Anti-Semitism: a recurrent plague
The latest conflict in Gaza has been interesting to me for a number of reasons. Not least because it provided some additional clues about one of the world’s most intractable problems: the nature of anti-Semitism.
After the holocaust, conventional wisdom seemed to suggest that conventional anti-Semitism was extinguished as the world during WW2 saw to what levels of barbarity this phenomenon could lead too. Indeed, the level of Anti-Semitism seemed to drop dramatically at least in Europe until very recently.
The current crisis, however, brought Anti-Semitism back with a vengeance. This phenomenon was all the more striking because the Gaza crisis occurred simultaneously to the civil war and the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. ISIS militants are routinely performing barbarities on a scale and ferocity that are now rivaling the legacy of Nazi Germany, and are doing so against Christians and Muslims alike (Jews were expelled from the area long ago). Yet, Europe’s reaction to the situation in Iraq is muted compared to the crisis in Gaza, where Israel has been almost universally singled-out and condemned for its actions even though they were clearly of a much smaller scale, legitimate and defensive in nature and, unlike in Iraq, did not involve any Christian victims.
If this absurd double standard isn’t convincing enough to prove a resurgence of Anti-Semitism, the parallel events in many European capitals involving physical attacks on Jews, synagogues and Jewish businesses should leave little room for doubt.
The question is why the Jews? What is it the source of this irrational hatred for a people that for three thousand years has given so much to mankind, while demonstrating a remarkable restraint despite centuries of oppression? Current theories, now part of conventional wisdom, can provide some helpful insights, but, taken individually, are clearly limited and do not stand the test of rigorous analysis. Let us review them briefly:
1) Jews are hated because they possess excessive wealth and power.
Although it is hard to believe so nowadays, there were many periods in history in which Jews lived in extreme poverty and had no significant power (e.g. in the Shtetels in Poland and Russia and in the middle ages), yet Anti-Semitism, which often was the cause of this poverty, did not show any sign of abating. Moreover, real Jewish political power has been rare, especially in Europe and certainly before WW2. The ease with which the Germans managed to exterminate 6 million of them proves this. The persistence of the anti-Israel bias in the European press also disproves the allegation that Jews have a solid grip on the media.
2) Jews are hated because they arrogantly proclaim to be the chosen people.
The claim of being a special or superior people is far from being unique to the Jews and could almost be a universal trait. The Germans, the US and the Japanese, among others, also claim a certain uniqueness and superiority, and yet this did not generate any resentment resembling anti-Semitism.
3) Jews are hated because they are historically held responsible for the killing of Jesus.
While the above claim could be a co-factor, taken alone it does not explain why anti-Semitism persisted following the Church’s official withdrawal of this accusation with the 2nd Vatican Council. It also fails to explain the prevalence of secular and Islamic anti-Semitism.
4) Jews are hated because they were historically involved in usury and tax collection, which prompted general antipathy.
This argument fails because the effect would be antecedent to the cause: Jews were forced to enter those professions because of anti-Semitism, as they were precluded from exercising other trade or owning land (of course, this fact might have subsequently exacerbated any existing hatred even further).
There are other similar claimed causes, but they all invariably fail to provide a truly satisfying explanation. Given the long duration of the phenomenon (at least 2,000 years) and the magnitude of its consequences (millions of human lives lost) it is frustrating to realize that, in an age in which we can explain everything from the origin of the universe to the nature of nuclear energy, we nevertheless fail to understand this apparently simple fact.
Of course, this failure has tempted many people to seek religious, mystical or supernatural explanations. If that is your preference then you are free to proceed on that path on your own: there is no shortage of religious solutions to this problem. However, if nobody attempted to solve difficult issues by way of logical and scientific thinking, we never would have come up with such wonders as the theory of evolution or Newtonian physics.
I prefer to use reason as well as insights taken from psychology, sociology, mythology, history and evolutionary theory in order to provide a working model capable of explaining the genesis and dynamics of anti-Semitism; to predict its future occurrence and to indicate normative action to prevent it or, at least, to limit its effects.
Wikipedia definition: psychological projection is a theory in psychology in which humans defend themselves against unpleasant impulses by denying their existence in themselves, while attributing them to others.
