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Editorial Board

Adnan Abdelrazek

Danny Rubinstein

Sam'an Khoury

Daniel Bar-Tal

Walid Salem

Galia Golan

Gershon Baskin

Hind Khoury

Edy Kaufman

Ata Qaymari

Benjamin Pogrund

Nafez Nazzal

Dan Jacobson

Jumana Jaouni

Moshe Maoz

Munther Dajani

Khuloud Khayyat Dajani

Izhak Schnell

Lucy Nusseibah

Meir Margalit

Menachem Klein

Ali Abu Shahla

Ilan Baruch

Hanna Siniora

Yehudit Oppenheimer

Mossi Raz

Susie Becher

Frances Raday

Vol.1 No.4 1994 / Psychological Dimensions of the Conflict


On Discourse with the Enemy: a Psychoanalytical Perspective

Can psychoanalysis contribute to an understanding of the enemy? The enemy as part of ourselves as well as distinct from us.

     by Shmuel Erlich

There are few things in life as immutable as the hatred of one's enemy. Enemy is a ubiquitous designation and phenomenon of our daily life; we are all so familiar with it. We have learned about the enemies of our nation in school, and we have all had, and still have, our childhood, adolescent and adult life enemies. Some of us, depending on our age and experience, have known enemies on the battlefield. Our daily politics are full of old and new enemies, real and imagined ones. I have undertaken the task of addressing this topic with a great deal of uneasiness. Living in Israel and the Middle East in these times, and being an Israeli and a Jew, makes the subject of an enemy uncomfortably close; it is a strain on one's objectivity and neutrality. To deal with this question from the point of view of psychoanalysis and psychoanalytically informed group relations, however, has proved even more difficult than I had anticipated. The question is: does psychoanalysis have anything of importance to contribute to the understanding of what an
is and how to deal with him? Can it tell us anything that is unique and pertinent about this problem? And does it have any course or solution to offer? The answers to these questions are not easily forthcoming, nor are they particularly encouraging.

Concerns of Psychoanalysis

Enemies are encountered in the social sphere. An enemy may also dwell within us; this is indeed one of the aspects highlighted through psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis is deeply concerned with human motives, conflicts and emotions that contribute to discovering and maintaining hatreds and enmities. The heart of the difficulty of understanding and dealing with the notion of an enemy and enmity is that it is one of the most powerful, not to say dangerous, emanations of the conjunction of the inner world and the outside world. I propose that, difficult as that may be, we must learn to think of enmity as an entity spanning internal and external reality, the subjective inner world and the objective environment. Enmity is also a bridge between self and otherness, and hence also, at another level, between individual and group phenomena.
Talking with an enemy is usually regarded as a significant advance, insofar as it provides an alternative to physical fighting and allows for a symbolic level of discourse. Dialogue with an enemy is often, however, not possible for a long time, and depends on the kind of enemy he is perceived to be. A Palestinian leader recently said, "There are two kinds of enemies: the enemy you talk to, and the enemy you don't talk to." The dramatic handshake of Rabin and Arafat, viewed across a shrinking world with hope, disbelief and astonishment by people far removed from the actual conflict, marked the instantaneous transformation of the enemy one does not talk to into an enemy one talks to. What marks the enemy we talk to from the one we don't talk to? How can we turn an enemy we don't discourse with into one that we do? The answer to these dilemmas seems to me to lie in the dynamics of creativity. It is probably as creative an act as we may ever be able to perform, to regard an enemy as part of us and yet as also existing separately and in his own right.

