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Daniel Burston: What is Anti-Semitism?

Anti-Semitism is an old and remarkably persistent form of ethnic and religious prejudice. Scholars have found strong evidence of anti-Semitic attitudes in Hellenistic and Roman authors up to three centuries before the birth of Jesus (e.g. Manetho, Tacitus, Ovid.) While scholars acknowledge the presence of pagan antecedents, most emphasize its roots in Christian polemics. Christian anti-Semites believe that Jews are a distinct “race,” often with specific “racial characteristics”, such as darker skin and hair, a large, hooked nose and a grasping, materialistic, and decidedly tribal outlook on life that is the opposite of the noble Christian ideal, which aspires to spiritual universality. Presumably, it is because Jews possess these odious (physical and spiritual) characteristics that they rejected Jesus as the Messiah, and were (allegedly) responsible for his crucifixion. Nevertheless, Christians generally believed that despite the stigma associated with their ancestry, Jews could be “saved” if they convert to Christianity. By contrast, the newer, post-theological anti-Semite claimed that conversion to the Christian faith changed nothing, because the racial characteristics of Jews were not simply a matter of belief, but are indelibly inscribed in their genes. According to the Nazis, for example, one’s actual faith (or the lack of it) is utterly irrelevant. You could be a devout Catholic, like the Carmelite nun, Edith Stein. But if you had one Jewish grandparent, you were labeled Jewish, and transported to a death camp in due course.

Despite some striking differences – the older, religious variety of anti-Semitism favoring conversion, the newer, overtly racist form opposing it on grounds of “racial hygene” – there were some striking similarities between religious and racial anti-Semitism. They both maligned and dehumanized Jews, and held them responsible for their own suffering, essentially blaming the victim. Moreover, both spawned bizarre collective fantasies about Jewish conspiracies of one sort and another. In medieval times, Jews were alleged to kill Christian children for their blood at Passover, and were held responsible for bringing famine and Bubonic plague. These vicious rumors followed Jews everywhere, but soon started to take new forms. In 1906, for example, the Czarist police concocted a phony document called “The Protocols of the Elder’s of Zion” which “proved” the existence of a world wide Jewish conspiracy to take over the world by taking over banks and the media (Cohn, 1996.)

In addition to differentiating between theologically based and racially oriented varieties of anti-Semitism, it is sometimes useful to differentiate (in a purely descriptive fashion) between low brow/high intensity anti-Semitism and high-brow/low intensity anti-Semitism. Representatives of the former are often semi-literate, manifestly incoherent or irrational, and deal in lurid stereotypes, attempting to incite the masses directly (e.g. Adolf Hitler). The latter type tend to avoid – and often profess to deplore – direct incitement, but attempt to persuade educated people of Jewish conspiracies through philosophical and/or pseudo-scientific arguments (e.g. Max Scheler, H.L. Mencken.) They will also occasionally offer cover or support for the less-educated, more overt kinds of anti-Semites.


For our purposes, anti-Semitism may be defined as the irrational belief that by virtue of their faith and/or heredity, Jews pose an actual or potential threat to the safety, security and/or ethical integrity on their non-Jewish neighbors, seeking (or sustaining) an unfair advantage and a hidden (but cleverly disguised) form of social or economic dominance behind the scenes through (alleged) conspiracies of various kinds. Anti-Semitic beliefs and attitudes are then used to justify anti-Semitic practices, including discrimination, persecution and/or genocidal campaigns against Jews.

