Creating and Elaborating Antisemitic Social Representations
The previous section described participants' social representations concerning Iranian Jews, which tended to frame Jews in terms of a threat. In order to elaborate upon the threat representation, individuals invoked and modified classic antisemitic motifs, such as those of Jewish deception and Jewish world domination.
Although participants in the study were aware of the social representation of Jewish suffering across distinct historical and geographical contexts, including that of the Holocaust, many of them rejected this representation and argued that a narrative of Jewish suffering had been fabricated by the Jews themselves. This contributed to the antisemitic social representation of Jewish deception of the world:
They say they have suffered more than anyone in the world [ … ] They are always talking about Jews suffering here, Jews suffering there. I don't think they are suffering so much. It's a lie really [ … ] A Zionist lie. (Neda, female, hardliner)
Many Jews died in the Holocaust? Many Muslims have also died. Many Iranians died in the “Imposed War” [Iran-Iraq War]. Many Muslims are being killed in Afghanistan, Iraq [ … ] I don't understand the focus on Jews. (Saeed, male, hardliner)
Both Neda and Saeed challenged the social representation of Jewish suffering by arguing that this was a “lie” and, more specifically, that the Holocaust (itself a metaphor for Jewish suffering in history) (Stein, 1978) had been grossly exaggerated. Neda appeared to invoke the repetitiveness of the narrative of Jewish suffering (“Jews suffering here, Jews suffering there”), implicitly arguing that it constituted an attempt to convince people of its validity. Conversely, Saeed elaborated his rejection of the social representation of Jewish suffering by comparing instances of Jewish suffering with those of Muslim and Iranian suffering. He questioned the significance of the Holocaust by focusing upon the number of victims on both sides. Saeed argued that although “many Jews” had died in the Holocaust, “many Muslims” too had died in other conflicts. The argument that innocent Iranians too had been killed in the “Imposed War”, which is the term used in Iran to refer to the Iran-Iraq War, constituted an attempt to diminish the social representation of Jewish suffering vis-à-vis Iranian suffering.
Some participants did accept the social representation of Jewish suffering by acknowledging that Jews had suffered more persecution than any other ethnoreligious group in history. However, there was a tendency for some interviewees to modify this social representation by depriving the Jews of their victimhood status and arguing that, as an inherently malevolent people, the Jews had inflicted suffering upon themselves:
Interviewer: Some people would argue that nobody has suffered as much as the Jews have over history. What would be your response to that?
Faraz (male, hardliner): Ask yourself that question. Why do you think they've suffered discrimination everywhere? You can blame one group, another country, another country but the whole world? It's because they lie, they dominate people and they just want to keep the world as slaves, their slaves. In Iran, we know this and we are vigilant.
Faraz deployed the argument that widespread discrimination against Jews over millennia must indicate a shared experience of victimhood among host countries. There was a sense that Jews must have “done something” to merit such uniform treatment at the hands of their host countries. The sheer scale of antisemitic persecution, both geographical and temporal, was strategically interpreted as evidence of Jewish wrongdoing. Faraz denied the victimhood of Jews and instead held them responsible for malevolent acts against their host countries, which he believed had resulted in antisemitic persecution. This served to inculpate Jews, on the one hand, and to implicitly rationalise antisemitism, on the other.
Faraz argued that, while it was possible to “blame one group” for antisemitism, it was unreasonable to charge “the whole world” with irrational antisemitism. Participants were essentially constructing a social representation that the Jews had collectively and perpetually “wronged” the world which had led to (selfinflicted) Jewish suffering. The antisemitic social representation that Jews deceive, control and dominate the world was presented as the key to understanding longstanding antisemitism. Crucially, Faraz drew upon this imagery in explaining and rationalising widespread suspicion of Jews in Iran. In assuming this “knowledgeable” position concerning Jews, Faraz constructed his religio-national ingroup as self-efficacious and, thus, resistant to the negative acts of Jews that had driven the world to antisemitic persecution. More generally, this perhaps bolstered individuals' sense of psychological coherence, since they were able to accept social representations of Jewish malevolence and of Jewish suffering, respectively.