Development of Mature Relationships

In order to develop these ideas, I propose to look at enemy and enmity from the combined and separate perspectives of individual-intrapsychic and group relations dynamics. We also need to delve into the psychoanalytic depths and touch on key concepts like boundaries, otherness, strangeness, and large group processes.
The enemy is so often the other who is unfamiliar and unknown. It is in this sense that he appears at the specific developmental stage of around eight months of age. At that time, the very appearance of the other-stranger is always experienced as surprising and unexpected, and arouses existential fright and anxiety. The other-stranger who provokes this stranger-anxiety is so frightening because he appears at the very moment when the infant feels himself as one, as united with the mother. This experience of fusion with the mother becomes an almost conscious source of pleasure and security. The sudden appearance of the stranger threatens this experience of blissful merger. It provokes [in the infant] immediate attention, reorganization, mobilization of forces, and readiness to face danger - in short, an arousal and anxiety response. The anxiety response to the stranger is undoubtedly universal. Enlarging on this, we may say that the actual encounter with the other-stranger brings to the fore the internal psychic image and fear of the stranger; in this way, the internal enemy becomes a social reality. The danger we feel is the same archaic threat to our peace, the potential destruction of the calm and tranquility that is the essence of our being - of the experience of simply being alive. History and current events are full of examples of this great readiness to project onto the stranger the role of the enemy, the destroyer of the peace.
In the course of development, stranger-anxiety gradually turns into recognition of the other's separate and independent existence. This recognition is an important basis for the development and maintenance of mature relationships. It has, however, an additional facet. The anxiety in the face of the stranger-enemy is also primary, an almost reflexive reminder of the limitations and liabilities of the self. In this sense it fosters the development of realistic self-definition. Paradoxically, then, the anxiety stirred in relation to the stranger-enemy provides a catalyst for the process of self-definition. We may paraphrase a well-known aphorism and say that if there were no enemy, we would have had to invent one.
But who is this stranger? The stranger I am talking about is not necessarily a distant and unknown one. Although he may live within the society, he is not fully part of it. In many ways he must be like the others in the social group, yet in some ways, regarded as crucial, he must be perceived as being different. He may be described as occupying a boundary position, like the foreign worker, the leader in the group and the analyst in the
psychoanalytic situation. Taking up this position on the boundary makes everyone of them a natural target for the projection of hatred and enmity. A closer look at what the boundary concept encompasses is therefore important and warranted.


Boundaries occupy a central position both in psychoanalytic ego¬psychology and in systemic models of group and organizational behavior. Boundaries involve notions of strength and permeability, of rigidity and elasticity. There usually are also some questions about the degree of clarity with which they are set up and defined. Boundaries between self and other may be drawn up sharply, contributing to their definition and separateness. They may, however, encompass both self and other, as in states of merger and fusion. Boundaries are also important points for joining and encounter, where different sides can and do meet. Boundaries sometimes allow, or include, a no-man's land, which is not clearly under the jurisdiction of any party. Often enough such no-man's land is precisely the territory in which encounters and the testing-of-limits take place without the danger and risk of an all-out war with full responsibility and consequences. In psychoanalytic terms, this suggests what is known as transitional space and transitional phenomena. It is extremely helpful to think of boundaries not as well-defined, razor-thin lines, which cannot support or contain any life, but as gray areas and no-man's territories in which a great deal of actual and significant living takes place. This usually happens through some variety of play - something that does not lead immediately to real consequences in well-defined areas of living. Such a boundary-area, or better yet frontier, has much to offer in terms of elasticity and permeability. It can give birth to and support positive aspects of living - what is creative, novel, and psychologically pertinent. It is also capable, however, of generating negative creations, such as enmity. It is this area and the kind of life that exists within and close to it that I have in mind when I speak of the enemy as created and come to life on the boundary.

