use in the twentieth century, New Haven: Yale University Press.

[3] Timothy Williams (2021), The Complexity of Evil: perpetration and genocide. Newark: Rutgers University Press. P. 17.

[4] Israel Shahak (1994), Jewish History, Jewish Religion: the weight of three thousand years, London: Pluto Press.

[5] Judith Butler (2012), Parting Ways: Jewishness and the critique of Zionism, New York: Columbia University Press.

[6] Adam Horowitz, Lizzy Ratner, Philip Weiss ed., (2011). The Goldstone Report: the legacy of the landmark investigation of the Gaza conflict, New York: Nation Books.

[7] Norman Finkelstein (2018). Gaza: An Inquest into its Martyrdom. Oakland: University of California Press.

[8] Sigmund Freud (1981), The Moses of Michelangelo 1914. Standard Ed., 13, London: Hogarth Press. p 211-237.

Judith Deutsch is a psychoanalyst in Toronto. She is former president of Science for Peace. She can be reached at