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Exile and the prophetic: Psychologist Shpancer leaves out Palestinian trauma

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The German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, once commented, “That which doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger.”   What his words mean beyond a popular refrain, I’ll leave for Nietzsche’s devoted followers to sort out.  Nonetheless, Nietzsche’s words ring a bell. 

Trauma as strength has become our collective mantra.  What if our mantra is a sign of weakness?  

Yesterday a friend who, contra Nietzsche’s words, has her own story of suffering that hasn’t made her stronger, sent me an article from Psychology Today by Noam Shpancer. Shpancer‘s title represents an apt reversal of Nietzsche’s dictum: “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Weaker.”

Shpancer is best known as author of the novel, The Good Psychologist. Currently, he is a professor of psychology and a practicing clinician in Columbus, Ohio. Though living in America, Shpancer was born and raised on a kibbutz in Israel and served in the military there.

Shpancer debunks the notion that suffering makes you stronger. He believes this is particularly difficult for American culture to deal with because America is “born of trauma and imbued with a hopeful can-do ethos.  Thus it wants to believe this idea because it’s self-affirming.” Shpancer refers to this as confirmation bias: “Once we have acquired a certain belief we tend to see, remember, and report mostly instances and events that support it. “

To back his conclusion, Shpancer cites a recent study comparing those who lived within 1.5 miles of the World Trade Center on September 11th and others who lived more than 200 miles away.  The study shows those closer to Ground Zero have long-term neurological correlates of trauma exposure. Shpancer concludes that “when trauma and hardship do leave a mark, it is usually a bruise under the skin, not a notch on the belt.”

At the end of his article, Shpancer adds his own experience in the Israeli military to bolster his argument.  On the surface, his reference seems innocuous.  Digging below the surface other questions arise: 

Years ago, during my mandatory army service in Israel, I took part in anti-terrorist training that involved working with the K9 unit. I asked the unit commander where he found those vicious attack dogs of his. Most people, he said, believe that wild street dogs make the best anti-terrorist dogs, having survived the, well, dog-eat-dog world of the mean streets. But the truth is just the opposite. Street dogs are useless for this–or any other–work because they are unpredictable and not trainable. Dogs that have been well cared for, loved, and protected all their lives–those are the best anti-terrorist dog candidates.

Shpancer doesn’t inquire as to how his military service in Israel addresses Nietzsche’s dictum.  Did it make him stronger or weaker?  Nor does Shpancer probe how the militarization of Jewish life in Israel and elsewhere has affected the Jewish outlook on the world.

Did the anti-terrorist training Shpancer was involved in include studying where terrorism comes from and why?  In defending Israel’s citizens against terror, did he learn how soldiers like him terrorize Palestinians? Was part of Shpancer’s training a history lesson in the formation and expansion of Israel and the trauma that continues to be inflicted on Palestinians?

Perhaps Shpancer honed his views on trauma and its effects on strength and weakness in the occupied territories or in the Israeli invasions of Lebanon and Gaza. In his military service, did he personally inflict trauma on others or experience trauma himself?

These details would be important background for Shpancer’s readers to know.  Then we would glimpse the story behind the story. Because if Shpancer’s judgment factors in the radical shift in Jewish history from powerlessness to power that Israel represents and he has lived – coupled with the trauma Jews suffered and now inflict on others which he has also lived – then a new kind of Jewish weakness might be at hand.

Did Shpancer leave Israel because he couldn’t resolve these issues within himself?

Two years ago, Shpancer wrote an op-ed for the Guardian reminiscing about his days growing up in a kibbutz. Curiously he omits its name and location.  It turns out he was born and raised in Kibbutz Nachshon, outside of Jerusalem, which was established in 1950, two years after the 1948 war.  The kibbutz was named after Operation Nachshon which opened up the Jerusalem road during the war.  It was the first step of David Ben-Gurion’s infamous ethnic cleansing Operation Dalet. 

In his article in the Guardian, as with Psychology Today, Shpancer omits the details of his Israeli past.   As good psychologists, having Nietzsche but also Freud in mind, what should we think about Shpancer’s silence?

Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is Professor of History and Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of the Global Prophetic. His latest book is Finding Our Voice: Embodying the Prophetic and Other Misadventures.

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7 Responses

  1. Hostage on April 29, 2013, 9:57 am

    In his article in the Guardian, as with Psychology Today, Shpancer omits the details of his Israeli past. As good psychologists, having Nietzsche but also Freud in mind, what should we think about Shpancer’s silence?

