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.