Commentary: Is there a cure for the scourge of anti-Semitism?

We just passed Passover, which may be the first major example of anti-Semitism in our reported history. Such anti-Semitism, even before we became the Jewish people, was bad enough that the story depicts that we couldn’t wait any longer to leave Egypt for our “promised land” of Israel, an Israel which is now the focus of Anti-Zionism, a new version of anti-Semitism.

At times, of course, it has waxed and waned. For some decades after the Holocaust, anti-Semitism seemed to be dissipating, perhaps due to some collective guilt and new social policies, but as we are all painfully aware of, there has been a resurgence. The question must be why and whether we are still under-appreciating some essential psychological explanation(s) which would need to be addressed.

That possibility came to my mind when I was recently asked to edit a new book,“Anti-Semitism and Psychiatry,” a follow-up to the just released “Islamophobia and Psychiatry.”

In prior generations, some psychiatrists viewed anti-Semitism as a social disease back at the end of World War II and as a disease of the mind in the 1980s. Causation was thought to be the mental projection of aspects of oneself that were not liked unto vulnerable and scapegoated Jews, as well as envy of what Jews have accomplished, including the envy that Jesus was a Jew.

H. Steven Moffic, M.D.

To my surprise, perhaps I just stumbled upon a neglected psychological mechanism of importance. The clue emerged when I read a recent article in Tablet titled “Do American Jews Still Believe They’re White?” written by the Black American writer, Ismael Reed. In it was a link to a New York Times article from 1992 by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., another Black American writer, titled “Black Demagogues and Pseudo-Scholars.” In it, Gates correctly predicted a rise of black anti-Semitism from some of their new leadership. Searching for an explanation, he quotes the French aphorist from the 17th century, Francis de La Rochefoucauld:

“We can rarely bring ourselves to forgive those who have helped us.”

Now, why would we need to forgive those who have helped us? Shouldn’t we just thank them? Gates concludes that this “new Anti-Semitism was not in spite of the black-Jewish alliance, but because of that alliance.” What formal psychological process was Gates and Rochefoucauld recognizing, I wondered? And could it pertain to other examples of Anti-Semitism in our history?

Reaction formation

What it reminded me of was one of our psychological defense mechanisms called “reaction formation.” This is a deep, complex, usually unconscious, and counter-intuitive way of protecting our self-esteem. Simplistically speaking, it is when a person seeks to repress something unacceptable by adapting an opposite, even exaggerated, stance. With racism, some people with racist feelings actually might go out of their way to be overly kind to people of another race. Therefore, it would tend to be present when there are intense extremes at the poles, say of a current political conflict.

As far as the Gates example goes, Jews helping Blacks may make some Blacks uncomfortable and even ashamed of being dependent on that help, stimulating a counter-reaction of no longer wanting that help, extending to disparaging it. In my own career of trying to help understand and treat patients from minority groups, I experienced that reaction once the group found its own way.

Where else might we find that “thanks, but no thanks” for our help and knowledge? Could there have been some in the Christian and Islam religions as they emerged and developed, religions which seemed to be based on our “Old” Testament, the Torah? In the upcoming book, we are going to find out if anti-Semitism is much less among Hindus and the Hindu religion, one that evolved separately, and with much less exposure to Jews and Judaism.

Was this psychological defense mechanism in play with the great opera composer and renowned Anti-Semite, Richard Wagner? Wagner definitely had help in getting his floundering career going from Jewish colleagues, especially the composer Meyerbeer, who loaned him money and praised his work, only to be the later recipient of intense and caustic criticism from Wagner.

The Jewish dilemma

Of course, even if this reaction formation is an under-appreciated component of anti-Semitism, what can be done about it? Now, we could just try stopping being so concerned with helping our neighbors. But wouldn’t that counter what we are told to do over and over in the Torah, and is expressed in our principle of tikkun olam, to help heal the world? We can’t really not be what we are called to be, can we?

What then should we perhaps do more as individuals, institutions, and communities? Here’s some possibilities:

  • We not only should we be humble about our success and apologize for our failures, but continually convey the need for our own necessary improvement, especially about being “chosen” for being a moral model of behavior.
  • We can take care to not make those we help feel dependent, needy or ashamed for taking our help.
  • We can praise, deservedly so, the strength and resiliency of those helped.
  • We can continue to work so that others in need have greater success in society.
  • We may want to carefully use whatever power we have as a uniquely strong Diaspora and strong Israel to avoid being uncomfortably vulnerable as a small world population.

As I receive more of the collective wisdom of our local, national and international chapter writers, stay tuned for further discussion of this hypothesis and others as we search for getting as close as we can for the cure.

Steven Moffic, M.D., is an award-winning psychiatrist as a clinician, administrator, writer and artist, including receiving the one-time designation as a Hero of Public Psychiatry from the American Psychiatric Association. He is now retired from seeing patients. He and his wife Rusti are co-chairs of Tapestry, the Harry and Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center’s arts and ideas programs.