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The Silence of Psychologists or why is there no ‘Post-Zionist’ Israeli Psychology?(1)

Dan Bar-On (†) (2)
David Lopatie Chair of Post-Holocaust Psychological Studies
Department of Behavioral Science, Ben Gurion University of the Negev
& co-director of PRIME (Peace Research Institute of the Middle East)


Running Head: Silence of Psychologists

            Unlike certain Israeli historians or sociologists who have developed a critical Post-Zionist approach, we find only a few signs of a similar critical trend among Israeli psychologists. This is especially disquieting in light of the latest transition from warfare to the Peace Process a transition that created many new social and individual dilemmas that would benefit from an open debate within social and clinical psychology. The present paper tries to account for this deficiency, by looking at its possible historical, political and cultural roots. The historical aspects relate to the influence of European and American psychological traditions. Two political aspects are presented:

  • The Israeli psychologists, through their involvement in the military and their acceptance of the Zionist claim for security, tend to belong to the political mainstream (Gergen, 1973; 1989).
  • A hyper-political atmosphere scared Israeli psychologists into neutrality and objectivism. This provided a convenient rationale for a-politicism, especially when Israeli political polarization in the eighties and nineties was perceived as threatening the psychologists’ professional authority. 

Culturally, the psychologists, like the European social strata from which most of them originate tended to adopt the American tradition of individualism, as a reaction to the strong collectivist trend that dominated the Israeli society during its early years. This may account for their weak and delayed social response of humanism, feminism and constructivism.
Exceptions to this general trend are highlighted and the question – what will be necessary for a change in the Israeli psychology so it would become more politically sensitive and critical - are explored. One could assume that this discussion has some relevance for the development of political psychology in other societies, especially those going through transition of values or those suffering from long, man-made violent conflicts.

Introduction: Why don’t we have a Post Zionist Israeli Psychology

“The existence of an experimental method makes us think that we have the means of solving the problems which trouble us; though problem and method pass one another.” (Wittgenstein, 1968. P. 232). In recent years we have witnessed human, Israeli-military dramas that raise the question - What in fact is heroism in the contemporary Israeli context? These dramas have serious psychological implications but the voice of psychologists has barely been heard. For example, during the Oslo Accord implementation in 1995 we witnessed on the television screens an extraordinary event in which an angry crowd in Ramallah (a major city in the West Bank that was already under Palestinian control) trapped an Israeli reserve soldier who lost his way. Although they stoned and wounded the soldier, they did not try to kill him and he avoided using his weapon and finally managed to escape with the help of the Israeli Border Police. The country was in an uproar for several days: Should the soldier be court martialled for not using his gun according to military instructions (meaning, was he a cowardly soldier)? Or should he be considered a 'hero' for holding back his weapon and preventing a massacre and finally managing to escape by the skin of his teeth? A very similar situation recurred two years later when an Israeli soldier was filmed by the CNN escaping from a car that was surrounded by an angry Palestinian crowd. Once again the country was in an uproar, as if this was the first event of its kind, to be again forgotten a few days later. A few months later one could see on the Israeli TV a Palestinian father whose son was killed by the Israeli army, donating his heart to an Israeli patient who needed heart transplantation. These TV clips where shown (with several others, representing similar dilemmas) to my students, after asking them to narrate what they thought heroism was in the Israeli context (by giving examples). It became clear that the political transition from conflict and warfare to the peace process brought up a whole new set of issues - what Israeli heroism was, is now or should be? It became evident that these young people were quite mixed up concerning this aspect of their Israeli identity (Bar-On, 1999b). These dramas that we witness almost daily on our TV screens during this period of social transformations did not gain special attention of the mainstream professionals who were supposed to deal with questions of morality and psychological health. The avoidance of these topics by part of the Israeli academic psychologists will be the focus of the present paper. Imagine for instance, that the soldier who escaped from the crowd without shooting developed some 'post-traumatic' reactions and asked for psychologist's help. What would the latter have done? Would he or she try and help the soldier overcome feelings of shame at not having behaved like a 'hero' according to accepted military standards, becoming more “effective” next time? Or would he or she reinforce the soldier for having survived with minimal injury, thereby preventing a mass slaughter (Bar-On, 1992)? Would this reflect only the political stand of the psychologist? Would the psychologist consider the social issue – do we have different kinds of ‘Israeli Heroism’ in the new situation created inside and outside the Occupied Territories? I am afraid that many psychologists would probably prefer to evade the issue because his or her mode of intervention might have “political implications” which he or she must try to “keep away from,” interpreting the professional capacity as an ostensibly “objective” one.

