The current Israeli-Palestinian war in the Gaza Strip highlights aspects of the ethics and psychology of warfare that have long been neglected. One of them is the Jungian concept of “participation mystique”.
By participation mystique, Jung means an instinctive tendency for people to identify with symbolic projections, including objects, ranging from totems, in the early stages of the human society, to nationhood, “the promised land” (as with Israel), or a type of virtue that one considers particular to one’s accepted group and is willing to go to considerable lengths in defending against other groups and their concepts of virtue. Thus, a group of Israeli ethicists have written a response to a letter of a group of Oxford-based ethicists who had called for an arms embargo on Israel in order to force it to abandon its actions in Gaza. In the response, the group defends the actions of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), by saying that there is no deliberate targeting of civilians, although the entire world is able to see, in picture and videos, that a large majority of those targeted are exactly civilians, including thousands of children who have been killed in the first month of the Israeli operation against Palestinians. Other letters written within the same debate included those from Columbia University (at least two letters, contradicting each other), a Lancet Open Letter for Gaza, and the appropriate responses and critical commentaries. Most of these letter can be located online, although, having received the letter by Israeli philosophers in the mail, I could not subsequently find in on the internet. The arguments expressed in most of these letter are all couched in participation mystique, albeit with different foci.
The “western” letter, the one by British philosophers (and the other western letters written in support of the people in Gaza), sees the obvious suffering and death of the powerless civilians as a foundation for a normative attitude that Israel, which is destroying Gaza, must be stopped by putting a holt to any further military support by Britain. Their participation mystique is tied to their view of what makes the human society sustainable, and that is optimum tolerance and respect for the rights of those one disagrees with.
The Israeli letter, on the other hand, reveals the same type of attitude stated by Israeli politicians (I think it even mentions this idea explicitly), namely that “in the Middle East it is the force that matters”, or something to that effect. In other words, the worldview of the Israeli philosophers is that theirs is a particular position and a particular region of the world where the rules that apply elsewhere simply do not apply. They do not hide this position, either in official statements on the political level, on in those by philosophers, expressed in a letter to peers. There is reason for this attitude: Israel feels threatened for its very existence by populous countries, some of which deny its legitimacy as a state.
Participation mystique allows us to feel safe in our normative judgements because we embed them in larger normative entities: ideologies, projections of national or group interest, a sense of threat to our survival, etc.
It is participation mystique that is the foundational dynamic principle of warfare. In Bosnia, nationalistic forces ganged together and jointly committed unspeakable atrocities against civilians in exactly the same manner and frame of mind as the Israeli army is conducting the destruction of Gaza. Serb intellectuals, meanwhile, gathered at caffes in Belgrade, conducted their seminars and went to theatre, while the civilians in largely unknown places such as Biljani, in the municipality of Ključ (which I recently discovered) were being slaughtered, including babies and small children. They did so in the same way as the Israeli philosophers meet to discuss rationality and metaphysics, while over 4000 Palestinian kids are blown apart, burned and dismembered by the bombardment.
The phenomenon is not the result of a human monstrosity, but an outcome of human psychology of warfare, specifically of participation mystique. In times such as theses, not reading Jung is an intellectual crime, especially encouraged by the positivist trends in modern psychology such as the self-defeating concept of “evidence-based psychology”. Remaining unaware of the symbolic structures that account for the cold and seemingly heartless execution of innocent kids and their parents leads to the atrocities continuing to unfold in an unabated form. Thus, considering the symbolic nature of our psychology of warfare (and more general human psychology) is an ethical duty for modern psychologists.
One of the ways to address participation mystique is to invoke alternative symbolic structures that might shift the attention to different value structures that underlie any symbolic articulation of identity. The reason Israeli philosophers felt the need to respond to British ethicists is that they also have a sense of belonging to the global community of their peers, and are prompted by critique by those peers, in much the same way as, when we write philosophy or ethics, we are prompted by comments by our peers on various levels, including in the formal “peer review” process. Similarly the creation of sufficiently strong symbolic structures that connect people instinctively, and that are not the archaic structures of totem, nationhood, uncritical professional loyalty, etc., might be a solution of warfare and the indignities of mass murder that we see as part of modern warfare with highly destructive explosives and the ability of armies to inflict horror on civilians through the use of technologically advanced means of mass killing.
One particular aspect of the symbolic structure that needs to be woven into such alternative models of participation mystique is a psychotherapeutically framed community of peers that see themselves in the critical mirror of subjecthood and objecthood that are largely voluntary constructions.
Schopenhauer’s argument that both subject and object are mutually conditioned cognitive categories is relevant here. Rather than speaking about the ‘object’ (the Palestinians, the Bosniaks, or the person who does not want to see us or call us, or one who has different value positions in important things than we do), one ought to take into account that the ‘object’, the objective reality, the ‘thing’ and the ‘events’ that one sees as their ‘objective reality’, are merely representations for the subject, for the ‘I’. The concept of the Palestinians that is particular to the policy vision of the Israeli government is just a representation for the ‘I’, or ‘we’ of the Israeli government. It is a different representation for another Israeli, including those who demonstrate against the wall that separates Israel from the West Bank, or those Jews in the US who criticize the war and take the side of the Palestinians. Conversely, the view of Israel in the eyes of the militant Palestinians, some of whom breached the security fence in early October and murdered over a 1000 Israeli civilians, is a picture, a representation, amounting to no more than a particular experience, of the Israelis in the eyes of the Palestinians. There are other views of Israel and Israeli security and foreign policy that portray the country as insecure, surrounded by an ‘ocean of enemies’, and as a mental projection (again a particular participation mystique) of the historical Jewish victimhood during the Holocaust being remedied through a Jewish state. Neither side sees the representation that either Palestinians, or Jews, are to themselves. For we are representations to ourselves, just as our bodies are our representations. Schopenhauer calls the body ‘primary representation’, for it is a representation through which we gain other representations, through the senses, intuition, even a sense of time. Space and time, themselves, according to Schopenhauer, are subjective conditions for perception and cognition, but at the same time they are representations that make possible other representations. We live in a world of representations, and what Jung calls projection, or participation mystique, attaches us to representations. Even our national interest or sense of threat to group survival are merely our representations. To dispel those, one needs a philosophical perspective on one’s subjecthood that is inevitably connected with the representational objecthood of one’s representation of reality. Such a reality is always relative. It is an object that is necessarily subjective.