Traditional Debates

Traditional debates on anti-Semitism were shaped by the impact that anti-Semitism had on the history of the discipline itself. Though not as prevalent or intense as it was in Europe, anti-Semitism was quite prevalent in America before WWII – in the profession of psychology, as well as in the population as a whole (Winston, 1998.) As a rule, however, anti-Semitism was seldom addressed in isolation from other kinds of ethnic, religious or racial stereotyping, and so American psychologists generally addressed anti-Semitism indirectly, in the context of more encompassing studies on the nature of prejudice and stereotyping (e.g. Katz and Braly, 1933.) The year Hitler came to power, in 1933, however, marked a turning point in the discipline’s attitude toward this phenomenon, because many Jewish and/or anti-Nazi psychologists – including, but not limited to Kurt Lewin, Fritz Heider, Erich Fromm, Erik Erikson, and others – fled the Nazi menace, settling in North America. Emigres like these enriched the American academy incalculably, and were followed shortly by Adorno and Horkheimer of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, who – after a brief sojourn in Paris – re-located to Columbia University in 1938. Inspired by Freud’s book Moses and Monotheism, which was published in 1938, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research launched a study of European anti-Semitism from the Reformation onwards. Their research was published in 1941 (Horkehimer and Adorno, 1941), and may have informed the creation of the “A” (or anti-Semitism) scale devised by Sanford and Levenson, which appeared in Adorno et al.’s monumental study, The Authoritarian Personality (Adorno et al. 1950.) This was the first attempt to go beyond purely descriptive criteria to measure the depth or intensity of anti-Semitism psychometrically. It was not terribly successful. According to this landmark study, anti-Semitism is highly correlated with religiosity and conservative (if not fascist) political tendencies among Americans in the Cold War era (Christie and Jahoda, 1954.) By this account, anti-Semitism is a predominantly right-wing phenomenon. Left wing anti-Semitism, which was prevalent and intense all through the 19th and 20th century, especially in the Soviet Empire, was not even mentioned in this context, leaving critics to wonder about problems of bias in the Frankfurt’s schools whole approach to the problem. This reproach is even more germaine today, when Left wing anti-Semitism is arguably more prevalent than ever before.

Critical Debates

The majority of American social psychologists still believe that ethnic and religious prejudice are “normal” rather than psychopathological phenomena, presumably because they were so widespread (e.g. Allport, 1954.) The same would be true, presumably, for anti-Semitism. But for Horkheimer and Adorno this claim was difficult to credit, considering the lurid and far-fetched fantasies that were often concocted about Jews. After all, as feudalism crumbled, Jews were increasingly held responsible for all the evils of modernity – the ravages of capitalism, the perils of socialism, materialism, bribery and corruption, prostitution, pornography and syphilis, the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian war, or the humiliation of Germany and the Treaty of Versailles, etc. Hitler’s deranged book Mein Kampf rehearsed all of these preposterous charges, but he did not actually invent them (Hitler, 1925.)

So as WW II approached, Horkheimer and Adorno turned to psychoanalysis to gain some insight into the psychological roots of these collective fantasy systems. Part of their inspiration derived from the work of Erich Fromm, a psychoanalyst/sociologist who was Director of Social Psychological Research at the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research from 1927-1938. In a series of papers on methodology, Fromm had argued that with minor modifications, psychoanalysis could be integrated into a critical theory of society – one that made ample allowance for irrational social processes, even among seemingly “normal” adults (Burston, 1991.)

However, when Horkheimer and Adorno embarked on their research on anti-Semitism, Fromm was no longer a major presence in the Institute, and most of their inspiration derived directly from Freud himself. In 1938, Freud published Moses and Monotheism. In this book, Freud contended that it was not Jesus, but Paul (Saul) of Tarsus who really founded the Christian religion, and developed the concept of Original Sin. In so doing, said Freud, Paul borrowed extensively from the mystery cults of pagan antiquity, substituting a son-centered religion for the older, father-centered religion of the Jews, putting a new and decidedly Oedipal twist on the movement that gave rise to monotheism in the first place. While more inclusive and congenial to non-Jews, said Freud, Christianity marked a decisive shift away from Judaism, which had placed a complete ban on magic and superstition. In his own words:

“In certain respects the new religion was a cultural regression as compared with the older Jewish religion; this happens regularly when a new mass of people of a lower cultural level effects an invasion or is admitted into an older culture. The Christian religion did not keep to the lofty heights of spirituality to which the Jewish religion had soared. The former was no longer strictly monotheistic; it took over from the surrounding peoples numerous symbolical rites, re-established the great mother goddess, and found room for many deities of polytheism in an easily recognizable disguise, though in subordinate positions.”

From this, Freud inferred that Christian anti-Semitism arose from lingering pagan sympathies and inclinations in the Gentile world, and an unconscious hostility towards the Jews for inventing monotheism in the first place. But Freud’s florid conjectures, while intriguing, simply could not account for the ferocity of the Nazi onslaught which followed, and which claimed almost 7 million lives – more than one third of the world’s entire Jewish population. Though it downplays the specifically Oedipal themes that exercised Freud’s historical imagination, chapter five of Dialectic of Enlightenment (Horkheimer and Adorno, 1944), entitled “Elements of Anti-Semitism: Limits of Enlightenment”, is profoundly indebted to Moses and Monotheism.