Two reasons lead me to consider the idea of psychological projection as a main driver of anti-Semitism: first, the clear absurdity of hating a clearly virtuous people whose net contribution to mankind has been overwhelmingly positive. Second, the observation that anti-Semitism has a clear tendency to originate from troublesome countries and neurotic people. Vice versa, virtuosity often goes hand-in-hand with friendliness toward the Jews. Examples? Among the most Jewish-friendly countries today we find such exemplary countries as the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the USA; while violent and intractable places such as Iraq, Yemen, and Algeria make the bottom of the list [source: ADL 2012 survey]. The same pattern holds true in other historical periods as well, as anti-Semitism has been distinctive in such trouble spots as Nazi Germany, Czarist Russia and Theocratic Iran. The same goes for individual people: Winston Churchill, Napoleon, Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great have been known for their friendliness toward the Jews, while known villains and neurotics such as Hitler, Stalin and Ahmedinejad are notorious anti-Semites.
If “negative” individuals (anti-Semites) attribute negative characteristics to a (generally) positive people (the Jews), the problem might lie in the haters themselves rather than in their targets. This is particularly true if, as we shall see later, those negative characteristics usually belong to the haters themselves, rather than to their targets.
This problem is called “projection”. At the individual level, the dynamics of projection are simple and have been described effectively by psychoanalysis. First, an individual is confronted with some painful trauma, impulse or emotion (e.g. a specific fear; some undesired trait; a failure; envy; an unfulfilled wish). Second, if this issue becomes too painful to deal with, the subject may deny its existence and repress it in the unconscious. Third, the subject may then project this repressed element toward a convenient external target. Projection provides a temporary relief from the anxiety generated by repressed feelings.
A classic example of projection occurs with marital guilt, whereby thoughts of infidelity by a partner may be unconsciously projected onto the other, blameless partner in the couple. From psychoanalysis we learn that denial and projection are “unhealthy” defense mechanisms and are typically employed by neurotic personalities. However, they may occasionally affect normal people in times of political or personal crisis.
An interesting and related idea coming from Jungian psychology is the concept of shadow. According to Jung, the shadow is an unconscious aspect of the personality, which the conscious ego does not identify in itself. Because one tends to reject or remain ignorant of the least desirable aspects of one’s personality, the shadow is largely negative. According to Jung, the shadow, in being instinctive and irrational, is prone to psychological projection, in which a perceived personal inferiority is recognized as a perceived moral deficiency in someone else. These projections insulate and harm individuals by acting as a constantly thickening veil of illusion between ego and the real world [source: Wikipedia].
Could the shadow and its projection explain anti-Semitism as well? The following evidence suggests that it could.
1) Many extreme anti-Semites have neurotic tendencies (e.g. Hitler, Stalin, Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi).
2) Anti-Semitism has a clear tendency to intensify in times of crisis (e.g. following WW1; during the Great Depression; during plague epidemics).
3) Anti-Semitic accusations are typically outright false (or grossly exaggerated) and seem to reflect deep-seated concerns of the societies in which they are conceived.
If Jewish stereotypes reflected actual Jewish traits, we would expect them to be fairly constant in time and in place. Instead, we find that clichés and accusations change over time and often resemble the issues affecting a specific national reality at any given time. Here are a few examples:
Stereotype 1: Jewish greed, wealth and concern with money.
This cliché probably originates from the fact that Jews exercised the profession of moneylenders in Europe for many centuries (Christians were not allowed to lend money with interest). However, I have observed that this specific Jewish cliché tends to surface with particular intensity during or following times of economic hardship, including depression and hyperinflation. For example, this cliché was very common in the 1930s (especially in Nazi Germany) most likely due to the ongoing aftereffects great depression and the preceding German hyperinflation. Even in the US, a relatively Jewish-friendly country, anti-Semitism with an emphasis on the greed cliché peaked during this period.
A second example where the greed cliché is prevalent is in the wave of anti-Semitism hitting present-day Europe. Again, this tendency coincides with the aftermath of the Great Recession and credit crisis that hit Europe particularly hard. Notice how the countries that were hit hardest (i.e. Greece, Spain, Hungary) also showed the most intense resurgence of anti-Semitism (Greece and Hungary even witnessed the birth of actual neo-Nazi parties).
