Freud in Zion

By Elliot Jager
Tuesday, July 3, 2012

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 twenties; later, they came to be neighbors living but a few doors apart on a Vienna street. 

Whereas Herzl determined that solving the Jewish problem necessitated sovereignty and statehood, Marx and Freud were more concerned with what ailed universal man, offering solutions more ambitious than mere tinkering with political organization. For Marx, economic reality was the key determinant; but Freud underscored the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction which was present regardless of the reigning political system.

All three also had acolytes in Palestine during the British Mandate who tried to harmonize some or all of their disparate views.  How Freud's ideas fared there is the subject of a new work 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 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 its negation.  By contrast, in developing psychoanalysis Freud's goal was universal: to help people understand their drives, themselves and thereby ameliorate emotional pain. 

Come 1933, hundreds of German-speaking Jewish doctors went to Zion–mostly for lack of any 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. 

Meanwhile, Freud's own concern 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, after all, was thoroughly assimilated: the family celebrated a secular Christmas and Easter, not Passover. Nevertheless, he never considered conversion, 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. Hence his odd last book, Moses and Monotheism which, in Rolnik’s view, was Freud's attempt to show that Jewish ethnicity and nationalism were not integral to its main gift to humanity. 

His distaste here might explain his wobbling as the struggle between the Zionists and the Arabs intensified.  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 between those who envisioned the campus as a Zionist citadel and those who 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; 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 follower in Palestine, Max Eitingon (1881- 1943). A pro-Zionist, Eitingon was at once fabulously wealthy and himself a psychoanalyst and physician. Compelled by the Nazi threat to move to Palestine in 1933, he effectively 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 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.

Nevertheless, Rolnik wraps up Freud in Zion by airing his own concerns–which he insisted to me were made as a psychoanalyst with no political ax to grind–about contemporary Israel. He worries about an Israeli political culture "in which violence, omnipotence . . . and victimization takes precedence over assumptions of responsibility." The Shoah and now the Iranian threat 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.  Israelis, he said, put too much blame on history, which makes them less accountable for their aggressions.  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.

Freud died at age 83 in London exile just weeks after Hitler invaded Poland, thus outliving the madly optimistic Herzl by thirty-five 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; the latter, the founder of psychoanalysis, should be evaluated not by his political acumen but by how he proposed that modern man understand his frailties.

You can find this online at:

© Copyright 2024 Jewish Ideas Daily. All Rights Reserved.