Relating to the Enemy

Is it possible to find ways of talking, communicating and discoursing with an enemy? What is the difference between the enemy we talk to and the one we don't talk to? Psychologically speaking, we may distinguish between two kinds of enemies: the Oedipal and the pre-Oedipal. The Oedipal enemy is the more sophisticated and advanced enemy with whom we can have a talking discourse. Relatedness to this enemy is complex and ambivalent, with a mixture of negative feelings of hatred and rivalry, but also positive feelings of love, admiration, identification and emulation. The other kind is the developmentally earlier, pre-Oedipal enemy. The relationship with this enemy is marked by polarization and uncompromised evil. The psychological levels mobilized are also earlier and more primitive; they involve concreteness, lack of readiness for symbolic treatment, and direct expressions of drives, like oral rage and cannibalistic wishes and fantasies. These levels of relatedness render this an enemy we cannot have a talking discourse with. The ability to have discourse with the Oedipal enemy is also based on the triangularity of the relationships at this stage. This recognition of triangular relationships makes it possible to have not only two parts to the conflict but to include a third side, which can be either a mediator, a commonly respected authority figure, or a larger cultural framework which both enemies share, providing them with a common language and set of symbols. Freud thought that for some mysterious reason, nations, or large groups of people, are much more prone to despise, hate and detest one another. He appealed for greater honesty and openness in relationships among people, and especially with the authorities, which he thought would surely improve relationships. Freud felt that the individual could be approached and understood, while the group, and particularly the large group, makes human behavior primitive and irrational.
I do not believe these hopes are any longer simplistically held by all of us. It has been the bitter lesson of this century to come to distrust authority and to get to know its irrational and dangerous sides. But some advances have taken place in our understanding since Freud's words were written under the impact of the First World War. I suggest that enmity is indeed an inherent part of the individual human psyche; but enmity is also on the boundary between internal and external reality. It takes on its familiar meaning and

Enmity in the Large Group

If we consider the dynamics that take place in a large group, we find that enmity occupies a pivotal role in it. One of the centrally important maneuvers in the large group is to mark the enemy and relate to him. This is done by splitting the large group into sub-groups and splinter-systems. Fragmenting of the whole seems so natural, and occurs so frequently and swiftly, that it is difficult to notice and follow. This divisiveness is the equivalent of the intrapsychic splitting of the whole bad object in order to assimilate and subjugate it. The governing fantasy is of bringing about peace, or the wished-for state in which this impossible, difficult and frustrating situation will finally stop - through one sub-group gaining control over the entire group. Behind the multiple splits and wars against a shifting variety of enemies is the wish for final and total submersion in the whole, for a state in which the individual will cease to be a problem because of his own separate existence and identity. Enmity within the large group is thus a tremendously fluctuating, treacherous and diffuse entity. An identified enemy at one moment may be totally disregarded the next. Under these conditions, it is impossible to carryon meaningful discourse with either friend or foe. It is this constant internal shifting and fluidity that makes the large group so dangerous. Its inner instability allows it to be tilted suddenly and irrationally in the direction in which an enemy is identified. The discovery of an external enemy brings about a momentary stabilization of the group, and thereby alleviates some of its tremendous inner tensions. Clearly, this makes the large group extremely vulnerable to being manipulated into seeking out and destroying real or imaginary enemies. Once again, the enemy takes shape on the group's boundary, be it physical, geographical or ideological. In this boundary-area of the large group we actually find many different sorts of enemies: barbarian invaders, religious heretics, false messiahs and political reformers bent on changing the group. The groups' own leaders are also on the boundary, and can easily and momentarily be turned into enemies. History is full of accounts that can substantiate this thesis; recent events in Europe, Asia and Africa may offer a number of pertinent examples.