Why have many psychologists in Israel avoided these issues that primarily arose during and after the Intifada (3) , leading to the Oslo Accord? Why were these dramas not the major issue at academic conferences of the Israeli psychology? Why did articles on these issues not flood its professional journals? Can there be a connection between the absence of this debate and some deeper problems of identity of social psychologist in general (Parker, 1997) and Israeli psychologists in particular? Can this crisis also account for the absence of a socially critical, ‘Post-Zionist’ Israeli psychology? I will try to answer these questions, specifying its historical, political and cultural roots.
The last ten years have indicated a change in the scientific debate in social sciences in Israel (particularly in sociology and history), a debate that is stimulated by a ‘new’ or ‘Post-Zionist’ group of intellectuals (4). For example, Benny Morris, a historian from Ben Gurion University, showed that Palestinian refugees did not only flee during the 1948 war, but were actually driven out by some planned and purposeful activity of the Israeli political and military leadership (Morris, 1996). He arrived to this conclusion by analyzing documents of the Israeli government from that time (those that have been released by now). This research outcome was not easy to swallow for the Israeli public, due to its wider political implications, as it legitimized some of the Palestinians claims since 1948. On the other hand – can Morris’s data be disregarded as ‘non-scientific’, just because of these implications?

This local dispute has been influenced by a similar debate in other Western countries between modern and so-called post-modern social scientists. In the Israeli context, however, it focused on the criticism of certain young researchers towards their predecessors who were, the former claim, 'recruited' to justify the political or social Zionist-Israeli Bon-Ton, evading critical observation of their research subject (Gergen, 1973; Ram, 1995; Bar-On, in press). This process of 'scientific' conflict in these domains of social sciences usually is accompanied by a generation shift of the dominant researchers on one hand, and significant changes in contemporary, socio-political climate that requires a re-examination of previous assumptions, models and forms of inquiry (Gergen, 1973; Bar-On, 1999a). There is, however, virtually almost no similar academic dispute among the Israeli psychologists. My question is - why don't we have a Post-Zionist Israeli Psychology? This question occurred to me while I was organizing the 25th Israeli Psychologists conference that took place at Ben Gurion University in October 1995. As the organizer, I read dozens of abstracts of lectures, workshops and discussions concerning a wide variety of subjects. They had to do with perceptual biases, loneliness, personality evaluation, children and adolescents, decision-making or cognitive biases. Many of these abstracts were fascinating, professionally innovative, well adjusted to the psychological state of art in the most advanced modern countries. But there were few signs of critical Israeli political or social psychology in the sense I have described earlier. To the best of my knowledge, there was no significant change in this respect during the 26th Psychologists' Congress, held in 1997 at the Tel Aviv University, neither during the following conference at Haifa University, in June 2000.The Historical dimension: being in the periphery of European and American psychology.   The historical claim would emphasize that Israeli historians and sociologists were historically used to develop more socially contextual knowledge. Thereby, conventional “Zionist” historians and sociologists had created an original Israeli domain of social significance in their scientific field as early as the fifties and sixties. This early ‘Zionist’ trend has enabled the contemporary critical historians and sociologists to divert from and argue with them in the last fifteen years. In contrast, Israeli psychologists (apart from a few exceptions) viewed themselves as the periphery of the European and American psychological traditions, emphasizing individualistic and socially decontexualized norms. According to this claim, psychology in general focuses on researching the human psyche, especially its cognitive components and does neither deal with the emotional aspects of the individual, nor with issues of sociopolitical nature (Gergen, 1973; 1989). This relative conservatism is probably related to the history of psychology in comparison with that of other social sciences (Gergen, 1973). For example, even if Freud was considered revolutionary in the field of the theory of the psyche, his social vision was limited to the bourgeois reality of Vienna at the end of the last century (Herman, 1992). Perhaps it is more difficult to incorporate the complexity of personal and social change within one psycho-dynamic theory. During the student revolution of 1969, the psychiatrist Ronald Laing became known in an attempt to make meaningful social and political claims, as part of his theory of personal growth. These, however, were characterized by the naivete anarchism of a destruction of the establishment without suggesting any practical social