Still, after the war, many questions remained, and in 1946, psychoanalyst Ernest Simmel – who had previously published in the Zeitschrift fur Sozialforschung, Horkehimer and Adorno’s flagship journal – edited an anthology entitled Anti-Semitism: A Social Disease, another determined (but ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to explain this horrific social problem (Simmel, 1946.) Despite decades of research and reflection along psychoanalytic lines, Walter Bergmann’s book, Error Without Trial: Psychological Research on Anti-Semitism came to the unmistakable conclusion that there is still no single identifiable pattern of psychopathology associated with anti-Semitism (Bergmann, 1988.). Clearly, despite the lurid and improbable fantasies they routinely mistake for fact, not all anti-Semites are vicious sadists or psychotics. Psychological test data demonstrate that many committed Nazis were perfectly normal (Zimmler, 1995.) If this was true of Nazis on trial at Nuremburg, the same is probably true of most anti-Semites today.

Needless to say, the psychoanalytic movement’s interest in understanding and addressing anti-Semitism was not an accident. In the late 1880’s, Vienna’s notoriously anti-Semitic city council legislated a quota on the number of Jewish professors that the University of Vienna could hire, and as a result, young Sigmund Freud was prevented from getting a research position alongside his beloved teachers, Ernest von Brucke and Theodor Meynert, at the Vienna Neurological Institute – a fact which caused him considerable anguish. Had it not been for those anti-Semitic quotas, Freud would never have traveled to Paris to study with Charcot, and psychoanalysis might never have been invented!

Somewhat later, in 1907, Freud “anointed” C.G.Jung, the son of a Protestant minister, as his heir apparent, because he thought Jung’s growing stature in the world of medical psychiatry would deflect criticism of psychoanalysis as a supposedly “Jewish science.” These hopes were short lived. The relationship between Freud and Jung dissolved in mutual anger and disappointment in 1913, and after WW I, Jung started to characterize Freudian psychoanalysis pejoratively as a “Jewish psychology” in racist journals. Moreover, in 1933, as Hitler ascended to power, Jung accepted the post of President of The International General Medical Society, and worked closely with Mathias Goring, who was President of the German General Medical Society for Psychotherapy. Both organizations were committed to purging the psychotherapy field of Jewish (i.e. Freudian) influences ideas and practitioners. Jung finally broke with the Nazis in 1939, and after WWII, angrily rejected the charge that he was anti-Semitic (Frosh, 2005, chapter 4.). Like many highly educated Protestants of his era, Jung harbored both philo-Semitic and anti-Semitic tendencies. However, his struggle with Freud tipped the balance of his sympathies in a predominantly anti-Semitic direction for many years (Burston, 1999.)

Addressing anti-Semitism was never easy, but it is a much more difficult enterprise nowadays than formerly. Why? Since the Vietnam era, right wing anti-Semitism has diminished considerably in the United States – or in many cases, lies dormant, obscured by a cosmetic layer of philo-Semitism that is politically expedient for Right Wing politicians and religious leaders. Moreover, before the Holocaust, anti-Semitism was mainstream and respectable, especially among conservatives, and as a result, many prominent anti-Semites (e.g. Henry Ford, Charles Lindburgh) embraced this label with pride. Today, most anti-Semites vigorously deny that they are anti-Semites, even (or especially) if they are engaged in the minimization or denial of the Holocaust, like the right wing publicity hound and Holocaust “historian” David Irving. And in a slightly different vein, psychologist Kevin MacDonald’s books, which purport to explain anti-Semitism – and more recently, Irving’s polemics – in light of evolutionary psychology, merely rehearse and justify many old prejudices and preconceptions through a combination of florid speculation and a very selective and often inaccurate interpretation of the historical record (MacDonald, 1994; MacDonald, 1998.) Whatever Dr. MacDonald’s conscious attitudes and intentions may be, his publications give solace and support to high-brow/ low-intensity anti-Semites both inside and outside the profession of psychology.

