‘They made us do it…’ — The Disordered Psychology of Israel. By Avigail Abarbanel

Via: Avigail Abarbanel.

What more does Israel have to do for the world to wake up, for the world to finally acknowledge the reality that the Palestinians have had to live with every day since 1948? Israel’s attack on the Peace Flotilla earlier this week enraged and upset me deeply but didn’t surprise me. I don’t trust Israel and I know it is capable of anything. With no mainstream moral or rational restraints from within, and no challenge from its so-called friends in the US administration, we can only expect the worst from Israel.

It is a fact of life that if we only tinker with symptoms and don’t address problems at the core, they do not just go away. They get worse. Israel’s escalating behaviour is a symptom of a systemic problem that is not being dealt with at the core: a problem of ethnic cleansing, apartheid and occupation. The attack on the Peace Flotilla is by no means the worst Israel can do. I believe it is a signal of things to come. Israel is pushing the boundaries a little bit more with each new attack and each new anti-Palestinian policy.

Israeli Jews are filled with a sense of self-justification. They believe that the peace activists on the flotilla are all terrorists who were bringing arms to Gaza. Therefore they believe that the commando attack on them, or rather ‘what befell them’ was justified. In the minds of Israeli Jews anything and everything is justifiable in the name of Jewish survival. Since Israeli Jews have a pathological fear of annihilation, their entire state structure and culture are based on what they perceive as survival. And survival in Israel is seen only in the physical sense. You can stay alive physically but be destroyed psychologically, spiritually and morally. However, the majority of Israeli Jews don’t care about what their actions are doing to their souls, as long as they stay alive.

Refusal to take responsibility and lack of empathy

In his book People of the Lie, M. Scott Peck wrote that evil is not merely wrong-doing. Although most of us are not capable of murder, all of us do occasionally behave badly. It’s human to make mistakes, to lash out in pain, anger or frustration. This happens all the time in ordinary human relationships. But according to Peck what distinguishes evil people from ordinary flawed human beings, is the denial of responsibility. Even when their deeds are exposed and even when confronted with the immense suffering they are causing their victims, people capable of evil never admit that they are wrong and refuse to take responsibility for their actions.

I won’t go into all the detail and obvious contradictions in Israel’s behaviour and its official narrative about the flotilla attack. These have already been pointed out and analysed well by a number of writers. What stands out for me in Israel’s way of explaining its actions, is its utter lack of interest in taking responsibility. Even the language used by Israel reflects this. Comments like, ‘We regret the loss of life’, make it sound as if the unfortunate event just happened, whereas it didn’t just happen, they did it.

In order to avoid responsibility people who are capable of evil typically do a number of things. First they lie about what happened — or rather what they did. When the lies don’t hold up so well and there is evidence to the contrary, they resort to explaining why they were justified in doing what they did. And if this ‘defence’ crumbles, they then fall back on a victim act, ‘We’re not bad, we behaved morally and correctly. If anything went wrong, it’s their fault, they made us do it…’.

This defence is usually mounted in the context of a total lack of empathy towards the victims. It is this lack of empathy that should serve as the real warning sign that something is badly wrong with the person’s claims to innocence and his or her character. People who are so defensive and so unable to care about the effects that their actions have on others are serious suspects in my eyes.

The ability to experience empathy is crucial in all human relationships. Without it there is no basis for trust, for growth or for sorting out conflict in a way that preserves dignity and does justice to all parties involved. Lack of empathy demonstrates that one party simply cannot see the humanity of the other and identify with their experience and their feelings. It demonstrates a lack of human concern about what happens to them.

People cannot commit crimes against others when they feel empathy and a sense of shared humanity towards them. In fact, if every single person in the world was capable of unshakeable empathy, there would be no war and no crime at all. Military forces put a lot of effort into teaching their soldiers not to feel empathy towards the ‘enemy’. When they succeed, it makes it possible for ordinary people in uniform to kill other ordinary people and even their children. It is how Israeli soldiers for instance can be caring towards their own families, friends and neighbours but completely heartless towards the Palestinians and their families and children, and in the case of the flotilla, towards the civilian peace activists. I always look for empathy in people’s narrative and when it is missing, that’s when I begin to worry.

Israel’s personality disorder

I have been writing for years about Jewish trauma. I compared Israel to a person exhibiting the psychological effects and behaviours that are symptomatic of psychological trauma. (I have also always made it clear that this is never an excuse for Israel, only an explanation). But I now wonder if it is time to revise my ‘diagnosis’ from trauma to a personality disorder.

