Cultural Sensitivity in Counseling Jewish Psychotherapy Clients
After the terrorist attack on Israel by Hamas on October 7, during which more Jewish people were killed than on any single day since the Holocaust, and the ensuing war between the two, there have been an explosion of antisemitic speech and hate crimes on college campuses, across America, and around the globe. The Anti-Defamation League reports that antisemitic incidents have increased by more than 300% since the attack. Many Jewish psychotherapy clients suddenly feel unsafe in their neighborhoods and even in clinicians’ offices, not knowing their therapists’ political stance. Jewish therapists feel on the defensive for micro-aggressions uttered by clients and have been ostracized from some therapeutic organizations based on their political views.
Malka Shaw, LCSW, and Stacey Shapiro, LCSW are now leading workshops through the Kesher Shalom Project on “How to Work with Jewish Clients During an Active War and Rise in Antisemitism.” They state they are getting thousands of requests from therapists around the country for training, from non-Jewish as well as Jewish therapists, who want to know how to effectively support clients. They are also receiving requests from clinicians wanting to learn how to manage countertransference, regarding strong opposing political opinions voiced by clients or because they’ve felt triggered by a client’s use of provocative language. According to founder Halina Brooke, the Jewish Therapist Collective: Professional Advocacy and Community Support international organization (www.jewishtherapists.org) has seen a dramatic rise in members since October 7. Jewish therapists have different views on the conflict, and many are having trouble finding like-minded allies. Furthermore, some opinions are being treated as more valid than others. As one therapist commented, “I’m tired of Jewish mental health being a pawn in someone’s political debate.” I have organized consultation groups for therapists since October 7 and have found that it’s very important that members feel politically allied with others in the group.
In addition, Jewish therapists have experienced a deafening silence from their progressive allies in the marginalized groups they’ve historically supported as well as in the DEI committees in which they’ve participated. The California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists has up until now put out no statement condemning the Hamas attack and pushed consideration of this article to next summer/fall. The American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists has a blog with conflict, trauma, and war resources and lists organizations to support, which are biased towards the Palestinian side of the narrative (such as the Othering and Belonging Institute in Berkeley). We as therapists are trained to listen to all sides when it comes to mediating conflict in the couples, families, and groups with which we work. No less should be true regarding this conflict.
As this current moment in history is having an enormously negative impact on the mental well-being of Jewish clients and therapists alike, it has become clear that there is a need for the mental health professional community to have a better understanding of how to offer culturally sensitive care to this group. It’s not my intention to overlook the suffering of Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim clients and the concurrent rise in Islamophobia. I would welcome reading a sister article articulating how to sensitively counsel Palestinians and Muslims. When tensions are lower and the intergenerational trauma on both sides less activated, it will be crucial that there be mutual dialogue regarding both sides of the narrative along with peace building efforts. Perhaps we who are trained in conflict meditation can play a role in that work. The focus of this article, however, is on the Jewish experience, as that is my expertise. Moreover, while Jews represent 2% of the population in America, they are experiencing 50% of the current hate crimes committed.
After giving some historical background on the Jewish people, this article will attempt to answer three questions:
- What is antisemitism and how does it show up in the therapy room?
- What is Jewish intergenerational trauma?
- How can the experiences of Jewish people and antisemitic microaggressions be included in DEI conversations and policies?
Who is a Jew?
As a reminder to those less familiar with Jewish history and culture, the Jewish people trace their origins back to 1500 B. C. E., to Biblical times in Israel. Jews are considered an ethno-religion, meaning they are not only a religious group, but a cultural, national, and ethnic group. Because of thousands of years of migration due to persecution in each society in which they’ve lived, Jews have integrated into every culture. There are Asian, Ethiopian, and Hispanic Jews, and Jews originating from Central Asian and Arab countries. The Jewish people are a tiny minority group. Worldwide, they represent 0.2% of the population. They are 2.4% of the population in America. There are 15 million Jews worldwide: 6 million live in America; 7 million in Israel; and the remaining 2 million are spread throughout the rest of the world. In Israel, 60% are Jews of Color: Mizrachi–Middle Eastern–or North African–Jews who were expelled from Arab countries during the establishment of the State of Israel.
