March 29, 2020

Author, psychologist delves inside ‘The Israeli Mind’

Alon Gratch practices psychology in New York but was born and raised in Jerusalem, which puts him in a unique position to tell us how Israelis see the world. Indeed, as he writes in “The Israeli Mind: How the Israeli National Character Shapes Our World” (St. Martin’s Press), “I came to see that since I’d left Israel, scarcely a day had gone by that I was not somehow, however vaguely, aware of my Israeli DNA.”

Gratch’s book comes at an opportune moment. Never before have the distinctions between the world views of American Jews and Israelis been more fraught with conflict and misunderstanding. The debate over the nuclear deal with Iran is the flashpoint: “At the time of my writing, no one knows if the West’s negotiations with Iran will slow down or stop its apparent race to develop nuclear weapons,” he observes. “Thus, in the next year or two, whether or not a deal is reached, the whole world will be watching Israeli behavior.”  

So Gratch assumes that the whole world has a stake in understanding what he calls the Israeli national character. Thus, for example, he seeks to explain why former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, among other American politicians and diplomats, have characterized more than one Israeli prime minister as “aggressive, arrogant, defensive, unyielding, intransigent, obstinate, argumentative, rigid, brusque, bullheaded, unreasonable, negative, mistrustful, obstructive, disruptive, and provocative.” Gratch sums it up as a manifestation of “the unique Hebrew word davka,” which he defines as a “naysaying tendency to disagree for the sake of disagreeing.”  

Gratch may be a psychologist, but history, diplomacy and politics provide him with the key to the davka phenomenon and how it reflects the Israeli national character. “A quick excursion into Zionist history would readily explain why the Israelis needed to develop this type of naysaying defense mechanism,” he explains. The pioneers of the Jewish state said “no” to all of the failed coping strategies of the Diaspora and “no to the local Palestinians who didn’t want them there; no to the Arab countries who vowed to drive them out of Palestine; no to depending on foreign governments and their police forces for protection.”

In his search for the commonalities of Israeli character, Gratch is compelled to point out the long and sometimes bloody history of conflict within Zionism and the Jewish state. Even so, he insists that the naysaying of one Jew to another Jew is consistent with his findings. “In light of this history, it is hardly surprising that many Israelis on both sides of the political map agree on only one thing, which is that they have nothing in common with each other,” he writes. “But paradoxically, because both groups have emerged from the same polarized environment, they do, in fact, have a great deal in common in their psychological make-up.”

Using the tools (and sometimes the jargon) of a psychologist, he looks at two versions of the mythic Israeli narrative — “the old, religious chosen-people variant” and “the new, miracle-in-the-desert Zionist variant” — and declares them both to be a kind of narcissism. Yet he does not see the duality as wholly dysfunctional. “Both play a role in how Israelis interpret the world,” he writes. “To a large extent, they are also responsible for the Israelis’ extraordinary record of achievements, as well as their failures and their persistent, potentially tragic denial of certain Middle Eastern realities.”

Not every example in “The Israeli Mind” is drawn from geopolitics. He describes how he witnessed a lighthearted conversation in a Jerusalem coffee shop between a graduate student and a young teacher about classroom cheating. “Well, if I caught a student cheating, I wouldn’t view it as a negative,” the teacher said. “I would see it as an indication that he wants to succeed.” Gratch concludes: “The Israeli mind’s failures at empathy, its lack of regard for reality, and its relentless drive for success, all produce a predilection for cutting corners, bluffing, and lying.”

The values and behaviors that make up what Gratch calls the Israeli national character can be seen as a form of psychological self-defense. “Israeli psychologists … have noted that everyday belligerence in Israeli society is rooted in unconscious anxiety,” he writes.

“Ever fearful of suicide bombings, rockets, bad news from the front lines, and even car accidents — driving on Israeli highways can be unsettling — Israelis live in a hyper-vigilant state of mind, often exercising a first-strike option in anticipation of an attack. Collectively, they can’t quite believe that the miracle of the Jewish state will endure.”

Throughout “The Israeli Mind,” Gratch demonstrates a mastery of the delicate inner workings of the human mind and, at the same time, a profound insight into the epochal movements of history — a rare but essential balancing act. He is a compassionate but exacting observer of the Israel character at a moment of great peril and consequence. That’s why his book is not only a work of genius but also, and more important, a beacon of light and hope. 

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.