A Biological View on Anti-Semitism

Jewish Monthly 1(8): 22 ‑28 (1947).


    Where groups of human beings find themselves in conflict, it is natural for each party to blame the other. This, however, does not help at all in discovering the reasons for the conflict, or the best way of solving it. Every enlightened man must feel that outbreaks of racial or religious persecution, or of anti‑Semitism, are a blot on our civilisation and a serious danger to it. Blame has been laid by the other side both on Christian education and on Jewish temperament and mores. If, however, we try to examine the problem dispassionately, we are led in a different direction. We see that anti‑Semitism does not stand alone, but is a single, even though an important, example of a wide range of phenomena, namely class hostilities of all kinds. We find that human beings, when arranged in groups, tend only too easily to feel hostile to others not in the same group as themselves, and loyal to members of their own group. National rivalries are a case in point; but within the nation exactly the same thing is observable between smaller groups ‑ such as between the sexes, between social classes, between political organisations, between persons who differ in accent, upbringing, education, cultural tastes, and in almost every other imaginable way.

    It is likely that the tendency to react in a hostile way to others who are felt to belong to a different group is a fundamental human characteristic. It is only with great difficulty that the man of culture and insight can rid himself of such feelings. Unless he keeps a close guard on his thinking, he is only too liable to adopt emotional rather than rational thought processes. He will then be likely to confuse the individual with his class, and to allow him to possess only those faults and merits which are attributed to the class to which he belongs. The differences between the two classes are exalted at the expense of their similarities; and relative values are assigned to the one and the other. The dispassionate observer, on the other hand, notes that these judgments of value are always partial and nearly always probably fallacious. The only observable fact is that there is a difference between the two classes. This difference in itself may be of a trivial kind, and even one that applies only to averages of the two classes taken as wholes, the individuals themselves showing a considerable overlap.

    There is a growing body of evidence to show that human beings are repelled by differences and attracted by similarities. It has, for instance, been shown that husbands and wives resemble one another more closely than chance would allow, in every particular which has been made the subject of enquiry; and it seems probable that this similarity is itself a cause of the attraction which has drawn them together. Similarity in background, interests, intelligence and other qualities aid, one might well guess, that feeling of mutual understanding which is the basis of liking. Similarity of temperament, caused by a common heredity, helps to bind members of the same family together. And those human beings who show a degree of similarity not otherwise seen in nature, the so‑called "similar" or uniovular twins, are known to enjoy, as a general rule, an intimacy of love and understanding but rarely found elsewhere.

    If, therefore, we propose the hypothesis that anti‑Semitism is not to be laid to the blame of either Jews or Christians, but is to be attributed in the first place to the relation between the two, that relation being one of difference, we have some biological justification. An examination of the facts shows that differences between Jews and Christians are of a rather wider and deeper kind than between most groupings into which a Western civilised country naturally falls. Jews are distin­guished from non‑Jews not only by religion, but very often also by name, cultural background, family affiliation, dietetic habits, holiday observances, and social cus­toms of many kinds. Their occupational and economic grouping is very different from that of the population as a whole. Their favoured places of residence have a pattern of their own, so that they are not scattered broadcast through the com­munity but mainly concentrated in certain parts. Perhaps most importantly, their average physical appearance in colouring, build and features, differs from the average of their compatriots. It does not matter that these differences are entirely irrelevant to any consideration of the worth and value of the Jews. Merely as differences, they may impede understanding and promote hostility.

    The accumulation of differences is to be taken seriously; each one adds to the effect of the others. Most human groupings, at least within the structure of a society or nation, are in respect of one or only a few qualities. The Roman Catholic differs from his fellow men, so far as we know, in religion only. In a middle‑class society, "Socialists" and "Tories" will be indistinguishable from one another until they start to talk politics. Societies are able to exist as unities because a cleavage of opinion, or a difference in temperament, interests, or affiliations, unites those who are divided on other issues. If one group is separated from the rest of the community in too many ways, it may come to be felt as foreign, and accordingly resented.

    Other factors than mere difference are, of course, important; and among these are the degree of organisation of the groups and their relative masses. If one group is not organised at all, but consists of isolated individuals without interconnections, it will not be felt to be a group at all, and no group hostility will arise. The more closely organised it is, the more its existence as a group will be felt by others, and the more likely that those others will feel hostile towards it. Again, if one group is almost infinitesimally small in comparison with the other, the members of the larger group will only be aware of individuals, and are unlikely to become hostile. This is the present relation between coloured and white people in this country. When the smaller group becomes larger than this, hostilities begin to appear, in the first place in those parts where they are most frequent. This seems to be the present state of affairs in England with regard to the Jews; and it is noteworthy that anti‑Semitism is hardly found at all in rural areas and is most virulent in those London boroughs where the density of the Jewish population is greatest.

    If we accept the view that hostility between Jews and non‑Jews is due to differ­ences of physical, social, and psychological kinds, we may enquire what are the possible solutions.

