Last Sunday, I was a guest in an adult class at St. Luke’s United Methodist church. The class wanted to discuss the recent, disturbing rise in anti-Semitism. (St. Luke’s is one of the local churches in my “good guys–actual Christians” column.)
The format was informal–Q and A– but I did begin by suggesting that, before embarking on discussion, it was important to distinguish between hatred and ignorance.
As I explained, when I was young, growing up in one of only 30 Jewish families in Anderson, Indiana, most of what I encountered was ignorance: I was asked things like “Do Jews have tails?” and “Do Jews live in houses like real people?” But there was also animus: in third grade, a playmate informed me that “My parents said I can’t play with you because you’re a dirty Jew.”
It’s also important to distinguish between criticisms of Israeli actions/politics and anti-Semitism. Criticizing Israel’s government or policies is not anti-Semitic (plenty of American Jews are appalled by Netanyahu). That said, criticisms of Israel grounded in longstanding anti-Jewish tropes are anti-Semitic.
In the United States, citizens are supposed to be judged on our behavior, not our identities. Today’s polarization is to a great extent a fight between Americans who want their countrymen to live up to that principle and those who defend negative stereotypes based on religion, sexual orientation and skin color.
Anti-Semitism is hatred of Jews because we’re Jews.
In The Nature of Prejudice, Gordon Allport’s seminal book about the roots of bigotry, published in 1954, Allport pointed out that most prejudices come from ignorance–the relatively unthinking acceptance of what “everyone knows.” Jews are “sharp” businessmen, blacks are lazy, women are emotional and illogical. Most people aren’t emotionally invested in these negative social stereotypes, and Allport thought the misconceptions would erode once there was greater familiarity and more contact.
Allport’s great contribution was to distinguish between prejudices that were simply an outgrowth of widely held–albeit inaccurate and unfair– social attitudes and those that were central to an individual’s identity. He found that most people who expressed bigotry against blacks or Jews (then the most frequent targets) were not invested in their negative opinions –they had simply accepted common stereotypes about “others,” and they could be educated to change what were essentially casual beliefs they had never really examined.
But there was, he found, another category. It was much smaller, but also much more troubling. These were individuals that Allport—who founded the discipline of social psychology—described as invested in their bigotries. For whatever reason—bad toilet training, lack of parental affection, abuse—their belief in the inferiority of designated “others” had become absolutely central to their personalities. Education and contact would have no effect at all on their attitudes.
Allport recognized that we all have a fundamental human desire for status and upward mobility, and that desire makes a certain amount of what we might call “identity-based one-upsmanship” inevitable. He also recognized that such prejudices are heightened during times of rapid social change.
As the Roman Empire crumbled, Christians were more frequently fed to the lions; in the forties and fifties, whenever the cotton business in the American south slumped, lynchings increased; when forest fires swept across Maine in 1947, many citizens blamed the Communists. As Allport put it, “whenever anxiety increases, accompanied by a loss of predictability in life, people tend to define their deteriorated situations in terms of scapegoats.”
In other words, we want to blame our anxieties on someone or something we can identify—we channel our aggressions against an outsider, an “other.”
Of course, there are many numerical minorities that are not usually chosen as scapegoats. Why this group and not that one? Allport notes that the nearest thing to an “all-purpose” scapegoat is a group that has a degree of permanence and stability. So while a few Macedonians in Lexington, Kentucky (assuming there have ever been any) might exhibit cultural differences that arouse majority hostility for a time, there really isn’t any basis for a good, persistent mythology about Macedonians in general, and even if there were, the next generation is likely to be so Americanized as to be indistinguishable from others who live in Lexington.
Jews, blacks and gays, however (along with women) have always been around, and probably always will be. And in all likelihood, we’ll all continue to be sufficiently different to be useful for scapegoat purposes.
Undoubtedly, there will always be emotionally-unhealthy people who need someone or something to blame for the disappointments in their lives. My conversation with the lovely folks at church last Sunday reminded me that there are also a lot of good people “out there.”
At times like this, that’s comforting to know.