Israeli, Palestine, and a Psychotic Breakdown
Psychoanalytic Parallels to the Crisis Engulfing the Middle East (Vol. 3; Issue 46)
The protracted conflict between the peoples of Israel and Palestine parallels how individuals with psychoses suffer intermittent breakdowns. Extreme violence can erupt in both the political and the individual realms. Just like how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict periodically deteriorates, individuals with psychotic conditions occasionally fall apart. Both phenomena are impossibly complex. The most recent conflagration includes clashes between historical land rights, oppressed peoples, religious beliefs, political power, and tribalism; psychotic individuals wrestle with flawed genetic predispositions, severe childhood trauma, wrenching internal conflicts, and disturbed interpersonal relationships.
Although most individuals with psychotic conditions show no greater propensity towards violence than normals, people with psychoses will, on occasion, become destructive. The October 7, 2023 Hamas attack resembles a person in the throes of a violent psychotic episode. Such patients’ self-injurious behaviors can reach frightening proportions; their aggression towards others can kill or maim. Also, florid psychotic breaks often prove resistant to treatment. They typically elicit feelings of hopelessness in those who try to help.
Before expanding upon the analogy, consider these underlying assumptions. As a first premise, I equate the human organism with Gaia (Latour, 2017)—meaning the living Earth. There is nothing mystical about the simple idea that we human organisms exist nested in ecosystem; we emerge from the Earth like apples grow from trees. Our natural environment, including the nutrients and hydration necessary for sustaining life, arise from our host planet, which, in turn, relies upon the Sun. Such a belief system encompasses philosophical models as disparate as Taoism in the East (Lao Tzu, 400BCE/2006) and Spinoza’s (1677/1992) Ethics in the West. Combatants in the Middle East, acutely psychotic individuals, and all the rest of us are encapsulated within Gaia.
Regarding the psychoanalytic realm, scholars hold varied theories of mind over which they argue incessantly (Karbelnig, 2022, 2023). Nonetheless, one body-mind phenomenon finds universal agreement: Psychopathology emerges from combinations of genetic predisposition, trauma, conflicts, and deficits. The idea of inheritability is self-evident. Trauma is also commonly understood. Sexual abuse in childhood, or severe injury or illness in adulthood, represent extreme examples. Conflict refers to aggressive splits between parts of self or between self and other. Deficits result from a lack of access to primary needs, such as the loving support of caregivers during infancy.
Individuals exposed to all these conditions, particularly an inherited disposition, may develop psychotic conditions. The hypothetical patient I present today, Benhamed, fell to pieces on October 7th. Well before he mentally fractured, he’d long suffered from feeling “displaced.” He certainly has deficits, never really enjoying a secure sense of “home.” Benhamed longs for a sense of warmth, of family, of belonging. In addition to these troubling themes, Benhamed is constantly at war with himself. His propensity to get into fistfights led to him being expelled from middle school, leaving him interpersonally challenged, economically disadvantaged, and unbearably alienated. Benhamed first came to the attention of mental health professionals at that point. During one delusional episode, he used a kitchen knife to cut through the skin, fat, and muscle of his left thigh, reaching all the way to the femur. It took a team of surgeons hours to repair the damage. Benhamed felt no pain because the limb “wasn’t mine.”
During this most recent breakdown in October, Benhamed split into distinct personalities battling with one another. Even worse, he displayed Capgras syndrome—a delusional system in which patients “misidentify” others. They believe loved ones have been taken over by “alien others” intending to harm them. Patients with Capgras syndrome are highly dangerous. As we all know, Benhamed attacked a crowd of people with guns, knives, hatchets, and swords, killing many and injuring more. Local police ultimately restrained him. He was involuntarily admitted to a psychiatric hospital.
Wiley and intelligent, Benhamed escaped. An armed manhunt has since been underway. As of this moment, he has yet to be restrained. Meanwhile, the military as well as the police are in active pursuit. While on the run, Benhamed has been injured by projectiles including bullets, teargas, and rockets. In his frenzy, he hacked off his own left hand. The tourniquet he clumsily applied is insufficient. Those striving to catch him follow the trail of blood. His capture may be approaching because a raging infection in the stump slows him down. The varied officials in pursuit would not hesitate to use lethal force to stop him.
I hope readers understand how Benhamed’s situation captures a hypothetical angle on how the Hamas attack affected Israelis, Palestinians, and the rest of the world. Blood, gore, and infection run rampant. Benhamed’s crisis threatens us all. His psychosis could well engulf nations into another world war—one which Einstein (1949) predicted would be followed by a conflict fought by rocks and spears. Further, the war raging within and around Benhamed spews pollutants accelerating the climate crisis already threatening the human species.
Two possibilities exist for treating Benhamed—assuming he is ever captured. He could undergo extensive psychoanalytic psychotherapy, likely for years, focusing on addressing his deficits. Finding him a safe place to live would be crucial for his recovery. Those immense internal conflicts would also require much work. Benhamed’s anger needs to find adaptive channels of expression; his propensity to injure himself needs to be curtailed. The unbelievable trauma he has endured will need countless hours of working through.
Benhamed’s dissociated states, which elicit the violence towards self and other, require the most attention. He breaks apart with such intensity that he fails to realize how he, in fact, exists within one body. That is why he amputated his hand. He quite literally disconnects from himself and others, showing much more than simply a lack of empathy. Benhamed experiences literal dis-integration. He doesn’t know his own body parts are part of him, and worthy of care; he doesn’t realize those he attacks have their own precious lives which include families and friends who love them; he doesn’t realize that we humans are literally related to one another, emerging 200,000 years ago from Africa and sharing common DNA. Furthermore, and much like the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, Benhamed cannot see that all people’s existence depends on the planet Earth.
The other possibility could be that, as has been the case in his many decades, Benhamed’s condition will remain untreated. His body-mind illness will resist change. The complexity of its precipitants will strain the most creative of imaginations. Political leaders around the world are as stymied by the complicated nature of the Middle East crisis as would any psychoanalyst attempting to help Benhamed—assuming he even survives. He will continue running, running, running, uncatchable and untreatable, a tragically hopeless case. In that eventuality, Benhamed will forever run amok, maliciously tearing away parts of himself and others while endangering the world.
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Karbelnig, A. M. (2022). Chasing infinity: Why clinical psychoanalysis’ future lies in pluralism. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 103(1):5-25.
Karbelnig, A. M. (2023). Lover, Exorcist, Critic: Understanding Depth Psychotherapy. London: Phoenix/Karnac Books.
Latour, B. (2017). Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime. Trans. C. Porter. New York: Polity.
Lao Tzu. (2006). Tao De Ching. Trans. S. Mitchell. New York: Harper. (Original work created in 400 BCE).
Einstein, A. (1949). Albert Einstein at 70. Liberal Judaism. 16:April-May, 1949.
Spinoza, B. (1992). Ethics: Treatise on the Emergence of the Intellect. New York: Hackett. (Original work published in 1677).