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A dose of Depressive Realism for the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Photo caption: Melanie Klein, Psychoanalyst.

Credit: Douglas Glass,
Photo caption: Melanie Klein, Psychoanalyst. Credit: Douglas Glass,

The reaction of the American public to the events of October 7th and the ensuing war on Gaza seem to mirror the growing polarization in American society. Supporters of Israel focus almost exclusively on the atrocities of October 7th whereas supporters of the Palestinians focus on the death toll of the war on Gaza while denying or ignoring the events that preceded it. The rhetoric on both sides leaves little room for nuance, ambivalence, or for the consideration of the other side’s position. It seems that young Americans between the ages of 18-24 are particularly afflicted by the notion that from the river to the sea only one side should be free. We combine psychodynamic theory and data from surveys on representative samples of voting-age Americans to shed light on the dilemmas facing young Americans who tend to gravitate towards simplistic solutions that are psychologically satisfying but practically dangerous.

Melanie Klein, a pioneer in applying psychoanalytic theory to child development, offers some insight into how the changing mental perspectives of children can help understand why adults often vacillate between simplistic and more erudite and intricate explanations of phenomena that are inherently complex, such as war and trauma. Klein suggested that over the course of child development, a shift occurs from a paranoid-schizoid position to a depressive position. The paranoid-schizoid position is characterized by splitting the self and other into dichotomous good and evil with little ability to integrate the two or to recognize the relativity of these terms. In adulthood, events such as war and trauma may induce a regression to this earlier primitive stage and then the dehumanization and demonization of the other, the inability to tolerate difference or ambiguity, the romanticization of the past, and idealization of the future dominate the discussion and reinforce an immature self-righteous stance that feels good and is not easily abandoned.

Empathy towards Israelis and Palestinians before and after October 7th by age group. Findings from online survey of 1000 participants representative of the US population aged 18+ conducted by Dynata.

The warm and fuzzy feeling of always being right, however, is often maladaptive. Just as a child eventually recognizes (albeit reluctantly) that there are other people in the world and that these people also have rights and needs that must be acknowledged and reckoned with, so are adults in the context of war and trauma required to accept the complex and contingent nature of terms such as truth and justice. Klein called this the depressive position. It is depressive in the sense that the child develops a more realistic perspective of the world no longer seeing him- or herself as the omnipotent center of being. The depressive position requires consideration of the other and an understanding that compromise is essential. The depressive position enables empathy and moral emotions such as guilt that are necessary for mature social functioning and for peaceful relations with other groups. The depressive position in the context of intractable intergroup conflict is the recognition that both sides, Israelis and Palestinians, will still be on the same land when the blood dries and the dust settles; it is the understanding that painful compromise, not dreams about vanquishing the other, is the practical way forward.

Opinion polls that we conducted on representative samples of the American public before and after October 7th underscore the tension between paranoid-schizoid processes and depressive ones; between attraction to absolutist attitudes to acquiescence with pragmatic solutions and compromises. Knowledge is the enemy of the paranoid-schizoid position and after October 7th we see that strong convictions are met with little knowledge to back them. Young Americans (18-24) in September professed little knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with only 21% considering themselves knowledgeable. Only two months later that figure soared to 33%. This dramatic increase could be attributed to a parallel increase in claiming to stay updated on the topic (up from 28% in September to 42% in November), but when asked some basic factual questions (“who is the Prime Minister of Israel?”; “who is President of the Palestinian Authority?”), the 18-24 age group showed the lowest levels of knowledge compared to other age groups.

This combination of high perceived knowledge with low actual knowledge is associated with opinions that often differ from those of other Americans. Whereas older Americans believe that more pressure must be exerted by the United States on the Palestinians and not on Israel, younger Americans show the opposite trend and increased their support for more pressure on Israel post-07.10. Young Americans sense of empathy towards both sides intensified after October 7th. They felt more empathy towards the Palestinians than towards Israel even before 07.10 with 31% supporting the Palestinians and only 18% supporting the Israelis, but after 07.10 only 10% felt empathy towards Israel and 51% felt empathy with the Palestinians. Other age groups show more empathy towards both sides after 07.10 or show increased empathy only towards Israel. Moreover, young Americans are the only age group that sees the current conflict as Israel’s fault (46%) more than it is the Palestinians’ fault (36%). More than any other age group, they view the war on Gaza as genocide (42%) and less than any other age group view the October 7th attacks on Israel as attempted genocide (52%). Young Americans, more than any other age group, believe that the conflict will be resolved when Jews go back to where they came from (24% support).

Although this pattern of findings may suggest a paranoid-schizoid position wherein dichotomization characterizes thinking, other findings reflect a more depressive position that recognizes complexity and the need for compromise. For instance, after 07.10, young Americans’ support for a two-state solution increased from 34% to 42% and 60% believe that negotiated compromise is the way to resolve the conflict over other options. The shift from the paranoid-schizoid position to the depressive position is a two-way street. There are fluctuations between the need to organize reality into simple categories of good and bad, and the mature, alas depressing, realization that negotiated compromise is the realistic option.

American public opinion that oscillates between the paranoid-schizoid belief that only one side is right to the depressive recognition that conciliation is needed is also reflected in the actual history of the conflict. Early Zionist fantasies of “a land without people for a people without a land” and Arab rejectionism indicated in the “three nos” of the 1967 Khartoum resolution are but a few examples of paranoid schizoid thinking. The 1937 Peel Commission proposal, the 1947 UN Partition Plan, the 1993 Oslo Accords are points in time when it became clear that the depressive position of giving up unrealistic dreams, dividing cherished land, and sharing resources is the only realistic antidote to endless war and bloodshed.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has reached an apex point that place both people on the brink of unprecedented catastrophe. Israeli novelist, Amos Oz, suggested that this tragedy can end either as a Shakesperean tragedy with the stage strewn with bodies, or as a Chekhovian tragedy with everyone bitter, disillusioned, disappointed, but alive. This analogy mirrors Klein’s developmental analysis and suggest not only that the paranoid-schizoid position of public opinion fans the flames of the conflict, but that the alternative is not utopian peace, but a “clenched-teeth” compromise, a depressive reckoning that will be dissatisfying to all, but that may enable both sides to embark on a new phase in their bloody relationship that will be characterized by depressive realism – the reluctant realization that the other is here to stay.

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