Time to Put Israel in Mass Therapy

Why does the country find itself in an obsessive political spiral at this precise time? Psychoanalysis might have an explanation

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Israelis waiting to vote at a polling station in Haifa for citizens under quarantine from the coronavirus, on March 2, 2020.
Israelis waiting to vote at a polling station in Haifa for citizens under quarantine from the coronavirus, on March 2, 2020.Credit: Ammar Awad/Reuters
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

Can psychoanalysis be used on an entire nation? Philosopher Theodor Adorno, for one, thought the answer might be affirmative. At the end of the 1950s, when examining the German society of his time, Adorno concluded that the country had not yet engaged in a deep confrontation with its past. Accordingly, he raised the possibility of a “mass analysis,” which would “work through” the subterranean structures of the collective consciousness. Adorno did not clearly elaborate on the means by which such an analysis could be carried out, but did note that it would have to be based on Freudian theory. Psychoanalysis, he maintained, should be accorded an institutional status in order to enable a society to undertake a critical self-examination. Before anything else, psychoanalysis would have to cope with the psychological defense mechanisms that repress embarrassing, unpleasant memories.

Should mass analysis be tried out on Israel of today? If the Israeli collective could speak, it would undoubtedly reply that this is a fantastical suggestion. The luster of psychoanalysis has faded in general today; most people prefer to deal with psychological problems through short-term cognitive behavioral therapy, which does not demand prolonged poking about in one’s unconscious. Moreover, even if the Germans after World War II were in need of a deep, collective process of self-scrutiny, our situation is seemingly completely different. 

The State of Israel is functioning and flourishing today, notwithstanding the coronavirus panic. According to the annual United Nations World Happiness Index, Israelis are satisfied with their situation. True, there are a few problems, but they can be dealt with piecemeal. Many of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s supporters, caught up in an almost messianic atmosphere, think that things here have never been better. Even Kahol Lavan voters, too, will probably agree that, fundamentally, we are healthy; at most, a brief dose of cognitive therapy might be useful.

The problem is that precisely such answers are also what can be expected even from those who try to defend themselves against psychoanalysis, and the disturbing conclusions it might lead to. Rigorous mental therapy, they will argue, may be necessary for others – those with real problems, who are unable to function. “All my friends say I’m all right,” such a person will say, “and some even think I’m in a good period.”

Occasionally, though, odd symptoms appear: irrational, repetitive behavior that lack persuasive explanations. Such behavior gradually takes over increasing swaths of the day, until at a certain point life becomes intolerable. This is evidence that beneath one’s functional, outer shell lurk uninhibited, destructive impulses. The weird political loop that Israel has entered, which just last week led us to visit the polling station for the third time in a year, is just such a form of collective, compulsive repetition.

Plenty of detailed explanations are being put forward for the past year’s recurring elections, held despite almost universal agreement that they are wasteful and pernicious for both the economy and society. Thus, on the face of it, the inability to form a government stems from Avigdor Lieberman’s break with the right-wing bloc or from Kahol Lavan’s opposition, until now, to establishment of a coalition with the Joint List. These are the reasons Israelis give to their children, or to foreign observers. But such a peculiar political phenomenon calls for an explanation of a different sort.

Freud described the concept of repetition compulsion a century ago in his article “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.” He was referring to behavior that does not bring pleasure to those who practice it, but that they still repeat it time and again, compulsively. The uncontrollable need to keep repeating the same action is often grounded in the futile hope that something will change the next time around. 

In an article published in Haaretz (Hebrew edition) after the election of April 2019, Omri Ben Yehuda identified a phenomenon of repetition compulsion in Israel’s elections: Each time anew, an almost desperate hope arises among the left that it will succeed to replace Netanyahu – yet it always ends in bitter disappointment. Since then, the country’s citizens have voted twice. What had been a difficult to identify pattern became repetition compulsion of increasing frequency. This is evidence that the compulsive symptom of the Israeli collective psyche is growing more acute.

What has caused repetition compulsion to manifest itself in general, over the past year or so? The reason may lie in the growing fear that the boundaries of identity are dissolving, in parallel to the way that Israel’s territorial boundaries are fading. The realization that the two-state solution is becoming unattainable, and that Israel could soon officially become an apartheid entity, in which the Jews are a minority, is threatening the boundaries of the collective consciousness. On the surface, most of Israel’s Jewish citizens are indifferent to the issue, and implications, of the annexation of the territories. But at the unconscious level, the approaching moment of truth entails the understanding that nothing in Israel will be the same.

The obsessive repetition of the election campaign thus becomes a defense mechanism against an impending transformation. Netanyahu has been reiterating that Israel will annex the settlements in Judea and Samaria. But the unconscious drives of the system are resisting, thereby ensuring that these and other decisions of the “after elections” genre will continue to be deferred. Like Odysseus’ wife Penelope, who repeatedly unravels the fabric of the burial shroud she is weaving for her husband – after having pledged to her suitors that she would choose one of them once the garment is completed – the Israeli body politic is unraveling the decision-making system so that it will not have to settle the questions fundamental to its fate.

Of course, this analysis can be written off as baseless speculation. Still, the same people returned to the polling stations 10 days ago, despite the proven bankruptcy of the democratic process. Netanyahu may succeed in fighting off the opposing forces. But it’s also possible that we will be back at the polling stations in a few months, even if it becomes increasingly clear that this is a completely meaningless act. 

All that remains is to quote Adorno again: “The past will have been worked through only when the causes of what happened then have been eliminated.”

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