Do large human groups, such as nations, live in political reality, or do they act out their collective historical fantasies? Moreover, do nations exist in actual, touchable reality, or are they collective fantasies or “imagined communities,” as the Irish political scientist and historian Benedict Anderson (1936-2015) has called them?
In 1948 the state of Israel was proclaimed in the Jewish parts of British-ruled Palestine. Its founders based their proclamation – which they called “the Scroll of Independence,” a term harking back to the Biblical “scrolls” of Esther and Ruth and to the Dead Sea scrolls – on the divine promise to Abraham in the Hebrew Bible, on the millennia of Jewish longings for Zion, on the British-issued “Balfour Declaration” of 1917, and on the U.N. Palestine Partition Resolution of 1947. The founders declared that Israel was “the state of the Jews” and the ancestral land of “the Jewish people,” as if all the world’s Jews, including those in the United States, considered themselves one “people,” which was far from self-evident, and as if nothing had happened during the two thousand years of Jewish “diaspora” and “exile.”
Nineteen years later, during the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel captured the Arab-populated West Bank from Jordan, re-naming it “Judea and Samaria,” as if nothing had changed in the millennia since the two ancient biblical kingdoms of Israel and Judah were invaded and destroyed by Assyria and Babylonia, respectively. Now, fifty-three years later, in 2020, Israel is about to annex the Palestinian Arab “liberated territories of Judea and Samaria,” calling it “an assertion of Israeli sovereignty” over these territories rather than an annexation. Israel is arguing that “Judea and Samaria” had not been an integral part of Jordan but rather a territory occupied by Jordan from 1948 to 1967, and that its conquest by Israel in 1967 was not an occupation but “a liberation of an integral part of the Israeli homeland,” or “the Land of Israel.”
Can entire nations live in the ancient past and act as if their collective fantasies were present reality? The Cypriot-Turkish born American psychoanalyst Vamık Volkan (born 1932) has coined the terms “chosen glory’ and “chosen trauma” for large groups such as nations. In the Israeli case, for example, the “chosen glory” is the “great united kingdom of David and Solomon” in the tenth century B.C.E., as depicted in the Hebrew Bible, even though prominent Israeli archaeologists, led by Israel Finkelstein (born 1949), consider it a myth. The “chosen traumas” are the destruction of the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah in the eighth and sixth centuries B.C.E., respectively, the destruction of Judea by the Romans in the first century, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal in the late fifteenth century, and, of course, the Shoah or Holocaust in the twentieth century. One cannot exaggerate the psychological role of these “chosen glory” and “chosen traumas” in the collective mind of the Israeli Jews.
For the Israeli Arabs, however, the story is very different. Their “chosen glory” is the great medieval caliphates of the “united” Muslim ummah (nation), from the seventh to the fifteenth century of the Christian Era, whereas their “chosen trauma” is the naqba or catastrophe of 1948, when they lost their Palestinian homeland and many of them became refugees.
The Israeli Jewish population is a little over six million, whereas the Israeli Arabs number about two million. Some four hundred thousand Israeli Jews live in some one hundred and twenty large and small settlements in the Palestinian Arab West Bank. Israel’s eagerness to annex a tiny territory densely populated by over two and a half million Arabs, who, given the much higher Arab birth rate, together with the Israeli Arab population of about two million people, would constitute an Arab population that in a few years would be almost equal to the Jewish one, wrecking the fantasy of “the Jewish state” against the hard rock of reality, begs the obvious question of fantasy of “the Jewish state” against the hard rock of reality, begs the obvious question of “fantasy of “the Jewish state” against the hard rock of reality, begs the obvious question of “Why?!”
To my mind, this question cannot be answered without looking into the unconscious individual and collective psychological processes operating in Israeli minds. The English poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850) wrote that “the Child is father of the Man.” We are the products of our childhood, and even more so of our unremembered infancy. For the infant, the mother is its entire world; without her it cannot survive. In our unconscious adult mind our nation represents our idealized early mother.
This is attested to by the words we use to name our nation. The English noun “nation” comes from the Latin word for birth (natio). Both in Arabic and in Hebrew the equivalent word ummah comes from the word for mother (umm or emm). The English word for our country of birth is “motherland,” the Latin word patria (fatherland) is feminine, and the Hebrew word moledet (motherland) comes from the Hebrew verb for “to give birth” (laledet). The residents of French overseas territories call France la mère patrie (the mother fatherland). The German noun das Vaterland (the fatherland) is neutral in gender but the Germans treat their country as a mother above all else (Deutschland, Deutschland über alles). Young men are prepared to give their lives for their motherland.
On the individual level, during our early infancy we all go through a psychological process of “separation and individuation,” in which we gradually move from a fusional, symbiotic relationship with our mother, where she feels like part of us, to a separate existence, identity and self. This is by no means an easy and simple process. It is difficult for both the mother and the infant. The mother may feel abandoned when her child attempts to separate from her, may feel angry at her child and reject it in her turn, and the infant may then cling back to the mother for dear life. In many cases the process is ultimately successful, but in others it is not. The father also plays a role here, because of his ambivalent feelings about his own child, involving both love and jealousy of the infant who has taken his place in the mother’s affections. Some people remain children in their unconscious mind throughout their lives, and they need their nation as a Great Good Mother to merge with, as an extension of their grandiose self. This need is unconscious but very powerful nonetheless.
On the collective level, Volkan has coined the term “ethnic tent,” a symbolic tent in which all the members of the large groups imagine themselves. The nation is a psychological entity that its members cherish and need as a group. It gives them a sense of collective identity, security, and belonging. The members of the large group jealously guard its boundaries. This is why we have the Israeli Border Guard police, whose military-like uniforms cause many people to mistake them for soldiers, and the Israeli Law of Return, which allows Jews all over the world to immigrate to Israel and receive its citizenship. Behind it lies the fantasy that all the Jews of the world are one nation. In this sense Israel is different from many other “imagined communities,” as it imagines itself the center of a worldwide ethnic group which may or may not exist in reality.
To the infant, the mother is a huge nourishing giant towering over it. We call our university our alma mater (nourishing mother). The unconscious craving for fusion with the great early mother operates both on the individual and on the collective one. On the individual level, one unconsciously imagines the tiny “Land of Israel” as a Great Mother stretching from the Jordan River in the east to the Mediterranean Sea in the west, and from Lebanon in the north to the Red Sea in the south, like “the great united kingdom of David and Solomon.” One seeks to unite and consolidate the parts of this symbolic Great Mother, just as the infant at once wishes to devour and destroy its mother and to restore her dismembered parts into one. On the collective level, if we annex “Judea and Samaria” we shall have one united motherland, with all the Israeli Jewish settlements incorporated into it, and damn the political and economic price.
Such collective fantasies have lain behind organized wars, invasions and conquests from the dawn of human history. The Italian psychoanalyst Franco Fornari (1921-1985) called war “the paranoid elaboration of mourning.” In other words, those who cannot mourn their losses must make war. Israeli Jewish history is full of collective catastrophes and traumas. Many Israeli Jews are first-, second- or third-generation Holocaust survivors. It is impossible, however, to mourn the loss of six million people. The collective mourning of our historical losses is therefore replaced by projects of commemoration and “eternalization” (hantsakhah). By annexing the Palestinian Arab lands, Israel seeks to restore its “chosen glory” and overcome its “chosen traumas.” In actual fact, this annexation, imagined as “an assertion of sovereignty,” may bring about the end of Israel as a Jewish state.