Fratricide in the Holy Land: A Psychoanalytic View of the Arab-Israeli Conflict

By Harris, Deena R. | Shofar, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Fratricide in the Holy Land: A Psychoanalytic View of the Arab-Israeli Conflict


Harris, Deena R., Shofar


Fratricide in the Holy Land: A Psychoanalytic View of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, by Avner Falk. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press Terrace Books, 2004. 271 pp. $35.00.

In his book Fratricide in the Holy Land, Avner Falk attempts to analyze the Arab Israeli conflict, as well as key leaders and issues, from a psychoanalytic point of view. This is an important perspective often missing from historical accounts. As with any situation, understanding is deepened if one looks for the psychoanalytic interpretations. Falk's attempt to explain an age-old conflict, nuanced with political, religious, racist, territorial, and fundamentalist aspects, as a psychoanalytic conflict is commendable and risky.

It is not clear which audience this book is written for. As a psychoanalyst, I find it worrisome that Falk would represent psychoanalytic thinking and attitudes to the lay person. His armchair analysis of characters whom he has not had as patients (Sharon, Arafat, Bush) trivializes the practice of psychoanalysis. His sweeping generalizations are the very stereotypes that have plagued the reputation of psychoanalysis. There is nothing new in the recognition that many in power have narcissistic characters and are "working out" personal issues. He is more relevant when he looks at the psychology of large groups to understand how one leader can hold such power over masses.

For the historian or student of conflict resolution, he certainly offers an important aspect that cannot be overlooked if one is to understand the conflict in its totality. Hopefully, for all readers, his approach will broaden understanding of both sides. For any person interested in the topic, the book offers a tremendous bibliography and a taste of all that has been written on the debates of the history of this conflict. The book opens the reader's eyes to the potential power of applied psychoanalytic thinking.

Fratricide in the Holy Land is set up in an orderly fashion, although many of the chapters repeat the same few important points. It is very readable; however, there are cliches that are a bit contrived and as a result diminish the power of important psychoanalytic concepts. For example, "Denial is Not a River in Egypt" and "Reality is in the Eye of the Beholder" are titles of two of the chapters.

The introduction and the literature review in the first chapter give the reader most of the information that will come later. Falk does not feel there has been much written from an analytic perspective about the conflict. However, there is a literature in conflict resolution, psychoanalysis, holocaust studies, and social psychology which he does not mention. Perhaps Falk means that not much thought has been given to psychological processes specifically by historians.

There are several chapters devoted to psychobiography of Sharon, Arafat, and Bush, which are the weaker parts of the book. His chapters on reality, psychogeography, and the inability to mourn are the strength and heart of his thesis-that great losses on both sides, not collectively mourned, force each side to deny their losses, and make each unable to recognize the pain and existence of the other. His other central point, generating the title of the book, is that the Jews and Arabs are brothers, engaged in sibling rivalry for the love and possession of the mother, the land.

The strengths of the book are Falk's discussions of group psychology. He refers to the important work done by Vamik Volkan, who has looked at ethnic conflict groups psychoanalytically. Volkan addresses the importance of the group identity and was the first to coin the term "chosen trauma"-the trauma in its history which a group holds onto and around which forms an identity. This is a key concept to understand if one is to work in any productive way with the two sides. Volkan has also recognized the importance of working with individuals out of their group context, who can bridge the two worlds and introduce a new possibility to the group of origin. …

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