In more general terms, the greed cliché might also indicate envy for or a generalized unease with materialism, capitalism and urbanization. Since these are abstract concepts, the masses may find in the Jews a concrete symbol to project their feelings.
Stereotype 2: Poisoning Wells.
It is well known that during plague epidemics in Europe Jews were frequently accused of spreading disease by poisoning wells. This accusation, plainly false, illustrates the projection hypothesis very well: gentiles, terrified and shocked by the plague, a phenomenon that they could not be understand at the time, “projected” their fear of disease onto the Jews. Shifting the blame provided relief from anxiety and also a sense of control as, unable to tackle the plague directly, they must have founds that hitting the Jews was a viable alternative.
Stereotype 3: Blood Libel and Devil Worship.
During the middle ages Jews were frequently accused of drinking the blood of Christian children during a formal ritual and of being demonic creatures or servants of the devil. These clichés today would be absurd, but they fit well in a historical period where people were obsessed by both the positive and negative symbols of religion. The blood libel clearly recalls the killing of Jesus (whose “blood” the Catholics drink routinely once a week in the communion). The devil worship accusation clearly reflects fear of occult forces.
Stereotype 4: World domination and control of finance, media.
This cliché is particularly pernicious and has been expressed neatly in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (a hoax). It comes in various forms, but essentially its blames the Jews of conspiring to take over the world by controlling powerful forces, such as international finance, the media, freemasonry, education, and others.
In my opinion, this cliché reflects fear of a radical change in social order or some sort of revolution. It might also reflect a sense of public unease with the powers of modern government. It should not be surprising that this stereotype surfaced, inter alia, in Russia shortly before the 1917 Revolution; in Germany during the rise of National Socialism (and following the defeat of WW1 and end of the monarchy) as well as in present-day Arab world, which is currently undergoing a catastrophic collapse. Again, people project their uneasiness and fears on the Jews. Note how this cliché typically takes root in authoritarian regimes: people resent being “controlled” and “dominated”, but cannot direct their frustration to the regime for fear of reprisal. The resentment is then repressed, displaced and projected onto the Jews, the usual and convenient target.
Stereotype 5: Israel kills civilians indiscriminately, commits genocide, expands colonies, is aggressive and warmongering, violates human rights.
This is a modern and enlightening cliché, especially since it is prevalent in today’s Western Europe. A careful analysis of the facts will show that these allegations are either false or exaggerated. Given the extreme circumstances that Israel finds itself in, its treatment of its enemies has been remarkably benign and would compare favorably with that of any other Western country in a similar situation.
Criticism toward Israel could, therefore, represent projection of collective European guilt. Europeans brutally colonized a significant part of the world for centuries in the past and subjected countless people to the exact same abuses that they now blame on Israel. Unable to acknowledge and to atone for what they have done, they now project this guilt on Israel, whose role as a Western country fighting a less developed people, must strike a chord with their past self.
There is an equally interesting alternative view. Western civilization and Europe in particular, are now under threat from Islam. If you look carefully, you will find that the allegations that Europeans are making against Israel, mimic closely the behavior of Muslims around the world. Unlike Israel, some Muslims are indeed targeting civilians indiscriminately (e.g. in countless terrorist attacks) and committing genocide (e.g. ISIS in Iraq with the Christians, Shias or Yazidis). The Israeli colonies in the West Bank are a small-scale phenomenon, but Islam is indeed aggressively “colonizing” a good part of Western Europe and trying to assert its influence. Human rights of minorities in Israel are well established, however, in Islamic countries all minorities are persecuted with varying degrees of intensity.
In this light, European hostility toward Israel might well constitute a repressed and projected fear for the rise of radical Islam. Acknowledging the status quo of a Europe actually facing islamization is too frightening a reality to contemplate, as it would demand an extreme response (e.g. special laws, mass expulsions, curtailment of civil rights, or worse) that Europeans are not yet willing to initiate. It is easier to deny the problem and, as usual, project it on the Jews (or on their country).
We saw how repressed objects that, through denial and displacement are eventually projected on the Jews, may generage anti-Semitism. We are on the right track, but there are still two important questions that need to be answered.
