Skip to main content | Skip to navigation


January 17, 1999 -- Vol.4, no.1

Avner Falk: A Psychoanalytic History of the Jews
by Leon Rappoport

Falk, Avner, A PSYCHOANALYTIC HISTORY OF THE JEWS Associated University Presses, 1996. 850pp. Hardcover. ISBN 0-8386-3660-8.

It doesn't require a reading of this monumental psychohistorical study to recognize that the history of the Jews is more or less the history of Western Civilization, but it helps. And considering their relatively small numbers, the fact that Jews have had a disproportionately major role in the growth of this civilization, while all too often serving as its preeminent victims, will also be apparent to most readers. It is the latter issue, however, that provides the central thesis of this book. Namely, that the “...inability to mourn is the most important psychological fact in Jewish history...(p. 17).” Strictly speaking, the inability to mourn is a psychodynamic process whereby individuals or groups who suffer tragic losses are unable to work through their grief and get on with their lives. Instead, they remain obsessively invested in their loss, repeatedly acting out and reproducing the conditions associated with it.

This is the conceptual foundation of the author's psychoanalytic perspective on what he calls the “disasters and catastrophes” experienced by Jews throughout their history. In one form or another he appeals to it throughout the text. The ferociously paranoid behavior of King Herod for example, is attributed to his inability to mourn the deaths of his father and brothers and “...accept his losses” (p. 263). And Falk's conclusion about the failures of Jewish revolts against their Roman conquerors is that “The inability of the Jews to mourn their historical losses had led to war, mass destruction, and finally national suicide” (p.310). This theme is also employed as an explanation for Jewish mysticism and messianism throughout the centuries of diaspora, when, as a defense against acknowledging the pain of their losses, and in order to preserve their narcissistic sense of election as the Chosen People, they developed the obsessive compulsive concern with rules, regulations, and rituals that is still characteristic of Orthodox Judaism.

Briefly, and at the risk of oversimplification, it seems to me that this thesis brings the author dangerously close to the explanatory paradigm known in social psychology as “blaming the victim”. But of course, rightly or wrongly, much of psychoanalytic theory has always been vulnerable to this criticism. As applied to the history of the Jews, however, the victim-blaming critique is reinforced by Falk's discussions of the innumerable pogroms and persecutions leveled against them in Christian and Muslim societies where they sought refuge. In almost every such instance, his analysis suggests that Jews were ultimately unable to “get along” because the psychodynamics associated with their inability to mourn prevented them from “going along,” by assimilating, intermarrying, and accepting the values and practices of their host societies. Insofar as their religious ideology marked them as noticeably different or alien, they sooner or later became ideal scapegoats for whatever fears and frustrations arose in the larger society.

Clearly, the foregoing summary suggests some important questions about Falk's central theme and its application to Jewish history. First, if the inability to mourn is, indeed, the most important psychological fact in Jewish history, what is the reason for this? How can it be explained? Apart from asserting the inability to mourn as the foundation principle for his analysis, Falk says little or nothing about why this inability should have remained profoundly characteristic of the Jews throughout their history.

A second troublesome question concerns the perennial inability of Jews to assimilate to their host societies. Should this generalization be accepted at its face value? Isn't it likely that over the centuries of diaspora, those Jews who were able to assimilate successfully may have been lost to history? Consider the hundreds of stories of Jews who survived the Holocaust by disappearing into their gentile environments. Furthermore, in at least two outstanding instances, 13th century Spain, and Germany and Austria circa 1900-1933, Jews had assimilated very effectively and to such an extent that many who were eventually victimized hardly were aware of their Jewishness until their persecutors asserted it. Were the Jews in these cases somehow an exception to the psychodynamics that should have prevented assimilation? Or was their assimilation somehow more apparent than real? In his otherwise excellent chapter on the Holocaust, where I gratefully found frequent, accurate citations of my work with George Kren (Kren and Rappoport, 1980, 1994), Falk's thesis on the inability to mourn and its implications concerning assimilation is conspicuous by its absence.

Finally, there is the awkward question about the extent to which Falk's work may offer aid and comfort to those who would argue that the Jews have only themselves to blame for their historical record of victimization. Although he nowhere absolves their persecutors, and even employs the inability to mourn thesis as an explanation for the behavior of the Romans, the Spanish Inquisitors, Christian Crusaders, Russian Cossacks and other famous Jew persecutors, the general thrust of his work tends to support the idea of Jewish responsibility for their historical suffering.

I think Falk might properly respond to this relatively more political than scholarly criticism by noting that almost any serious study of any group subjected to intense persecution is bound to find some elements in the behavior of that group which may have contributed to their persecution. Recent work by MacDonald (1998) for instance, suggests that traditional Jewish ethnocentrism --- belief in their moral and intellectual superiority --- is an important source of anti-Semitism. It would have been helpful, however, if Falk had seen fit to address the problem of victim-blaming.