Some individuals invoked antisemitic conspiracy theories, such as the theory that Jews had engineered the 9/11 terror attacks in New York, in order to exemplify the hybridised threat they believed that Jews posed:
I don't have any problems with Israel. I don't really care. It's not a big issue to me [ … ] I think most people know that Jews do have a control and they make things happen. Even September 11th, I saw a documentary that the Jews were not at work that day. Why? They are behind a lot of things that happen in the world [ … ] As long as it doesn't affect me, OK, but it does happen. (Parveen, female, reformist)
Jews in Iran celebrated in their synagogues here and they were caught [ … ] When the Palestinians, the Lebanese are killed, even here they must be celebrating. When they hear Israel has succeeded they are celebrating. When they hear that their plans have worked. (Abbas, male, hardliner)
Both Parveen and Abbas denied any opposition to Israel, and anti-Zionism did not appear to feature prominently in their discourse. Yet, their accounts were underpinned by antisemitic social representations concerning Jewish world control and Jewish atrocities against gentiles. Parveen invoked the conspiracy theory concerning Jewish complicity in the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, which suggests that Jewish employees at the World Trade Centre were deliberately absent on the day of the attacks due to prior knowledge of, and complicity in, the attacks. Thus, negative world events, some of which have been attributed to Islamist terrorists such as the 9/11 attacks, were re-attributed to Jews. Social psychologists have long argued that human beings attempt to make sense of a complex world, to reduce uncertainty and to distance negativity from the self by engaging in heuristic processes, such as external attribution (Kelley, 1967). Here, the Jews were scapegoated in order to reduce uncertainty but also to justify the threat representation that many individuals clearly espoused. Like most participants, Parveen attempted to distance herself from the potential accusation of antisemitism by arguing that she personally held no grudges against Jews, but nonetheless accepted the social representation that Jews committed atrocities against non-Jews. This constituted a means of bolstering self-esteem (by deflecting antisemitism) while safeguarding continuity of belief (in Jewish negativity).
Abbas anchored Iranian Jews to the antisemitic social representation of Jewish atrocities, constructing complicity between world Jewry and Iranian Jewry. He modified the polemic social representation concerning Iranian Jewish complicity in Zionism (and anti-Palestinian activities) which was widely disseminated by a hardline weekly Iranian newspaper Yalesarat in 2006.5 The newspaper incorrectly reported that during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war Iranian Jews celebrated Israeli independence in synagogues in Shiraz, and suggested that Iranian Jews in the city covertly supported Zionism. This caused some unrest in Shiraz, including assaults on synagogues in the city which led to the intervention of the Iranian security forces. Although the newspaper report was subsequently discredited in Iran, Abbas and other participants continued to invoke this polemic social representation in denigrating Iranian Jews and their conduct. Indeed, he argued, more broadly than the original newspaper had, that Iranian Jews celebrated the death of fellow Muslims and the success of Israel within their synagogues. This served to construct Muslim-Jewish intergroup tensions and to accentuate the social representation that Iranian Jews posed a hybridised threat to the ingroup due to their disloyalty.
