The phenomenon of the “eternal Alien”: About the rejection of Jews and symbolic anti-Semitism

2017·The Times of Israel

When it comes to the spectrum of manifestations of racism, why do the Jews occupy a special position in human history? What lies behind the fact that, within Claude Lévi-Strauss’s framework of universal binaries (“insiders/outsiders” – “us/them” – “our own people/aliens”) it is above all others the Jews who have been most frequently treated as outsiders, outcasts, or aliens? And why is it that the role of the “eternal alien” remains a constant in the many dramas human history has witnessed?

I won’t claim to be able to provide comprehensive answers to these questions. However, I shall venture to sketch out some arguments concerning the relation between anti-Semitism and xenophobia, Holocaust denial and the persistence of illusions vis-à-vis the weakening of anti-Semitic attitudes in the popular consciousness across Europe, and the need to expand non-verbal practices of tolerance in order to combat anti-Semitism by means of mass communications and the arts (theatre, cinema, literature, public service advertising, etc.), thus facilitating experiences of catharsis and contributing to reducing racist and xenophobic attitudes among social groups.

Attempts to shed light on the nature of anti-Semitism are frequently characterized by a tendency to examine this phenomenon separately from other manifestations of racism, xenophobia and intolerance. As a result, anti-Semitism in all its forms – whether political, ideological, religious or in daily folklore – is often perceived and interpreted solely as an ethnic phenomenon.

For a variety of reasons, it is an obvious conclusion that the Holocaust is being framed exclusively as a tragedy that befell the Jewish people alone, rather than one that is shared by the whole of humanity. This in turn leads to Holocaust remembrance being dissociated from the shared memory of humanity, and prevents us from seeing the links between anti-Semitism and other “witch-hunts” throughout the centuries, i.e. the fact that heterodox and differently-minded individuals in different cultures are persecuted and ostracized for social and psychological reasons that are subsequently concealed by ethnic markers and masks.

In other words, the basic reason for the Alien’s rejection, which can be detected in any form of xenophobia and which is social in nature, manifests and establishes itself in aggressive behavioral stereotypes, in the ethnic prejudices of ordinary consciousness. The Social Other becomes an Ethnic Alien, metamorphosing into a convenient target for fanatic and fundamentalist aggression. The essence of the relationship between the evolutionary and social origins of xenophobia on one hand, and ethnic paradigms on the other, can be expressed as follows: the reason for the Alien’s rejection is primary; the expression of this motivation by means of ethnic paradigms is secondary, i.e., derived thereof.

It is therefore important to reflect on the fact that, historically and psychologically, the Holocaust – a monstrous upshot of the politico-ideological anti-Semitic doctrine of National Socialism – is a syndrome of the dehumanization of all humanity, and not merely of national genocide, i.e. the catastrophe that befell the Jewish people. I have made frequent reference in my articles and speeches to Mikhail Gefter’s passionate dictum that “there’s no such thing as genocide directed against a particular people; genocide is always directed against humanity as a whole.” It is a dictum that allows us to fathom the evolutionary meaning of genocide, xenophobia and the Holocaust as manifestations of self-destruction and self-dissolution that entail not only the destruction of humaneness, but that of humankind as a whole. We have witnessed for a long time a political blindness which in turn led to a disregard of the links between anti-Semitism, xenophobia and intolerance in political life, scholarship and culture. I shall therefore focus on the characteristics of the evolutionary significance of these phenomena.

In the context of an evolutionary analysis of the development of complex systems, tolerance is regarded as a norm underpinning the diversity and progress of different systems, including the value and uniqueness of each individual and ethnic group, and their respective rights to be “different”, to be unlike all the rest. Xenophobia, for its part, is initially characterized by fear, anxiety, aversion with regard to the Alien. Whatever forms of ethnophobia, including anti-Semitism, it may be embedded in, it constitutes an evolutionary mechanism for extinguishing and eliminating the diversity of systems, and it manifests itself in a particularly strident fashion in times of crises, i.e. in situations of indeterminacy, flux, interregnum, limbo, etc. It is precisely under conditions of increasing indetermination that xenophobia, ethnophobia and anti-Semitism can thrive.

Since ancient times, the suppression of social, cultural, religious, ethnic and individual diversity has been catalyzed by conspiracy theories constructed by a variety of ideologues who operated within closed political or religious systems. No matter how different from one another these theories might be, I would venture to suggest that they are all informed and motivated predominantly by the desire to repudiate the Alien as a potential source of diversity and therefore threat. Anti-Semitism, ethnophobia and xenophobia are extreme forms of behavior in reaction against the Alien. This means that it is not merely the Different, or the Dissimilar, but the Alien, the bringer of chaos, the social embryo of a different order. The Different and Dissimilar provoke disconcertion, whereas the Alien generates indignation. For his detractors, the Alien represents a potential danger, and not only (or so much) because he threatens to erode tradition and order but because he threatens to turn disorder into a perpetual form of endless life, as the English methodologist Rom Harre (The Rules of Disorder, 1978) noted.