transformation. Unfortunately, Laing’s revolutionary suggestions failed also in the field of psychiatry (concerning changes in the institutions for psychiatric patients). One could claim, that despair at the “progress” and impracticality of ideas like those of Laing generated a neo-conservatism of genetic and bio-chemical theories that led to relief of individual distress accompanied by a subtle preservation and reinforcement of the existing social establishment (Bar-On, 1977). One could also attribute a positive social meaning to this relative conservatism of psychology (that I criticize in the present context). It enables usually a 'soft' generation change of leadership. One does not have to begin all over again through the dialectic process of thesis and antithesis (Kuhn, 1962). A new generation can construct an additional layer of knowledge upon that already welcomed by previous generations. However, such a sequence does not usually generate new social visions or pioneering leadership of intellectuals, especially not during periods of social transformation and value crisis. This does, however, raise an interesting question with regard to the nature of social progress of ideas. Do the latter develop faster through public debate between extremes that attack one another for blindness and deafness, which is what happens in the debate between the critical and the conventional figures in Israeli history and sociology? Or is it, perhaps, the way of socially construction of progressing ideas to 'crawl' slowly along the edge of public attention while giving credit to the actions of their predecessors, thereby criticizing the ideal of the “fighting intellectual”? This may be what happened in the Israeli psychology, when we compare it to the historian or sociologists polarized debates. One might suggest that this tendency of Israeli psychology is also connected to American psychology, which the academic Israeli psychology was affiliated with from its beginning. Gergen defines the difference between social cognition and social construction and criticized the emphasis of the American academic psychology of the former (“social psychology without social”), thereby losing its role in terms of social leadership and change (Gergen, 1989). Parker provides us with a psychoanalytic interpretation, defining the problem of “identity crisis” of the social psychologists themselves (1997). Even if there is no simple solution to combing social cognition with constructionist perspective, is not the lack of a critical dialogue between the two more disturbing then the shortcomings of either? In that sense, Gergen (1989) and Parker (1997), like Milgram (Miller, 1986), Zimbardo (1994) or Staub (1989) are closer to certain earlier trends in European Social Psychology (5) that focused more on acute social issues, stressing the effect of the collective on the identity construction (Moscovici, 1976; Mugny & Perez, 1996; Wethrell & Potter, 1992). Henri Tajfel was a central figure in this concept. He was a Holocaust survivor who, with the help of laboratory experiments, attempted to prove (1981) that the human beings identify themselves as part of a group even when in fact they do not have any representation of the significance of that group. Tajfel tried to develop a different social psychological trend, assuming that personal identity primarily consists of social identities that are 'absorbed' in it, contrary to the American psychological tradition that focused on the internal aspects of individuals, undermining their social implications.

But the individualistic psychological dominant trend in Israel has also to be historically contextualized. In the collective Israeli ideology and practice of the thirties and forties, during its formative years, the individualistic psychology (introduced by European Freudian and Jungian clinical psychologists) had a positive balancing effect. It gave a more important place to the individual and his/her needs that were not in accord with the normative collective demands. For example, the first mental health clinics of the Kibbutz Movement in the forties and fifties were dominated by individual therapies. Those created a socially stabilizing effect, balancing the strong ideological-collective emphasis that controlled kibbutz society at the time, especially as collective child-rearing method had been practiced (Niv & Bar-On, 1992).

Later, when the Israeli academic psychology was established, some of the prominent academic psychologists in Israel took their inspiration and professional socialization from the dominant American and European psychology. Though there was quite a large group of clinical and social psychologists that showed professional and personal involvement in the Israeli society (6), they did it mostly on an individual basis, unlike the kind of collective critical professional identity that their colleagues in history or sociology have developed. There are many Israeli psychologists who are annually involved in the conferences of Political Psychology. But again, they did not try or succeed in creating a collective critical mass or an internal political controversy within Israeli psychology, like the Post-Zionists have achieved within sociology or history.

Two Political dimensions: From consensus on security to a hyper-political dispute.

