June 08, 2024

The Origins of Sadism


For a while now, I've been working on a new collection of essays. It's coming slowly, might take me 3 or 4 years. You have already read the first of these (scroll back a few posts), "The Never-Ending Conflict." The second is a family history, which I'm reluctant to post right now, esp. since this blog is about the collapse of America, and not about me. So here is essay #3, which documents Israeli sadism--something the US is only too happy to defend, and even support. I wrote it 2 or 3 weeks ago; given the intermittent but unfailing acts of Israeli sadism, it may already be a bit dated. But I also wanted to think about sadism in general, and why human beings--at least in "civilization"--engage in it. (War only dates from around 12,000 B.C., as a number of anthropologists and archaeologists have confirmed.) Anyway, here it is.

There is a story that around the time of Christ, a Roman centurion approached the eminent religious leader, Rabbi Hillel, and asked him to summarize the Torah for him in the time that he (the centurion) could balance himself on one foot. “What is hateful to you, don’t do to others,” said Hillel. “All the rest is merely elaboration.”

I have had numerous occasions, since 7 October 2023, to reflect on Hillel’s words—an early version of the Golden Rule, if you will. On that day, Hamas military forces entered the Be’eri kibbutz in southern Israel and murdered over 1,200 men, women, and children. The shock at this horror was worldwide, and much of humanity, Jews in particular, are still reeling from it.(1)

But a similar worldwide reaction occurred at the Israeli response to this, which was grossly disproportionate. Eight months after October 7, the IDF, or Israeli army, had murdered 36,000 Palestinians in the Gaza strip, two-thirds of whom were women and children—36,000 and counting.(2) Horrible, to be sure, and in the opinion of many nations of the world, a clear case of genocide. But what especially caught my attention were the instances of sadism visited upon the Palestinians by the IDF, which had left Hillel’s admonition behind, in the dust, if indeed it had ever thought about it. How could Jews, who had suffered such treatment at the hands of the Nazis, repeat that very behavior? We can be sure that the many of the grandparents, or great-grandparents, of these Israeli soldiers perished in the Holocaust, so what were these soldiers thinking?

Here are some of the data regarding this sadism that I managed to fish off the Internet:

-The existence of a concentration camp in Israel, where Palestinians are made to lie on cots with hoods over their heads for fifteen hours. They are also so tightly shackled—wrists and ankles, for weeks on end—that amputations of limbs are often necessary.(3)

-Brutality of Israeli settlers and the IDF towards the Palestinians. David Shulman, who is a peace activist and Professor Emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is intimately acquainted with what is going on here. He reports that marauding gangs of heavily armed settlers—armed by the Israeli government, in fact—have been destroying Palestinian villages, including sheep, goats, food supplies, water tanks, wind turbines, and sometimes, the villagers themselves. The settlers, he writes, are fanatical/messianic Zionists, but it is more than that: “we who have seen these people in action…can confirm that many of them are driven by sheer sadistic pleasure.”(4)

-The Israeli massacre in Rafah on 26 May 2024, and in central Gaza on June 3(5)

-I also came across a report of the IDF torturing the Palestinians, then putting videos of this on Israeli TV; Israelis watched the videos and sat there laughing. Another video shows members of the IDF laughing at Palestinians who have no food or water. A popular IDF T-shirt shows a pregnant Palestinian woman within the crosshairs of a rifle, with the caption: “Two for One”. Meanwhile, the IDF has bombed hospitals, refugee centers, food delivery vehicles, and has done everything it could to prevent relief supplies from entering Gaza.

-Finally, it should be noted that all of these activities are not just the work of Benjamin Netanyahu: most Israelis support the war on Gaza. It is noteworthy that Netanyahu is the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history (more than sixteen years), and that over a million Israelis voted for him in the last election (2022).(6)

So we need to ask: What is the motive behind all of this (which I take to be partly, or even largely, unconscious)? What is it trying to demonstrate, and to whom? This sadism is surely superfluous to defeating Hamas, so why torture the Palestinian people? It seems completely baffling. Is it?

Let me offer two possible explanations for this, the first associated with the Austrian psychotherapist Alfred Adler (1870-1937), the second with the American anthropologist Ernest Becker (1924-1974). Let’s start with Adler.(7)

Adler was the man who coined the term “inferiority complex,” and his theory of why human beings were so destructive is rooted in that concept. From a very early age, he claimed, human beings harbored deep feelings of inferiority and insecurity. To compensate for this, they went 180 degrees in the opposite direction, i.e., they adopted a posture of superiority. Desperate for security, and for affection, they are thus caught in a state of permanent aggression, a “will to power.” This, he went on to say, is “the guiding force which directs all human activities.” The drive is to prove, to demonstrate, that one is better than others.

Now back to the sadism of the Israelis. Jews have been regarded as inferior beings, untermenschen, throughout their history. “Vermin,” the Nazis called them. A number of historians have argued that the real goal, for the Germans, in World War II was not victory over the Allied powers, but the extermination of the Jews. Hitler was so hell-bent on this that in terms of military strategy, he made a number of crucial blunders because his real war was against the Jews. And it was not enough to merely wipe them out: they had to be tortured, brutalized, be the victims of savage medical experiments, and so on. In Adlerian terms, they had to be shown that while the Germans were the superior race, they were the inferior one; and sadistic treatment “surely” makes this clear to all concerned. This, then, so the theory goes, gave meaning and purpose to German lives. In effect, it “proved” to the Germans that they existed. Isn’t it obvious that the Israelis are doing the same thing to the Palestinians, and for the same reason? The real goal of the war on Gaza is not the defeat of Hamas, but the extermination of the Palestinians, and the demonstration of alleged Jewish superiority. In an effort to prevent another Holocaust from happening (evoked by the October 7 massacre at Be’eri), the Israelis are now perpetrating their own holocaust on a largely civilian population, with torture added to the mix, and not incidentally.