The perception of disloyalty among Iranian Jews clearly stemmed from antisemitic social representations of Jewish deception. Participants elaborated upon these social representations by referring to inter alia the Jewish Banu Qurayza tribe's alleged deception of the Prophet Mohammed, Jewish solidarity against ethno-religious outgroups and the desire for world domination:
5 BBC News news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/5367892.stm I'm not in favour of the Islamic Republic or the mullahs, you know. They do limit our rights [ … ] How can you expect Jews to be part of an Islamic Republic though? They're not going to be faithful. They will stick to their own kind, Israel which wants to attack Iran. You must keep an eye on them. (Behruz, male, reformist)
Jews have been fooling the world for many centuries. The Prophet was kind and saw good in human beings but was deceived by the Jews [ … ] Jews do this everywhere. Not one place or two. I am talking about everywhere. It's a known fact. (Mitra, female, hardliner)
Respondents widely regarded Iranian Jews as “naturally” bonding with world Jewry and, in particular, with the State of Israel due to their shared Jewish ethnoreligious heritage. There was a discernible perception of collusion among world Jewry. Indeed, Mitra attributed to Jews the reputation of “fooling the world for many centuries”, thereby constructing this as an essentialised trait associated with the ethno-religious group. The long-standing nature of this negative trait was emphasised through reference to the early days of Islam, in which the Islamic Prophet Mohammed was allegedly “deceived by the Jews”. Crucially, the positive characteristics of the Prophet Mohammed (“kind”; “saw good in human beings”) were juxtaposed with the negative characteristics of the Jews, which served to reiterate negative social representations of Jews. Mitra invoked the historical social representation of the Jewish Banu Qurayza tribe in Northern Arabia which was defeated by the Muslims led by the Prophet Mohammed (Lewis, 2004). Several individuals drew upon this historical social representation in order to substantiate the argument that world Jewry was inherently deceitful and untrustworthy. This negative trait was constructed as both temporally pervasive (“for many centuries”) and geographically ubiquitous (“Not one place or two. I'm talking about everywhere”). It has been observed that Ayatollah Khomeini too drew upon the historical representation of the Banu Qurayza tribe in attempting to justify the dismantlement of the State of Israel (Shahvar, 2009). The invocation of historical social representations was beneficial for the continuity principle of identity, since it safeguarded consistency between past and present and facilitated predictions for the future. It also enhanced the meaning principle of identity, because it allowed individuals to make sense of the present by drawing upon the past.
In participants'accounts, both world Jewry and the State of Israel were perceived as posing a threat, and there was a complex entwining of the contemporary threat popularly perceived to be associated with Israel and the historical representation of Jews undermining Islam. Given the social representation of an Israeli threat (“which wants to attack Iran”), the constructed “natural bond” between Iranian Jewry and Israel rendered the former equally as threatening in the minds of several participants. In view of the “evidence” of the Jews' betrayal of their host countries and the world more generally, Behruz concluded that greater surveillance of the Iranian Jewish community and distrust of their intentions were logical strategies for curbing the threat. More generally, in Mitra's account, it appeared that, because
the Jews were historically threatening, there was little reason to doubt that Iranian
Jews too might pose a threat.
Despite forceful assertions from the Iranian government that it differentiates between Judaism and Zionism, that it honours and respects Judaism and that it opposes only the political ideology of Zionism (see Jaspal, 2013a), there was a systematic conflation of Jews and the State of Israel in most participants' accounts. The conflation of Judaism and Zionism was apparent in their reflections upon how to deal with the “Zionist threat”:
When the Zionists do these things to Muslims, do they think Jews can be safe around the world? If Hezbollah are responsible for the attack on Jews, then it's because of the Zionists. (Esmail, male, hardliner)
There is a Zionist threat [ … ] If the Zionist Regime continues to meddle in our affairs then Muslims have to protect one another [ … ] You will need to demand answers from Jews here, yes, even here in Iran. (Darioush, male, hardliner)
Several interviewees clearly believed that Jews should be held responsible for the actions of Zionists, and Esmail appeared to endorse reprisals against Jews. The Lebanese Shiite political movement Hezbollah has been accused of perpetrating terrorist attacks against the State of Israel and Jewish targets abroad, such as the bombing of a Jewish cultural centre (la Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina) in July 1993. Several participants acknowledged that Hezbollah had perpetrated such attacks but justified them by inculpating Zionists and by invoking the threat representation. Individuals implicitly attributed blame to Zionists by arguing that Zionist actions had led to attacks against Jewish civilians. The underlying logic of this argument was that if Zionists were truly concerned with the wellbeing of Jews they would not engage in acts of aggression and violence against Muslims. The attribution of blame in this manner safeguarded the continuity and meaning principles, since individuals were able to justify and make sense of the ingroup's actions while continuing to perceive them as righteous and justifiable.