1. Identifying with the security consensus of Zionism.
As long as there was a social consensus around the goals of Zionism, the relative conformity of Israeli psychologists was not a critical issue (7). The deep involvement of Israeli psychology in the military, accepting the political dominant political claim that Israel was constantly under strong security threat may account for the conformity of most Israeli psychologists and other social scientists until the seventies. However, through the polarization in the Israeli society and the collapse of the Israeli national consensus during the 1982 War in Lebanon and more so with the outbreak of the Intifada, in 1987 and the following Oslo Accord, these questions gained an acute, socially cogent meaning. The assumption behind the politically critical approach was that at certain moments in history, not taking a critical stand implies that one is making a political statement (8). Questioning the goals of Zionism in light of occupation of another national group and territory could suddenly become related to what is the social significance of an intervention of the organizational psychologist or the therapist in the army. These issues gained an acute political and social relevance that could not be ignored anymore by critical sociologists and historians. They were, however, repressed quite astonishingly by the majority of Israeli psychologists (Ram, 1995; Bar-On, 1992). This could not so easily be explained away just by the fact that many Israeli psychologists had (or still have, in reserves) a professional role in the Israeli army, and stuck to their commitment to its “non-political” social orientation and position.

The most obvious exception in the absence of an academic psychological debate concerning the interventions of mental health people in the changing political and social context, was the appearance of the Imut group during the late eighties, composed of psychologists, social workers and people working in education. This group attempted to critically redefine the professional identity into a politically contextualized one, creating at the same time a professional dialogue with Palestinian mental health-care professionals during the difficult periods of the Intifada and Gulf War. This group reached at its best several hundred professionals that in a sense, 'predicted' the peace process and the need to develop a new social professional way of thinking. They did, however, not succeed in creating an academic debate within Israeli psychology, like the one taking place among historians and sociologists, during the annual or biannual conventions. There was a general tendency among the academic psychology to play down the implications of the experience of Imut as being irrelevant to the essential theoretical and practical goals of psychological research.

2. A hyper-political atmosphere scaring psychologists into “neutrality” and “objectivism.”

Another argument as to why psychologist are less politically vocal in comparison to Israeli historians and sociologists, is related to the tendency of experimental psychologists to present themselves as being closer in their academic orientation to the biologists or the physicians, located further away from the social sciences (Gergen, 1973). My argument is that within a hyper-political atmosphere of polarization and lack of consensus that evolved in Israel in the eighties, the professional esteem of psychologist was threatened and scared many of them into a kind of ‘neutrality’ argumentation based on their so called scientific esteem. To take the earlier example, when military heroism was under critic as it happened in the case of the soldier in Ramallah, part of the society felt he was a coward, while others believed he was a hero. The way psychologists chose to conduct their intervention could become politically labeled. Many among the Israeli psychologists preferred to become mute under such circumstances, trying to maintain a kind of ‘neutral’ and ‘objective’ professional stand, thereby avoiding the conflict rather than confronting it (9).

According to the argument on “moral neutrality,” even if it is accepted that social psychologists have certain political affiliations, these should not affect or “interfere” in their professional work. They do not operate within their professional field according to some declared ideological identity, while trying to create for themselves an “objective” professional image of the natural sciences, more than some of their colleagues in the fields of sociology and history.  I do not claim that there is a simple answer to this issue. Clearly, if one takes a political stand, this may create certain boundaries to one’s professional questioning, interests and arguments. But claiming moral neutrality during periods of moral crisis (which to my opinion the Intifada clearly was) or periods of social transition and value transformations, is also a political statement. Such a statement creates (other) boundaries – where not to look at, what to silence and keep away from (Gergen, 1973; 1989). Therefore, the critical political psychologists would see this trend of neutrality as part of the psychologists’ relative conservatism, mentioned earlier. This was especially disquieting within the changing Israeli political context during the Intifada and the beginning of the Oslo Peace Accord  (Ram, 1995; Bar-On, 1992).