It is obvious that anti-Semitism does not occur universally. There are many cases of entire countries undergoing major crises and suffering from unspeakable negativities and not reacting with anti-Semitism (think of the US following 9/11; China suffering Japanese brutality and a Communist revolution or Brazil and Argentina undergoing multiple and severe economic crises and military dictatorships). So, what are the circumstances and characteristics that facilitate the occurrence of anti-Semitism through the dynamics we identified earlier? And, more importantly, why the Jews? Why, out of all subgroups of people, do the Jews seem attract most of the hatred across countries and historical periods?
Facilitating circumstances: the fertile ground for the growth of anti-Semitism
Individual cases of anti-Semitism may arise anywhere and at any time. As we saw earlier, a deeply neurotic person may have an innate tendency to develop hatred for the Jews independently from his environment (provided he is, at least, acquainted with the concept of “Jew”). For Anti-Semitism to arise in its more dangerous and generalized forms, however, I have identified a number of predisposing elements:
1) Presence of a crisis, perceived threat or major transition.
As we saw earlier, crises tend to increase the prevalence of repression and projection as defense mechanisms.
2) Religious validation and cultural familiarity.
Virtually all grave instances of anti-Semitism have originated from either Christian or Islamic countries. This is no coincidence, as most people seem to need some sort of religious justification, however thin, to let loose their hatred for the Jews. Both Christianity and Islam are related to Judaism and include, to varying degrees, negative images of the Jews. The former has accused the Jews for centuries of refusing the teachings of and killing Jesus. The latter blames them for various misdeeds during the time of Mohammed and even prescribes their direct persecution in certain cases.
3) Highly homogeneous, but insecure ethnic and cultural identity.
Historically, anti-Semitism clustered in countries characterized by a high degree of homogeneity in their ethnic, religious, and cultural identities. Most European and Islamic countries are fairly homogeneous in terms of language and religion and have been prone to develop anti-Semitism, as we saw. This phenomenon has been more intense in countries that, despite a having a uniform identity, have experienced a real or perceived threat to their national character. For example, Germany in the ‘20s was undergoing major cultural changes due to new incoming influences from the West in art, lifestyle, and values. These values clashed markedly with the more traditional Germanic culture. Similar dynamics apply to the Ukraine and its ongoing struggle between Slavic and Western identity and to Turkey and its tension between Western secularism and Islamic culture. Samuel Huntington in its “Clash of Civilizations” has referred to such states as “Torn Countries”. The anxiety generated by this “identity crisis” may lead to anti-Semitism through displacement projection.
On the contrary, “melting pot” countries, such as the United States, Brazil, and Argentina have proven remarkably resilient to anti-Semitism. Arguably, the absence of a clearly dominating culture and the presence of multiple alternatives reduces the citizens’ susceptibility to turn against the Jews, who are seen as one minority among many others and not as the “corruptors of national character”.
4) Authoritarian or anarchic regimes.
While democracies have not been immune from anti-Semitism (think of today’s European countries), extreme instances – the kind that may result in mass expulsion, expropriation and mass murder – have been exclusive to authoritarian regimes (e.g. Nazi Germany, Czarist and Soviet Russia, Islamic countries). Even in relatively Jewish friendly countries, such as Italy and Venezuela, the advent of authoritarianism has caused a marked appearance of anti-Semitism (as it happened in during Fascism or, more recently, with Chavez).
There are two reasons behind this link. First, as we saw earlier, authoritarianism generates powerful feelings of frustration in the population, which are then directed against the Jews. Second, the rulers themselves may encourage and “institutionalize” anti-Semitism either because of personal belief or because of incentives (e.g. financial gain from expulsion and expropriation of Jewish assets or political gain redirecting the people’s anger away from the government). In contrast, democratic governments typically dampen anti-Semitic tendencies, act as shock absorbers and even pro-actively reduce anti-Semitism thanks education and the promotion of tolerance and plurality of ideas.