People with personality disorders (particularly Borderline, Narcissistic and Antisocial personality disorders) tend to demonstrate the characteristics of evil as described by Scott Peck. People with trauma can sometimes appear to behave like disordered people but the difference is that traumatised people can often get better with the right help, while truly disordered people can’t, no matter how much skilled help they receive. It is not unusual for trauma and personality disorder to be competing diagnoses.

Israel certainly behaves like a person with a personality disorder. It’s emotionally unstable, it’s harmful to others, it’s leaving scorched earth all around it and it has a deep-seated victim complex. It is pathologically self-centred and utterly incapable of taking responsibility or feeling empathy or sympathy towards anyone other than itself. When confronted with its deeds and asked to take responsibility Israel responds defensively and usually blames the victim. It presents the occupied Palestinians as perpetrators and itself as the real victim, behaving as if everyone is being unfair to it. This is the basis for Israel’s ludicrous claim that its elite commando unit was acting in self-defence against the civilians on the flotilla.

It is common for people with a personality disorder to isolate their victims and actively block any attempt by the victim to seek outside help. They are often vicious towards anyone who tries to help. They often twist the story and accuse the helper of having a hidden, sick or twisted ‘agenda’. As a therapist I have supported many victims of disordered people and have occasionally been the target of attacks by the disordered person. The strident accusations of antisemitism against anyone who shows even the slightest sympathy towards the Palestinians are a good example of this. The attack on the flotilla is another good example. The flotilla was a way for outsiders to show care and concern for the people of Gaza, by breaking the siege and delivering aid they desperately need. Israel was not only determined to block the delivery of aid, but also to twist the meaning of the aid voyage to Gaza and portray it as a sinister act of terrorism. The flotilla threatened to end the isolation of the people of Gaza, and Israel simply wouldn’t have that.

Disordered perpetrators of abuse get away with it sometimes for many years. Their victims often go unnoticed and end up living and dying in misery. Many people with personality disorders have driven their victims into mental illness, suicide or even murder. When this happens, the focus tends to be on the ‘sick’ person and not on the disordered one who caused it. Similarly, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, mainstream international focus tends to be on the Palestinians rather than on Israel. Their experience, narrative and emotions are frequently belittled and they are portrayed as the partner with the problem. In fact it is Israel that is the problem. Any symptoms the Palestinian people might display are a direct result of the brutal Israeli occupation and ongoing ethnic cleansing.


It doesn’t surprise me any more when people tell me they are confused about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is common for disordered people to generate confusion around them. One reason for this confusion is that disordered people put a lot of effort into, and are skilled at, making themselves look good. The veneer of respectability that they develop can fool a lot of people. It’s easy to get confused and think that someone so respectable couldn’t possibly do the things they are accused of or be so irresponsible. Only those very close to them, or people who are particularly observant, can see what disordered people are really like and what they are capable of.

I have worked with many clients over the years who have suffered terrible emotional and sometimes physical abuse from someone with a personality disorder. Some of my clients had to live through the deeply frustrating and painful experience of sitting in court watching helplessly while the perpetrator charmed everyone into believing their side of the story. By the time they were done, everyone questioned my clients’ credibility and sanity. Even experienced professionals can be fooled or confused when dealing with a disordered client. One client who suffered terrible abuse for many years at the hands of a husband with Borderline Personality Disorder was told by her own lawyer, ‘Your ex-husband is so charming. I don’t know how you can possibly accuse him of those things…’.

When I force myself to watch Mark Regev on TV or listen to Israel’s ambassadors or other carefully selected spokespeople, I get the same feeling of frustration and pain. They all sound so calm and reasonable and look so respectable in their suits or dress uniforms.

While disordered people can appear to outsiders to be highly successful and functional, their victims will often appear overly emotional, troubled and angry. This is a common and completely natural response if you have been affected by someone with a personality disorder. Usually these kinds of strong emotions do not generate sympathy or understanding from others. Most people feel frightened or repelled by the strong feelings of victims of abuse. Unfortunately, this is also a common Western reaction to the Palestinian people, and in particular to their pain, frustration, anger, confusion and to their passionate protests about the way they are treated by Israel.

Another aspect of confusion has to do with the way disordered people describe reality. They don’t simply lie. They have a way of turning reality upside down and inside out until everyone is completely confused about what happened. It’s what we call in therapy ‘crazy-making’ and it undermines other people’s sense of reality. This ‘crazy making’ dynamic is at the heart of the atmosphere that disordered people — and in this case countries — create around them.

