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Fratricide in the Holy LandReview - Fratricide in the Holy Land
A Psychoanalytic View of the Arab-Israeli Conflict
by Avner Falk
University of Wisconsin Press, 2004
Review by Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, Ph.D.
Dec 12th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 50)

This book tries to make a case for the legitimacy, admissibility, and usefulness of a certain kind of psychoanalytic psychohistory, by attempting to show its value in understanding what the author calls "the Arab-Israeli conflict".

The first thing we must notice about this book is its title, which provides us with a framing for the historical events it deals with. Reading the book, and not just its cover, makes clear that the title was not just a whim, or a marketing decision. The book really aims to analyze the "Arab-Israeli conflict" by regarding it as a case of fratricide. In the Introduction, Falk further articulates his kinship analogy, as part of his effort to present an equivalence of the two sides. "From the psychological viewpoint, the Israeli Jews and the Palestinian Arabs, think, feel and act like rival brothers who are involved in a fratricidal struggle" (p. 5). Moreover, the two sides are:"...two traumatized groups of people on a tiny piece of real estate that keep on traumatizing one another and themselves" (p.5). All humans are brothers (and sisters) and share a common fate, but the idea of the equivalence of Israelis and Palestinians simply  flies in the face of  everything we know about events in West Asia over the past too centuries.  (I will make no comment regarding "the Holy Land" in the title).

The book's vantage point for looking at history is purely psychological: "As a result of the mutual lack of recognition and empathy, a violent, murderous conflict has been raging between Israelis and Arabs for over a century" (p. 116). Falk states more than once that there is something irrational about the human actions observed here, something crazy, and that is why we a psychoanalysis intervention is called for, and then  seeks to persuade us that if we study history, we should examine its true roots in the early lives of major leaders

 The perspective we are offered is totally Israeli, with no pretense of impartiality. The author writes more than once "We Israelis" and indeed offers us some insights into Israeli culture. His style is journalistic, and in the tradition created by Henry Luce in Time, an individual's name is preceded by a string of adjectives: "The prominent Palestinian American scholar Edward William Said" is also "this Christian Arab intellectual" (p. 120). Henry Kissinger is "the German-born American Jewish political scientist and secretary of state" (p. 146) and Samuel P. Huntington becomes "the American Christian political scientist" (p. 147). Huntington may not be Jewish, which makes him a gentile, but he would be surprised to be classified as "Christian".

Falk's psychohistory offers, and this is amply demonstrated in this book, not just psychobiography, because every biography uses psychological explanations, but psychopathobiograhy, including psychiatric labels taken from the latest edition of the DSM, the official Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association. You don't have to be a psychoanalyst to realize that we all find safety in classification, nosology, and diagnosis. But these are wide of the mark when we try to describe individuals whose high level of performance does not seem to be impaired by any diagnosis (justified or not). How do we interpret an individual personality, not a statistical abstraction but a real human being? The answer must be that we do it with a great deal of caution. We have at our disposal quite a few well-validated instruments for personality assessment in the form of questionnaires filled out by the person involved, or by observers. Some of these have been used on hundreds of thousands of individuals. Even after carrying out a complete personality assessment, something which may require a few days of work for the subject and for the experts (and the computers) involved, our predictions and interpretations will be cautious, tentative, and qualified.  The author's practice of diagnosing individuals without even interviewing them seems to run counter to the standards embodied in the DSM, which expects us to base our judgments on direct observations of individual behavior.

The psychobiographical research at the center of the book covers two individuals: Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat, but passing comments are made about scores of others. Thus, we learn that "In the unconscious mind of U.S. President George W. Bush, America is the idealized all-good mother, while her enemies--the Axis of Evil--are  the all-bad mothers..." (p. 126). This is presented not as speculation but as a factual finding. It is unclear how Falk could know what is going on in any unconscious mind, especially without asking the person to fill out a questionnaire, or interviewing him. Even if we assume that for Bush, America is an all-good mother, how does that explain any historical developments?  By the same token, we can assume that for Kim Jong Il, North Korea is the good mother, while the U.S. is a bad mother. How does this help us understand or predict anything?

