A Mental Placeholder for Israeli Rage Against the Occupation

Israeli democracy is being shattered by the belief that it is possible to repair Israel's social and economic ills without ending the country's rule over millions of Palestinians.

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A rally held against the gas deal in Jerusalem. Protesters hold candles.
A rally held against the gas deal in Jerusalem. Where's the vigil against the occupation?Credit: Tali Mayer
Eran Rolnik
Eran Rolnik

The German patient didn’t stop crying. “Six million, can you believe that number? Six million dolphins died as a result of the brutal system by which tuna and whales are hunted. I tell you, there is no limit to human cruelty.”

I heard the story about this patient – whose unconscious substituted “dolphins” for “Jews” so that he would be able to cling to a melancholic stance and weep for what was lacking without mourning his losses – when I started to take an interest in the way the Holocaust continues to reverberate in psychoanalytical treatment in Germany.

In the first decades after World War II, you needed a very sharp ear to discern the upheaval that the Holocaust fomented in the psyches of those who were not directly involved in it as perpetrators or as victims. One explanation for the collective repression and emotional numbness that characterized postwar West German society was provided at the end of the 1960s by the psychoanalysts Margarete and Alexander Mitscherlich. Their interpretation was based on the Freudian distinction between a normal reaction of mourning over the loss of a concrete object (a beloved person) or a symbolic one (a state, an ideal, a culture), and a melancholic reaction in which the true nature of the loss and the narcissistic dimension of a person’s connection to it remain unconscious.

The political apathy and the stifling cultural sentiment that prevailed in postwar Germany attested to its citzens’ inability to mourn: for the grandiose narcissistic investments they had made in the figure of the omnipotent leader (the Fuehrer); for the hopes, now dashed, they had pinned on the war; and for their refusal to take responsibility for the murder and destruction that their parents’ catastrophic political choices inflicted upon them and the world.

What the Germans were unable to formulate clearly for themselves or grieve for, they expelled from their consciousness by diverse means. They tried to “defray” the debt they owed as a result of their undeciphered political and moral past by means of a new self-confidence rooted in what was called the “economic miracle”: West Germany’s rapid economic recovery.

The melancholy spirit, which accorded priority to sentimentality over emotions, also partly shaped the intellectual life of the new Germany. It was marked by egocentric whining on the one hand, and by shortsighted social criticism on the other. The writer W.G. Sebald observed that the protagonists in postwar German literature usually did not represent the conscience of the new society. They were “good Germans,” who washed their hands of the past because they had not been members of the Nazi Party, or had entered a private existence that lacked all social commitment. At the end of the war, these decent folk, who had been condemned by the angel of history to endure 12 years of living amid wicked Nazis, considered themselves exempt from responsibility for events of the past.

As such, they continued the German tradition of widening the gulf between literature and politics. Awareness that democracy is more than just free elections and a healthy economy was slow in coming. It was not until the rise to power of the Social Democratic Party, in the election of 1969, that the doubts were gradually removed concerning the authentic political content of German democracy.

The student riots in France also played a part in restoring the Germans’ ability to mourn for the calamity they inflicted on themselves and on humanity, and to stop seeing themselves as victims of a massive political catastrophe.

The students’ protest began small, like the cottage cheese or Milky pudding protests in Israel. The students demanded abolition of separate dorms for men and women at the Sorbonne. However, in contrast to the Israeli social protest – which for now is clinging firmly to the cost of living and remains oblivious to any radical political interpretation – the student protest in France did not get stuck at the melancholy stage: It became a genuine political revolt, a betrayal that is a condition for reform.

Through violence, the young people of Europe were released from the melancholy posture of their parents’ generation and betrayed the “thousand ties” by which they were bound to their traumatic past. They stopped whining and started grieving: That is, they acted to change the situation. The slogan “We are all German Jews,” which was voiced on the streets of Paris, heralded the willingness of a new generation to place the cry for social justice in its universal historical context.

When the time comes to write the history of the rise and fall of the Zionist revolution from the perspective of the losers – that is, to analyze the Jews’ attempt to create democratic, liberal sovereignty in their historic homeland alongside a systematic suppression of minorities – it will be necessary to construct numerous rigs in the historical seas and start drilling for explanations. One of the interesting geological layers the drillers will encounter will be the one now known as the “struggle for social justice.” It’s possible that only in historical perspective will they discover the clear contour lines of the negative imprint left by 50 years of occupation on the “New Man” of the Zionist revolution. It will then become clear that what shattered Israeli democracy was not the growing strength of the messianic and nationalistic tendencies – which were embedded in the Zionist idea from its inception – but the increasing belief of “sane Israel” that it was possible to repair the flaws of the country’s economy and society, and root out governmental corruption, without ending Israel’s rule over millions of Palestinians and without setting permanent borders for the Jewish state.

The social protest in Israel that began in the summer of 2011 had its achievements. But until now it has been more of a political lightning rod and social shock-absorber than a challenge to the existing political order, whose single purpose is to prevent the Israelis from truly mourning what they wrought upon themselves and upon the minorities living under their rule, thanks to their political choices. 

“Melancholy protest” might be a fitting description for the lethargic awakening that’s been stirring in Israel for the past few months in connection with the struggle against the government’s natural-gas deal. This struggle is just, but at the same time symptomatic of a generation that prefers to fight for a just distribution of the country’s riches than for the just division of the country. It’s a generation that would rather lament the shortcomings of capitalism and its unfulfilled promise for “a sound (political) mind in a healthy (economic) body.”

Every Saturday evening, when I try to decide whether to go out and join the demonstration against the gas deal, I remember the German patient who didn’t know how to cry for people, so he cried for dolphins.

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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