    The first one, which has been adopted by many generous‑minded men, is the hope that by a process of liberal education we may induce members of the larger non‑Jewish group to grow up mentally, as it were, abandon such primitive and emotional culture patterns, and learn to live in amity with Jews despite their differ­ences. This has been the hope of Jews throughout the ages, and in some countries it has met with temporary encouragement. In Czarist Russia there was a recurrent danger of the pogrom; in Soviet Russia there seems to be at least no discrimination against anyone by race or creed. Nevertheless, to anyone who has seen anti‑Semitic feeling appear, as if from nowhere, in otherwise tolerant people who have found themselves in competition with Jews, the hope seems a precarious one. In view of the appalling risks that can be run, it should surely not be the only recourse.

    The second solution is to isolate Jews and non‑Jews from one another. This is the Zionist solution, and has been gaining support rapidly. Such a solution, however, would only be a temporary one. As things are, the world is a patchwork of jarring nationalities, and one of our main hopes must be their gradual resolution. Peoples must gradually grow together, and not remain eternally divided.

    The third solution would lie in the gradual dissolution of the differences them­selves; and I would myself say that this solution would be a permanent and a radical one. We are not called on to contemplate the disappearance of the Jewish religion, any more than there is anything to be gained by the disappearance of, say, Quaker­ism. But the hope would be raised that if all those accidental and irrelevant differ­ences which divide the Jew from the Christian were to go, mutual animosities would go with them.

    It was in an effort to discover how far this process of assimilation was actually going on in this country at the present time that I made an enquiry among fifty Jewish soldier‑patients of Sutton Emergency Hospital during 1944‑45. These men were suffering from nervous ailments, and it is quite possible that they were not representative of British Jews as a whole. As there were no officers among them, they could only be typical of the working class and middle class non‑professional Jew, such men as tailors and clerks and proprietors of small businesses. A sample taken from such a class is, however, more interesting than one taken from a more prosperous background. My results (43) may be summarised as follows:

    Most of these men were not immigrants themselves, but were the sons or grand­sons of immigrants. Nevertheless about 16 of the 50 surnames were English in form and not immediately recognisable as Jewish patronymics. Many names must have been changed from their original form since immigration.

    First names were nearly all of a fairly typical English type, and such Jewish names as Judah and Leah were rare.

Religious upbringing had changed very much in the course of three generations. Dealing in terms of families, 46 out of 64 parental families had been brought up "strictly" or "very strictly" in the Jewish faith, in the patients' own generation

out of 50, in the generation of the children 19 out of 69. One only of the parents, 3 of the patients, and 30 of the families in the third generation had a lax, non‑Jewish or non‑religious upbringing.

    In physical traits, a distinct proportion of the patients showed traits of a non­-Jewish ancestry ‑ fair skin, blue eyes, a retrousse nose, or some other similar quality.

    Intermarriage with non‑Jews was occurring at an increasing rate. Only one of the fathers had married a non‑Jewish wife. Of the 160 marriages in the next generation, 28 were to non‑Jews, i.e. about 17 per cent. Even when allowance is made for the fact that intermarriage is much more frequent in some families than in others, it seems probable that about one in every eight Jewish marriages is to someone brought up in another religion.

    Insofar, then, as we are acquainted with the facts, the Jews seem to be discarding some at least of the outward characteristics that distinguish them from their fellow countrymen. Most importantly of all, it is likely that there is a substantial rate of intermarriage. This is surely a process which is on all accounts to be welcomed. There is a detestable superstition, current among Gentiles, that the Jews believe themselves to be a chosen people, and therefore inherently superior to the rest of humanity. Nothing would do so much to disabuse people of such a fanciful notion as the encouragement of religious conversion to Judaism, and of intermarriage with members of other sects.

    In all the lands which they have made their homes, Jews have tended to isolate themselves from the rest of the population. In part this has been forced on them, in part they have isolated themselves in one or another respect of their own accord. Isolation has been the result of persecution, but through aiding the perpetuation of differences it has itself perpetuated hostility. It has kept the Jews together as a people, has promoted their loyalty to one another, and in the opinion of some has helped in the preservation of their faith. On the other hand it has led in country after country to restrictive practices, and even to persecutions which are a disgrace to our civilisation. On the religious side, Jewish teaching and philosophy, except as far as they are available from the Bible, have remained little known to others, and have not had the effect on world culture which a wider dissemination might have encouraged.

   As parts of a reorientation of attitude, I would suggest the following points for discussion:

    1. The loyalty of the Jew to his fellow‑man is more fundamental than his loyalty to his fellow‑Jew.

    2. The largest contribution towards the dissolution of feelings of hostility would be in the dissolution of points of difference between Jews and the inhabitants of the lands in which they live.

    3. As a consequence of their relative numbers, the main contribution towards mutual adaptation between Jews and non‑Jews will have to be made by Jews.

    4. While leaving the kernel of religious teaching intact, those modes of be­haviour which have a purely symbolic or formal justification should be pruned.

    5. Jewish religion and philosophy are part of the endowment of the human race, and should be shared wherever possible. An evangelical attitude towards new con­verts is desirable.

    6. Intermarriage between Jews and non‑Jews is a step in a good and friendly direction, and would be the greatest single factor in binding the two groups together.