The institutionalization of anti-Semitism can be particularly dangerous and destructive. The government, especially in a developed country, has means at its disposal to escalate anti-Semitism exponentially. These tools include propaganda and brainwashing (e.g. Goebbels in Germany; the Protocol of the Elders of Zion in Russia), incitement to violence (Pogroms); Anti-Semitic legislation (Nazi Germany; Fascist Italy) as well as more radical means including deportation and mass murder.
Two effective ways to spread anti-Semitism “institutionally” are social proof and authority. Social proof, particularly effective in ambiguous situations, is a psychological phenomenon occurring when people copy the actions of others in an attempt to reflect the correct behavior for a given situation. In our case, if the government uses its authority to promote actions against the Jews, many otherwise indifferent citizens will follow the trend eventually.
The Jews as ideal targets of projection
We must now explain why the victims of the processes we just saw have a tendency to be Jews, as opposed to many other possible subgroups of people. There is a set of characteristics that make Jewish people an ideal target for psychological projection:
1) Jewish people are similar, yet different from their host
Projection means attributing to an external target some painful, unconscious impulse. For projection to take place, the projector must somehow identify himself in his target, but the process of identification must occur at the unconscious level. It follows that the target of projection cannot be arbitrary, for the target must be similar enough to the projector to identify with it, but not so similar for the projector to become consciously aware of the process. In other words, the ideal target for psychological projection must be similar enough to the projector, but different at the same time.
Unfortunately, Jewish people seem to occupy the sweet spot between these two extremes: in the Diaspora they are sufficiently similar to their hosts (same language, similar history, similar outward appearance, similar basic values), but they display a few critical differences (religion, customs, holidays, etc.). This “different-sameness” makes the Jews an ideal mirror against which the anti-Semite may identify himself and project his own unconscious issues.
Some evidence for this theory can be found in the wave of anti-Semitism that hit Europe following the emancipation of the Jews that started just a few decades earlier with Napoleon (e.g. Dreyfus Affaire, Czarist Russia, Nazi Germany). In fact, once the Jews became fully integrated into the European society, now with equal rights, freedom of work, similar dress codes, etc. they lost some of their diversity and arguably moved closer to that sweet spot between difference and similarity that facilitates psychological projection. The result has been a step up in anti-Semitism.
2) Jewish people are perceived as secretive
Just like a blank screen is needed to screen a movie, the anti-Semite needs a blank area in his target in order to project his unconscious impulses: if everything about the Jew is well known and in plain sight, it is hard to attribute elements that aren’t there. Jewish people, however, tend to be rather exclusive and secretive and this results often in large gaps in public knowledge of Jewish culture, customs, and behavior. The anti-Semite seems to use these gaps in order to project his negative feelings and fantasies onto the Jews.
This phenomenon isn’t unique to the Jews. Many secret societies and organizations (e.g. Freemasonry, Skull & Bones; the Trilateral Commission; the CIA) attract a disproportionate amount of suspicion and hostility and become targets of conspiracy theories for exactly the same reasons: power and secrecy attract negative projections.
3) Jewish people are vulnerable
I have always been surprised by the relative scarcity of islamophobic events in Europe and in the United States. Muslims people today are responsible for a significant proportion of wars, terrorism and human rights violations occurring at present across the world. Despite all this, incidents of islamophobia have been remarkably rare and mild, especially so if compared with incidents of anti-Semitism. I have identified two main reasons for this apparently puzzling observation:
The first reason is that Muslims are not as integrated in European societies as Jews are and thus, are too different from their hosts to serve as a suitable projection screen. But there is another reason: Muslims often make hard targets as they react aggressively to any perceived attack to themselves or their ideology (just think of the violent response to the publishing of the Mohammed cartoons a few years ago). For cultural and other reasons, on the other hand, Jews are usually passive and mild in their reaction to anti-Semitism. Attackers, whether individuals, groups or institutions, often feel that they can target the Jews without risking serious reprisals. Unfortunately this behavior eventually encourages further attacks.