Small Groups Preferred

From all we know about the processes in a large group, even under the relatively controlled conditions, there can be only one conclusion: large group processes, and the regressions that take place in them, are highly lawful and regular, irrespective of the benefits of previous experience and impressive educational and cultural achievements. If our aim is irrational, enlightened political activity, large group settings must be avoided and prevented as much as possible. It is true, and has again been recently demonstrated, that large masses of people can be instrumental in changing the political order. It is equally true, however, that mass movements and revolutionary upheavals may go in many directions; they do not necessarily lead to freedom and democracy. There were large crowds and mobs involved in so many revolutions - the French, Russian, Nazi Germany, Chinese, the recent uprisings in Eastern Europe, and so on. This phenomenon is intertwined with popular visions of democracy; it provides, however, no assurances whatsoever of the eventual outcome or against the danger of being manipulated by sinister powers to their own ends. Wherever possible, and especially where negotiations are to take place, small groups should be preferred to large groups. Negotiations between enemy parties to a conflict need not only the small group format, however, but also the clarity and firmness of boundaries that guard against premature exposure which throws the process back into the large group. The presence of a third side, which both sides trust to some extent and which can symbolize the larger cultural order they wish to belong to and are identified with, can also be very helpful in enabling the enemies to come to talking terms. The small group format in itself is, however, no guarantee for dialogue. Indeed, the need for dialogue is often glibly and unthinkingly advanced. Our own professional and personal biases (and I am speaking as a psychoanalyst) are intertwined here in ways that may produce complications or even fallacies. We are trained in dialogue and hold a deep belief in and commitment to discourse and discussion. We tend to forget the tremendous importance of the psychoanalytic setting, its combination of strict boundaries and open-endedness, in enabling, shaping and contributing to the creation of dialogue, and then only after much time and tremendous efforts. Having witnessed attempts at dialogue with labeled enemies in professional group settings, I have been amazed at the degree and speed with which such confrontational and coercive. Dialogue is based on the ability to recognize the other's essential and rightful difference; this is diametrically opposed to regarding him as an enemy. Where dialogue can occur, the enemy is essentially no longer an enemy. Where psychological maturity is insufficient, dialogue will degenerate into mutual accusations and verbal attack. It is psychological maturity that leads to dialogue, and not dialogue that brings about maturity.

The Results of Actual Contact

The peace talks between Israel and the Arabs illustrate several of the points made here. The picture image on the White House lawn is repeatedly one of a triangle - of the two enemies shaking hands, while a third power, symbolized by the United States President, provides the background approval and support, enabling them to be on speaking terms. Negotiations make progress when a small group format is employed, and dangerous setbacks erupt when it comes to the large group level. Most importantly, however, there seems to have been a slow process of maturation and capacity for realistic appreciation of the realities concerned. This process required many years, and is still not finished. Without it, however, it is doubtful that the current stage of discourse would have been reached.
The peace talks also provide an example of how actual contact contributes to the reduction of strangeness and projections. Yet the actual contact will probably produce new and unforeseen difficulties. In this sense, contact itself is no guarantee for the disappearance of enmity and the triumph of reason and peace. There are many other factors involved which interact with and activate the psychological ones. Siblings who become enemies over dividing an inheritance are not strangers, but the loss suddenly revives old anxieties of shortage, lack of supplies and the fear that there may not be enough for all. We must be open to the entire range of realistic possibilities, including the emergence of new and insurmountable difficulties that will emerge as relationships with yesterday's enemies develop and deepen. Perhaps the best we can ever hope for is to change the enemy from a pre-Oedipal position of total badness and evil to the Oedipal level of rivalry and competitiveness coupled with love and affection, and thus from the enemy we do not talk to, to the enemy that we can and do talk to.

Creative Discourse

A clearer view of the enemy's otherness contributes much to enhancing the discourse. The acceptance of the enemy's otherness is a concession of his humanness, of the differences, variability and individuation of persons and groups; it alone can ensure the development of creative conflict resolution instead of fighting and destruction. Otherness provides a basis for a fresh view, and thus for new and creative contact, replacing fantasy relatedness which fosters the wish to destroy and assimilate the enemy.
Truly creative discourse with the enemy can only come about with our willingness to immerse ourselves in the potential space we both share, where we can discover parts of the enemy and parts of ourselves that are fused and intermingled. We may then be able to perceive, however briefly and fleetingly, such joint or common elements as our common humanity. Probably one of the most creative acts we may ever be capable of lies in the potential capacity to experience our enemy as a part of ourselves, while also recognizing his existence in his own right, as separate and distinct from us.

 © 2012 Palestine-Israel Journal. All Rights Reserved. Articles, excerpts, and translations may not be reproduced in any form without written permission.
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