There were clearly exceptions to this rule. For example, a decade ago, a series of articles were published in the Israeli psychotherapeutic journal 'Sichot' (Wiztum et Al., 1989) that attempted to account for the fact why battle shock was not diagnosed in the first Israeli wars. It became apparent to these researchers that battle shock were evident in the 1948 war as in any other war, but these totally silenced by the Israeli society as well as by the psychologists and psychiatrists. People who suffered from battle shock then were labeled as 'degenerates', 'cowards' or those who simply 'disappeared' from battle without a trace. When officers in those battles were interviewed, they claimed (even in the late 90's!), that  "There was no battle shock in the Palmach (the elite Israeli army units of 1948). If there were such phenomena, they occurred among the Gachal soldiers (those soldiers who immigrated from Europe after the Holocaust)" (Bar-On, 1999b). Of course, there is no support to this socially biased stereotypical statement. It only shows how people cling to their false arguments till today, arguments that probably had a defensive function already fifty years earlier.
In 1948, the relevant professional knowledge did already exist in Israel that could have enabled the diagnosis and the necessary treatment of battle shock. At the time, three articles were published in a medical journal by a German psychiatrist, Doctor Kalmus, who had successfully treated thousands of soldiers suffering from battle stress during the First World War. He achieved this by means of the Salmon method that is still recognized today as an effective method (Herman, 1992). But no one listened to him then. He was viewed as an “old irrelevant German physician.” The fear was probably, that an acknowledgment of battle shock by psychologists might have harmed the war effort and the ideal image of the Israeli Sabra, (10) the Israeli hero-fighter of that time (Wiztum et al., 1989).

There are still remnants of fear of and hostility toward psychologists among officers in the Israeli army today similar to those that can be found in other armies. The argument in the army was usually that the psychologists create (awareness of) problems and, had they not identified them, commanders could continue to take action 'effectively' within the framework of the a social status quo. If so, one could ask why has battle shock been diagnosed in the subsequent 1973 and 1982 Wars? It appears that in the former, the whole Israeli society was somewhat shocked and this facilitated the 'acceptance' of that diagnosis. During that war it became apparent for the first time in the Israeli wars that 'survival' and not only ‘fighting’ could be heroic (11). After the 1973 war an internal military professional unit was developed, following the 1973 Israeli experience and the American army experience during the Vietnam War and (Solomon, 1995). When the 1982 war broke out, this unit was ready to identify the battle shock and treat them professionally. This may account for the fact that during this war there were more battle-shock cases diagnosed and treated than during the 1973 war, even though the later was, objectively speaking, a much more difficult war to fight with a much higher potential for battle shock occurrences.  

Quite surprisingly an echo of the silenced phenomena of battle shock during the 1948 War reappeared during the Intifada in 1987-1993. First, the Intifada was not defined as a war by the military or the government for political reasons. The official position was that this was not a war but suppressing violent activities of protest led by Palestinian civilians. The semi-official position was that the recognition of battle shock would have exposed the government to additional public pressure to find a political compromise with the Palestinians. Clearly, the questions at stake for the professional psychologists were difficult ones: Were soldiers in fact emotionally affected by suppressing civilian violence of women and children?  In what way was their emotional wounding during the Intifada (moral trauma of military victimizers) different from regular battle shock (emotional trauma of war-victims) (Young, 1995)? How could these wounds be treated without a social acknowledgement of soldiers’ wrong doings? It was extremely difficult to diagnose and treat such emotional wounds in a context of social polarization, as their acknowledgement had political implications. For our present debate it is interesting to note that it had become undiscussable in the Israeli public or professional psychological debate if the Intifada has caused ongoing emotional wounds to the Israeli soldiers. Whoever made such a claim was immediately labeled as making a political statement (9), identified with an 'unprofessional' claim according to the conventional ‘objective’ psychological tradition. Therefore, many psychologists (apart from the Imut organization) preferred to avoid the debate altogether, at a time when Israeli sociologists and historians had heated debates on similar issues. To what extent did the Intifada leave emotional scars on youngsters who acted to suppress it during their army service? We may never a precise answer to this question. What may be more disturbing is the fact that most of those who became emotionally impaired had to 'manage' by themselves, without the help of psychologists, similar to those among their parents’ generation who had suffered from battle shock in the 1948 War. Following Herman (1992), at some point in the future, after the peace process with the Palestinians will be completed, the Israeli society may accuse the psychologists - it's all very well to be wise after the event. Where have you been then, when it all happened? Why didn't you anticipate these after-effects and raise the public debate and attention? But by then the social context will be different, and the memory of the present context, in which it was socially unacceptable to make such statements, will be forgotten. Sometimes taking a political stand puts one’s professional position at risk. This can be painful, as many Israelis still feel great discomfort concerning the Palestinians having a political and moral 'voice' of their own. This voice is essentially different from the Israeli collective dominant position that tried for years to exclude the Palestinians and the necessary recognition of their national rights. In this sense, the price of confronting the Israeli consensus that Post-Zionist sociologists and historians were willing to pay, could unfortunately not be attributed to the majority of Israeli psychologists. The latter may have felt also discomfort but they were less willing to take a similar risky professional stand.