What could be more Adlerian than this? General Moshe Ya’alon, the former Israeli army chief of staff, declaring that the “Palestinians must be made to understand in the deepest recesses of their consciousness that they are a defeated people.” Or the statement of General Rafael Eitan, also a former army chief of staff, that the Palestinians were “drugged cockroaches in a bottle.” Ugly sentiments, to be sure; one could even call them sick. The problem is that these are sentiments that are apparently shared by many, if not most, Israelis.(8)

(The flip side of the coin, of course, is that the October 7 massacre can be seen as the attempt on the part of Hamas to show the Israelis that the Palestinians, and not the “Chosen People,” were the true superior race, or at least equal to it.)

With Becker, in any case, our explanation goes a bit deeper, although it can be seen to mesh with Adler’s analysis. His magnum opus, The Denial of Death (1973), posits the notion that civilization is a defense mechanism against the knowledge of our mortality. Nonexistence—death—is the ultimate horror to be avoided, and we do this by what he calls heroism, or the “immortality project,” which is designed to transcend death. It is essentially a symbolic belief system, allowing people to feel they are part of some larger cause. This in turn gives them the feeling that their lives have meaning. Larger causes are, of course, many and varied, and include things such as Zionism, the American mythology of the “City upon a Hill,” and so on.(9)

The problem arises when one immortality project/larger cause conflicts with another immortality project. Each side is determined to show that its belief system is superior to the other one, and this, says Becker, is the motor of human conflict, including racism and genocide. Following Adler, we might call this heroism “betterness”; it operates on both the individual and the social level. The fight to the death, to demonstrate superiority, is ultimately the fight to prove that one exists. And for this, within this zero-sum framework, the other side has to non-exist. Killing and torture are not far away. One has to ask if the human race can ever stop doing this.

Becker wanted to take this last question on, and tried to in an essay entitled “The Spectrum of Loneliness.” It may have been the last thing he ever wrote, and in a sense, it is an attempt to get beyond “betterness.” He concludes:

"What kind of quality of perception…can we cultivate, so that men may come together without the smugness and righteousness that drives them today, the rigidity of secure and true believers in the idols of money, nationalism, materialistic science? We know that something immense is needed to shock man out of the pathetic yet deadly heroisms to which he has been accustomed….We might then begin to think of how to give people a secure feeling that their lives count….These are gigantic problems, to be sure, and I am not claiming they are answerable in today’s world. But they seem to me to be the authentic problems of a fully critical and introspective modern consciousness."(10)

Will human beings ever be able to feel secure without the crutch of betterness? The consciousness of which Becker speaks is obviously very rare, given the frenzy of the modern world; but it is one without which there is very little possibility of freeing ourselves from sadism or any of the other grim behaviors that are currently destroying our lives. One can only hope.

©Morris Berman, 2024 Notes 1.“Hamas Massacre: Documented War Crimes,” at hamas-massacre.net. 2. Palestinian death toll in Gaza tops 36,000: health authorities-Xinhua (news.cn) 3. https://www.theguardian.com/world/article/2024/may/23/whistleblowers-allege-widespread-abuses-at-israeli-detention-camp-sde-teiman; Sde Teiman: Israel phasing out use of desert detention camp after CNN investigation detailing abuses | CNN; Sde Teiman: Israeli whistleblowers detail abuse of Palestinians in shadowy detention center | CNN. See also these two videos: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e_2RGyUCYaU and CNN exclusive: Israeli whistleblowers detail abuse of Palestinians in Sde Teiman prison - YouTube. 4. Israeli Settlers Are Terrorizing Palestinians In Record Numbers (youtube.com); David Shulman, “Israel: The Way Out,” New York Review of Books, 9 May 2024, pp. 10 and 12. 5.https://x.com/OwenJones84/status/1792180925201109153 and 'No longer justifiable': Israel faces international condemnation for strike in Rafah | The Times of Israel; Israeli forces launch new ground and air assault on central Gaza, killing at least 15 Palestinians | CNN 6. Most Israelis dislike Netanyahu, but support the war in Gaza – an Israeli scholar explains what’s driving public opinion (theconversation.com); Shulman, “Israel: The Way Out,” p. 10. 7.The following is taken from my portrait of Adler in my book Healing (Independent publication, 2023), pp. 6-13. 8.Both Ya’alon and Eitan are quoted in my book Dark Ages America (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006), pp. 197-98. Eitan was implicated in the Sabra and Shatila massacres of 1982. 9.On this and the following see Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (New York: Free Press, 1973), and Wikipedia, “The Denial of Death.” The frenzy for meaning was studied extensively by Eric Hoffer in The True Believer (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1951). 10.Ernest Becker, “The Spectrum of Loneliness,” Humanitas, 10 (1974), pp. 237-46.