There can be no solution to the Middle Eastern quagmire of conflict and animosity until a comprehensive therapeutic political approach is applied to all the factions and populations of the conflicted nations, specifically the Palestinians and Israelis. A vulnerability, a common symbolic structure, needs to be communicated between the Israeli public and the Palestinian public. The sense of endangerment of the Israelis, drawing back to their historical trauma, needs to be effectively conveyed to the Palestinians as a symbolic structure that motivates and articulates Israeli security policy. This cannot be done if Palestinians are treated as “dirt”, subjected to road blocks, mass arrests, including of minors, and various types of discrimination. In a situation of apartheid, and Palestinians do live in an Israeli state induced apartheid, no effective communication of Israel’s legitimate and organic, authentic symbolic structure of participation mystique can occur. Equivalently, with the threat of Palestinian militants, suicide bombers and Islamic extremists, no effective communication of the Palestinian human condition and legitimate symbolic structure that founds the Palestinian collective participation mystique can happen. The attack on 7 October was the worst possible strategy on behalf of the Palestinians in terms of allowing this transfer between the two communities to commence.
There is another concept by Jung that is useful here: ‘transferential chimera’. There is a chimera in our relationships, a fleeting image of values and relationships that we seek, desire, and sometimes fear, that determines our attitudes and strategies at various points in time. In a therapeutic relationship (and I would say in any important relationship), there is a fleeting image between the participants in the relationship where some ‘de-constructs’ of either are integrated. In therapy, the client sees parts of himself in the chimera that he associated with the therapist, and the therapist sees bits and pieces of his own important issues with the chimera that is attached to the client. A part of the effectiveness of psychotherapy lies in the therapist’s and the client’s ability to manipulate their chimeras, or chimers (the two chimeras may merge into one as the relationship develops and the two participants develop a consensus on the content of the chimera each sees in the process). This therapeutic manipulation means aligning the chimera with what is useful and manageable in the relationship, positioning it so that it is no longer scary, or blasphemous, or malignant in any way, and working with it as an instrument to access the other person, whilst remaining aware that such knowledge of the other is destined to be incomplete.
Currently the chimera of the Palestinian in the eye of an Israeli is that of a sneaky killer on a motorbike, dreaming of gleefully decapitating Israeli children. Conversely, the chimera of an Israeli in the Palestinian vision is that of a blood soaked, heavily armed sadistic murderer seeking any excuse to demolish and decimate their victims. Neither chimera is a reality, nor is it a cognitively valuable object. Palestinians and Israelis will necessarily remain objects to each other, and as such, they will inevitably be subjective, for without a subjective eye an object would not be able to exist as an object. However, the transfer of chimera is a therapeutic procedure, where one chimera, which is extremely debilitating and dangerous, is replaced by another, more manageable and less malevolent one: it is the structure of meaning and projecting that is articulated in the two communities’ vulnerabilities that holds the promise for effective reconciliation. Only a truly therapeutic approach by external actors and by enlightened internal voices of conscience can encourage the Israelis and the Palestinians to show each other their wounds. This is where they will start to gain more power jointly, and that is where Hamas and the Israeli right wing will start to lose a political and moral foothold.
A way to change policy therapeutically is a contraction of time, as any decision is. Rather than being carried along with the flow of events, one makes a decision by contracting the coordinates of time (and, to some extent, of space), as Schopenhauer described the process, where one’s representations of the other are willfully questioned. That is what is required of the parties to conflict, but equally of the global community, in terms of its influence, tone and direction offered to both sides.
The release of the hostages by Hamas in November 2023, and the reciprocal release of Palestinian women and children from Israeli prisons, have the potential to bring the confrontation to an end and to help transform the participation mystique on both sides that far exceeds any military capability of either side. A widely aired story of the Israeli father whose little girl had been kidnapped and who had erroneously been informed that she had been killed is a good example. The man held a public address where he said that he was grateful that the girl was dead, because otherwise he know what was going to happen to her, in the tunnels of Gaza, mistreated by Palestinians, an experience that he said he knew was far worse than death. A few weeks later, his little girl has been released back to him unharmed. One can wonder what kind of emotions and reconsideration this might have triggered in the man.
Human kindness and ability to identify with other human beings, not as “human beasts”, as some Israeli officials called the Palestinians, but as suffering human beings almost the same in their sensibility as we are, have the capacity to reshape participation mystique into one of participating in a broader human community rather than the prison of one’s narrow ethnic, religious or geographical group. Again, it is vulnerability that allows such change in participation mystique and communication at the same time.