A forgotten critic of Israeli society: The work of the social psychologist Georges R. Tamarin

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The growth of ethnic, racial, and religious hatred in Israel, often taking violent forms, has been a striking development of recent years. However, the contrast with earlier periods of the state’s existence should not be exaggerated. Certain features – for instance, mass processions changing “Death to Arabs!” – may be new, but prejudice, intolerance, and xenophobia were already widespread half a century ago and their violent expression was not unknown. This is one of the conclusions to be drawn from revisiting the work of a penetrating critic of Israeli society who, regrettably, is now almost forgotten – the social psychologist Georges R. Tamarin.

I have found very little information about Tamarin’s life. He was born in Subotica, Yugoslavia, and studied at the University of Zagreb before and after World War Two, obtaining an MA and PhD in psychology. He migrated to Israel in 1949. During the 1950s, except for a year spent as a research fellow at the Collège de France in Paris, he worked as a psychologist at a child guidance clinic and at two hospitals. In the 1960s he was a senior lecturer in the psychology department at the University of Tel Aviv. His scathing criticism of Israeli society led to the scandal known as the “Tamarin affair” and in 1969 he was fired from the university. He then became director of the Institute for Socio-Psychological Research (ISPR), affiliated with the UNESCO-sponsored International Peace Research Association.

Of five books by Tamarin that have appeared in English, three are no longer available: a work on “the forms and foundations of Israeli theocracy” published in 1968 by Shikpul Press, an outlet of his university department; a study of the mystical sources of the “Israeli annexationist movement” published in 1971 by the ISPR under the paradoxical title A Leap Forward into the Past; and Studies in Psychopathology, issued in 1980 by the obscure Turtledove Press. A fourth book, Three Studies on Prejudice in Israel, was published in 1969 by Shikpul Press and is now almost unavailable (Amazon offers one copy for $184.95). The only book published by a major Western publisher – the University of Rotterdam Press – and still somewhat more widely available is a collection of Tamarin’s research papers entitled The Israeli Dilemma: Essays on a Warfare State (1973). This is also the only book of Tamarin’s in my possession.

Riots then and now

One research paper in this volume that prompts reflections concerning how much has changed is No. 8, entitled “Patterns of rioting in Israel.” Tamarin delivered this paper to the Second Congress of Sociology in Tel Aviv in 1970. He defines rioting as “collective violent behavior” and distinguishes six types:

— hooliganism

— anti-Arab mob attacks

— riots of religious fanatics

— protest riots in slum areas inhabited by Oriental Jews

— political violence by “outcast” groups

— vendettas in Arab and Druze villages (p. 173).

Here I focus on the second type. Anti-Arab mob attacks, Tamarin informs us, are of “medium magnitude” and take place mostly in mixed (Jewish-Arab) small towns. He cites the example of a riot that demolished a café because the owner, though himself Jewish, employed Arab workers. Tamarin notes that “the police intervene energetically and efficiently” to halt such attacks. However, he adds, only a few of the participants are punished and their punishment is very lenient, while others are released on the same or the next day without being charged (p. 181). That much at least has not changed. What has disappeared is the “energetic and efficient police intervention” – assuming that Tamarin can be trusted when he tells us that it used to occur.

Joshua and General Lin

Of all Tamarin’s studies the one that attracted the most attention deals with “the influence of chauvinism on moral judgment.” To be more specific, he sought to assess how uncritical teaching of the biblical account of Joshua’s conquest of Jericho affects the moral judgment of Israeli schoolchildren. It was reports of this study that led to the Tamarin affair and also captured the attention of some foreign scholars – notably, the Christian theologian Michael Prior. In his book The Bible and Colonialism: A Moral Critique (Sheffield Academic Press, 1997) Prior describes Tamarin’s study in the context of his examination of the use of the Book of Joshua as a warrant for colonial conquest [1] not only in Palestine but also in Latin America and South Africa. Viewed in this light, unfortunately, Tamarin’s ironic claim to be “the last victim of Joshua’s conquest of Jericho” cannot be upheld.