I have raised some heavy questions, but this is a heavy book, both literally --- it weighs almost three pounds --- and in terms of its narrative of one disaster after another, culminating in the Holocaust and the Arab-Israeli conflicts. Another reason for the weight of this book is the author's often laudable but occasionally tedious practice of including summaries of related biblical, historical, psychosocial and psychoanalytic material whenever an important issue is raised. For example, in less than four pages (pp.81-84) subtitled “the quest for the historical Moses,” Falk begins with a summary of Freud's views, notes similar work by Reik, describes various criticisms of Freud by Schiffer, Bergmann, Fodor, Cohen, Weiss-Rosmarin and Albright, quotes at some length a critique of Albright by Meek, mentions works by Graves, Patai, Buber, Zeligs and Roshwald in passing, appeals to the ego development concepts of Erikson and Kohut, and ends with a reference to Michelangelo's statue of Moses. This is protean scholarship, but rather more of it than seems necessary in order to conclude that “Each of us unconsciously projects upon Moses some of the aspects of our father and mother we internalized during our early life, as well as some of the grandiose or hidden aspects of our own selves (p. 84)”.

Also adding to the weightiness and length of the text are the many substantive digressions --- small independent discourses --- scattered throughout as commentaries or explanatory interruptions of the historical chronologies and analyses. Thus, to mention a few, the “quest for the historical Moses” noted above interrupts the chapter on Moses and monotheism; the chapter on messianism is interrupted by a discussion of the myth of the ten lost tribes of Israel (pp. 319-320); and the chapter on revolution and liberalization contains a section subtitled “family myth and recorded history” (pp. 606-608), wherein the author traces his family tree back to a Rabbi Joshua Heschel Falk who lived in southern Poland early in the 17th century. Perhaps the sundry freestanding digressions were inserted in order to avoid the use of extensive footnotes. If so, they only succeed in disrupting the narrative flow and confirming the utility of footnotes. Indeed, although there is a clear chronological flow to the chapters, starting with chapter one, “Hebrew Origins,” and ending with chapter 50, “Israeli Paradoxes,” it almost appears as if the structure of the book was deliberately designed to prevent a straightforward narrative reading. It serves very well, however, as a detailed reference work in narrative form, offering an eclectic psychoanalytic perspective on the history of the Jews.

But in all fairness, having identified several points for criticism, I should also emphasize that this book offers a great deal that can be valuable to both lay readers and academic specialists. Thus, in his introductory chapter, Falk provides an admirably candid review of his own pilgrims progress through Jewish history, starting with the self-serving storybook versions fed to him during his childhood in Israel, and progressing through his realizations that Jews were not the only people who thought of themselves as “chosen”; Jewish biblical texts were full of contradictions; most Jews in the world today do not want to live in Israel; and finally, “...that history was at least as much to be studied on the unconscious level as on the conscious one (p.12).” This progression appears to fit the development of many Jewish intellectuals, particularly several psychohistorians I know.

The book also contains a detailed, critical description of the pre-Christian history of the Jews, based on archeological and anthropological sources as well as biblical historiography. More than 200 pages are devoted to sorting out the murky tribal origins of the ancient Hebrews, and the genealogies of their kings and prophets. Some noteworthy issues discussed here include the origin of the god Yahweh, who was by all accounts related to or synonymous with the Canaanite father god “El;” an analysis of circumcision, which has been traced back to Stone Age puberty rites, and which some psychoanalytic writers consider to be derived from the father's suppressed wish to castrate and kill his newborn male rival; and the Hellenization period in Judea circa 308-246 BCE, when many Jews adopted Greek religious and secular cultural practices, including homosexuality.

And the post-Christian history of the Jews: the emergence of anti-Semitism, the migrations out of the Near East to middle and Eastern Europe, the extraordinary persecutions of the Middle Ages, the gradual emancipation of European Jews, the rise of Zionism and the migration of many to the “golden land” of America, all of this and much more receives careful attention.

So this book has much to recommend it and I am pleased to do so, although I would not be true to the code of book reviewing if I did not identify at least one inconsistency in the text that should have been caught by a copy editor. It is first stated (p.188) that of the 14 million Jews today, only 4 million live in Israel, while it is later stated (p.451) that Israel is home to only 5 out of 12 million Jews. But what's a couple of million Jews between friends?

Copyright © 1999, Leon Rappoport


Kren, G. and Rappoport, L. (1980, 1994). The Holocaust and the crisis of human behavior. New York: Holmes and Meier.

MacDonald, K. (1998). The culture of critique: an evolutionary analysis of Jewish involvement in twentieth century intellectual and political movements. Westport Ct.: Praeger.

Copyright © 1999, Leon Rappoport