The One Thing No Israeli Wants to Discuss

The decisive factor in next week’s election — and the reason for Benjamin Netanyahu’s durability — is a repressed memory.

JERUSALEM — When trying to understand Israel’s election on Sept. 17, the second in the space of six months, you can easily get lost in the details — corruption charges, coalition wrangling, bickering between left and right. But the best explainer might be a small film that you’re unlikely to see about something that people here prefer not to discuss.

The opening scene of “Born in Jerusalem and Still Alive,” which just won the prize for best first feature at the Jerusalem Film Festival, catches the main character grimacing as he overhears a glib tour guide. When she describes downtown Jerusalem to her group as “beautiful,” the “center of night life and food for the young generation,” Ronen, an earnest man in his late 30s, interrupts.

“Don’t believe her,” he tells the tourists in Hebrew-accented English. “You see this market? Fifteen years ago it was a war zone. Next to my high school there was a terror attack. Next to the university there was a terror attack. First time I made sex — terror attack.” One of the tourists sidles over, interested. “Yes,” Ronen tells her, “we had to stop.”

No single episode has shaped Israel’s population and politics like the wave of suicide bombings perpetrated by Palestinians in the first years of the 21st century. Much of what you see here in 2019 is the aftermath of that time, and every election since has been held in its shadow. The attacks, which killed hundreds of Israeli civilians, ended hopes for a negotiated peace and destroyed the left, which was in power when the wave began. Any sympathy that the Israeli majority had toward Palestinians evaporated.

More than any other single development, that period explains the durability of Benjamin Netanyahu, which outsiders sometimes struggle to understand. Simply put, in the decade before Mr. Netanyahu came to power in 2009, the fear of death accompanied us in public places. There was a chance your child could be blown up on the bus home from school. In the decade since, that has ceased to be the case. Next to that fact, all other issues pale. Whatever credit the prime minister really deserves for the change, for many voters it’s a good enough reason to keep him in power on Sept. 17.

Given the centrality of those years, it’s striking how seldom they actually come up in conversation. Along Jaffa Road, the hardest-hit street (and the setting for “Born in Jerusalem”), the traces have become nearly invisible. The Sbarro pizzeria where in 2001 a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 15 people, including seven children and a pregnant woman, is now a bakery with a different name. It’s a few paces from where I’m writing these lines, and it’s full of customers, many of whom probably don’t know what happened there.

That’s what “Born in Jerusalem” is about. Not politics, but the repression of personal memory that has allowed us to move on while leaving an unsettling sense of missing time.

The Jaffa Road pizzeria where 15 people were killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber in 2001. It’s a bakery today.
CreditPeter Dejong/Associated Press

In another scene in the film, Ronen and his love interest, a Jerusalemite named Asia, discuss those years, which she can call only “the time of the attacks.” It allows him to point out the period’s strangest feature, which is that it doesn’t have a name. The Palestinians called it the “second intifada,” and Israelis euphemized it as “the situation.”

It isn’t officially considered a war, even though it killed more Israelis than the Six-Day War of 1967. And no one can say exactly when it began or ended. The attacks picked up in the mid-1990s, as Israel pursued a peace deal and ceded land, but the worst came between 2000 and 2004. Though other forms of violence persist, the last Israeli fatality in a Palestinian suicide bombing was in 2008.

This repression of memory has helped the Palestinian leadership pretend that none of it ever happened, and few of the foreign journalists covering the country right now were here at the time. Why are moderate Israelis afraid to pull out of the West Bank? Why has the once-dominant left become a meager parliamentary remnant? Why is there a separation barrier? Why is the word “peace” pronounced with sarcasm while the word “security” carries a kind of supernatural weight? If you weren’t in Israel then and can’t access the national subconscious now, the answer will be elusive.

The film’s Ronen is the alter ego of Yossi Atia, 39, who plays him and wrote and co-directed the film. Mr. Atia, like me, lived through those years in Jerusalem as a college student. His character can’t bear the silence, or the feeling that he’s crazy for remembering, so he starts leading sightseeing tours of his own in the heart of the city: the Sbarro pizzeria, the place where two bombers exploded together near Zion Square, the vegetable market that got hit again and again.

He hands tourists old Nokia cellphones and has them simulate one of the period’s key rituals: the calls we used to make after attacks to tell our families we were O.K. It’s unclear if this is meant as education for the people he’s showing around, or therapy for him. He explains the odd social calculations that would follow an attack: If eight people, say, had just been killed on a bus, could you go out with a friend for a drink that evening? (Yes.) What if it was 12 people in a cafe? Could you go on a date? (No.) Ronen has an actual chart.

I remember those quandaries of terror etiquette, just as I remember standing at a bus stop when I heard a suicide bomber blow himself up and murder 11 people one street over, at Café Moment. My mother passed through the Nahariya train station right before a suicide bomber struck there, and my sister was in a cafeteria at the Hebrew University campus when Palestinians blew up a different cafeteria. I’ve got many more memories like that, all of them standard for the time.

