Is antisemitism a psychological disease?

Accusing Israel of crimes in a process of psychological projection, in order to purge pathological guilt associated with the Holocaust, has a long, unsavory history in post-Holocaust Germany.

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October 12, 2019 18:24
4 minute read.
Is antisemitism a psychological disease?

Protesters hold placards and flags during a demonstration, organised by the British Board of Jewish Deputies for those who oppose antisemitism, in Parliament Square in London.. (photo credit: HENRY NICHOLLS/REUTERS)

Two Jewish German philosophers made what is perhaps the best case for grounding contemporary antisemitism in social psychology – the scientific study of how people’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors are influenced by the actual, imagined or implied presence of others.

Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969) and Max Horkheimer (1895-1973) formulated the theory of guilt-defensiveness antisemitism to explain post-1945 German responses to the Holocaust.

This theory holds that pathological guilt about the Holocaust causes Germans to lash out at Jews. Put simply, it says that Germans are immersed in culpability about the crimes against humanity committed directly or indirectly by themselves or by their family members, and shift the blame to Jews in order to purge their distorted emotions.

A 2017 German federal government report revealed that 40% of Germans hold modern antisemitic views.

The study showed that nearly 33 million Germans – some 40% of the population of 82 million – are infected with a contemporary antisemitism: hatred of the Jewish state. According to the study, these millions of Germans agree with the following statement: “Based on Israel’s policies, I can understand people having something against the Jews.”

Accusing Israel of crimes in a process of psychological projection – in order to purge pathological guilt associated with the Holocaust – has a long, unsavory history in post-Holocaust Germany.

Does this mean that a great swath of Germans suffers from a kind of collective madness? Answering this question is a tall order.

The German-Jewish author and journalist Henryk M. Broder, who has written exhaustively about this phenomenon, neatly described the toxic mix of pathological Holocaust guilt and a burning desire to destroy Israel. In a Die Zeit article he wrote in 1981, he addressed contemporary Germans: “You’re still your parents’ children. Your Jew today is the State of Israel.”

The social-psychological qualities of contemporary antisemitism are best illustrated by crude responses to the Holocaust. Take the example of the stridently anti-Israel Der Spiegel columnist Jakob Augstein, who said that Israeli policy toward the Gaza Strip, controlled by the terrorist organization Hamas, is comparable to a concentration camp. Augstein invoked the German word Lager to describe Gaza − a term that can be translated merely as a “camp” for prisoners, but which German speakers frequently associate with Nazi-era concentration camps.


DENIZ YÜCEL is a prominent German-Turkish journalist, who was imprisoned in 2017 by Turkey’s Islamist government on a trumped up charge of espionage, and released after a little over a year.

He wrote in the left-wing Die Tageszeitung newspaper in 2013: “Augstein contains everything that defines contemporary antisemitism, from the manic-obsessive preoccupation with Israel to the one-sided blame that makes Israel appear as a global arsonist; from an omnipotence attributed to Israel (or to the ‘Jewish Lobby’ in the US) to fantasies about the mess to which Israel is contributing; to formulations that allow an analogical connection to be drawn between Israeli policies and German National Socialism; to the claim that Jews themselves are guilty of antisemitism to the point of accusing Israel of profiting from the Holocaust.”

Yücel noted that this antisemitic world view of Augstein’s is “expressed with the certainty of being free of being accused of antisemitic sentiment, convinced of a human right to criticize Israel, and formulated with the attitude of one who pronounces and is prosecuted for pronouncing an insubordinate truth.”

The merger of left-wing antisemitism with antisemitism fueled by guilt-defensiveness is a strikingly dangerous amalgam, because the vast majority of German leftists believe they stand above the fray and remain immune against charges of stoking Jew-hatred.

When describing how Augstein – a left-wing journalist – pins the blame on Israel, Yücel uses the German term schuldzuweisungen − a term that in legal parlance means “assignment of guilt.”

All of this illustrates how a post-Holocaust journalist (Augstein was born in 1967) can fit perfectly into Adorno and Horkheimer’s framework of mental illness as defined by social psychology.

When they formulated their theory, it was limited to Germany.

So-called “criticism of Israel” has long become a national pastime in Germany and, one could argue, throughout Western Europe. What motivates the intense, disproportionate German media, political and societal attention and criticism regarding the Israeli-Palestinian territorial conflict, as opposed to the more than 100 other border disputes across the world? A new generation of academics, sociologists, psychologists and psychiatrists will need to devote much attention to this ubiquitous form of antisemitism in order to understand and combat it.

The prevalence of guilt-defensiveness antisemitism across Western Europe, in countries that were complicit in carrying out the Holocaust, raises the question: Can Europe be cured?

The French Marxist-Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, like his contemporaries Adorno and Horkheimer, sought to blend Marxism with the psychological work of Sigmund Freud. Sartre famously wrote: “Never believe that antisemites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous... but they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words... They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert.”

The twisted logic of the antisemite, following Sartre’s lead, does not lend itself easily to a methodology of psychological reason. Antisemitism is a remarkably devious phenomenon. To return to the core question of this analysis − whether antisemitism is a psychological disease − depends on the particular manifestation of antisemitism one is referring to among the multiple forms of antisemitism out there.

The writer is a fellow for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


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