4) Jews have become an archetype
Anti-Semitism is, at least, as old as Christianity itself, that is, over 2,000 years. The negative images constantly associated to the Jews in European culture (think, for example, on the figure of Judas Iscariot) have now turned into a resilient mental symbol, into an archetype. While the day-to-day image of Jewish people available to Europeans may be dramatically different from anything existing, say, in the Middle Ages, the archetype of the Jew hasn’t changed much. This helps explain the stubborn presence of anti-Semitism even in countries void of Jewish people: it is the archetype of the Jews that they hate. Archetypes, being deep-seated psychological representations, have a natural tendency to attract psychological projection. This is another reason why other minorities have been luckier than the Jews despite a more modest record in terms of ethics and achievements.
How anti-Semitism contributes to shaping Jewish nature, identity and self-image
The dynamics illustrated above do not flow only one way, from the host population to the Jews. Rather, they create an opposite flow from the Jews to the gentiles in a reflexive relationship. In other words, anti-Semitism has contributed to the shaping the Jewish people just as the Jews have unintentionally contributed to the shaping of anti-Semitism. There is little doubt, for example, that the constant experience of hatred and discrimination has favored the strengthening of many characteristically Jewish traits, including the following:
1) Cohesiveness and exclusivity
This refers to the tendency of Jewish people to stick together and form tightly knit, exclusive and secretive communities. Jewish people understood very well the meaning of the motto “united we stand and divided we fall”.
2) Pursuit of Excellence
External threats and the will to survive generate discipline and a powerful drive to succeed. Jews cannot afford mediocrity as that often means vulnerability. Similarly, financial, cultural and scientific achievements can provide a buffer during bad times. For example, an increased propensity to save might come handy in case a Jewish family might need to emigrate in order to escape persecution. Also, achieving expertise in trade, science or academia constitutes a portable asset and an effective insurance policy.
3) High moral standards
By being continually confronted with the darkest side of human nature due to their hosts’ anti-Semitism, Jews naturally converged toward higher ethical standards in a process of polarization and through the accumulation of wisdom.
4) Victimhood and perceived weakness
Centuries of persecutions, mostly occurring without meeting significant resistance or retribution, have had a profound effect on Jewish self-image and contributed to the formation of a victimhood mentality. The good news is that, following the extreme events of the Holocaust and the formation of the State of Israel, this lamentable trait has begun to fade. Especially in the State of Israel, thanks to Jewish participation to its own armed defense and the development of a warrior ethos, victimhood mentality is now steadily disappearing.
Please note the reflexivity inherent in the process we described: anti-Semitism promotes the establishment of Jewish exclusivity, achievements, moral standards and a victim mentality. In turn, those traits contribute to the perpetuation and exacerbation of anti-Semitism as they favor the onset of psychological projection. It is reflexivity that explains both the stubbornness and intensity of anti-Semitism.
The shadow projection anti-Semitism model
To summarize our findings, we can introduce a model capable of explaining the genesis and dynamics of anti-Semitism. First, we need the right set of conditions present in a host society i.e. a high degree of cultural homogeneity and the presence of a religious tradition containing negativities about the Jews. Second, we need a significant and ongoing (real or perceived) crisis, threat or major traumatic transition. Third, we need the presence of a hostile or opportunistic authoritarian regime.
When these conditions are present, the nature of the Jews as equal yet different, secretive, archetypal and vulnerable may lead the host population to project its own negative unconscious elements on the Jews and generate anti-Semitism, which can then be further compounded by institutional persecution if the regime encourages the phenomenon.
Finally, the experience of anti-Semitism affects the self-image and behavior of the Jews in a way that, eventually, reinforces and perpetuates the process.
I have represented the process graphically in the chart below:
Trends and expectations
In light of the insights that may be acquired through this model, we can attempt to read historical trends and try to predict what Jews may expect from the future. There are both good news and bad.
There is a steady, if jumpy, tendency for democracy to proliferate in the world. The number of democratic countries has been increasing significantly for more than two hundred years. Because only authoritarian regimes have been capable of generating the worst instances of anti-Semitism, over time we can expect a reduction of large-scale, Nazi-style anti-Semitic events. Similarly, as high degrees of cultural homogeneity have been associated with anti-Semitism, the current trends toward globalization, cultural plurality and the formation of new melting pots, suggests a reduction of anti-Semitism over time. Of course, both observations assume an optimistic view of history where increases in democracy and globalization are linear trends and not cyclical phenomena.