According to the Pew Center Report released in May 2021, only 21% of Jewish Americans say that religion is “very important to them,” with more than half saying it is not important. Forty percent of younger Jews do not identify as religious at all. Other pertinent findings of this study, in terms of understanding Jewish clients sociologically, are the following. Jews are becoming more ethnically diverse, with 8% identifying with ethnic categories other than non-Hispanic white. Among younger Jews, aged 18-29, the number rises to 15%. Seventeen percent of those surveyed, and 29% of those under age 30, live in households in which at least one member is Black, Hispanic, Asian, non-White, or multi-racial. While there are Jewish Republicans, Jewish Americans tend to be by and large liberal and to support progressive causes, through charity and scoial justice work.
There has been some Jewish presence in the Land of Israel since Biblical times, despite periods of forced exile. After the Roman conquest in 70 CE, Jews were scattered throughout the ancient world. The return to Zion has always been central to Jewish prayer, concretized in written form in the Middle Ages. Zionism is the movement advocating for self determination and statehood for the Jewish people in their ancient homeland. Nonetheless, Jews today have different relationships to Israel, depending on their politics. Some feel deeply connected to the State of Israel; many are vociferously critical of its right-wing government; some do not identify as Zionists; and many are involved in peace movements and advocate for the rights of Palestinians. The current conflict in the Middle East is bringing up generational differences within families, leading to painful disagreements and even cut offs. Jews of an older generation, more cognizant of its long history and of the failed Oslo Accord, are generally more supportive of Israel than Gen Z’ers.
What is Antisemitism and How Does it Show up in the Therapy Room?
Antisemitism refers to prejudice and/or discrimination against Jewish people as individuals and as a group. It is often based on conspiracy theories, stereotypes and myths that target Jews as a people and their religious practices. It tends to increase during times of economic, social, and political unrest. Antisenitism has its roots in early Christianity and accusations of deicide. These attitudes flourished during the Middle Ages, when Jews were targeted during the Crusades, accused of ritually murdering Christians and spreading the Bubonic Plague, and ultimately expelled by England, France and Spain, among other European countries. The re-integration of Jews into Europe during the Enlightenment led to a backlash of antisemitism, at which point many Jews immigrated to America. With the rise of eugenics, Judaism was deemed an undesirable race as well as a religion. The Zionist movement began in the late 1800s by Theodore Herzl as a reaction to centuries of persecution, the expulsion of Jews from country after country, and the realization that Jews needed a safe place of their own. This long history of persecution culminated in the Holocaust in Germany, when one third of the worldwide population of Jews was murdered. Concurrently, there were violent pogroms in Algeria, Libya and Iraq.
Today, antisemitism manifests as various myths. Jews are associated with financial exploitation and greed, an idea that originated because Jews were banned from guilds in the Middle Ages and consigned to the roles of moneylenders, tax and rent collectors. Jews are accused of having undue power and control; of controlling government, banks and the media; and causing plagues (including COVID-19). They are accused of being dishonest, having dual loyalties, or being more loyal to Israel than to their own country. Antisemitism can also manifest as microaggressions, such as using the term “Jew-ing down,” assuming a Jewish person is greedy or money-obsessed; holding stereotypical ideas about the appearance of Jews; or even holding positive stereotypes, such as assuming that someone would make a good financial advisor or lawyer because they are Jewish. Antisemitism extends to the blood libel–the idea that Jews kill other peoples’ babies–and spreading the myth that the Holocaust did not happen.
Criticism of the politics of the State of Israel is not inherently antisemitic, but discriminating against someone because it is assumed that their loyalty to Israel makes them unfit to serve in a certain position does: such as when Rose Ritch, who served as the vice president of the student government at the University of Southern California, was forced to step down because she expressed support for a Jewish homeland. By the same token, holding a Jewish person, who may be highly critical of the Israeli government, responsible for its actions is antisemitic. Misinformation about the history of Israel–that doesn’t take into account its legitimate establishment as a state by the UN and the long history of peace efforts with the Palestinians, up until the Oslo Accords of the 1990s– may also be considered microaggressions. Several phrases are heard as microaggressions, especially by older generations. The slogan “From the River to the Sea” is understood by many calling for the genocide of all Jews currently living in Israel, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Support for Hamas is tantamount to support for the idea of Jewish genocide, as this jihadist organization has called for the murder of Jews not only in Israel but worldwide. Calling Israelis “settler colonizers” is controversial, as Jews are both indigenous to the land and have no other land to which to return. One can legitimately have concerns about the force with which Israel is responding to the Hamas attack, grieve for innocent livers being lost, and object to Israel’s settler policies in the West Bank; however, the use of the term “genocide” is highly charged, as Israel goes to great lengths to warn civilians to evacuate before they attack, whereas Hamas uses civilians as human shields and has an actual genocidal agenda against Jews.
