Understanding Antisemitism: Theory and Research

The brief discussion of the continuities and discontinuities of antisemitism in this chapter provides important social and historical insights into this form of prejudice and its development from ancient to modern times. However, as Kressel (2003) notes, there has been relatively less empirical social science research into antisemitism which can shed light on its nature and the motivational processes underlying this form of prejudice, particularly in the Islamic world. Much early social psychological research was conducted in order to understand the social and psychological processes that could have led to the dreadful events of the Holocaust – this included the authoritarian personality (Adorno, FrenkelBrunswik, Levinson, and Sanford, 1950), obedience to authority (Milgram, 1963), scapegoating (Gregory, 2001), intergroup processes (Brown, 2000; Tajfel, 1982; Tajfel and Turner, 1986) and, more recently, perceived threats from outgroups (Stephan and Stephan, 2000). However, this body of work has not been matched comprehensively by empirical social science research into antisemitism, in particular. Yet, as argued in this chapter, antisemitism constitutes an age-old prejudice that has permeated temporal, cultural and geographical boundaries and, as highlighted in Chapter 1, it continues to pose a significant problem in both the Middle East and the West. Therefore, antisemitism remains well worthy of academic attention.

There have been several correlational survey-based studies, which seek to identify the individual traits that appear to be associated with antisemitism. Frindte, Wettig and Wammetsberger (2005) conducted two studies in Germany that examined antisemitism within the context of authoritarianism and social dominance. They showed that individuals who manifested extreme antisemitic attitudes differed signifi from those who scored low on antisemitism with regard to the extent of authoritarianism, readiness for violence, endorsement of National Socialism and political orientation. They found that authoritarianism was an important predictor of antisemitism. In a unique cross-cultural examination of the social psychological predictors of antisemitism, Dunbar and Simonova (2003) found that the relationship between the right-wing extremism personality and antisemitism was positive and that the degree of manifestation of antisemitic attitudes was similar in both the US and Czech samples, despite the distinct history of intergroup relations between these groups and Jews. Consistent with Gibson and Howard's (2007) assertion, this study suggests that individual personality traits play a more important role in antisemitism than social and environmental factors. A series of studies over the last few decades have argued that there is a link between particular demographic characteristics and antisemitism. It has been found that male respondents generally manifest greater antisemitism than female respondents (D'Alessio and Stolzenberg, 1991), that unskilled workers are more antisemitic than professionals (Selznick and Steinberg, 1969), that education is negatively correlated with antisemitism (Quinley and Glock, 1979), that younger people are generally less antisemitic than older people (Raab, 1983), and that the higher the concentration of Jews in one's environment, the higher one's level of antisemitism will be (Smith, 1991). In their review of the largely survey-based research into antisemitism, Konig, Scheepers and Falling (2001) identify three principal variables that appear to correlate with antisemitism, namely religion, personality (e.g. authoritarianism) and socio-structural factors (e.g. age, education). While these studies provide an important snapshot of antisemitism in particular temporal, cultural and geographical contexts (admittedly, largely in the US), there are many counter-examples, such as the fact that some of the most antisemitic countries in the world are devoid of a Jewish population (e.g. Anti-Defamation League, 2007, 2009). Furthermore, Weil (1985) examined the effects of education on liberalising attitudes in order to decipher the outcomes for antisemitism. In his cross-cultural research, he found that, while education was positively correlated with liberal attitudes towards Jews in the US and the West, the effect of education on liberal attitudes appeared to be weaker or even reversed in non-liberal democracies or countries with a history of authoritarian government. In addition to demonstrating the tenuous relationship between particular demographic traits and antisemitism and, thus, the simplistic nature of some the existing research, Weil's study provided important insight into the sociostructural predictors of antisemitism.

As demonstrated in this chapter, much social science research points to a correlation between Christian/Muslim religiosity and antisemitism. In their study of Christian antisemitism in the Netherlands, Konig et al. (2000) highlighted that Christian religion was a determinant of both religious and secular forms of antisemitism, which in turn exhibited the importance of religious imagery in contemporary secular thinking vis-à-vis Jews. Jaspal (2011c) has conducted survey research into antisemitism among Iranians, which suggests that attitudes towards Jews differ in accordance with political orientation. More specifically, self-identified political “hardliners” scored significantly higher than self-identified political “reformists” on the antisemitism scale. However, both hardliners and reformists appeared to manifest more negative attitudes towards Jews than Israel. This preliminary research suggests that the ideas and messages perceived to be associated with specific political identities may gain more or less prominence in accordance with one's own political orientation, but that both hardliner and reformist political orientations appear to incorporate more antisemitic imagery than anti-Zionist imagery. Moreover, a multiple regression analysis indicated that Muslim identity and political trust were significant predictors of antisemitism among Iranians, which suggested that individuals who held trust in the Iranian
political regime were more likely to adhere to the “version” of Muslim identity advocated by the regime. Incidentally, this version of Islam can construct Jews as inferior and “impure” (Shahvar, 2009). In a unique and insightful survey study of antisemitism among both Christians and Muslims in North America, Baum (2009a) found that, while personal identity was the strongest predictor of antisemitism among Christians (i.e. the perception that one has personally been mistreated by Jews), social identity was the strongest predictor among Muslim respondents (i.e. the perception that one's Muslim ingroup was threatened by Jews). This is likely to be associated with the sorts of messages and representations disseminated at a social level which are subsequently internalised by individuals. Similarly, using religious coping theory, Pargament, Trevino, Mahoney and Silberman (2007) showed that the perception of Jews as desecrators of Christian values, an antisemitic belief, was predicted, in part, by less exposure to messages that challenge representations of desecration.