Yet, although the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was frequently invoked as the basis for attacks against Jewish civilian targets, Darioush viewed Israel's “meddling” in Iran's internal affairs as sufficient cause for harassing the Jewish population in Iran. He perceived Israeli intervention in Iran's affairs, which was frequently exemplified through reference to the assassination of nuclear scientists and the seizure of “Israeli spies” operating in Iran, as evidence of a “Zionist threat”, which limited Iran's ability to function as an independent sovereign state. The hybridised threat clearly jeopardised individuals' sense of self-efficacy and continuity on the basis of their national group membership. In order to cope with the threat, there was a perceived need for Muslim solidarity, that is, “to protect one another”. This entailed the exclusion of Iranian Jews, who were regarded as silently supporting (and, thus, colluding with Zionists in) Israeli incursions on Iran's sovereignty. Darioush euphemistically suggested that Iranian Muslims “demand answers from
Jews” regarding Israel's actions, which in actual fact constituted a request to hold Iranian Jews accountable for Israel's actions. Thus, although there was at times a nominal delineation of the categories “Jew”, “Zionist” and “Israel”, the roles, responsibilities and inter-relations between these categories were frequently conflated in participants' discourse and thinking.
The confl of Israel and (Iranian) Jews appeared to perform positive functions
for identity and, thus, constituted a strategy for coping with identity threat:
I always felt sad at Israel's power but Israel is not so powerful [ … ] It's not the super powerful state. In Iran there are also Jews and in our country they cannot control Muslims. Not in the Islamic Republic. (Bahman, male, hardliner)
Zionism has always seemed like some massive uncontrollable force. A dangerous ideology that we can't do anything about [ … ] We stamp out Zionism in our country. Imam [Khomeini] stamped it out when he killed them in Iran – we had this here too – so they can't dominate us like they do in other countries. (Ashkan, male, hardliner)
Interviewees generally manifested awareness of the social representation of Israel as a powerful and self-efficacious nation-state. There was frequent reference to the “power” and “force” of Israel and its consequential ability to exert control and influence over the world. This appeared to be construed as a threat to the selfefficacy principle of identity – Bahman described his sadness at this perception, while Ashkan lamented his ingroup's inability to curtail Israel's “massive, uncontrollable force”. As highlighted by the group vitality framework (Bourhis et al., 1981), the perception that outgroups have greater “vitality” (e.g. control) than the ingroup can constitute a threatening position to occupy (see Jaspal and Sitaridou, 2013). Zionism was clearly perceived as an undesirable, dangerous ideology, which threatened the ingroup's self-efficacy and which, therefore, needed to be defeated. In view of the widespread perception that Israel constituted Iran's Significant Other or “archenemy”, the attribution of greater vitality to Israel was immensely threatening for identity among Iranians.
By conflating Zionism and Iranian Jews, some participants appeared to be engaging in a strategy for coping with the threats to self-efficacy associated with Zionism. Although Israel was largely regarded as a “super powerful state”, Bahman rejected the validity of this social representation within the context of Iran, where Jews were perceived as powerless and, thus, unable to “control Muslims”. Thus, by conflating and homogenising Israel and Iranian Jews, and accentuating the relative powerlessness of Iranian Jews vis-à-vis Iranian Muslims in the Islamic Republic, Bahman seemed to salvage some sense of self-efficacy, that is, the control and competence of his ethno-religious ingroup.
Similarly, while Ashkan perceived Zionism as a “massive, uncontrollable force”, he too rejected the validity of this representation within the context of the Islamic Republic and cited the example of Ayatollah Khomeini having “stamped
out” Zionism in Iran by identifying and executing Jews with connections to Zionism. Although many individuals clearly perceived Jews, both Iranian Jews and world Jewry, as posing a threat, Jews in Iran were positioned as a relatively weak outgroup in that they were not regarded as able to “dominate us like they do in other countries”. Like Bahman, Ashkan emphasised the relative powerlessness of Iranian Jews and Khomeini's “stamping out” of Zionism in the early days of the Islamic Republic in order to bolster his own ingroup's self-efficacy.
There was a tendency for individuals to invoke, elaborate and re-construe antisemitic social representations in order to enhance identity processes and to avert identity threat. Similarly, social representations of the Holocaust could challenge identity and elicit creative strategies for coping with threat.