Thirty six pages are devoted to the personality of Ariel Sharon, a case of "destructive charismatic leadership", and he gets a formal diagnosis of   "borderline personality" (p. 48). The analysis includes such interpretations as "Unconsciously, however, Arik wanted to undo his feelings of failure, shame, and humiliation" (p. 45). It is possible that all of us may want to undo feelings of failure, shame, and humiliation, consciously or unconsciously, but it is unclear how this judgment was reached in this case. "The brash young officer found a new father in the older leader, who, in turn, found a new son in the dashing young warrior"(p. 46). Sharon's new father in this case was David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime-minister. We get little evidence to support this speculation. Ben-Gurion was known for identifying promising young functionaries and promoting them to positions of importance despite their very young age. He surrounded himself with younger lieutenants and assistants, some of whom went on to become important national leaders. Sharon was clearly not invited to join this inner circle of favorites.

Yasser Arafat gets only 13 pages to cover his own "destructive charismatic leadership". Falk uses a study by two Israeli psychologists who analyzed  Israeli newspaper stories about Arafat to conclude that he had (surprise! surprise!) "many unhealthy personality traits--considerable emotional instability, a compulsive need for independence at all costs, a need to show his superiority at all times, a limited ability to establish intimate relations...." (p. 80). Is the reader expected to take such judgments, produced by such research, seriously? Arafat, like Sharon, with real even-handedness, gets a diagnosis of "narcissistic and borderline personality disorders ... As with Sharon, unconscious sadomasochism is a cornerstone of Arafat's narcissism "(p. 86). Can the author offer us any observations to support this astounding claim of "unconscious sadomasochism"? We simply don't know. The various diagnoses heaped on these two leaders seem totally irrelevant to the leaders' actions and accomplishments in the real world.

We are also being told that "Arafat's violent unconscious feelings of helplessness, rejection, abandonment, sorrow, rage, and vengeance continue to simmer inside him. From the age of four he had two paramount emotional quests: finding a better mother and father to make up for those who had rejected and abandoned him, and seeking revenge on unconscious representations of the Bad Mother and Bad Father. Jerusalem and Palestine became  the idealized Good Mother... and Israel--as well as the Arab states.....took the role of  the hated bad parents" (p. 80). I am ready to believe that we are all seeking, consciously and unconsciously, better mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, etc. to compensate for early frustrations, but this is so common and obvious that noting it does not add anything to our appreciation of either leaders or followers in history. What creates leaders is that in addition to seeking substitute family members, struggling with early deprivations, and showing some psychopathology, just like the rest of humanity, they have some other qualities which make them capable of actually leading large groups of fellow humans in war and peace. In addition to personal problems they must have some outstanding capabilities. If we are serious about the psychology of leaders, it is clear that some of the qualities involved are intelligence, social skills, organizational skills, good communication skills, and empathy.  All this is totally absent from the discussion in this book.

Speculative interpretations may serve as the starting point for the development of a systematic search for evidence, but this is not  Falk's method. The main problem in this book is that here speculation, only tangentially related to any systematic search for evidence, simply leads to more speculations. In several places, the author quite explicitly addresses academic historians, and it seems as if he expected this case study to decisively demonstrate the greater efficacy of his approach over all others, thus winning his readers over to the cause of this kind of psychoanalytic psychohistory.  I am afraid that, after reading it, academic historians will be left sorely frustrated in their search for new insights about historical processes.


© 2006 Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi


Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi has written extensively about the Israel/Palestine situation. See Beit-Hallahmi, B.   Original Sins: Reflections on the History of Zionism and Israel.  New York: Interlink, 1993; Bunzl, J. & Beit-Hallahmi, B. Psychoanalysis, Identity, and Ideology: Critical Essays on the Israel/Palestine Case:.  Boston: Kluwer, 2002.


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