Harold Behr

Does our Jewish identity have to be kept secret?

At one time I used to conduct seminars for medical students on psychological topics, one of which was on the significance of secrets in the family, how these often resulted in family dysfunction and how this could be addressed therapeutically. I would begin by asking the students to list as many examples of secrets in the family as they could think of, and it rapidly emerged that virtually any life event from birth to death could, in certain circumstances, be treated as a secret.

Occasionally, a thoughtful student would offer ‘identity’ as a possible basis for secrecy, leading to interesting comments about the need to conceal such aspects of one’s identity as sexuality, religious beliefs or political inclinations. Because these were academic seminars and not therapeutic groups, I was careful to keep the lid on personal disclosures but I could tell from the range and intensity of the discussion that the subject would furnish material for many a therapeutic hour.

The main emotions driving secrecy are shame and guilt. The former is more fundamental to our sense of identity because ultimately there can be no escape from who you are, while the latter reflects what you have done – or are accused of having done – and at least allows for some act such as atonement, reparation or punishment to exact compensation. The overriding emotion behind secrecy, however, is fear – the fear that some hidden failing or transgression will be uncovered and that one will be attacked because of that.

My personal thoughts turn immediately to the tragedy of the Jewish people – how for so long we have huddled together in communal isolation for fear of our Jewishness being exposed. Our history is replete with epochs during which we have had to live out our lives in hiding. Some communities experience this more than others but even in so-called enlightened societies the spectre of persecution is always following us.

A classic example from history is that of the Marranos (the word means ‘swine’) who lived a double life to avoid the Spanish Inquisition. That split still exists in one form or another, and we are now learning that even the establishment of Israel and the development within it of a strong and vibrant Jewish community has done nothing to confer immunity on us against the curse of antisemitism.

To return to the shelter of the seminar room: because the main purpose of my sessions was to sharpen the students’ therapeutic wits, I would quiz them on how (and indeed whether) talking about a secret, bringing it out into the open as it were, might help or hinder personal growth and development. There was general agreement that secrecy might be necessary in the face of a realistic threat but that sooner or later the secret should be shared with trusted outsiders. Military secrets, for instance, raise issues of loyalty and betrayal, and call for the stringent application of a code of conduct to guard them. Bringing communal, family and personal secrets to light calls for sensitivity, tact and above all timing, if the feeling of danger is to be converted into one of trust.

Jews have developed different ways of managing their Jewishness. Some are boldly open in the display of their Jewish identity, translating it into a visible identification with Israel or affiliation with a religious community. Others travel in the opposite direction, either disowning their Jewishness completely or bleaching it of its Zionist colouring in order to meld in with what they perceive as a world culture which transcends sectarianism and factionalism. Still others retain a strong identification with the Jewish people but keep it well hidden, locked away in an inner world in which, as with the Marranos of old, the flame of Jewishness only burns in a shuttered environment.

About the Author
I was born in South Africa in 1940 and emigrated to the U.K. in 1970 after qualifying in medicine. I held a post as Consultant Psychiatrist in London until my retirement in 2013. I am the author of two books: one on group analytic psychotherapy, one on the psychology of the French Revolution. I have written many articles on group psychology published in peer-reviewed journals. From 1979 to 1985 I was editor of the journal ‘Group Analysis’; I have contributed short pieces to psychology newsletters over the years.
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