Moreover, the excessive amount of criticism directed at Israel as opposed to any other country is evidence of a double-standard, a central feature of a widely accepted definition of antisemitism (by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance). The failure of the UN, and the silence of many international women’s organizations, to condemn the sexual violence against women perpetrated by Hamas has left many Jewish feminists (and Jewish people generally) feeling horrified and abandoned.
According to the Pew Study quoted above, two years ago, 75%of Jewish people thought that there is more antisemitism than there was five years ago and 53% say they personally felt less safe. It is reasonable to assume that that number has increased since October 7.
Cultural Sensitivity to Jewish Intergenerational Trauma and its Sequelae
As safety is of paramount importance in the establishment of a therapeutic bond and in the ultimate healing we seek to provide therapy clients, clinicians need to be mindful of the heightened lack of safety their Jewish clients are experiencing. The field of epigenetics is showing how extreme stress can affect the expression of genes. Through a process called methylation, stress can leave chemical changes or markers on genes. And these changes can be passed down, such that people can carry evidence of their parents’, grandparents’, and other ancestors’ social histories and trauma. Rabbi Tirzah Firestone, in her book “Wounds Into Wisdom,” cites the research of Dr. Rachel Yehuda, professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Mt Sinai Medical Center in New York. Yehuda shows how gene expression produced by life in Nazi concentration camps was passed down to subsequent generations. Her 2015 study found that the children of Holocaust survivors were three times more likely to develop PTSD if they were exposed to trauma than demographically similar Jews not descended from survivors.
The current rise in antisemitism in America–on both the right and the left– is triggering traumatic responses in Jewish clients and therapists alike–manifesting in symptoms of dysregulation. While not all Jews are descended from Holocaust survivors, I would argue that baby boomers and Gen X’ers, who grew up in communities of survivors, may bear similar scars. Through my research and interviews with both, I have heard the following recent symptoms: inability to eat and sleep; nightmares with genocidal themes; inability to concentrate; fear of outwardly expressing Jewishness (for example, removing Stars of David from around their necks); and fears of being fired by their clients or outcast by their professional organizations. Jewish clients generally may grapple with feelings of otherness and not belonging. Other psychological themes that may emerge include: feeling victimized; a sense of powerlessness; a drive for security; internalized antisemitism or self-hatred; a striving for perfection–to compensate for feeling not good enough; terror; and disconnection from the body. Additionally, individuals may now be suffering from minority stress: the stressful experiences someone encounters based on their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and/or gender identity. Initially applied to lesbian, gay, and bisexuals in the early 2000s, the Minority Stress Model explains that stress experienced by minority groups can lead to disproportionate mental health outcomes.
In the current crisis, Rabbi Sharon Brous explains that there is a tension for many Jewish people between the tribalism that a traumatic event can naturally provoke for a group and the universalism espoused by Judaism, where there is a strong ethical obligation to protect the stranger and work to heal the world. This tension is manifesting as intrapsychic conflict and intergroup tensions. Some are more easily able to hold empathy for both sides in this conflict. Some, especially those with family or friends in Israel, or those who’ve lost someone at the hands of Hamas, may be uni-focused in their own grief.
Issues of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
It first came to my attention that the Jewish experience was not part of the DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) conversation when I returned to training at my alma mater, a progressive school in San Francisco. The school went to great lengths to sensitively address the experience of every ethnic and minority group. I listened attentively and took these issues to heart. I waited for the experience of Jewish people to be named. It never was. We were assigned a textbook about microaggressions in the counseling room. Under the section on “Semites,” amazingly, while Islamophobia was mentioned, antisemitism against Jews was not. I started to realize there was a problem here. Why are Jews left out of this conversation?