On the other hand, Christianity and, to a lesser extent Islam, are likely to continue to provide fertile ground for anti-Semitism. Even in the Christian world, which seems to heading toward progressive secularization, the existence of a deeply ingrained negative archetypal image of the Jews suggests that anti-Semitism might persist there for the foreseeable future, of course mitigated by democracy wherever it is present. Finally, of course, the presence of crises, transitions and perceived threats are likely to recur periodically with similar frequency and always carry along the potential to catalyze hatred for the Jews.
Jewish people and culture are changing as well and affect the future potential to generate anti-Semitism. In my opinion, the overall trend seems to be encouraging.
Jews are becoming less secretive and more inclusive. The establishment of the European Day for Jewish Culture, the creation of Jewish Museums, the featuring of Jewish subjects in Hollywood, and the availability of Israel as a tourist destination all contribute to generate awareness and knowledge of the Jews and their culture, thereby reducing their perceived secrecy and exclusivity. This trend, which originates partly from an increased assertiveness of the Jews following the creation of the State of Israel, but also from goodwill on behalf of host countries following the Holocaust, is a step in the right direction and should be encouraged.
Also encouragingly, Jews are no longer as vulnerable as they used to be. Emboldened by the formidable military successes of the State of Israel, Jews are becoming more combative and reactive. Jewish communities around the world have formed effective self-defense organizations and, groups such as the Anti Defamation League, are often successful in engaging anti-Semitism in the media.
On the other hand, the current trend of over-emphasizing the Holocaust as an integral part of Jewish identity is, in my opinion extremely negative as it perpetuates the archetypal image of the Jew as a persecuted and powerless victim. It may also encourage anti-Semitism because of Social Proof, as people learn that Jews have always been persecuted and, deep down, assume that this might be the correct way to handle them.
In short, Jewish people should favor democracy and globalization while striving to make their own culture more open, inclusive and familiar. They should also avoid acting and being portrayed as victims and, instead, take an active role in their own defense, not relying solely on the initiative of their host countries’ government.
In order to illustrate how the model works in a practical way, I have chosen the examples of Turkey, the Ukraine, Europe and the United States. The first three cases represent textbook cases for the rise of state-sponsored anti-Semitism and constitute my main source apprehension for the immediate future. The latter is an example of how the process we described may even work in reverse and generate friendliness, rather than hatred toward the Jews.
Despite being the heir of the traditionally Jewish-friendly Ottoman Empire, Turkey is an Islamic country and as such, it is vulnerable to a potential Muslim anti-Semitic bias. The country is not a melting pot and has a homogeneous, ancient Muslim character. More worryingly, ever since the rise of the local Islamic party headed by Erdogan, Turkey is progressively shifting from being a secular democracy to a religious authoritarian regime where, inter alia, journalists and dissidents are jailed. Finally, Turkey is undergoing a deep identity crisis reflecting its ambivalence about its place in the world, torn as it is between the West and the Middle East.
Therefore, all four conditions to prepare the ground for anti-Semitism are present and the current regime has been vociferous in its criticism toward Israel and the Jews. If these trends continue further, vicious, state-sponsored anti-Semitism of the kind seen in Nazi Germany and Czarist Russia may eventually be the result. A severe economic crisis might be the missing catalyst to start the fire.
Another country where all four conditions needed to generate the most pernicious kind of anti-Semitism are all currently present in the Ukraine. Just like Germany (Catholic and Protestant), the country is Christian, but it’s split in two (one part Catholic, the other Orthodox). The country has a long history of hostility toward the Jews, including mass murders committed in WW2: the cultural/religious/historic background is worringly suitable to generate anti-Semitism. National identity is homogenous (albeit each half has its distinct identity). Ukraine is undergoing major crises, including a civil war, ambivalence between its Western and Slavic identities and severe economic hardship (Ukraine is almost bankrupt). Finally, although the government is not yet strictly authoritarian, it is a very weak democracy and may turn into a dictatorship at any time. Not surprisingly, there have been countless instances of anti-Semitism as well as the formation of Neo-Nazi groups. If dictatorship eventually does take place, expect Jews to face trouble.
