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The Jew as a Symbol: a Partial Explanation for Antisemitism

We humans have a unique capacity for reflective thinking and abstract reasoning, but equally, we are capable of perpetrating acts of violence against our fellow humans which are driven more by instinct than by reason. The constant tug-of-war between instinct and reason has been going on for as long as mankind has been on earth. All I can do here is inject a drop of psychological understanding into the mix in the hope that it will contribute to the dissipation of prejudices which we have come to regard as intrinsic to the human condition.

As a Jew, my personal interest lies in the nature of antisemitism, a prime example of a battle for the mind in which passions intertwine with false logic to arrive at a deadly justification for singling out a whole people as an object of hatred. To the antisemite, the Jew is seen not as a person but as a symbol, which is why appeals made to reason and to the evidence of history have fallen on barren ground.

We all embrace symbols. A symbol takes root in those parts of the brain which govern the emotions, from where it reaches out into the brain’s intellectual superstructure. A symbol is an object (thing, person or group) which stands for an idea. Its meaning is agreed between people and it serves the purpose of bringing people together into like-minded groups. Once formed, it is virtually immutable.

The earliest symbols had meaning for survival. Different symbols signified life and death, good and evil, love and hate. Concrete objects took on the qualities of abstract concepts and formed the building blocks from which stories were constructed which were passed from generation to generation as an infusion of myth and history.

Depictions of the human form emerged when our ancestors first scratched signs onto rock surfaces. The figures so formed were invested with godlike or demonic properties and these were attached to the characters observed in everyday life. The conflicts of the day were transferred symbolically onto the leading figures in those conflicts and it was important that they should be easily identifiable, either as objects of hatred or veneration.

Because symbols were forged in the crucible of the emotions, they acquired a steely quality which was reinforced by ceremony and ritual. It was important to distinguish between those who belonged to one’s own group and those who belonged to another, potentially threatening group, which meant that symbols became oversimplified representations of reality, focusing on visible characteristics and with little or no regard for the inner life of the person or the group.

With the development of the monotheistic religions there was an evolutionary shift away from annihilation towards conversion. But this threw up a different set of problems. How could one really be sure that the inner self, the soul, had not remained faithful to the original religion? The stage was set for a centuries-long assault on the minds of those suspected of not sharing the belief in a single truth.

The tenacity of the Jewish religion to survive in the face of determined attempts to destroy it has earned the Jews a special loathing among those who know little or nothing of the inner life of the Jewish people. To the antisemite, the symbolic Jew is a murderer, a predator and a corrupter. Images appropriate to these characteristics have spread and have contributed to the campaigns of hatred which prevail to this day.

In the nineteenth century the battleground shifted from religion to politics. With the advent of Jewish nationalism, this hatred has merely transferred itself to the State of Israel. Its virtues are nullified and its shortcomings are relentlessly scrutinized is search of new manifestations of the evil symbolic Jew of ancient antisemitic mythology. No matter that there are many nations worldwide where injustice flourishes. The Jews have had the temerity to establish a nation of their own and a new symbol has now arisen in the battle for the mind.

I am an optimist by nature and I feel able to discern an evolutionary trend in the direction of a more realistic perception of the Jewish people and the State of Israel, despite recurrent waves of antisemitism. We will never be able to dispense with symbols – they are fundamental to our way of thinking – but if we can demolish those symbols which represent the Jews as evil we stand a good chance of normalizing our relations with the rest of the world.

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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