As Ghassan Hage (http://australiansforpalestine.com/23193) so aptly describes in his poem, ‘I don’t write poems but, in any case, poems are not poems’:

‘Over the years they’ve taught me so many things:
invasion was not invasion, occupation was not occupation,
colonialism was not colonialism and apartheid was not apartheid…’

Taking sides

The relationship between Israel and the Palestinians increasingly looks to me like a relationship between a disordered person and his or her victim. In everyday conflict good people try to ‘see both sides’. Under normal circumstances this is appropriate. But it doesn’t work when one of the people in the conflict is disordered. It may go against all our instincts but when dealing with disordered people and their victims, it is necessary to take sides. Many murders and murder-suicides have been allowed to happen because people misguidedly tried to remain impartial and ‘fair’ and didn’t believe the victim or listen when he or she pleaded for help. The murder and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians is allowed to happen partly because world leaders behave as if the Palestinians and Israel are equal sides and therefore everyone should try to be impartial.

In couple therapy we usually try to remain impartial. But if a couple therapist identifies a personality disorder in one of the partners (or evidence of violence in the relationship), the therapist must terminate couple therapy and side with the non-disordered partner (or the victim of the violence). In ordinary situations we expect both partners equally to take responsibility for the mess they’re in. But this works only when both partners are capable of taking responsibility, and disordered people simply cannot.

Trying to remain impartial in a situation like this is not just unhelpful but will also backfire because it plays into the hands of the disordered partner, whose agenda is to avoid responsibility at all cost and be allowed to continue what they’re doing uninterrupted. Disordered partners want the therapist to be on their side and often try to co-opt the therapist into ganging up on their victim.

Notice how similar this is to the way Israel has been manipulating world public opinion to support Israel and ignore the Palestinians, or worse still, see them as the ‘bad guy’. This is of course absurd given that everyone can see that Israel is a powerful occupying force and the Palestinians are the victims, cooped up in refugee camps.

Psychology and international relations

I suspect that this analysis will be ridiculed and rejected by many. I have been told that you cannot generalise from individual psychology to large groups. However, sociology has long recognised that groups can develop an identity and characteristics that are not merely the sum of the identities and characteristics of their members. Groups can even develop their own survival instinct in a similar way to individuals. Groups are their own ‘creature’ and not just a sum of their parts.

I accept that my analogy and analysis aren’t perfect and that it is a tricky business to apply individual psychology to groups. But I still believe that individual psychology can teach us a few valuable lessons about the behaviour of countries. I also think that some of the principles we use in individual and relationship therapy can be useful when dealing with international conflicts and in this case with the Israeli-Palestinian situation.

In psychotherapy we have skilled therapists who are outside the system, and they often help to sort out quite serious problems. Do we have anything like this in international relations, an objective well-trained ‘therapist’? I don’t believe so. The US has been trying to play this part for a long time, but for reasons I do not understand it is heavily biased in favour of Israel. In others words, the US supports the disordered partner, instead of doing the clinically correct thing which is to support the obvious victim. The US is therefore not in a position to act as arbiter, or as an international relations ‘therapist’. (In fact, I have serious doubts about the United States’ own mental state and motivation, but I will leave that to those who are more familiar with its culture and psychology.)

The Palestinians cannot just walk away from this conflict, and nor should they. It is their land, their resources, their homes and their cultural heritage that Israel has been stealing and destroying. What they need is someone to force Israel to stop the occupation and transform it from an apartheid state into a democratic free state for all its people with a right of return for all the refugees. This is possible if the world steps back and shakes off the confusion about Israel, sees it for what it is and gets into action.

If the attack on the Peace Flotilla teaches us anything, it is that it is time for the international community to take decisive action on Israel and Palestine, restore justice and dismantle the disordered psychological and cultural structure on which Jewish Israel is built.



2 thoughts on “‘They made us do it…’ — The Disordered Psychology of Israel. By Avigail Abarbanel

  1. I absolutely agree with your analysis of Israel’s behavior. I agree that they have crossed the line from self-protection into vicious aggression while deluding themselves about it. However, your statement that people with borderline personality disorder are perpetrators of evil and abuse against others is offensive. I find it appalling that, in this day and age, someone who claims to be a therapist has so little understanding of a relatively common disorder.

    First of all, people with BPD are far more likely to harm themselves than anyone else. Lack of empathy and chronic dishonesty are NOT diagnostic characteristics of the disorder (unlike narcissistic or antisocial personality disorders). And finally, people with BPD — who experience a tremendous amount of pain as a result of their disorder — can absolutely recover. There are programs and therapists all over the country who treat BPD.

    As you take Israel to task, perhaps you should think about the dishonesty and lack of empathy you have demonstrated in marginalizing a group of people just to make an analogy.

  2. Now land theft, occupation, and ethnic cleansing are acts of “self-protection”? And you talk about dishonesty and lack of empathy!!
    “It is part of morality not to be at home in one’s home.” – Edward Said

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