Among all manifestations of the Different and the Dissimilar, extreme xenophobic social movements have tried to shift the focus to the Eternal Aliens, that is, to the Jewish people. Is this riddle not linked to the fact that, in the mindscape of people in many cultures, Jews are often associated with the fear that disorder may become a form of life, a perpetual and everlasting norm? And who would willingly settle for good in an era of change, and to remain stranded there through the fault of this ambitious, order-changing people, and one, moreover, that has managed not to compromise its own integrity? An evolutionary analysis of the links between anti-Semitism, xenophobia and tolerance thus demonstrates that behind these phenomena are mechanisms for the smothering out and firming up of diversity in the evolution of various social systems and cultures.

As mentioned above, research into xenophobia remains a world unto itself, while anti-Semitism research is often a different matter altogether. And there is, it would seem, no bringing the two research strands together. This situation stems from an imprecise understanding of the differences between verbally expressed anti-Semitic attitudes as captured by means of polls, questionnaires and interviews – the so-called “direct methods” of researching public opinion – and attitudes that have been displaced into the unconscious. These unconscious attitudes point to the existence of a deep-seated motive of the Alien’s rejection which manifestations include a particular type of “symbolic anti-Semitism”.

In introducing the notion of “symbolic anti-Semitism”, I shall make use of the psychoanalytic distinction between children’s dreams and symbolic dreams. This distinction was introduced by Sigmund Freud in his classic work The Interpretation of Dreams, published at the dawn of the twentieth century. In children’s dreams, the repressed desire comes to fruition in its most direct form – the dreamer achieves whatever he or she wished to achieve in waking life but was unable to do so. In symbolic dreams, conversely, the repressed desire erupts onto the surface of consciousness in allegorical forms that have been encrypted against access by the Ego.

Drawing this analogy with symbolic dreams, we can assume that symbolic anti-Semitism, which contains the motivation of xenophobia, displays itself to mass consciousness in a different guise. It can manifest itself in semantic space via notions such as “liberal”, “democratic”, etc. It can also exist adjacent to these constructs, i.e. sit alongside them in the context of the binary opposition between “our own people” and the “aliens”. In order to gain a better understanding of racism and anti-Semitism within our societies, it is imperative to develop a complex diagnostics of anti-Semitism and xenophobia as well as motivational paradigms underpinning the rejection of the Alien. To do so, we must develop methods of studying mental worldviews and the conscious and nonconscious attitudes of various social groups.

This is far from conducting “pure” academic research. As soon as society starts resounding with cries such as “Hunt down the liberals!” or “Crush the ideologues of tolerance and multiculturalism!”, the motivation of “symbolic anti-Semitism” that is behind these slogans transforms with cosmic speed into political and state anti-Semitism. Such deep-seated archetype of the “Collective Unconscious” (Carl Jung) will most likely resist an attempt to change if by means of information-based technologies of social communication, education systems included. How can xenophobic and anti-Semitic attitudes within individuals be overcome? Why do various politicians in Europe and Russia, despite their awareness of the Holocaust, exhibit the archetype of collective unscrupulousness and refuse to rise and honor the memory of the more than six million Jews killed and driven to death during the Holocaust?

Are the various educational programmes, textbooks and traditional lectures that disseminate knowledge about the Holocaust, gulags and genocides sufficient to keep xenophobia and anti-Semitism at bay? To answer these questions, we must make a distinction, as was proposed by the social psychologist Adolf Kharash, between “informational” and “interpretive” influences. Kharash’s experiments demonstrated a striking discrepancy between the respective capacities of the two types of influence to alter social attitudes within individuals. Informational influences were found to alter the social attitudes of 28 percent of respondents whereas in the case of interpretive influences, that figure rose to 72 percent.

For all the significance and value of educational programs, including many impactful programs about the tragedy of the Holocaust that colleagues of mine have been conducting in Russia over the course of many years, they must be complemented by the broadest possible spectrum of literary works, theater productions and films. The latter are powerful generators of catharsis as a means of dealing with the tragedies of genocide and the Holocaust. Books such as Anne Frank’s Diary, Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s Babi Yar, and Vladimir Tendryakov’s The Hunt;  films such as Mikhail Romm’s Ordinary Fascism, Spielberg’s  Schindler’s List, and Savva Kulish’s Farewell, Twentieth Century; performance events such as Lev Dodin’s Us and Them = Us festival; initiatives such as Ilya Kabakov’s Ship of Tolerance project are examples. Their cathartic power enables the motivations underpinning the rejection of the Alien to be modified. Moreover, it generates empathy for the collective pain of peoples and personalities fallen victim to national intolerance, anti-Semitism and xenophobia, and makes it possible to overcome “collective unscrupulousness”.