The situation in Europe is more complex. The Old Continent has, by far, the worst anti-Semitic tradition in the world culminating, of course, with the Holocaust. On the other hand, until recently Jews in Europe have fared very well. All Western European countries have been solid democracies since the end of WW2 and have undergone a long period of economic growth. There have been no major transitions or identity crises and some areas made important steps toward pluralism and cultural diversity (e.g. London). Unfortunately the situation has been changing fast. Economic expansion is over and many European countries have been experiencing severe economic shocks. Middle classes, traditionally the most tolerant strata in society, are suffering from a sharp drop in living standards, unemployment and disillusionment with the current system of political and economic government. Moreover, the rise of Islam and the wild increase in Muslim immigration in Europe in recent years constitutes a frontal assault to Europe’s Christian/Secular identity.
In other words, out of the four conditions only strong democracy is left to guard against anti-Semitism. Already now, spontaneous anti-Semitic incidents have multiplied and are reaching worrying proportions. Fortunately, so far, governments have taken a firm stance against the phenomenon. However, frustration with Muslim immigration has considerably strengthened a number of right wing, xenophobic parties, which traditionally have scant democratic values. Should any of those parties take over, some European countries might turn authoritarian and, with all four conditions relevant, state-sponsored anti-Semitism might well follow.
Interestingly, should serious states-sponsored anti-Semitism arise in Europe, it is likely to emerge from unexpected places. Germany, for example, with its successful economy and well-rooted democratic institutions, is very unlikely to turn anti-Semitic, despite its dark past. Countries more at risk would be the ones undergoing economic crisis with weak democracies, for example, Italy, Greece and Hungary.
On the other hand of the spectrum, the US constitute an example of how a country, despite its Christian heritage, may avoid serious anti-Semitism and actually develop friendliness toward the Jews. The United States started as a Christian entity, but religious diversity and tolerance were part of its DNA right from the start. In its infancy, the US was meant as a free heaven for persecuted religious minorities. Also, the US is arguably one of the most sturdy democracies in the world and its turning to authoritarianism now is almost unthinkable. Third, the country is a melting pot and its pluralism of cultures and religions is an intrinsic part of its identity. Fourth, despite the occasional political or economic crisis, the US is typically a very stable country.
In addition to this, or maybe because of this, American Jews exhibit peculiar characteristics, which are beneficial in their relationship with gentiles. First, they no longer stand apart as “different”. In a country counting dozens of religions, the Jews are just one of the many and their customs do not stand out particularly. As we saw, the perception of “different” is required for shadow projection to take place. Second, US Jews are neither particularly secretive nor exclusive: they are open and communicative about their culture which, to some extent, has already become mainstream (many Americans are familiar with the basics of Jewish religion). Jews in the US are also less exclusive, as Reformed Jews are now open to intermarriage with gentiles. Furthermore, US Jews are less vulnerable since the US government takes religious freedom very seriously and is likely to aggressively put down any serious instances of anti-Semitism. Also, the status of Israel as a staunch US ally and a formidable military force contribute to the reduction in the perception of Jews as victims.
Consistent with the above, US Jews today do not suffer any serious anti-Semitism (although sporadic forms still endure). More than that, surveys show that 64% of US see the Jews in a positive light – the highest of any other religion in the country! That is remarkable and it might show our process working in reverse. American people, in fact, may project positive self-images on the Jews. Jews and Jewish culture have many elements that are quintessentially American such as a strong work ethic, an emphasis on ingenuity and entrepreneurialism, a deep faith and a culture favoring the rule of law. Even the Jewish penchant for business and finance, which elsewhere has negative connotations, in the US is a quality to be admired and emulated. Should anyone suggest that America would turn hostile to the Jews anytime soon you should be doubtful.
Anti-Semitism is a two thousand year-old phenomenon and it will not be eradicated overnight. However, paraphrasing Judge Giovanni Falcone (who was talking about the Sicilian Mafia) I believe that a case has been made that anti-Semitism is a human, rather than a supernatural phenomenon and, as such, it had a beginning and it will also have an end. The conditions that seem to bring forth the end of this plague i.e. democracy, political and economic stability, pluralism and education are the same ingredients that make the world in general a better place. So the end of anti-Semitism should be welcome to all, Jews and gentiles alike.