Conflict in the psyche

Psychologist Alon Gratch attempts to analyze the Israeli mind – and finds it seriously lacking

Inside the mind (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Inside the mind
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Not long ago, at a dinner party in Jerusalem hosted by his friends, Alon Gratch presented an outline of the themes of his forthcoming book on the national character of Israel.
A guest interrupted him to question the utility and the validity of the notion of a national character. Citing the dangers of “reductionist psychological concepts,” another diner also spoke dismissively about Gratch’s project.
“Applying reverse psychology,” but also because he found “some of their critique intellectually valid,” Gratch agreed with their observations. He maintained, however, that in his book he could – and would – “be more subtle and less simplistic” than he had been throughout the conversation.
Born in Israel and educated in the United States, Gratch is now a New York-based clinical psychologist. He is the author of two books, If Men Could Talk and If Love Could Think. His latest, The Israeli Mind, is Gratch’s attempt to identify and analyze the conflicts embedded in the collective psyche of Israelis. A failure to resolve them, he emphasizes, could threaten Israel’s existence.
The Israeli Mind covers a wide array of “hot button” issues, including the legacy of the Holocaust, political polarization and the religious-secular divide in Israel, Iran’s nuclear program, and the Israeli-Palestinian “quagmire.” The book is passionate and provocative. In all likelihood, however, it will not satisfy critics of Gratch’s use of the concept of national character or his deployment of psychological terms, usually applied to individuals, to make sweeping generalizations about the values and behavior of the nation of Israel.
According to Gratch, Israeli identity is shaped by internal contradictions between the continuity of Jewish history, the revolutionary nature of Zionism, and the horrors of the Holocaust. And the conviction that they are victims and survivors.
On the positive side, Israelis are especially adept at learning new skills, adapting, improvising, questioning authority, and living as intensely as possible. Having “internalized the categorical imperative that it is better to be aggressive than helpless,” they act “with greater public confidence than ever before.”
That said, Gratch seems preoccupied with the downside of the collective psyche of Israel. Thinking themselves the Chosen People, Gratch writes, Israelis are arrogant, condescending, disdainful, and likely to exhibit “a shocking indifference to the sufferings and perspectives of others.” Their ideas of Jerusalem and the Land of Israel “as a whole” often “trump reality.” Their relentless drive for success produces “a predilection for cutting corners, bluffing and lying.”
Although they admit to no self-doubt, they are on the inside conflicted, divided, mistrustful, self-doubting and “often self-hating.”
Nor does Gratch hesitate to use pejorative psychological terms to characterize the Israeli national character. Israelis are narcissists, he writes, vacillating between the extremes of an “insufferable awareness of their own feelings of superiority” and self-doubts and self-criticism of equal proportion that make them long for “acceptance, validation and love from others.” Stemming in part from the historical reality of persecution, Gratch indicates, Israeli Jews also exhibit paranoia.
At times unaware of their hostile feelings and their “original sin” (Zionist colonialism), they often project hostile feelings onto others. This paranoia, Gratch suggests, has led Israelis to spurn several peace initiatives, “even those originating from their biggest supporter, the United States.”
Accompanying these characteristics is a “hyper-masculinization” that fosters “brutality, vulgarity and insensitivity” and the squashing of comfort, safety and softness that the disavowed mother (whom Israelis subconsciously desire) represents. And Gratch also detects a nostalgic attachment to a wrathful God, demanding self-sacrifice that may nurture unconscious attempts to “master the trauma” by finding “someone to whom he can do what has been done to him.” Add to this “the predictable cycle of war’s attack and retaliation,” Gratch adds, “and you can see how the Jewish state ends up doing evil – upon itself as much as others.”
Finally, although he acknowledges that from a psychological standpoint, forgetting is neither an option nor desirable, Gratch declares that “the larger point” made by Holocaust survivor Yehuda Elkana (in an essay in Haaretz) – that the Holocaust now constitutes the greatest danger to the State of Israel because it can be and often is interpreted as a call for blind hatred – “can hardly be denied.”
At another dinner party in Israel, Gratch tells us, the guest who had thrown cold water on his use of psychology “added insult to injury”: He predicted that as Gratch worked on the book, he would “change course.”
It appears that he was wrong. It is likely as well that his heartfelt, impressionistic, and (apparently) self-consciously in-yourface book will not change many minds.
And it may convince readers to endorse the skepticism expressed by Gratch’s father about psychology, or more precisely, about psychoanalytic interpretations of national character. ■ Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.