Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Freudians in the Promised Land

Three Jewishly-conflicted German speakers changed the course of modern history. By the time the first, Karl Marx, had died in 1883 Sigmund Freud and Theodor Herzl were rising stars in their 20s; later, incredibly, they came to be neighbors living a few doors apart on a Vienna Street.

Herzl determined that solving the Jewish problem necessitated sovereignty and statehood. While Marx and Freud held that fixing what ailed universal man could not be achieved merely by tinkering with where or how their polities were organized. Marx believed that character could not overcome social and economic reality. Freud said that no matter the political system, the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction was omnipresent.

All three men had acolytes in Palestine during the British Mandate who tried to harmonize some or all of their disparate views.

How Freud's ideas and those of his German-speaking followers fared in pre-state Palestine is the subject of Freud in Zion by the Tel Aviv-based psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and historian Eran Rolnik.

The book's subtitle: "Psychoanalysis and the making of modern Jewish identity" is a bit of a tease. We really don't get any straight answers about the impact psychoanalysis had on shaping modern Jewish and Zionist identity. Instead, we are given to ponder whether there is a contradiction between "psychoanalytic man" and "Zionist man." What this book, intended mostly for a professional readership – the  2007 Hebrew edition was well-received by the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association – does offer is a deeply researched history of the coming of the psychoanalytic idea to Palestine.

Nineteenth century political Zionism understood the Diaspora as being mentally, physically, politically and culturally injurious to a healthy Jewish life. Recovery could only come by negating the galut. In contrast, in developing psychoanalysis Freud's goal was universal, to help people understand their drives, themselves and thereby ameliorate emotional pain.

With Hitler's coming to power in 1933, hundreds of German-speaking Jewish doctors came to Zion mostly because they had no other choice. Rolnik's history of the psychoanalytic profession in the Yishuv explores the challenges faced by its early practitioners in adapting to a non-European environment and tells how they competed for Freud's affections while feuding among themselves.

All the while Freud's overriding fear was that anti-Semitic attitudes would tarnish the all-embracing message of psychoanalysis. He did not want his theories to be seen as a commentary on the Jewish condition, writes Rolnik. Freud was thoroughly assimilated – the family celebrated a secular Christmas and Easter though not Passover – still it never dawned on him to convert perhaps because  he came to view all religion as neurosis. Raised Jewishly illiterate he and Martha Bernays brought up their six children in a similar fashion (though two sons flirted with Zionism). 

Yet he was not an ashamed Jew. He peppered his letters with Yiddishisms; stayed a member of the B'nai B'rith lodge where he had first publicly presented his ideas; admired Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann; and according to Rolnik, was not unsympathetic to the cultural Zionism espoused by Ahad Ha'am and took pride when his works first began to be translated into Hebrew in 1928.

But Freud was put off by any hint of Jewish chauvinism. Perhaps the zenith of his disconnect from Jewish civilization was his odd last book, Moses and Monotheism which, as Rolnik interprets it, was Freud's attempt to show that Jewish ethnicity, nationalism and Zionism were not prerequisites to its main gift to humanity.

It seems that as Arab opposition to the establishment of a Jewish state became ever more unyielding, Freud wobbled. He worried that by demanding the British honor the Balfour Declaration the Zionists were being fanatical. A product of his milieu, he hoped to ride out Hitler by keeping a low profile in Vienna. Earlier, he had refused to bequest his papers to the newly established Hebrew University (then riven by two factions, those who wanted to build the Mount Scopus campus as a Zionist citadel, and the camp that wanted it as a repository of Diaspora intellectual capital). Not coincidentally, the university rejected overtures from Freud's followers to establish a training institute in psychoanalysis. In the end, a Sigmund Freud chair in psychoanalysis was finally established only in 1976.

For a lay reader one of the book's highlights is the section on Freud's foremost and obsequious Hassid in Palestine Max Eitingon (1881- 1943) who was at once fabulously wealthy, himself a psychoanalyst, physician, and a pro-Zionist. The Nazi threat compelled him to move to Palestine in 1933 where he basically transplanted the Berlin headquarters of psychoanalysis to Jerusalem. It was a move Freud sitting in Vienna hoped would be only temporary until the Hitler thing blew over. Rolnik had access to Eitingon's papers and put them to excellent use fleshing out the rivalries between Freud's various followers, Zionists, non-Zionists and anti-Zionists.
Despite the upheaval caused by Arab belligerence and the world war, Eitingon's institute, which served as a sort of professional guild, conducted regular meetings (in German) while its members carried surprisingly heavy patient caseloads.  They also shared their frustrations. Eitingon, for instance, complained that neither Palestinian Arabs nor Orthodox Jews were suitable subjects for psychoanalysis. On the intriguing charge that Eitingon was -- on top of everything else – also a Stalinist agent, Rolnik comes down against the idea.

Can Freud be said to have a political philosophy? In an email exchange, Rolnik emphasized that Freud never claimed to be offering a solution to the Jewish people or to any other people. Freud's most political book, Civilization and its Discontents, addressed the inherent tension between the individual's quest for freedom and society's need for discipline, arguing that for a polity to function humans had to sublimate their desires. In the book, Rolnik writes that "from Freud's point of view, it makes no difference how humans decide to organize their lives together" for at the end of the day "inherently irrational components of social existence" preordain individual behavior.

The aims of psychoanalysis and the Zionist enterprise did not necessarily complement each other. Rolnik points to the pedagogical guidelines set by the HaShomer HaTza'ir youth movement (then infatuated by Soviet Communism) regarding teenage sexuality which were motivated not by helping the young people achieve psychological individuation but in enforcing collectivist group dynamics.

Rolnik wraps up Freud in Zion by airing his own worries – which he insisted to me were made as a psychoanalyst with no political axe to grind – about contemporary Israel. He worries about an Israeli political culture "in which violence, omnipotence…and victimization takes precedence over assumptions of responsibility." As he looks around, he sees an Israel colored by militant nationalism and religious fanaticism deluding itself that most of its problems are not, in fact, self-inflicted. The Shoah and now the existential threat from Iran have made Israelis ever more myopic. In a back and forth he told me that while paranoids have real enemies that doesn't make them any less paranoid. He believes that the psychoanalysis practiced in Israel today does not adequately take innate aggression into account. What we hate about ourselves is the key. Israelis, he told me, put too much blame on history which makes us less accountable for our aggressions. Too many therapists focus on childhood depravations, but Rolnik argues that Freud taught that unconscious drives within all of us better explain our antagonistic behaviors.

Freud died at age 83 in London exile just weeks after Hitler invaded Poland thus outliving the madly optimistic Herzl by 35 years.  Freud dreamed about Herzl. The rest of us can be grateful that Herzl's dream became the emphatic reality.  But Marx, Herzl and Freud operated on different planes and it is only fair to evaluate the founder of psychoanalysis not by his political acumen but by how he proposed modern man understand his frailties.


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