Now Is the Time to Defeat Antisemitism Once and for All
Whether it is intimidation of Jews on college campuses, institutional antisemitism in the UK’s Labour Party, or the corona-fueled resurgence of ancient anti-Jewish canards, antisemitism is never far from the headlines. Such is the sense of resignation toward attacks on Jews that when an extremist recently went on a deadly rampage in central Vienna, the immediate assumption was an attack on the city’s main synagogue. There is almost an expectation that Jews will be the target of scorn, hatred, and violence.
Viewed in a historical context, we shouldn’t be surprised that antisemitism endures as a headline-maker. After all, Jew-hatred is unique in its longevity. It has even necessitated a new vocabulary. Blood libel, pogrom, Holocaust are just a selection of the terms invented to describe differing flavors of Jewish persecution. The very term antisemitism is routinely described as “the oldest hatred.” Yet, few ask themselves quite why it has been a fixture for so long. As with most complex issues, the reasons are many.
One reason is a combination of historical endurance and with it, an age-old track record of blaming Jews for societal ills. The Jewish people can trace our roots back to the dawn of civilization, outliving ancient powerhouses such as the Mesopotamians, Assyrians, and Babylonians. For some, the ability to survive like no other has imbued Jews with a sense of mystical awe and a suspicion that something nefarious is behind this incredible endurance. Too often, exceptional Jewish resilience has been twisted into “evidence” of a dark hand on the levers of power. It is history’s original “fake news.”
Down the ages, kings, pharaohs, czars, clergy, elected officials, and their advisors have all shamelessly exploited this idea to strengthen their rule. Jews have been the most convenient of history’s scapegoats, a useful distraction from the failings of those in power.
Another reason is psychological. The father of developmental psychology, Erik Erikson, pioneered the concept that humans often require an “enemy” with which to shape identity. He posited that by projecting your own most negative qualities on to others, they become so unalike as to be considered almost another species. Erikson called this phenomenon “pseudo-speciation.” Racism and antisemitism are best understood in this fashion. Throughout history, Jews have been cast as the ultimate “other species.”
Erikson’s great teacher — the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud — suggested a defense mechanism concept called “rationalization.” Today it is part of the vernacular, but Freud defined it as the process of employing seemingly rational, logical arguments to justify unconscious base desires and behaviors. Accusing Jews of being too powerful, too clever, or too money-hungry can thus be a rationalization of underlying irrational feelings.
Some psychiatrists even believe that antisemitism is a mental illness. It certainly has many of the characteristics of a contagious, viral-like condition — it has “carriers,” it spreads through human contact, it knows no geographic bounds, it leads to irrational behavior, it comes in waves, etc.
Given the seemingly timeless nature of antisemitism and its deep psychological roots, there would seem little room for optimism. However, today’s complex and turbulent world actually gives reason for hope. The prevailing uncertainty has generated a real appetite for change. Thanks largely to the advent of digital and social media platforms, we live in an era where meaningful social change is within reach. The LGBQT+ and racial justice movements demonstrate how momentum can quickly be built to capture the public imagination and ultimately change behavior on a mass scale. There is no reason why the fight against antisemitism cannot also light the fire of social change.
There has never been a greater opportunity to defeat the scourge of antisemitism once and for all. Many will consider this an unreasonable, fantastic dream. Yet, so was bringing down the Berlin Wall, ending the Cold War, founding a Jewish state, defeating smallpox, putting a man on the moon, and so many other achievements that are today considered details of history.
However, if antisemitism is to be eradicated, people of all backgrounds must be recruited to the cause. Every successful social movement of modern times has amassed popular support way beyond those it seeks to help. The struggle for civil rights in the United States, the battle against apartheid in South Africa, and the fight to free Soviet Jewry all attracted huge numbers from across the spectrum of society, which eventually couldn’t be ignored.
Defeating antisemitism would be a sign of humanity’s progress and psychological health, a real acceptance that we are all — Jews included — created imperfectly, but equally so. The “oldest hatred” really can become “yesterday’s hatred.” It would be a great victory for all who care about equality, tolerance, and truth. All that is required is the willingness and fortitude of good people to join the fight. Let that time be now.
Dr. Misha Galperin is a clinical psychologist, philanthropic advisor, and Senior Advisor to the Combat Anti-Semitism Movement.