Why Anti-Semitism Endures

Question: Why is anti-Semitism such a virulent form of \r\nbigotry?

Abraham Foxman:
About 100 years ago Mark Twain went on a trip \r\nthrough Europe.  He had a debt to pay off and so he went on lecture \r\ntour, and wherever he went he found anti-Semitism.  The result was he \r\nwrote an essay when he came back in 1896 called "Concerning \r\nAnti-Semitism"—actually "Concerning The Jews."  And in a way he asked \r\nyour question, you know, why is it so persistent?  What is it that makes\r\n it... everywhere?  Because he found that he would come to some people \r\nand they would be anti-Semitic because of religion.  All right. Then \r\nhe’d come to some place and he found someone who’s an atheist who’s an \r\nanti-Semite.  Then he finds someone who's ignorant, okay so ignorance \r\nbreeds that.  And then he’d find somebody... like Voltaire was an \r\nanti-Semite.  So, and then he’d find somebody who was rich and they \r\nwould say, well you know the Jews are trying to be rich.  Then he’d find\r\n somebody poor... we found that communists call Jews capitalists, \r\ncapitalist call Jews communist. Whether it was communism, or it was \r\nfascism, or Nazism, used the Jew as a scapegoat. 

And Mark Twain\r\n came to a conclusion.  I’m not sure it’s the proper conclusion, but I \r\nhaven’t found a better one, and he says basically that anti-Semitism is a\r\n result of jealousy; that there’s a jealousy of Jewish success.  I \r\nremember about 20 years ago the Anti-Defamation League held a \r\nconference.  We brought together sociologists, educators, and public \r\npeople to discuss why—because there was a... 20 years ago there was an \r\nupswing.  And I remember somebody around the table saying, well you know\r\n what it’s because Jews excel.  So, I’ll never forget there was a man \r\nthere that said, "You know what Audrey I’ll make a deal with you:  I’ll \r\ngo home and tell my kids to be number two and number three, if you’ll \r\ntell me that you’ll take care of the anti-Semitism."  A year later or so\r\n I told the story to a gentlemen that owned some banks in Brazil \r\ncalled... his name was Safra, Edmund Safra, and he said well to me it’s \r\nnot a story.  He said, Abe, when we opened Banco Safra in Brazil we were\r\n very successful, and I called in my managers and I said "You want to be\r\n successful?  Make sure you’re number two and number three and not \r\nnumber one."  In the last... I went to Russia right after Glasnost and \r\nPerestroika, and was invited to address the city council of Moscow on \r\nanti-Semitism.  So I gave my presentation, and at the end a gentleman \r\ngot up and said, "Well Mr. Foxman, you haven’t really told us why \r\nthere’s anti-Semitism."  I said "Well, anti-Semitism is a disease really\r\n of the Christian world.  Why don’t you tell me?"  He said "I’ll tell \r\nyou," and then he got up and said well when I was a kid in my small \r\ntown, the best students were Jews.  And then I became a member of the \r\ncommunist youth party, the Komsomol, the best Komsomoliks were Jews.  \r\nAnd then in University the best students were Jews, and then the \r\ncommunist party the best communists were Jews.  So he says, but you know\r\n why there’s anti-Semitism?  Because they only excel for themselves; \r\nthey’re only best for themselves.

\r\nQuestion:
What are the five most common bigoted misperceptions of \r\nJews?
\r\n

Abraham Foxman:  Well, I guess the first probably in \r\nWestern society is that Jews are responsible for killing Christ, and \r\nthat’s the mother of all.  And then I think the greed issue continues.  \r\nThen you follow control; Jews want to control the world for their \r\ninterests, it could be money or whatever.  That’s the conspiratorial.  \r\nJews are on the top of the hit parade of conspiracy, so for example \r\nwe’re in an economic crisis.  In Europe, over 30 percent believe that \r\nJews are responsible.  In the United States, one out of five Americans \r\nbelieve that Jews are responsible for the economic crisis because they \r\nsee Jews in Wall Street, they see Jews everywhere.  Then you have \r\ndifferent issues of control of Hollywood is big, and I guess it’s the \r\nwhole conspiracy that... you’ll find conspiracies anywhere.  So if you \r\ndon’t like something that’s happening, maybe you screwed up, you did \r\nsomething wrong, it’s because the Jews are behind it.  There are a lot \r\nof people who think that the Secretary of Treasury is Jewish; he’s not, \r\nthat Volcker is Jewish, he’s not, but it doesn’t matter.  It’s the Jews \r\nwho are controlling finances; it’s Jews who are controlling foreign \r\npolicy.  There’s also a canard that’s out there, very big, about \r\nloyalty.  The Jews are not loyal.  Not loyal to their community, but not\r\n loyal to their country.  Thirty percent of the American people to this \r\nday believe that Jews are more loyal to Israel than the United States.  \r\nIn Europe, it’s 60, 70 percent.  In Poland 60 percent believe there’s \r\nwhat, 10,000 Jews that are not loyal to Poland.  In Norway, there are \r\n5,000 and it’s 70 percent.  So that’s a canard which goes to the essence\r\n that you can’t trust Jews, you can’t rely on them.  With all the \r\neducation, with all the exposure, and then you come down to some of my \r\nbest friends are Jewish.  The guys that I know, they’re fine, but over \r\nthere, out there; that’s another canard.

Recorded on June 11, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman

Anti-Semitism can be based on everything from religion to ignorance to wealth to capitalism.

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Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

Mind & Brain
  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.

Psychoanalysis

Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

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