The Cultural dimension: Why did individualism lead to apolitical professional tendency among psychologists in Israel.

The question of the relative apolitical trend of the Israeli psychologists can not be accounted for only by the historical and political arguments. We find that also in other countries the individualistic psychology dominated and socially critical approaches did not develop during social transitions (Gergen, 1973; 1989). But the exceptions to this trend are valuable and should be addressed in some detail. For example, clinical and social psychologists were among the leadership of the Velvet Revolution in Czech Republic, in 1990.

Psychologists are among the leading figures of the TRC process in South Africa (Gbodo-Madikizela, 1998). Also, certain domains of American psychology can be viewed to have developed a critical social message, perhaps even gaining some political influence in fields of feminism, constructivism, humanism and leftist political activism. The research and intervention regarding sexual abuse within the family can serve as an example. Herman (1992) claims this to be an outcome of the feminist social movement in the USA. Likewise, she found the acknowledgement of the post-traumatic syndrome (PTSD) to be the result of Human Rights movement’s resistance to the Vietnam War (12). Her claim reminds us of Foucault's similar claim (1965) that the method of diagnosing insanity was a social construction. The 'scientific' (but mainly socially constructed) debate defined the professional categories of understanding and, through them, the legitimacy of the subjective experience.

It is clear that sexual abuse in the family did not begin when psychologists started to diagnose and treat it, just as the long-term effects of the Holocaust did not begin when psychotherapist finally identified them. According to Herman’s claim psychologists are a solid part of the social status quo and lack the intellectual stamina or social courage to lead the way, thereby risking to finding themselves outside the status quo. This situation, with all its attendant comfort, prevents them from openly identifying and proclaiming phenomena that society is still reluctant to debate, but which urgently need “a voice.” These two psychological issues (sexual abuse in the family and the post traumatic stress syndrome) share a common attribute, which shed some additional light on the difficulty associated with the social pioneering role of the psychologists. While they have generated a considerable body of knowledge and created a degree of public awareness, they have very little to tell us – what to do in order to prevent the continuation of the phenomena itself. That is, we are more exposed today to knowledge concerning accumulated harm by man-made trauma, but we do not have yet enough social or educational tools that could prevent or even reduce their negative effects. Thus, we are frustrated with regard to that new awareness that cannot be implemented politically or socially to bring about reduction or prevention. This social frustration can have a regressive effect, similar to the way in which Laing's revolutionary psycho-social analysis caused despair of community solutions concerning psychiatric problems (Ignatieff, 1998). Still, these new developments can be viewed as signs of a more critical and socially sensitive psychological thinking in the USA. Can we find similar signs in the Israeli academic psychological culture? We find similar developments in the local professional culture, but in minor and delayed forms. How can we account for the still dominant a-political tendency of Israeli psychologists, beyond the historical and political dimensions discussed earlier? I believe that a cultural dimension should be added here. The current Israeli culture of individualism is not only a reflection of the globalization of Western culture of individualism but also a reaction to the strong collectivism that dominated the Israeli society during its first decades. This argument demands some clarification concerning the changes in the construction of the Israeli identity in the past few decades.

The Zionist, Israeli-Jewish identity was constructed monolithically in opposition to several Jewish and Gentile “others” (Bar-On, 1999b). Specifically, the Diaspora Jew (represented mainly by the European Diaspora before WWII), the Ethnic Jew (represented mainly by the Sephardic Jews who emigrated from the Afro-Asian countries) and the Gentile (those who persecuted the Jews in the Diaspora, the Nazis and the Arabs). This identity construction was accompanied with a strong collectivist approach, in which the hegemony of the Eastern European Jewry dominated the political scenery and heroism was defined as sacrificing one’s own needs and preferences for the collectively defined goals.

