Why didn’t Sigmund Freud leave Vienna until it was almost too late? He knew what was happening to his Jewish colleagues in Germany after the Nazis took power. Nevertheless, the great man refused to depart his beloved city of dreams—and of his pioneering dream interpretations—even after Nazi Germany absorbed Austria in 1938.
The signs were there for Freud to see. He knew that his books had been burned in Germany, that German Jews were beginning to commit suicide and that Jewish psychoanalysts were being fired and replaced by non-Jews.
He was not completely in denial. In a 1933 letter to his former patient, Princess Marie Bonaparte, he wrote, “The world is turning into an enormous prison. Germany is the worst cell. What will happen in the Austrian cell is quite uncertain.”
However, according to Freud’s physician Max Schur, “It would seem that Freud, who had uncovered the force of the aggressive drive in the individual, could not believe that this force could be unleashed in an entire nation.”
For years, Freud refused to make plans to leave. Yet the persecution continued. Swastikas were hung on his building. Nazi goons invaded his home and extorted money from his wife. His books and publishing house were seized. A man who resembled Freud was beaten up near his residence. Yet he did nothing.
Freud finally decided to leave Vienna only after the Gestapo arrested his daughter Anna. She was his “Antigone”—his caretaker and heir. The Gestapo detained her all day and allowed her to leave only late at night. Immediately thereafter, historian Andrew Negorski noted, Freud “prepared a list for the British Consul in Vienna of those he wished to accompany him.”
Anna herself gave another, more obvious reason that Freud did not want to leave: “My father was quite sick, he was in pain a lot of the time; he was nearing the end of his life—over 80, with cancer. And he could not imagine any ‘new life’ elsewhere. What he knew was that there were only a few grains of sand left in the clock—and that would be that.”
Freud was hardly alone in his procrastination. Jews have always been reluctant to leave their homes in the face of danger. It is very hard to start anew in a new place. It’s easier to believe that things are “not that bad,” “it’s been worse” and they’ll “soon get better.”
Long ago, when we were slaves in Egypt, we did not want to leave. And in the wilderness, we longed to return to slavery.
We may not all be geniuses, but we must share some of Freud’s blind spots. What can we learn from his story about the power of denial? How might it help us evaluate our behavior in our own times?
We have seen a quantum leap in antisemitism and anti-Zionism in the 21st century, both in the Islamic world and in the West. There are too many examples to cite. However, the difference between today and 80 years ago is that we now have a Jewish state where we are welcome. This is a huge and miraculous game-changer.
We must ask, however, since Israel is such an important refuge, why do so many educated and assimilated American Jews savagely criticize it? Do they feel that such virtue signaling will “save” them? Or redeem an imperfect Judaism? Is it psychologically safer to target Israel than to take on the antisemites?
Will it be possible one hundred years from now for people to look back and wonder why so many American Jews chose to bash Israel, almost as a way of helping them deny and appease the anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist dangers that surrounded them?
Those dangers are considerable.
In 1991, I stood on a corner in Crown Heights in Brooklyn and watched a full-throated African-American pogrom against Orthodox Jews. It raged on and on. The mayor and the police did not stop it for days. I will never forget it.
In 2002, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could not speak at Concordia University in Montreal because of a large, pro-Palestinian mob. Friends of mine were beaten in the chaos.
Throughout the 21st century, I have been an eyewitness to the surging mobs, the Islamist-style anti-Israel demonstrations on the streets of New York City. Hoarse, non-stop screaming: “Kill the Jews,” “From the River to the Sea We Will Be Free,” “Israel is a Nazi Apartheid State,” “U.N. Must Stop Muslim Holocaust in Gaza,” “Israel=Ku Klux Klan.”
We know that identifiable Jews, as well as Jews of every denomination, have been attacked and murdered at prayer, right here in America—in Flatbush, Chicago, Crown Heights, Colleyville, Jersey City, Monsey, Pittsburgh, Poway, Williamsburg and more.
We know that Jewish centers and synagogues in America now require the same kind of security as Israeli consulates, embassies and synagogues once did and still do.
We know that “anti-racism textbooks” in America almost never include antisemitism as a form of racism. We know that Middle East institutes and professors are irrationally anti-Israel and operate in non-scholarly ways. We also know that college campuses have become alarmingly unfriendly to both Jewish and pro-Israel students.
As it becomes more and more dangerous to be visibly Jewish and/or pro-Israel in America, in the media and at international human rights and anti-racism conferences, why do so many Jews continue to fixate on Israel’s alleged imperfections? Is this a way to avoid contemplating a greater danger? Are they repeating Freud’s nearly fatal mistake?
What more must happen before American Jews decide that “enough is enough”? Before we band together to fight the cognitive war against the Jews here—or leave wherever “here” may be for a place that is far friendlier to Jews, such as the Jewish homeland?
Phyllis Chesler is an emerita professor of psychology at the City University of New York (CUNY) and the author of 20 books, including “Women and Madness” (1972), “The New Antisemitism” (2003) and “A Family Conspiracy: Honor Killings” (2018).
A longer version of this column appeared at Doc Emet Productions.