Though anti-Semitic prejudices and persecution played a much smaller role in Islamic civilization than they did in the West until relatively recently, Holocaust minimization and denial are very prevalent in the Islamic world today – and not just among the leadership of Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. On the contrary, anti-Semitism is as mainstream in the Islamic world today as it was in Europe and the USA prior to WWII (Wistrich, 2011) – no doubt partly as a response to the unresolved tensions in the Middle East. Worse still, among Jewish extremists, the term anti-Semitism is used indiscriminately to discredit all of Israel’s critics, no matter how cogent, principled or humane their objections to Israeli policies are, and regardless of whether they themselves are Jewish or not. And yet despite polemical excesses on all sides, left-wing anti-Semitism actually exists, and often masquerades under the guise of principled anti-Zionist critique. The claim that “Zionism is racism”, i.e. is intrinsically racist, which is extremely popular in some left-wing circles, is a case in point. The Zionist movement, which began to germinate in the late 1840s, is nothing if not a response to two millennia of vicious persecution, and the abject failure of the promises of equality and/or assimilation for Jews made by the Enlightenment and its heirs. Many early 20th century Zionist leaders, including (but not limited to) Achad Ha’am, Martin Buber, Henrietta Szold and Moshe Sharet sought to create a bi-national state with safety, security and full legal and civic equality for Arab citizens – something that is notably absent in Israel today. Indeed, Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, hoped for the creation of a bi-national state until the Arab uprisings of 1936 – which were instigated, in part, by Nazi sponsors and strategists in Berlin – shattered his hopes in this regard.


Adams, M. & Sherry, J., 1991, “Appendix A: Significant words and events” in Lingering shadows: Jungians, Freudians and anti-semitism, A. Maidenbaum and S. Martin, eds, Shambala: London.

Adorno et al. 1950. The authoritarian personality. New York: W.W.Norton.

Bergmann, W. 1988. Error without trial: psychological research on anti-Semitism. Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter.

Burston, D. 1991. The legacy of Erich Fromm. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Burston, D. 1999. “Archetype and Interpretation.” The Psychoanalytic Review. 86, no. 1, pp.35-62.

Carroll. J. 2001. Constantine’s sword. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Christie, R., and Jahoda, M. (1954). Studies in the scope and method of “The authoritarian personality.” Free Press, Glencoe, Ill.

Cohn, N. 1996. Warrant for genocide: the myth of the Jewish world conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. London: Serif.

Freud, S. 1939. Moses and monotheism. London: Hogarth Press.

Frosh, S. 2005. Hate and the “jewish science”. London: Palgrave Press.

Hitler, A. (1925.) Mein kampf. Trans, Ralph Mannheim. New York: Houghton Miflin, 1971.

Horkheimer, M. & Adorno, T.1941. “Research project on anti- semitism.” Studies in Philosophy and Social Science, 124-43.

Horkheimer, M. & Adorno. T. (1944). Dialectic of enlightenment. New York: Herder and Herder, 1972.

Katz.D & Braly, K. 1933. “Racial Stereotypes in one hundred college students.” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 28, 280-290.

MacDonald, K. B. (1994). A people that shall dwell alone: Judaism as a group evolutionary strategy. Westport, CT: Praeger. 302 pages.

MacDonald, K. B. (1998). Separation and its discontents: toward an evolutionary theory of anti-semitism. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Simmel, E, 1946. Anti-semitism, a social disease: New York: International Universities Press.

Winston, A.S. 1998. “The defects of his race: E.G.Boring and anti-semitism in American psychology 1923-1953.” History of Psychology, 1, 27-51.

Wistrich, R. 2011. A lethal obsession: anti-semitism from antiquity to the global jihad. New York: Random House.

Zimmler. E. Harrower, M, Ritzler, B & Archer, R. 1995. The quest for the Nazi personality: A psychological investigation of Nazi war criminals. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Online Resources:

Anti-Semitism: The Longest Hatred


Martin Luther: The Jews and Their Lies (1543)


Lewis, B., 1998. “Muslim Anti-Semitism.” Middle East Quarterly, June, pp .43-49


A Brief History of Antisemitism


From The Encyclopedia of Critical Psychology, edited by Thomas Teo, and published by Springer Publishers, New York, 2014. Reprinted by permission of the author.

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