Tamarin presented nine groups of students aged 8—14 at different kinds of schools (urban and rural, secular and religious, etc. – 1,066 students altogether) with a text that reminded them of the biblical passage about the Israelites’ extermination of the inhabitants of Jericho, Makkedah, and Lachish (Joshua 10, 28-32) and then asked them:

  1. Do you think Joshua and the Israelites acted rightly or not? Explain why you think as you do.
  1. Suppose that the Israeli Army conquers an Arab village in battle. Do you think it would be good or bad to act towards the inhabitants as Joshua did towards the people of Jericho and Makkedah? Explain why.

An alternative questionnaire was administered to 168 students in a school in Tel Aviv. This text presented the story of an imaginary General Lin who lived in ancient China and was commanded by his “war-god” to kill all the inhabitants of conquered cities. These students were asked the corresponding question: “Do you think that General Lin and his soldiers acted rightly or not? Explain why.”

60% of respondents expressed total approval of the genocide by Joshua; 20% expressed total disapproval and 20% partial approval or disapproval. Only 7% totally approved of the genocide by General Lin; 75% totally disapproved and 18% partially approved or disapproved.

Contrary to Tamarin’s expectations, there was no significant difference between the responses of boys and girls. Two groups of students at kibbutzim with left-wing ideologies were more inclined to be critical of Joshua, with “only” about a third expressing total approval. By contrast, 95% of boys at a religious school expressed total approval.

Tamarin points out that respondents who criticized Joshua did not necessarily do so for humanitarian reasons. For example, one girl wrote: “The Arabs are impure and if one enters an impure land one will also become impure and share their curse.” [2]

Religious coercion and discrimination

Much of Tamarin’s work focuses on religious coercion and discrimination against adherents of non-Judaic religions and non-Orthodox branches of Judaism and also atheists. I have already mentioned his book on Israeli theocracy. Three of the papers in The Israeli Dilemma are devoted exclusively to this theme: Paper No. 2 documents the legal basis of discrimination against Arab citizens and non-Orthodox Jews; Paper No. 3 addresses non-legal forms of discrimination and coercion, such as circumcision under strong social pressure and the enforced observance of dietary laws and the Sabbath.

Paper No. 5 is about “primitive pollution fears.” Thus, even a non-religious Jewish woman must undergo total submersion in a public ritual bath (Mikvah) for “purification” following menstruation before the rabbinate will allow her to marry (there is no civil marriage in Israel). This experience is especially unpleasant when – as is often the case – the water in the Mikvah and the attendant who pushes the victim under the water are dirty. Concern for ritual purity is quite compatible with neglect of cleanliness in the mundane sense.

The Israeli authoritarian personality

Social psychologists such as Erich Fromm and Theodor Adorno have theorized about an “authoritarian personality” that supposedly marks a potentially fascist individual. Paper No. 4 on the “Israeli authoritarian personality” is of great interest in this regard. Tamarin argues that the “classic” model of the authoritarian personality does not apply to Israelis, who have little respect for authority figures or formal rules. For example, Israelis take pride in ignoring traffic regulations. However, this does not mean that they are tolerant or libertarian in outlook. The Israeli authoritarian personality recognizes the authority of the group and is highly intolerant of nonconformity to group norms. He mentions one case in which a girl was reprimanded at her kibbutz for wearing pink instead of white underpants.

Stereotypes of Zionist mythology

Papers Nos. 6 and 7 analyze four stereotypical images in Israeli mythological consciousness. The first of these papers contrasts the images of the native-born Israeli – the “Sabra superman” – and the diaspora Jew; the second explores the xenophobic associations of the Gentile (goy) and the Arab. Again Tamarin compares different groups of respondents, including schoolteachers, psychology students, “old-timers” from Eastern Europe, Israeli Jews from Arab countries, and members of left-wing organizations. He also uses a variety of open-ended research methods, such as free association and story completion (analysis of the content of stories prompted by statements of the type “Chaim is a typical Sabra”).