During the last two decades, since the beginning of the Peace Process with Egypt and later with the Palestinians and Jordan, this monolithic construction is rapidly disintegrating. A multitude of different ethnic, religious and gender ‘voices’ emerged, all claiming to have been repressed by the previous political hegemony. The latter reacted by a strong individualist tendency, trying to ally itself with globalization and capitalism from without, thereby also trying to play down the multitude of competing socially constructed voices, threatening to take over, socially and politically. But clearly, the transition is not unilateral. The monolithic topic around which one can still unite most of the Israeli public is its self-perception as being victims of others that need self-defense and protection: Victims of the Nazis, of earlier persecutions all over the world and clearly victims of the Arabs. Begin and Netanyahu (13) knew very well how to manipulate the public fears related to this topic, as a way to maintain their own hegemony.

As the Israeli psychologists are mostly affiliated with the dominant European hegemony (and with the Israeli political left wing), one could understand their individualistc professional tendency also as a reaction to the collectivism of the past. Still, one could see it as a certain helplessness to cope intellectually and emotionally with the powerful process of disintegration of the social construction of the collective identity. They themselves are a part of this process and may not be able yet to analyze and reflect upon it. Here one should note, that the social criticism of the Post-Zionist historians and sociologists did not find always ways into the hearts and minds of the new social groups or voices that confront the traditional social East-European hegemony. Paradoxically, they were in a way the more critical part of that same hegemony, but mostly did not succeed to lead or become part of a social transition or reallocation of power.

I would like to provide a few examples of a possible new trend among Israeli social and clinical psychologists that could be identified as a new critical approach to conventional psychology and toward the Israeli society, even if they are not collectively yet identified as such. I refer to those academic professionals who try, mainly with the help of qualitative methods (14), to become more socially relevant. The study of Witzdum and his colleagues (1989), cited earlier, represents such a trend. Lieblich’s earlier work on the Israeli Kibbutz (1980), soldiers (1975) and prisoners of war (1984) represent a similar trend. Yanai’s paper on Israeli religious women’s attitudes toward the Arabs (1996) provides a fresh look at a critical aspect of Israeli society. Bar-Tal’s work on the Israeli ‘siege mentality’ (1992) and his research as to how Israeli schoolbooks did not change, in their negative representations of Arabs, as a result of the peace process (1997) are good examples of such a new trend. My own studies on decendants of Holocaust survivors and descendants of Nazi perpetrators (Bar-On, 1989; 1995) and those of my students’ on different aspects of the transforming Israeli identity (Bar-On, 1999b) could be categorized within this trend. The common denominator to these studies – that they were ready to sacrifice conventionally attributed “objective” or “neutral” qualities, by using qualitative methodology, to create relevant and socially valuable new data that addresses issues in relation to social change and transition with individual implications. Still, until now, this trend is usually viewed at best as an individual risk taking process, but lacks any clear recognition among the Israeli psychologists or the Israeli society.

Until the creation of such a recognized critical Post-Zionist Israeli psychology, we will probably have to listen to a myriad of voices from Israeli social and clinical psychologists. This is, perhaps, the most striking characteristic of Israeli psychology, as it contributes indirectly to the disintegration of the collective monolithic identity. Any social topic will immediately evoke a variety of different voices that leave the layman in a state of confusion: If professionals can't make up their minds, what do you expect from the ordinary person? For instance, psychologists played quite a significant role in the media during the Gulf War. Nonetheless, the public stated that it was difficult to know how to behave with so many professional voices telling them what to do or how to interpret their stressful reactions. For anyone who has experienced an ideological regime of a single collective hegemonic voice (of “pure” ideology – Bar-On, 1999a), the disharmony of a variety of voices may sound pleasant. However, this disharmony also has a price: As professionals, psychologists have little leadership in relation to social processes taking place before our very eyes. Perhaps, the more conventional Israeli psychologists should try the following exercise. What will they answer when their grandchildren will ask them in 20 years: Grandfather/mother, where have you been and what did you do when Israeli soldiers broke Palestinian children's arms and legs with sticks, and some of those children (on both sides) are still suffering from these acts today? It is my conclusion that psychology is essentially a science that acts within the framework of the social status quo, following social processes rather then leading them. If one wishes to develop a more critical social perspective and role, one has to dare and go beyond the social status quo, as the critical historians and sociologists have attempted to do. This debate, when it takes place, has to investigate the question of the existence (or lack thereof) of an Israeli socially and historically contextualized psychology before the Israeli society got involved in the present transition from warfare to the current peace process. The Israeli Jewish professionals will also have to deal with the somewhat frightening similarity between the 'degenerate' shell-shocked soldiers in the 1948 War and the reactions of the military system to the behavior of the soldier in Ramallah in 1994; to the unrecognized stressful reactions of Israeli soldiers during the Intifada.

