Almost Human

Reflections on Homo Sapiens and Our Primate Relatives

Anti-Semitism: More Than Meets the Eye

The "oldest hatred" is not based on appearance.

Several events this past month presaged the arrival of Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day). Two weeks ago, 73 year-old Frazier Glenn Cross drove up to Jewish institutions in Kansas City and murdered three people he believed to be Jewish. Half a world away, Ukrainian Jews caught in the cross-fire between Ukrainian nationalists and Russian separatists were confronted by an homage to the 1930’s.  Leaflets were distributed demanding that Jews register themselves and their property, paying a fee for the service no less.  A week later, a Ukrainian synagogue was firebombed and other sacred sites were violated. 

As Israel commemorates Yom Hashoah, it seems appropriate to ask: Why is anti-Semitism seemingly inexhaustible? How does it transmit so easily across generations? The answers to these questions are undoubtedly complex and draw from many aspects of developmental, social and cognitive psychology. Yet, in triangulating the roots of the “oldest hatred”, it might be worthwhile to understand how anti-Semitism may differ from some forms of racism based on physical appearance.

Several philosophers and psychologists have drawn a link between our low-level propensity to perceive the world in categories and the later development of racial bias. Even during our first hours on the earth, our brains already process continuous signals (such as speech sounds) as categorical.  For example, we are better able to hear the difference between sounds that cross category boundaries such as “ba” and “pa” than we are at discriminating between two different versions of the same category (such as two versions of the sound “ba”), even if the physical magnitude of the change remains constant.  By the end of the first year of life, these processes (in concert with other factors) result in children already being better at perceiving faces of members of their own race than members of other races. One could easily see how a system like this, left unchecked, could result in discrimination. 

However, I contend that this phenomenon does not undergird anti-Semitism.  Even though Frazier Glenn Cross had described Jews as “swarthy, hairy, bow-legged, beady-eyed, parasitic midgets.”  Ironically, when it came time for him identify his targets, he ended up killing two Methodists and a Catholic.  The notion of the Jew as some disgusting creature has been sourced back to the seventeenth century and became a central element in the Nazi efforts to dehumanize Jews. 

And yet, despite the alleged differences in appearance between Jews and gentiles, when the Nazis tried to rid the earth of Jews, they forced them to declare their identity with a conspicuous yellow armband emblazoned with a Jewish star. By contrast, people of African descent who were being persecuted by the very same hands, bore no additional identifiers.  There was no need.  Basic perceptual processes could do their work, unlike with the Jews. That is to say, despite Nazi claims regarding the unsightly appearance of Jews, the distribution of these features sufficiently overlapped with that of the general population to render them useless as identifiers.  The same problem was apparently rediscovered by Cross some 75 years later. 

While all forms of racism and discrimination are equally reprehensible, there may be subtle differences in their etiology. Some hatred may find its roots in the very cognitive heuristics that allow us to quickly acquire information and navigate the world while we are young. Others forms, like anti-Semitism and homophobia, seem to be purely driven by stories passed down from one generation to the next.  My hunch is that these stories are meant to tap deep-seated evolutionary concerns (e.g., cheater detection in game theory).  Irrespective of whether the means of propagation differs across instances, the end result is tragically similar.  Understanding the root of our senseless hatred will hopefully better prepare us for finding ways to grow as a species. 

Dan Weiss is an associate professor of cognitive psychology and linguistics at the Pennsylvania State University. 
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