Beyond the Trauma Principle

Has the approach of Israel’s younger analysts been determined, or reinforced, by a political culture that stresses the idea that all evil comes from outside? On the occasion of the 80th anniversary of Israel’s Psychoanalytic Society.

Eran Rolnik
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Sigmund Freud ןn his working room in 1938.
Sigmund Freud ןn his working room in 1938.
Eran Rolnik

Pinpointing the moment of creation of psychoanalysis in Israel is no easy matter. In the same way that it would be a mistake to tell the story of Israel beginning in 1948, when statehood was declared, it would be equally mistaken to date local psychoanalysis from the establishment of the local psychoanalytic society, 80 years ago.

Toward the end of 1933, Anna Freud wrote to a colleague: “My father had a letter from [Dr. Max] Eitingon today. You will soon hear from him about the formation of a new group in Palestine. The members are mostly or all old Berlin members. New groups used to be a pleasure. They are not just now.”

There is no doubt that the Vienna group would have found little to celebrate in the rapid organizing in Palestine of psychoanalysts who until recently had been active within the framework of the important and thriving psychoanalytic institute in Berlin. The new society held its first meeting on May 5, 1934, a date that was entwined with a festive psychoanalytic occasion known and familiar to all: Sigmund Freud’s birthday, which fell on the following day. Thus it was possible for the immigrant psychoanalysts from Germany to set the founding date of the Palestine Psychoanalytic Society in Jerusalem at a symbolically safe distance from the violent primal scene – the annus horribilis of 1933 – that spawned it.

The letter to the elder Freud from Russian-born physician and psychoanalyst Eitingon, written shortly after he established the psychoanalytic society, testified to a determination not to let historical and societal circumstances excessively interfere with the establishment of the field in Palestine: “The intensive building that characterizes this place forces us to follow our own private path and not become absorbed too early in public life,” Eitingon wrote Freud, and then added, “after all, it is the same people, with the same problems we had been used to dealing with, as clearly neither Orthodox Jews nor Arabs are suitable in any way for psychoanalysis.”

Evidently, the two “Others” of Jewish nationalism – Orthodox Jews and the indigenous Arab population – would be excluded from local psychoanalytic discourse for many years to come. The Psychoanalytic Society’s Institute for Psychoanalysis in Jerusalem combined rigorous training, an outpatient clinic, and an uncompromising loyalty to Freudian psychoanalysis. The society’s bylaws contained an unusually draconian provision. It stipulated that any member who wished to give a public lecture on any topic relating to psychoanalysis was to inform the society’s governing committee in advance and receive its consent.

Before long a paradox became apparent: On the one hand, in the collectivist social reality that characterized life in Israel, the ability of psychoanalysts to “retreat to the clinic” and offer an individual the opportunity to recover her own private language and history was of great significance; however, this very retreat to the clinic distanced psychoanalysis from critical intellectual discourse, where it could have contributed its share to the liberation of society from the neo-romantic, utopian and almost messianic ideological elements then so dominant.

Interestingly enough, yet consistent with the reaction of most psychoanalysts at the time, neither the encounter with murderous anti-Semitism nor the imminent Arab-Jewish conflict were openly acknowledged by Freud’s acolytes in Palestine. It was only in the late 1950s that Israeli analysts would gradually acknowledge the Holocaust’s direct and indirect effects on the survivors, and on the members of the second and third generations.

One of the high points in the search by the Israeli Psychoanalytic Society for a way to make a distinctive contribution to the profession took the form of a series of lectures held by the society on the psychological basis of war, in the first half of the 1960s. The result was a book that was published two wars later and proximate to a third: the Yom Kippur War. The volume’s poetic thrust is provided by a foreword written by the transportation minister at the time, Shimon Peres.

Under one roof

Beginning in the 1960s, and to the present day, Israeli psychoanalysts have published a large number of articles and books devoted to the psychological effects of the Holocaust and on the clinical treatment of survivors and their children and grandchildren. These works consider the implications of the trauma of the Holocaust for Israeli society, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the relations between Israelis and Germans. It looks as if Israeli clinicians embraced the idea of trans-generational transmission of trauma as a way to counterbalance the general reluctance of Israelis to acknowledge the presence of Jewish history and past in their self-understanding.

As it celebrates its 80th anniversary, the Israel Psychoanalytic Society finds itself thriving, in numbers of both members and candidates. Representatives of all major psychoanalytical orientations are to be found in the membership. If analysts in Israel seem to have relinquished the search for common ground in matters of theory or technique, they have not given up the desire to remain under the same roof, however loosely associated.

Contemporary psychoanalytic discourse in Israel offers still more food for thought on the relationship between science and ideology, and between political culture and analytic theory. Consider, for instance, the pronounced “trauma-centrism” of the analytic discourse in present-day Israel. The vast majority of younger analysts in Israel today are inclined in their clinical work toward psychoanalytic models of the mind that emphasize the role of actual trauma in mental life. The “imagined patient” of Israeli psychoanalysis seems to be a fairly passive individual, mostly reactive to his environment and, therefore, hardly accountable to his interiority and his mind.

Such theorizing tends to portray the patient as a passive template on which social atrocities or the shortcomings of his significant others are inscribed, rather then as an active agent. It is a trend that has accompanied a steady decline in interest in the dynamic unconscious, in primary aggression, and in promoting the patient’s sense of responsibility for both the creative and the destructive forces in his psyche. Could it be that this trend is itself multiply determined, and perhaps reinforced, by an Israeli political culture that promulgates the notion that all evil comes from outside?

These are difficult times for psychoanalysis everywhere. But working analytically at the frontier of militant nationalism and religious fanaticism poses an even greater challenge for those seeking to enhance their patients’ sense of personal agency and encourage them to translate their concrete reality into meaningful psychic experience.

The author is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and historian, and author of "Freud in Zion: Psychoanalysis and the Making of Modern Jewish Identity" (Karnac Books, London, 2012).

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