Avner Falk
Clinical and political psychologist and psychohistorian

More about the psychology of the Gaza war

In a previous post I discussed some of the immediate causes of the tragic war raging between Israel and Hamas at this time.

However, there are also collective unconscious, longstanding and intractable psychological processes, aspects and causes of war that need to be considered. They have been studied by psychoanalysts such as Franco Fornari (see The Psychoanalysis of War), Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich (see The Inability to Mourn) and Vamık Volkan (see Bloodlines).

One of these processes is called externalization, or collective unconscious projection. Each large human group (clan, tribe, nation) tends to view itself (the in group) as superior, chosen, and the center of the world, while viewing other groups (the out groups) as inferior and less important. The out group serves as a container for the unconscious externalizations of the in group. Each group has its “chosen glory” and its “chosen trauma.” In the case of two large groups living in proximity, or sharing a border, this can lead to “us and them” thinking, when the “us” are all good and the “them” are all bad. Each group has laudatory names for itself (endonyms) and derogatory names for other groups (exonyms). This is true not only of the Jews or the Israelis but also of every large human group (think of the ancient Assyrians and Babylonians, the Greeks and the Romans, the Germans, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Native Americans, the Spanish conquistadores, the colonialists, or any other large group at different times of history). This makes war an acceptable way, at times the only way, of dealing with the out group.

Another major unconscious cause of war is the collective inability to mourn. Each large group has its historical losses, whether of territory, population, battlefield defeats and other “chosen trauma.” Whereas the individual can gradually and painfully mourn his or her losses, the large group cannot. Instead, it creates memorials, monuments, days of remembrance, and, as we call them in Israel, “eternalization projects.” Fornari believed that war was “the paranoid elaboration of mourning,” due to unconscious projection. His classic example was that of two illiterate tribes living next to  one another. When the chief of one of the tribes dies, his tribe, unable to mourn its loss, believes that the neighboring tribe has killed its chief by witchcraft, and it makes war on the other tribe. The collective unconscious process of projection plays a major part in war making.

We Israeli Jews have a very long history of losses. As we see it, and as it is taught in our schools, this history goes back almost three millennia, to the losses of the “glorious” ancient kingdoms of Judah and Israel, through the losses of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, the persecutions and massacres of the Jews in Europe over two millennia, the expulsions from Iberia in the late fifteenth century, and the Shoah (Holocaust) of the twentieth century. Our calendar includes many days of remembrance, not the least of which is our memorial day for our soldiers who have been killed in our interminable wars with the Arabs.

The Muslim Arabs in general, and Palestinian Arabs in particular, have had their own historical losses, from their own expulsion from Iberia in the late fifteenth century and the loss of their “glorious” medieval caliphates to the naqbah (catastrophe) of 1948, in which they lost their land, as they see it, to the “colonialist” Jews. Neither we nor they have been able to mourn our collective historical losses as a national group. The case of Hamas is a clear example. Hamas has never accepted the Arab loss of Palestine and will not be satisfied unless the Jews are gone and the Muslims Arabs rule the land. Needless to say, especially after the latest atrocities its fighters have committed, this makes Hamas an object for annihilation by Israel. The involvement of Iran, a country whose Islamic leaders have repeatedly declared their intention of wiping Israel off the map, compounds the crisis.

We can see how intractable a conflict can become when two neighboring large groups face one another, when neither of them has come to terms with its historical losses, when each thinks of itself as superior to the other, and when each unconsciously externalizes the unacceptable aspects of itself on the other. This is not meant to create a false symmetry between the Israelis and Hamas. The latter’s fighters have committed unspeakable atrocities that Israeli soldiers never have, not even during our wars of survival in 1948 and in 1973. War crimes may have been committed, as some Israeli historians claim, but never like those we witnessed this week. Nonetheless, even though Arab and Muslim culture must be taken into account when trying to understand Hamas, the unconscious psychological processes operating in both groups have much in common.

According to Aluf Benn, the editor of Haaretz, “This is the worst blow to Israel in any war, since 1948, and of any terrorist attack inside Israel or abroad” (see It’s Unthinkable). Our collective need for revenge is overwhelming, but will it solve our problem with Hamas? I quote one of my former teachers: “Israel is now taking revenge: hundreds of Palestinians have been killed, thousands wounded, and infrastructure including water and electricity supplies are being cut off. Thousands of homes in Gaza are  destroyed, and the attacks are continuing. As our Prime Minister Binyamin (Bibi) Netanyahu gave all this expression in a public statement this week: ’What we will do to Gaza will reverberate for generations.’ […] All this is a perfectly natural response to the horrible events that we have experienced and witnessed and is understandable. Taking revenge for crimes is a fact of history since the dawn of mankind, and it is described in many stories and prophecies in the Bible and other religious texts. However, the proponents of this view, now and in the past, have never made clear what this response will accomplish. Governments of Israel have dealt aggressively with attacks in the past and have assassinated one Hamas leader after another. But this week’s events do not bode well for the success of this strategy.”

Israel has vowed to eliminate Hamas, but the latter is holding over 150 Israeli hostages (see Foreign Policy) and has vowed to kill them if our armed forces invades Gaza and try to do away with Hamas. Like all wars, this war is very tragic. The military intelligence and leadership failure on our side of this tragedy have caused widespread distrust in our government among Israelis. The future of our country is unclear. This war will have marked us for generations to come.

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