When I spoke to Mr. Atia, he said he thought Israelis avoid the subject for an obvious reason: It’s too awful. Because the carnage wasn’t on a distant battlefield or limited to soldiers, the experience encompassed the whole society, and you don’t forget images or fear like that even if you’ve forced it all down to the murkiest layers of your brain. “It wasn’t a military war, it was a civil war, and the victims were civilians,” he said. His character, Ronen, wants to talk about it, and that makes him strange: “No one wants to listen.”

Mr. Atia’s movie doesn’t trade in any discernible anger at the Palestinians or anyone else, even when Ronen demonstrates how the Sbarro bomber rigged his explosives inside a guitar case. The approach is a kind of light surrealism. The closest thing to political comment comes when he points out that the memorial plaques from the bombings of the 1990s, the years of the peace process, followed the victims’ names with the traditional Jewish phrase “May their memories be blessed.” By the early aughts it had changed to a different phrase drawn from tradition: “May God avenge their blood.”

But he knows they happened, and so does the Israeli electorate. As a psychiatrist might tell us, the deeper something is repressed, the more power it exerts. So when Mr. Netanyahu declares in an election ad that “in the stormy Mideastern sea we’ve proven that we can keep Israel an island of stability and safety,” we all know what he means, even if we don’t vote for him. That’s his strongest card, and if he wins, that will be why. The scenario we’re afraid of is clear even if it doesn’t have a name. It doesn’t need one.

Donald Trump’s Mommy Issues

He may not have bonded successfully with his mother and that made him the adult—and the politician—that he is.

Peter Lovenheim lives in Washington, D.C. His bookThe Attachment Effect: Exploring the Powerful Ways Our Earliest Bond Shapes Our Relationships and Lives will be published by Penguin Random House on June 5.

Donald Trump is easily the most psychoanalyzed president of modern times. His decision-making style and behavior have been hotly debated by journalists, voters, politicians, world leaders and pundits who have bestowed upon him any number of fanciful, grave-sounding mental conditions, calling him, among other things, a narcissist, a sociopath, a psychopath and a paranoiac. Trump has said he distrusts mental health professionals, so we don’t have access to a formal assessment of his psychology. But colloquially speaking, perhaps the best explanation for the president’s behavior dates back to his earliest interactions with his mother.

Although I’m not a psychologist, I have spent years researching a major field of psychology known as attachment theory for a book. According to the science of attachment—developed in the second half of the 20th century by British psychotherapist John Bowlby—we’re hardwired at birth to attach to a competent and reliable caregiver for protection because we are born helpless. The success or failure of this attachment affects all our relationships throughout life—in the workplace, on the athletic field, with loved ones—and yes, even in politics. Children who bond successfully with a primary caregiver—usually this is the mom but it could also be the dad, grandparent, nanny or other adult—grow up with what is termed a “secure” attachment. As adults, they tend to be confident, trusting of others, resilient in the face of setbacks, and able to enjoy long, stable relationships. Children who fail to achieve a successful attachment, on the other hand, may as adults have a lack of comfort with intimacy, difficulty trusting others, a constant need for reassurance from relationship partners, and a lack of resilience when faced with illness, injury or loss.

The biographical record is fairly strong on Trump’s failure to develop a healthy emotional attachment to either of his parents. It may have contributed to his tumultuous personal life, but it also endowed him with some traits that made him well-suited to his late-career entry in politics.

Donald Trump is the fourth of five children of Fred and Mary Trump. Because his father was busy building a real estate business, and it was the mid-20th century when dads didn’t typically do a lot of early child care, his mother cared for the children (with the help of a live-in maid) and was their primary “attachment figure.” What factors may have affected the quality of young Donald’s early care—his own temperament as an infant; the role, if any, of the family’s maid in child care; the demands on his mother’s time and energy of three older children and a subsequent pregnancy—we don’t know. The president’s own writings are largely silent about his early childhood; journalists and biographers fill in only some of the blanks.

But we do know that Mary Trump became seriously ill from complications during labor with her last child. An emergency hysterectomy and subsequent infections and surgeries followed—four in two weeks, one of her oldest daughters once said. As a result, at just two years and two months of age, Trump endured the trauma of the prolonged absence and life-threatening illness of his mother. It’s not clear how long she was incapacitated. Indeed, we don’t know that she ever really re-engaged with her son. According to a Politico Magazine story on Mary Trump, there’s evidence that Mary and her son didn’t interact much during his childhood (more on this later).

Infants who fail to receive that kind of care usually fall into one of two categories as adults. Either they have what’s called attachment anxiety—leading them as adults to crave intimacy but have difficulty trusting others and constantly seeking reassurance—or they have attachment avoidance, where as adults they generally distrust others and convince themselves they don’t need close relationships. The relationships they do have are often unstable. They also tend to be excessively self-reliant and desire a high level of independence. These last two traits—self-reliance and independence—are not necessarily disadvantageous, of course. They might be just the right recipe, for example, for an entrepreneur.