    Interestingly enough, Freud himself wasn’t completely silent on the subject of Jewish fanaticism or the legitimacy of Christian, Muslim, and Arab distrust of the Zionist enterprise:

    Letter To The Keren Hajessod (Dr. Chaim Koffler) Of The Palestine Foundation Fund

    Sigmund Freud
    Vienna: 26 February 1930
    Dear Sir,

    I cannot do what you wish. I am unable to overcome my aversion to burdening the public with my name, and even the present critical time does not seem to me to warrant it. Whoever wants to influence the masses must give them something rousing and inflammatory and my sober judgment of Zionism does not permit this. I certainly sympathize with its goals, am proud of our University in Jerusalem and am delighted with our settlements’ prosperity. But, on the other hand, I do not think that Palestine could ever become a Jewish state, nor that the Christian and Islamic worlds would ever be prepared to have their holy places under Jewish control. It would have seemed more sensible to me to establish a Jewish homeland on a less historically burdened land. But I know that such a rational viewpoint would never have gained the enthusiasm of the masses and the financial support of the wealthy. I concede with sorrow that the unrealistic fanaticism of our people is in part to be blamed for the awakening of Arab distrust. I can raise no sympathy at all for the misdirected piety which transforms a piece of Herod’s wall into a national relic, thereby challenging the feelings of the natives.

    Now judge for yourself whether I, with such a critical point of view, am the right person to come forward as the solace of a people deluded by unjustified hope.
    Your obedient servant,

    — Adam Shatz (ed), “Prophets Outcast: A Century of Dissident Jewish Writing about Zionism and Israel”, Nation Books, 2004 page 53

  2. DICKERSON3870 on April 29, 2013, 11:44 am

    RE: “In his article in the Guardian, as with Psychology Today, Shpancer omits the details of his Israeli past. As good psychologists, having Nietzsche but also Freud in mind, what should we think about Shpancer’s silence?” ~ Marc Ellis

    ONE POSSIBILITY: Shpancer’s silence regarding the details of his Israeli past is indicative of (i.e., a consequence of) the “defense mechanism” of “thought suppression”.

    FROM WIKIPEDIA [Defence mechanisms]:

    [EXCERPTS] In Freudian psychoanalytic theory, defense mechanisms (or defense mechanisms) are psychological strategies brought into play by the unconscious mind[1] to manipulate, deny, or distort reality (through processes including, but not limited to, repression, identification, or rationalization),[2] and to maintain a socially acceptable self-image or self-schema.[3]
    Healthy persons normally use different defenses throughout life. An ego defense mechanism becomes pathological only when its persistent use leads to maladaptive behavior such that the physical and/or mental health of the individual is adversely affected. The purpose of ego defense mechanisms is to protect the mind/self/ego from anxiety and/or social sanctions and/or to provide a refuge from a situation with which one cannot currently cope.[4]
    Defence mechanisms are unconscious coping mechanisms that reduce anxiety generated by threats from unacceptable impulses.[5]
    . . . The list of defence mechanisms is huge and there is no theoretical consensus on the number of defence mechanisms. . .

    Vaillant’s categorization of defence mechanisms

    Level 4: Mature
    These are commonly found among emotionally healthy adults and are considered mature . . .
    • Thought suppression: The conscious process of pushing thoughts into the preconscious; the conscious decision to delay paying attention to an emotion or need in order to cope with the present reality; making it possible to later access uncomfortable or distressing emotions whilst accepting them.

    SOURCE –

  3. Les on April 29, 2013, 12:43 pm

    For her knowledge of both Freud and of Zionist literature, the writings of Professor Jacqueline Rose are highly recommended.

  4. Keith on April 29, 2013, 5:26 pm

    Leave it to a PhD psychologist to make a huge Freudian slip. Are the “dogs” a subconscious expression of soldiers “that have been well cared for, loved, and protected all their lives,” now are the most easily trained to become what he previously describes as “vicious attack dogs?”

    • Citizen on April 30, 2013, 3:30 am

      @ Keith
      Yeah, I noticed that too. Further, I bet Pavlov’s dogs were well cared for.

  5. Mike_Konrad on April 29, 2013, 9:32 pm

    Trauma is never good.

    I knew women who were sexually abused as kids. 20 years later they could still break down over it.

    Neitschze was wrong.

  6. piotr on April 30, 2013, 10:05 am

    I have two remarks.

    First, the dictum of Nietzsche is a paradox, a disturbing statements that zings in the mind as absurd but on the second thought has some truth. But it is not a universal truth by any means.

    Second, much more importantly, stronger does not mean better. Everything being equal, it is better to be stronger than weaker, but strength through trauma has its dark side.

    For example, in my mother tongue there is a word that can be loosely translated as “smart” but it also conveys “selfish, untrustworthy”. It is often used in phrase “smart” fox. It is actually a grammatical form of a word that is rarely used, the form means “someone that has been blah” of verb “send dogs against” (something that is not done frequently nowadays). So our smart fox is a survivor of a classic fox hunt, chased by a swarm of hunting dogs, surviving through guile.

    A street dog is a survivor, similar to a fox that has been hunted. It is untrustworthy because it has mind of his own, its own goals, it will not follow authorities blindly. Why should I attack the person indicated by the master and risk injury or death? If the master gives good food and shelter than it is fine, but if he gives a silly order and insists on it, perhaps it is the time to run away.

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