Accordingly, scholars have sought explanations for antisemitism in theological representations and have claimed that the key to understanding antisemitism lies in Holy Scripture and in representations disseminated in religious contexts. Indeed, analyses of both Christian (Perry and Schweitzer, 2002) and Islamic (Stillman, 2010) Holy Scripture certainly suggest that they constitute important sources of antisemitic representations. Furthermore, they have examined the religious sermons delivered in the Islamic world in order to shed light on the sources of contemporary antisemitism (Litvak, 1998; Shahvar, 2009). The print media has also played an important role – Stillman (2010) has argued that antisemitism (and particularly, the blood libel accusation) crystallised and proliferated as the print media developed in the country. Moreover, the translation, publication and proliferation of key antisemitic texts such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, The International Jew and Mein Kampf around the world have ensured that antisemitic representations remain widely available and continue to be disseminated in all corners of the globe.

Some scholars have examined antisemitism from the perspective of scapegoat theory, which argues that “frustrations attendant to economic downturns produce aggressive impulses that are directed at vulnerable targets, such as minority groups, even when these groups bear no actual or perceived responsibility for economic decline” (Green, Glaser and Rich, 1998, p. 82; see also Gregory, 2001). In their study of authoritarianism and aggression, Doty et al. (1991) found that perceived economic distress was positively associated with antisemitic vandalism, suggesting that individuals used the Jews as scapegoats. Moreover, a report by the Anti-Defamation League cited Russia as a “growing area of concern” and stated that “[w]ith the economic and political instability in the region there has been an increase in political anti-Semitism, with elected Communist Party officials spouting outrageous accusations targeting Jews as scapegoats for Russia's economic, political and social ills” (Anti-Defamation League, 2005).

Some scholars have empirically examined this phenomenon in Russia. In a recent study of Russian antisemitism and scapegoating of Jews, Gibson and
Howard (2007) convincingly argue that, while there is some merit in scapegoat theory in explaining antisemitism, this theory alone provides a rather simplistic snapshot of this form of prejudice. In a longitudinal survey study conducted from 1996 to 2000, they demonstrated that antisemitic prejudice appeared to stem from a complex range of attitudes associated with authoritarianism (an individual trait), rather than from perceptions of economic and political turmoil. Crucially, they argued that “one very important difference between Russia today and the Russia of the past is that powerful and prominent political elites have publicly condemned anti-Semitism and have argued strongly in favour of intergroup tolerance” (p. 218), which may dissuade individuals from scapegoating Jews in times of economic and political turmoil. Similarly, in their study of the scapegoating of Jews in Poland and the Ukraine, Bilewicz and Krzeminski (2010, p. 243) conclude that “[t]he ideological model of scapegoating seems to be a good explanation of antiSemitism only in countries where Jews are still targets of envious stereotypes”. This too attests to the importance of the cultural and ideological milieu within which particular representations of Jews can develop and thrive.