Since, in interviews with and research on those who have studied Critical Social Justice theory, I am learning that the ideology underlying the diversity, equity and inclusion programs and policies in colleges, therapy training programs, and professional organizations tend to exclude the Jewish experience. The Jewish people–consisting of people of many ethnicities– do not fit neatly into racial dichotomies. Moreover, as a historically oppressed group, now in a position of power in their own state where they are also subject to ongoing terrorist attacks, do not fit neatly into a framework of oppressor/oppressed. They are perceived as “privileged” in America, but as history–and current events–have shown, privilege can easily be revoked.
As David Baddiel states in his 2021 book Jews Don’t Count, “Jews are the only objects of racism who are imagined–by the racists–as both low and high status. Jews are stereotyped, by the racists, in all the same ways as other minorities are–as lying, thieving, dirty, vile, stinking–but also as moneyed, privileged, powerful, and secretly in control of the world. Jews are both sub-human and humanity’s secret master.”
“It’s hard to overstate how suffocating this worldview is to specifically Jewish college students,” says activist Blake Flayton, in James Lindsay’s article “Critical Race Theory’s Jewish Problem.” “We don’t fit into ‘oppressor’ or ‘oppressed’ categories. We are both privileged and marginalized, protected by those in power and yet targeted by the same racist lunatics as those who target people of color.”
And Eric K. Ward, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, argues in his article “Skin in the Game” that antisemitism is at the core of White nationalism:
“Within social and economic justice movements committed to equality, we have not yet collectively come to terms with the centrality of antisemitism to White nationalist ideology. Until we do, we will fail to understand this virulent form of racism that is rapidly growing in the U.S. today. To recognize that antisemitism is not a sideshow to racism within White nationalist thought is important. . . . White supremacism—inscribed de jure by the Jim Crow regime and upheld de facto outside the South—had been the law of the land, and a Black-led social movement had toppled the political regime that supported it. How could that have possibly happened? Some secret cabal, some mythological power, must be manipulating the social order behind the scenes. This diabolical evil must control television, banking, entertainment, education, and even Washington, D.C. It must be brainwashing White people, rendering them racially unconscious. What is this arch-nemesis of the White race, whose machinations have prevented the natural and inevitable imposition of white supremacy? It is, of course, the Jews.”
Ward proceeds to explain the basis of the Great Replacement theory cited by White nationalists, that a secret, powerful group of Jews are bringing in people of color to dilute the whiteness of America.
Injustice against one oppressed group is tied to oppression against all. As Brett Stephens writes in his opinion piece in the New York Times (December 12, 2023), “Whenever antisemitism rears its head, it isn’t just Jews who are in the cross hairs. It’s freedom, education and human dignity — values all of us should share, whether you’re Jewish or not.”
If the Jewish experience is left out of the honorable project to be mindful of issues of diversity and inclusion, how can oppression on all fronts be confronted? And if the totality of the Jewish experience is overlooked in the counseling room, how can the psychic scars of Jewish clients be appropriately attended to?
Alper, Becka and Alan Cooperman. (2021). “10 Key Findings about Jewish Americans,” Pew Research Center.
Baddiel, David. (2021). Jews Don’t Count. TLS Books.
Firestone, Rabbi Tirzah, Ph. D. (2019). Wounds into Wisdom: Healing Intergenerational Jewish Trauma. Monkfish Book Publishing Co.
Hughes, Coleman. (2023). “The Struggle for Black Freedom Has Nothing to Do with Israel.” The Free Press.
Lindsay, James. October 22, 2020. “Critical Race Theory’s Jewish Problem,” New Discourses.
Stephens, Brett. “Antisemitism: A Guide for the Perplexed.” The New York Times. December 12, 2023.
Ward, Eric K. (June 29, 2017). “Skin in the Game: How Antisemitism Animates White Nationalism,” Political Research Associates.
Weiss, Bari (2019). How To Fight Antisemitism . Crown Books.
See also: Transcendingjewishtrauma.com, a website started by Jo Kent Katz, drama therapist and social justice educator, and “The Sermon I Needed to Hear Right Now,” with Rabbi Sharon Brous, on The Ezra Klein Show, November 17, 2023.