Probably this discussion has some relevance for the development of political psychology in other social contexts, especially those going through social transition of values from collectivism to individualism (like the societies in Eastern Europe) or those suffering from long, man-made violent conflicts (like South Africa or Northern Ireland). Still, I would suggest that a socially contextual perspective should be developed. One has to study the specific processes in each social context and its relevant transformations, rather then deliberately looking for parallel trends in all these contexts.


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1: I wish to thank Dr. Ifat Maoz, Department of Communication, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel, and Prof. Marc Howard Ross of Bryn Mawr College, USA, for their insightful and helpful comments on an earlier version of this manuscript.

2: For correspondence write to Prof. Dan Bar-On, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, POBox 653, Beer Sheva 84105, Israel.

Tel. 972-7-6472035. Fax: 972-7-6472932. Email: danbaron@bgumail.bgu.ac.il

3: The Palestinian uprising in the Occupied Territories during 1987-1993, that led to the Oslo Accord.

4: I do not want to sound as if I glorify the Post-Zionist approach. I see many problems in its failure to develop a new scientific paradigm (Kuhn, 1962; Bar-On, in preparation). I do, however, applaud to the social issues it brought to public attention and debate.

5: I will bring most of my examples from social and clinical psychology. First, I am more familiar with them. Second, one would expect these fields to me more socially sensitive and critical, while relating to individual and social health and ethics.

6: For examples, the late Professor Kalman Binyamini, and the winner of the Israel Prize, the late Professor Yehuda Amir, (Amir, 1976). One could include in this list quite a few active social psychologists like Arie Nadler, Ariela Freidman and Daniel Bar-Tal at Tel Aviv University (1992) (the latter was President-Elect of Political Psychology), Amiya Libliech, David Bar-gal and Shalom Schwartz at the Hebrew University,  Yona Rosenfeld, also a winner of the Israel prize, Emanuel Berman, Yoel Elizur and Raphael Moses as clinical psychologists, just to name a few of a longer list.

7: There is an earlier example of this phenomenon: Psychologists were relatively late in addressing the after-effect of the Holocaust on descendants of Holocaust survivors. In that sense many of them followed the public silencing of these issues, rather then being the pioneers to break through it (Bar-On, 1995). Again there are exceptions to this rule: Hillel Klein, Shamai Davidson and Israel Charny.

8: A good example for this is the question of the so-called neutrality of Switzerland and Sweden during WWII. Only lately we can learn how this “neutrality” actually reinforced Nazi aggression and its annihilation process.

9: Another example outside the Israel context is the deletion of the chapter on moral judgement from American textbooks of social psychology during the last fifteen years. Asking colleagues in America why this change has happened, the answer was “this chapter belongs to developmental psychology but has little relevance to social psychology.” I believe that this is part of the effort to “neutralize” academic social psychology, trying to make it seem more scientific and less value-burdened (Gergen, 1989). Whenever I teach the introductory course in social psychology at my department, I teach this chapter and bring examples of relevant research in social psychology, trying to discuss the question - why did social psychologists preferred an image of “objectivity” and “moral neutrality.”

10: Sabra is a nickname for the Israeli born. It is the Arabic name for a wild fruit that has thorns on the outside but is juicy and soft inside. This reflected the public image of the new Israeli-Jew (Bar-On, 1999b).

11: This acknowledgment had some retroactive implications of accepting the heroism of survival among Holocaust survivors. The earlier social judgment of the fifties that they “went like sheep to slaughter” had to be revised in light of the 1973 war (Bar-On, 1995; Segev, 1992).

12: It is important to note here that the concept of PTSD enabled Vietnam Veteran victimizers to claim mental distress as if they had only been victimized during the war (Young, 1995).

13: Two political leaders of the Israeli nationalist right wing party, the Likud, who served as Prime Ministers during the late seventies and eighties (Begin) and late nineties (Netanyahu).

14: It is interesting to note that the quantitative methods of the experimental psychologists contributed to their self presentation of scientific objectivism and neutrality (Gergen, 1989).






__Stop the Bomb

Impressum: Initiative kritische Psychologie Wien/Daniel Sanin