More recently, terror management theorists (Cohen et al., 2009; Cohen et al., 2011) have made important contributions to the study of antisemitism. They have argued that when human beings are reminded of their own mortality, their worldviews acquire salience because they provide a form of psychological protection and that, consequently, in these conditions non-Jews may become hostile towards Jews because Jews represent a challenge to their worldviews. Cohen et al. (2009) argue that Jews may pose both theological and socio-cultural challenges to non-Jews' worldview for the historical reasons outlined earlier in this chapter. In an experimental study, Cohen et al. (2009) demonstrated that participants manifested greater levels of antisemitism in the high mortality condition versus the control condition, suggesting that death anxiety induced higher levels of prejudice towards Jews because of a perceived challenge to one's worldview. Similarly, Greenberg et al. (1990) found that when Christians were encouraged to think about their mortality, their trait ratings of religious ingroup members became more positive while their trait ratings of Jews (a religious outgroup) became more negative. Crucially, Cohen (2009) has found that Jews appear to be uniquely threatening to non-Jews' worldviews – her experimental study showed that mortality salience increased antisemitism scores but not levels of prejudice towards African Americans or Asians, for instance. This has led some scholars to argue that antisemitism should be considered a unique form of prejudice, unlike any other (Wistrich, 2008; see Cinnirella, 2014 for a similar argument in relation to Islamophobia). However, it seems plausible that the key to understanding the apparent uniqueness on antisemitism lies in the myths, messages and representations disseminated at social and institutional levels, which overtly or covertly construct Jews as a particularly menacing group vis-à-vis other outgroups. Connecting the themes of antisemitism and the Holocaust, Imhoff and Banse (2009) examined the intriguing phenomenon of “secondary antisemitism”, which was briefly mentioned earlier in the chapter. In their experimental study at a German university, they found, firstly, that respondents more readily manifested their
antisemitic attitudes under a “bogus pipeline”, that is, when they were deceived into believing that their “true” attitudes would become apparent to the investigator and that lying was thus futile (see also Cohen et al., 2009) and, secondly, that the acknowledgement of Jewish outgroup suffering due to the German ingroup's past atrocities against the Jews appeared to increase antisemitic prejudice in and of itself. Although they did not fully explain the potential social psychological underpinnings of this increase in prejudice, it is likely that this constitutes a form of coping strategy because knowledge of the ingroup's atrocities against an outgroup could pose a threat to ingroup identity. People may experience negative emotions, such as guilt and disgust, which are aversive for psychological wellbeing.

What this brief review of the social science literature on antisemitism suggests is that (i) there has been a focus either on individual traits or sociological factors, both of which appear to be eminently important explanatory factors in antisemitism, rather than a truly social psychological account; (ii) most research has employed survey-based and experimental methods which have yielded quantitative data, rather than qualitative interview research which could provide detailed, nuanced and contextually sensitive qualitative insights into the nature of antisemitism and its underlying social and psychological mechanisms; and (iii) the vast majority of research has focused upon the US and European contexts, rather than in non-Western contexts such as the Middle East and among ethnic and minority groups in the West in which antisemitic prejudice is actually a significant problem. Crucially, the studies converge in showing, in one way or another, the importance of myths, messages and representations in fomenting and establishing antisemitic sentiment in society.


Antisemitism needs to be defined in ways that can accommodate the fluidity and complexity of this age-old prejudice. An adequate definition of antisemitism will acknowledge its various dimensions, including the distinct levels (psychological, social and institutional) at which it can be manifested, its action orientation (i.e. what it intends to achieve) and its continuities and discontinuities across time, space and medium. In examining the history of antisemitism from antiquity to the present day, it is clear that, while this prejudice has shifted from being conceived in religious to secular terms, many of the underlying myths, messages and representations have been re-construed, re-cycled and adapted to suit specific temporal, geographical, cultural, political, religious and ideological contexts. This is also true of the variants of antisemitism manifested across cultural and geographical frontiers. Antisemitic representations that were peripheral but observable in antiquity, for instance, have re-emerged in subsequent eras as they have acquired relevance to the activities and ethos of specific groups. Although the Nazis generally shunned religion, they did not hesitate to draw upon antisemitic imagery from Christianity. While the specific arguments may have changed across
time and space – Jews may be accused of communist sympathies in one context (Rein, 2003) and capitalist sympathies in another (Rubenstein and Naumov, 2001) – what these arguments share is an underlying belief in the “otherness” and subversive character of Jews. It appears that theology has remained an important source of antisemitic social representations, even in supposedly secular contexts. Contemporary antisemitism can, and often does, draw upon and synthesise both religious “anti-Jewishness” and secular forms of antipathy.

Holocaust “revisionism” has come to represent a prominent theme in modern antisemitism – its antecedents and consequences are multifarious. People are motivated to engage in Holocaust denial for a variety of reasons, both social and psychological. Yet, what underlies the revisionist stance on the Holocaust is antisemitism. In discussing its historical, social and psychological aspects of antisemitism, it is evident that this age-old prejudice has gradually developed an action orientation which emphasises the destruction of Jewry. This was of course most conspicuous in the Nazi era. Antisemitism is most likely to acquire such a destructive action orientation when it makes its transition into the ideological and institutional domains – political antisemitism that is institutionalised and state-sanctioned constitutes the most lethal form, largely because it becomes permissible, ubiquitous, normalised and comes to form part of common-sense thinking vis-à-vis the Jewish outgroup. There have been some attempts to examine empirically the nature, antecedents and motivational aspects of antisemitism and these studies converge in demonstrating the importance of examining the social and psychological dimensions of antisemitism, particularly in those contexts in which it remains a pressing problem, such as in the Middle East. The next chapter examines anti-Zionism, which itself may be viewed as an aspect of the continuities and discontinuities of antisemitism.

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