When I look at all four stereotypes side by side I am struck by the following points.

Firstly, the Sabra respondents perceive diaspora Jews, despite allegiance to a common religion, as no less “strange” and “foreign” than goyim and Arabs. They have no “feeling of solidarity with world Jewry,” complains Tamarin.

Of the three alien groups the one that seems least strange to them is the Gentiles, who share a complex of physical and character traits with the Sabras. Arabs and diaspora Jews are cowardly, devious, weak, dark, inferior, and generally despicable. Sabras and goyim, by contrast, are tall, strong, proud, frank, and direct. Some of them at least have blonde hair and light-colored eyes – features that never occur in Arabs or diaspora Jews. This is not to say that the Arab and diaspora-Jew images are identical: Arabs are dirtier, more primitive, and more aggressive.

Like all ethnic stereotypes these four take gender-specific forms. Nevertheless, there is an obvious overlap between supposedly masculine traits and those attributed to Gentiles and native-born Israelis, as there is between supposedly feminine traits and those attributed to Arabs and diaspora Jews. The female Sabra consequently appears as a somewhat masculinized figure while the image of the male diaspora Jew is somewhat feminized.

Why was Tamarin fired?

The University of Tel Aviv fired Tamarin on the basis of the recommendation of a committee appointed to consider his case, passed by a majority of 3:2 and endorsed by the Senate of the University. One reason given was that Tamarin was not “integrated” into Israeli society (p. 4). Another was that his research “caused harm to the relationship between the departments of psychology and education and the Ministry of Education” (p. 190). The ministry seems to have been the main force behind the decision.

Some of Tamarin’s detractors accused him of being opposed to Zionism. He himself denied it: “As long as this unfortunate planet of ours is divided into anachronistic nation-states, nothing can dispute Israel’s right to exist” (p. IX). The Nakba was evidently outside his field of vision. And, indeed, if he were anti-Zionist then why had he come to Israel?

Nevertheless, the charge of anti-Zionism cannot be wholly attributed to paranoia. Tamarin was passionately committed to humanitarian ideals whose consistent application would soon have put an end to the Zionist project. Even though he was not aware of this perhaps his opponents were.


  1. I model this expression on the title of Norman Cohn’s well-known book Warrant for Genocide, which refers to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Unlike the latter, of course, the Book of Joshua is not a fabrication.
  2. This reminds me of a short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer about how a Zionist settler discovers that Palestine is the abode of the Devil. Perhaps from a Palestinian point of view any reason that a Jew may have for staying away from Palestine might be considered a good one.
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Very valuable review. However, without the books being available, not much help. Can any American/Canadian publisher be interested in republishing any of these in English? The essays identifying large percentages of Israeli kids approving total destruction of populations of towns conquered by Israel may help explain the acceptance (and cheering) by Israeli people of the viciousness of the Israeli attacks on Gaza, Lebanon. And the fact that “sabra” Israelis have no fellow feeling with non-Israeli… Read more »

“… the Book of Joshua is not a fabrication.” The preponderance of scholarly opinion says otherwise.

That aside, I agree with pablemont that this is a valuable review. Plus ca change, plus ca meme.

Thank you for bringing these works to our attention. I would love to read in more detail some of his other writings.

I think it speaks volumes that adopting universal human rights principles in his research got him labeled as an anti-Zionist, even though he himself seemed to identify as a Zionist. Zionism cannot survive in an environment where everyone is equal.

… Anti-Arab mob attacks, Tamarin informs us, are of “medium magnitude” and take place mostly in mixed (Jewish-Arab) small towns. … Tamarin notes that “the police intervene energetically and efficiently” to halt such attacks. …

I have no doubt that the police energetically run down and then efficiently assassinate anyone:
– who attacks Arabs; or
– who the police believe is about to attack Arabs.

Establishment Denial of Holocausts in Biblical Narrative: