Analyze This

The new book "Freud in Zion" describes the early days of psychoanalysis in Palestine. Who were the psychoanalysts that chose to leave Vienna and Berlin and come to Jerusalem? What did Sigmund Freud think about them and about Zionism? And how did analysis help people cope with the experience of expulsion from Europe? A conversation with the book's author, Eran Rolnik.

Amalia Rosenblum
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Amalia Rosenblum

Dr. Eran Rolnik is a psychiatrist, historian, translator, the scientific editor of many of Sigmund Freud's writings that were published in Hebrew and a fellow at the Israeli Institute of Psychoanalysis; Am Oved is now publishing his book "Osei Nefashot: Im Freud le'Eretz Yisrael 1918-1948" ("Freud in Zion"), which tells the story of psychoanalysis's immigration to the Land of Israel.

The study, which is based on a wide range of historical documents, personal letters and research done in archives in numerous countries, depicts how the Israeli Psychoanalytic Society took shape at the intersection of the Zionist enterprise and the psychoanalytic movement. On the occasion of the book's publication, we got together for a conversation about these two fascinating collective dreams, psychoanalysis and Zionism, about their movement between Vienna, Berlin, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and about the people who dreamed these dreams and also realized them.

In the book, you describe a group of psychoanalysts who arrived in Palestine in the period between the two World Wars. Who were the outstanding figures in this group?

"The book sketches something of a joint biography of a small group out of all the psychoanalysts who were active in Europe on the eve of the Second World War: They were students of Freud, almost all of them worked at the Psychoanalytic Institute in Berlin until Hitler came to power, and then they emigrated to Palestine in the 1930s.

At the head of the group was Max Eitingon, a member of the 'Secret Committee,' the 'Group of Seven' that ran the affairs of the psychoanalytic movement in its formative years. Eitingon found his way to psychoanalysis at a very young age and became closely attached to Freud. He came from an affluent Russian family that immigrated to Leipzig in the late 19th century. He was an energetic and loyal young man, devoid of theoretical pretensions, who gradually became a sort of foreign minister and sometimes also a finance minister, covering deficits, in the psychoanalytic movement. And then, to everyone's surprise, and Freud's especially, he suddenly showed his Zionist colors and immigrated to Palestine.

"Another important figure is Moshe Wulff, for one thing because from the day he arrived in Palestine, in 1933, and for close to 40 years, he was the most senior analyst in Tel Aviv. He had his office on Rothschild Boulevard, worked from morning till night and taught dozens of students. Unlike Eitingon, he frequently published scientific articles. Even the term 'object transference,' which we got from Winnicott, we actually owe indirectly to Wulff, who wrote about a baby's 'object fetish.' Before that, he was one of the top analysts in Russia. He fled from there in 1927 and worked at the institute in Berlin. He succeeded Eitingon as chairman of the Palestine Psychoanalytic Society and was also the one who introduced psychoanalysis to pedagogical and municipal officials.

"Aside from that, in this group we also find the Viennese pediatrician Josef Karl Friedjung, who yearned to return to Austria but died an untimely death here; then there's the neurologist Martin Pappenheim, whom the rumors said had converted; and Shmuel Golan of Hashomer Hatzair who was the main architect of collective kibbutz education; and Anna Smeliansky, the sister of the writer-farmer Moshe Smilansky, who was part of the First Aliyah."

In the book, you discuss the encounter between the psychoanalytic point of view, which by nature is about "breaking down, and is interpretive and individual," and the constructivist and collectivist outlook that guided Zionist ideology and the self-image of many of those who settled in Palestine. What were the results of this encounter?

"From the start, the local psychoanalytic discourse essentially followed two parallel paths, that at certain points appear to contain an immanent contradiction, and at other times it appears that the Gordian knot has been cut and psychoanalysis could genuinely flourish even in an ideologically-driven socialist society. Zionism and psychoanalysis are sometimes presented as antithetical: Zionism as a revolutionary romance and the product of a legendary-collective past versus psychoanalysis as something that is anchored in the enlightened Central European tradition and is more individualistic, more critical, less experiential and more rational. But it seems that it's possible to be an analyst and to ponder broad social matters, such as pedagogical issues, for instance, without it coming at the expense of the individual."

In the book you seem to refrain from elaborating on which specific critical discussion was omitted from the local psychoanalytic discourse in the negotiation with Zionism.

"The fundamental questions of the Zionist project were not discussed within the psychoanalytic discourse: the question of the legitimacy of settlement in Palestine, the question of the relationship between secularism and traditional Judaism, and later on - and this is something that accompanies the psychoanalytic society to this day - the question of psychoanalysts' involvement in social and political life."

Given Freud's express desire to separate his scientific-analytic identity from his Judaism, what was his position regarding the emigration of his disciples and the nationalist aspirations of the Jews in Mandatory Palestine?

"I think that Freud's position on this issue underwent several changes. Without a doubt, as was the case with his Jewish identity, one also finds clear expressions of sympathy from Freud for the Zionist idea, in its most territorial and concrete form; and on the other hand, you can also find, as you do with other Viennese and Central European intellectuals, statements in which Zionism is a manifestation of sovereignty, individualism and, above all, of machismo. When Sabina Spielrein, for example, writes to Freud that she is pregnant, after she'd given up hope of providing Jung with his little 'Siegfried,' Freud writes to her: 'If you have a son, my wish for you is that he be a faithful Zionist.' He didn't mean a Zionist in the nationalist sense, but was referring to how the goyim have 'Siegfried' and we have Zionism.

"But there's something else worth remembering: Freud was the founder of a science, and his picture of the world was divided into 'friends of psychoanalysis' and 'opponents of psychoanalysis.' He is a Zionist when it's still possible to hope that Magnes will bring psychoanalysis to the Hebrew University. The sense of Jewish solidarity that was quite developed in him in his youth may have grown stronger over the years, but he does not become sentimental regarding Zionism, even after the Nazis' rise to power and his emigration to London. Perhaps he was too pessimistic for that.

"In letters to Arnold Zweig, he says that the choice of Palestine is not a good omen. I would say that he saw the Jews' choice of Palestine as an attempt to restore an old love rather than find a new love. In analytic terms, the chances that such a love will work out are not very great. According to the analytic approach, the romantic argument for a renewed Zionism in Palestine is a neurotic argument."

You say that Freud was ready to forgo three components of Jewish identity - the Hebrew language, the Jewish religion and Jewish nationalism - and thus radically defined the modern secular Jew. At the same time, in his own view, he is actually more Jewish and not less Jewish. At the end of the book, you use Freud's fractured Jewish identity as a metaphor for the gaping chasm between the "pure, qualitative ideal of identity" that fueled the Zionist project and the psychoanalytic project that was born in Europe. What are you getting at here?

"The marker that's missing here is that of the unconscious. When the existence of the unconscious is accepted, then coherence and homogeneity is sacrificed, both on the individual and the collective level. Also on the consciousness-ideological level and on the level of subjective experience. The idea of the unconscious asks us: 'Where am I most myself? In the place where I'm the most foreign, in my unconscious. And how am I supposed to get to know this foreign part that is myself? Through the other.' That's how I read Freud's Judaism. Freud's Judaism is a 'mental Judaism' and his Zionism is also a mental Zionism.

"He tried to understand the concept of identity, not to negate it. Freud was a patriot and not a cosmopolite. He wrote one of his most beautiful compositions especially for a collection of propagandistic articles entitled 'The Land of Goethe,' which was published at the height of the First World War. He despised Americans and loved his 'own kind,' Central Europeans. But there's also something in his perception of identity that is accepting of difference and otherness.

"The Freudian man accepts that he lives on the seam between belonging and alienation. He knows that there are parts of his soul that will forever remain beyond conscious reach, yet he also does not shirk his responsibility for his fate. He has a certain responsibility that derives from his divided and partial recognition. This is also Freud's perception of Judaism: The true Jew does not need the outward symbolic manifestations of belonging, but still he does not give up on his belonging to this collective."

At the end of the book, you write: "The tale of psychoanalysis's emigration to Mandatory Palestine is not only a tale of continuity but also one of disconnection and fracture"; at the same time, you describe how German-speaking analysts who immigrated to Palestine refused to think of themselves as refugees, because of their Zionist self-perception. Is it your conclusion that this was an unrealistic position?

"Definitely. And it's true for them just as it's true for many people who immigrated to Palestine, and who because of the European crisis and the Zionist ideology did not emotionally address the parting from the Diaspora. Europe may have kicked the Jews out, there's no dispute about that, but parting from Europe this way is also painful, and particularly when in most cases, the young emigrants left loved ones behind. And no Zionist ideology could exempt the individual and the collective from processing and coping with the experience of loss and emigration. In this sense, psychoanalysis offered something like object transference. That is, someone who sought to strike roots in this place, whether an analyst himself or a patient, could have found in the psychoanalytic discourse some kind of European heritage that could mediate this new place for him."

In other words, analogously to Freud's writing about Moses, which suggests that psychoanalysis is the continuation of Judaism by other means, you're saying that the fulfillment of the psychoanalytic idea in Palestine is a continuation of Europeanism by other means.

"Certainly. The psychoanalytic idea propounding that the past of the individual, of the immigrant, is an inseparable part of his present, is an idea that was not looked upon favorably by the Zionist mainstream. Granted, no one really erased his past and everyone continued to dream in Yiddish even if they wrote in Hebrew. But psychoanalysis doesn't require this sort of pretending. And in this context, yes, 'Moses' is definitely a text that many in the Yishuv did not grasp, particularly its optimistic dimension. They focused on the weak historical thesis and viewed it as a show of defiance against a Jewish axiom."

You mean that they missed that fact that, in Freud's view, there is an option for another, more independent Jewish identity.

"Yes, something that is fed by foreign, random influences. Something that turns the Jew into an unusual, and in my view, attractive, historic product. There's nothing attractive about territorial nationalism. I'm not sure that there was another option for the 'Jewish Problem' in the 20th century except for the national option, but we ought to remember what we lost when we chose to tie our fate to nationalism. This may be the biggest tragedy of modern Judaism: that history finally managed to push us toward nationalism, too."

In the book you say that, as a consequence of the conflicting historical contexts, in Israel there developed "a unique brand of Freudianism," in which psychoanalysis succeeded in reestablishing itself in its traditional place "as a helpful tool for the distresses of the individual." How did it really accomplish this? What made this development possible?

"An interesting thing happened. On the one hand, a kind of mini-Berlin arose here in Jerusalem, in the Psychoanalytic Institute, for one thing because of the personality of Max Eitingon, who was careful to institute his Berlin ethos here. For example, he introduced a clause in the bylaws of the Palestine Psychoanalytic Society that said that any member interested in giving a public lecture on psychoanalysis had to first request and receive the committee's consent. For decades, psychoanalysis here was preserved in a way you couldn't find anywhere else in the world."

Almost like a protected reserve.

"Yes. And you must also remember how a psychoanalytical ethos develops: We have a deep and unique bond with our teachers. People who study psychoanalysis are different in this sense from people who study history. The relationship between therapist and patient, instructor and instructed, teacher and student, in psychoanalysis is very intense. The exposure to the depths of the other person is much greater in this discipline than in other fields of study. And thus in Palestine, a kind of Viennese and Berliner code endured for a good few decades whereas in other places it was already totally diluted.

"And it's not that there wasn't a Berlin Diaspora in New York. There certainly was. But its relative share within the community of analysts was different. The British, by the way, made sure that the Berlin exiles among them wouldn't have too much of an influence. In Palestine, that's what happened, and this stream could be nurtured unhindered. If I had to think today why the Israeli Psychoanalytic Society is so heterogeneous and eager to adopt new clinical and theoretical orientations, I'd see it as, for one thing, a reaction to decades of Freudian orthodoxy. I feel a little nostalgic for the good old Freudianism, even though I imagine that I really don't know what I'm talking about because I'm nostalgic for something that essentially never existed."

In the course of your work on the book, did you discover what you expected to find?

"I still haven't fully understood the topic that I'm researching. I think I prepared a kind of evidential infrastructure for questions that I ask myself as a clinician who works in Israel. I'm one of those people who think that life in this place is different from life anywhere else. It's not the same and will never be the same. I don't believe in the normalization of life in the Land of Israel. There is a tension that will forever accompany existence in this place. I search out this concept within the thing that I do, within psychotherapy and psychoanalysis, and ponder the possibility of doing psychotherapy and psychoanalysis in this place. And for these ponderings I need to know what my predecessors in the job did. Did they ask themselves similar questions, did they experience therapeutic practice in this place as something that contains, if not a contradiction, then unique tensions, at least.

"I'm aware that until recently the fashion in writing history was theoretical writing with a very subjective aspect to it. But in the course of this research, I rediscovered positivist historiography and was enchanted by it. And since I'm more of a clinician than a historian, and for most hours of the day I'm listening to people and not reading texts, it's not hard for me to adopt the historiographic approach that seeks to understand and not to explain.

"I'm also less and less preoccupied with questions of structures, methodology and narrative strategies. I suspect that, on the basis of the materials I lay out in the book, one could come away with a completely different story, which would be no less real." W