Anti-Semitism: More than Meets the Eye

Several events this past month presaged the arrival of Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day). Two weeks ago, 73 year-old Frazier Glenn Cross drove up to Jewish institutions in Kansas City and murdered three people he believed to be Jewish. Half a world away, Ukrainian Jews caught in the cross-fire between Ukrainian nationalists and Russian separatists were confronted by an homage to the 1930’s. Leaflets were distributed demanding that Jews register themselves and their property, paying a fee for the service no less. A week later, a Ukrainian synagogue was firebombed and other sacred sites were violated.

As Israel commemorates Yom Hashoah, it seems appropriate to ask: Why is anti-Semitism seemingly inexhaustible? How does it transmit so easily across generations? The answers to these questions are undoubtedly complex and draw from many aspects of developmental, social and cognitive psychology. Yet, in triangulating the roots of the “oldest hatred”, it might be worthwhile to understand how anti-Semitism may differ from some forms of racism based on physical appearance.

However, I contend that appearances do not undergird anti-Semitism. Even though Frazier Glenn Cross had described Jews as “swarthy, hairy, bow-legged, beady-eyed, parasitic midgets.” Ironically, when it came time for him identify his targets, he ended up killing two Methodists and a Catholic. The notion of the Jew as some disgusting creature has been sourced back to the seventeenth century and became a central element in the Nazi efforts to dehumanize Jews.

And yet, despite the alleged differences in appearance between Jews and gentiles, when the Nazis tried to rid the earth of Jews, they forced them to declare their identity with a conspicuous yellow armband emblazoned with a Jewish star. By contrast, people of African descent who were being persecuted by the very same hands, bore no additional identifiers. There is no need for additional markers when appearances really do differ.

While all forms of racism and discrimination are equally reprehensible, there may be subtle differences in their etiology. Some hatred may find its roots in the very cognitive heuristics that allow us to quickly acquire information and navigate the world while we are young. Others forms, like anti-Semitism and homophobia, seem to be purely driven by stories passed down from one generation to the next. Irrespective of whether the means of propagation differs across instances, the end result is tragically similar. Only education offers hope for change.

Note: A lengthier version of this blog has been published on my blog at Psychology Today.

About the Author
Dan is an associate professor of psychology at Penn State Unviersity. He also blogs on the Huffington Post and PsychologyToday.
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