Eran J. Rolnik

A moral confusion of tongues

As I listened to President Biden’s speech on October 9 I thought to myself: Here’s a real radical politician speaking, a man of the 20th century who instinctively knows how to distinguish between the legitimate political struggle of the Palestinian people and crimes against humanity.

But why does the European and American left insist that solidarity with Palestines requires callous indifference to the mass murder of Jews? What wish is enacted in the reluctance to empathize with the victim’s pain and grief?

A Marxist professor at Birkbeck University of London explained that the murder of 260 Israelis at a rave was a “consequence” of “partying on stolen land.” Other academics and a variety of student organizations issued statements explicitly refusing to criticize the “Palestinian resistance.”

Both the thinking of the left and psychoanalysis have brought a crucial element into the world: the ability to think critically about power relations and the dynamics that unfold between them, as well as the understanding that beneath the surface of silence there are often exploitative structures – hidden power relations that is, in contrast to open exploitation and blatant abuse.

This way of thinking has borne important intellectual fruit in many areas, be it ethical, political, scientific or psychological. Thanks to the work of Freud, Ferenczi, Melanie Klein and their followers, psychotherapists became aware of phenomena such as “identification with the aggressor” or “repetition compulsion”. Yet because of its inherent claim to interpret everything in the context of power relations, either psychological or political(which can be factually true) without the need for additional hypotheses, this socio-psychological-critical element carries the danger of blind radicalism, or political trauma-centrism.

There is a denial of the facticity of events and situations as such, of their very nature. Political acts of violence – for example the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Bataclan Theater massacre in Paris in 2015, the Russian invasion of Ukraine or the murder of 1,200 Israelis and the kidnapping of hundreds of civilians by Hamas militias on October 7 – are viewed and discussed as merely part of a larger structure, as if they themselves are a mere continuation of another atrocity that has so far either not been acknowledged or not sufficiently noticed.Thus seen all social and political violence is reduced to an understandable reaction to some other social and political injustice.

If a patient says, “I hit my children because my drunk father kept hitting me and my sister,” is that an insight? Or is he avoiding a true insight and self-knowledge that would bring responsibility for his aggression? The patient obviously has some psychological understanding of his inability to control his anger. But he has turned it into an excuse, he has perverted a psychological truth into a claim to legitimacy.

In politics this corresponds to the reduction of every situation to the system of power relations. In the name of the moral and political attempt to ensure widespread (even historical) justice, it denies the phenomenal facticity of terrible events. This approach is not only anti-therapeutic, but often results in geopolitical and strategic blindness.

The radical evil that attacked Israel last Saturday cannot be placed automatically within a system of power relations and accounting of one kind or another. Comparing a terrorist who rapes women and beheads babies to an “abused child” or “Freedom fighter” amounts to removing evil from the equation and is tantamount to refusing to point out, identify, experience, and acknowledge the barbaric moment in history, by rationalization.

The inability to be shocked in the face of evil and barbarism, to cry out in pain, and to fight aggressively against its spread is a real moral handicap.

The death-drive politics of radical Islamists, as experienced by the world since the beginning of the 21st century, can and should not be reduced to understandable “natural human reaction” to a lack of love, freedom, respect or violated human dignity. Such atrocities are the exact opposite of that. They present an attempt to negate the human need for love, justice and respect.

The moral disability just described meets its exact counterpart on the side of the radical right, which denies situations as they are and the moral power they confer in the name of strategic, national and other ideologies. Moral sensitivity, on the other hand, is based on the ability to perceive outside the closed bubble of the ideological sounding board and to confront pure evil, be it political or psychological, nakedly, without admitting it either because of its role in a system of power relations or because of past or present trauma.

On the humanistic side, however, a step is required that we are not always happy to take: saying “no, no more” and acting with all our heart against barbarism. It is the ability to recognize what does not enter the equation of political tactics: the “war against evil.” This is the war for the survival of morality. This moment of innocence, that reaffirms the distinction between a legitimate fight for justice and criminal violence is the only thing that still makes us human. Anyone who rushes to place the evil and cruel in a psychological or strategic-political perspective, who rushes to get rid of the unfathomable by placing it in relational and critical contexts, has lost his humanity in the confusion of ideology and hypocritical psychologism.

It is therefore essential for progressives to reject any excuse for Hamas’s atrocities, and for the broader public to understand that the left’s analysis of the origins of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its prescriptions for its resolution are strictly separated from the bloodlust of a vocal minority of Islamists radicals and their sympathizers in the West.

About the Author
Eran J. Rolnik, MD, PhD is a training and supervising analyst at the Israel Psychoanalytic Society and the International Psychoanalytic Association, psychiatrist and historian (member of the IPA History Committee). He is on the Faculty of the Max Eitingon Institute for Psychoanalysis and Tel-Aviv University School for advanced Studies of Psychotherapy at the Medical Faculty of Tel-Aviv University. He published over 70 journal papers, 3 monographs and has edited and translated 7 books. His book on the migration of psychoanalysis from central Europe to Jewish Palestine/Israel in the inter-war era has been published in Hebrew, English, German and French. In 2019 he published an annotated edition of Freud letters to 70 different interlocuters. His recent book “Talking Cure – 13 Talks on Psychoanalysis” published in Hebrew and in German concerns the theory and technique of psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic psychotherapy. He works in private practice in Tel-Aviv.
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