The only way to be certain of President Trump’s attachment style would be for him to take the Adult Attachment Interview, an hour-long, structured interview that is considered the gold standard for assessing attachment in adults. Since that isn’t likely to happen, we’ll have to make an educated guess. While mental health professionals are constrained by ethical standards to avoid diagnosing public figures they haven’t personally examined, I am not bound by those rules. Based on my seven years of research, reading countless academic studies and interviewing leading attachment researchers worldwide, I’m willing to say what they can’t. I would peg President Trump’s attachment style as avoidant. Here are my three reasons:

First, Mary Trump’s major health crisis appears to have compromised her efforts—no matter how well-intentioned—to care reliably for young Donald.

Second, as previously reported in Politico Magazine, Trump has over the years said many flattering things about his mother, calling her “fantastic” and “tremendous.” He’s also described her as “very warm” and “very loving.” And yet, I find no stories or other anecdotes of early childhood that support these sentiments. In fact, friends of the Trump family who knew the Trump kids when they were young have reported they “rarely saw Mrs. Trump” and that Donald, while “in awe” of his father, was “very detached from his mother.” A characteristic of adults with avoidant attachment is the tendency to idolize one’s parents without supporting evidence.

Finally, much of the president’s behavior, both before and since he took office, is clearly consistent with attachment avoidance: His

  • powerful sense of self-reliance and
  • near-inability to acknowledge self-doubt; his
  • bragging about his sexual relations; his
  • almost complete lack of close friends; his
  • multiple marriages; and his
  • unstable relationships with White House staff, Cabinet members and congressional leaders of both parties.

Trump’s almost compulsive need to be in the spotlight might be evidence of attachment anxiety if it were aimed primarily at needing approval. But in the president’s case, it appears to be more about needing admiration. Overt narcissism or grandiose self-regard, the leading attachment researchers Mario Mikulincer and Philip R. Shaver report, is associated with attachment avoidance.

By any number of measures, President Trump may be seen as an anomaly among politicians—after all, how many people have run for precisely one political office and landed directly in the White House?—but if my hunch is correct, in this one trait—attachment avoidance—Trump may, in fact, be rather typical.

Attachment avoidance accounts for about 25 percent of the general population, with about 55 percent of people being secure, 15 percent anxious and 5 percent disorganized (often those who were neglected or maltreated in childhood). But in the course of my research, I asked questions from the Adult Attachment Interview to diverse officials: a former presidential nominee, current and former members of Congress and a mayor. With only one exception, their results indicated attachment avoidance.

Some of this may be because avoidance—though generally not the ideal for anyone—does confer some advantages for the political lifestyle. Avoidant athletes, for example, do well when they compete individually—as politicians do in elections. Avoidant people travel well—think never-ending campaign trail—feeling little need to be near loved ones. And the avoidant person’s general reluctance to trust others can act like protective radar in a field like politics that is rife with betrayal and double-dealing.

Avoidant politicians have one more quality that under the right circumstances can lead to success in office: They are quick to respond to threats and to take action. In a clever study in 2011 where test subjects were exposed to what appeared to be a threatening situation (a room gradually filling with smoke because of a supposedly malfunctioning computer), people high in attachment avoidance—who prize independence and self-reliance—were the first to find a way out to safety for themselves and others.

So is having a president with an avoidant attachment style good or bad? According to attachment theory, human relationships would generally be healthier and more stable if more people had a sensitive and consistent caregiver during infancy—and grew up to have a secure attachment style. So it is likely that leaders with secure attachment—as, for example, Franklin Roosevelt had, according to researchers—can become truly transformational by encouraging the population in times of crisis. And while it’s true that people with attachment avoidance can often be personally successful—in business and other individually focused activities—there are requirements for public office, such as the ability to connect emotionally with constituents or at times to act selflessly—that may be difficult for those with attachment avoidance to muster. While it is too early for history to judge this presidency, understanding President Trump’s likely attachment style—and the attachment styles of all our political leaders—can give us important insights into their behavior and actions in office.

We should keep in mind that as voters, we have attachment styles, too. According to research, these may affect our political leanings and the relationships we have with elected leaders.

Secure voters, for example, tend to be tolerant of ambiguity, flexible in their political views, and thus disinclined to embrace any rigid dogmatism. As such, secure voters are most often found in the political center. Insecure voters, on the other hand, may be attracted to the perceived safety of dogmatism and are more likely to be found on the far-left or far-right. For example, anxious voters—seeking security in a world that feels threatening—may find comfort in a liberal orthodoxy that advocates redistribution of wealth and political power, and aggressively demands “inclusion” and protection in the form of a care-giving government. Avoidant voters, on the other hand, often distrusting others and prizing self-reliance, may embrace a strident conservatism, both economic (the world is a “competitive jungle”) and military (“We can only depend on our own strength”).

So as we think about President Trump, we might consider that his presidency—and our personal reactions to it—may be influenced not only be his attachment style, but also our own.