Many people have shared their perspectives on the terrible anit-Semitic attack that occurred just over a year ago on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, a neighborhood in Pittsburgh, PA. In addition to the profound loss and grief, as well as the experience of trauma for the survivors, thoughts about anti-Semitism and its apparent rise were common themes across many responses.
Not surprisingly, in the period during and following the Holocaust social scientists wanted to understand anti-Semitism. A quick survey of the titles of a few papers can give a good idea of what types of things they were thinking about:
- A scale for the measurement of anti-Semitism (Levinson & Sanford, 1944)
- Anti-Semitism and emotional disorder; a psychoanalytic interpretation (Ackerman & Johoda, 1950)
- Anti-Semitism, a social disease (Simmel, 1946)
- Identification with the Aggressor: Some Personality Correlates of Anti‐Semitism among Jews (Sarnoff, 1951)
- Personal values as factors in anti-Semitism (Evans, 1952)
- Psychoanalysis of antisemitism (Fenichel, 1940)
- Some factors affecting attitude toward Jews (Harlan, 1942)
- Some personality factors in anti-Semitism (Frenkel-Brunswick & Sanford, 1945)
- Studies of social intolerance: II. A personality scale for anti-Semitism (Gough, 1951)
As these and other titles from that era show, psychologists and social scientists were very concerned about the specific prejudice against Jews. What is also clear is that to whatever extent they understood anti-Semitism, they were not able to find ways to make it go away. In recent decades far fewer researchers have focused on anti-Semitism—maybe that is because Jews have done fairly well over the past 50 years (as suggested by a 1999 Cornell Law Review article, “What Happened to Anti-Semitism?”), or maybe there are other reasons.
The truth is, we don’t really know how to change anti-Semitism and ensure that anti-Semitic attacks will not happen. Will focusing on love and gratitude, rather than division and hatred, change the conversation? Will educating people about the ongoing challenges of anti-Semitism elicit feelings of empathy (as suggested by Imhoff & Banse, 2009), or will it continue to bring about the phenomenon famously noted by the Israeli psychoanalyst Zvi Rex: “The Germans will never forgive the Jews for Aushwitz”. Is there some other way that hasn’t yet been tried?
As a community, we cannot eliminate anti-Semitism and its awful effects, but we can all commit ourselves to showing compassion for others, especially those who are personally affected by the tragedy in Pittsburgh and anti-Semitic attacks everywhere. We can strengthen our communal bonds, support each other, and show love to each other. And hopefully in that way, we can at least give ourselves a chance to move in positive direction.