Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Reflections on the Holocaust VI: WHY--Projection and Scape-goating

My previous post ends with a view of the Jews as the quintessential Other in Europe. Many Jews, especially in Eastern Europe, actually were outwardly different: they differed from their majority Christian neighbors in physical appearance, dress, language, religion, self-government, and dedication to learning. In addition, the pseudo-religious and pseudo-scientific beliefs promoted by the Nazis painted the Jews as the devil incarnate and as parasitic insects—as a menace to be eliminated.

This quintessential otherness marked the Jews as targets for the unhealthy psychological processes of projection and scape-goating.

Projection is an unhealthy psychological process that can happen when one refuses to recognize one’s own negative traits. Instead of acknowledging these negative traits as one’s own, one may unfairly “project” these traits onto another. For example, a person may have within himself a snobbishness that he hates and refuses to recognize as his own. He may, however, see that very snobbishness magnified in his quiet and shy neighbor, who is perhaps not a snob at all.

In A History of the Holocaust, Yehuda Bauer explains how the Jews became the targets of Nazi projection. The Nazis wanted to dominate the world. They invaded and took over country after country in Europe, and then exterminated the weak, the dissidents, and the non-Aryans. Yet this domination by force is exactly what the Nazis accused the Jews of plotting: the Nazis actually believed that a council of Jewish elders was plotting to take over the world and exterminate all non-Jewish people and that this plot was revealed in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a document that had been exposed as a forgery in the 1920s. Bauer expresses it very well on page 91: “The Nazis, then, accused the Jews of wanting to do what they, the Nazis, were out to do themselves: control the world and annihilate their enemies. In this inverted picture of themselves, they described the Jews as the demonic force of evil that Nazism itself was.”

The Nazis even became victims of their own projections. Bauer explains how this happened during the Nazis’ plan for a permanent boycott of Jewish businesses in Germany in 1933. The boycott was to begin on April 1. On March 27, Jews in the United States held a mass rally in Madison Square Garden to protest. To the Nazis, this Jewish rally in New York City was evidence of a (non-existent) international Jewish plot to overcome the world. In fear of international Jewish reprisal, the Nazis cancelled the permanent boycott and held a token one-day boycott instead—on April 1, a Saturday, when Jewish businesses were normally closed anyway for the Sabbath. Again, Bauer expresses it eloquently on page 99: “In the Madison Square Garden rally they [the Nazis] saw the expression of that mysterious international Jew they had invented, their all-consuming fear. In calling off the permanent boycott in fear of the counterreaction of the Jews, the Nazis yielded, in effect, to the figment of their own imagination.”

So the Nazis projected onto the Jews their own desire for world domination. Thus, they could justify destroying the Jews before the Jews had a chance to destroy them. In the Nazi mind, the Jews came to symbolize everything evil, revolting, and impure.

This projection of evil onto the Jews was reflected rather oddly in the views of the average citizen. Nechama Tec, a young Jewish girl in Poland at the time of the Third Reich, encountered this in the Homar family, a Christian Polish family who had agreed to shelter Tec along with her sister and parents until the war was over. In her memoir, Dry Tears, Tec explains how puzzled she felt when the Homars expressed hatred for Jews and yet also expressed real affection for Tec herself and her family, whom the Homars knew to be Jews. On page 121, we see how the Homars explained this by assuring Tec, “You know that you are not a real Jew. You are not really Jewish.” Somehow, the Homars were able to separate their hatred for “real Jews” (an evil abstraction that did not exist in the physical world) and their affection for Tec and her family (who couldn’t possibly be real Jews since Tec, her sister, and her parents were so likable).

Anyone who becomes the object of projection can soon find himself in the role of the scape-goat. The scape-goat carries the blame for the sins of the group. The term scape-goat comes from the Bible, specifically Leviticus 16:21-22, where we find these instructions: “Aaron [the high priest] shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins; and he shall put them upon the head of the goat, and send him away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. The goat shall bear all their iniquities upon him to a solitary land; and he shall let the goat go in the wilderness.”

In the Bible, the Israelites placed their sins with the attendant blame and guilt upon the head of the scape-goat and sent the goat into the wilderness, bearing away their sins. Scape-goating today is the name of an unhealthy psychological process in which a group blames and punishes a certain person or group of people for the society’s ills. The Jews were convenient scape-goats. Bauer again has an apt description of the scape-goating process on page 330: “In periods of crisis, instead of searching for the solutions of such crises within the majority culture, the majority will tend to project blame for the crisis on a minority which is both familiar and weak.”

In his lecture “The Jews of Western Europe," our Coursera Professor, Peter Kenez, explains that the Jews were blamed for the ills of industrialization. The change from an agricultural to an industrial society, from the close community of rural life to the more impersonal character of urban life, was often painful. Kenez points out that the Jews—although they certainly had not created industrialization—were nonetheless the first to take advantage of the opportunities in an industrial world. The Jews were, therefore, unfairly associated with and blamed for the pains of industrialization.

I would say that the Jews were the ones taking the healthy course of action in the face of industrialization. The Jews looked closely at industrialization, took stock of how they could best adapt, and made the necessary changes so that they could thrive in an industrialized world. Others did not adapt, suffered the pains that attend those who are slow to change in a changing world, and blamed the Jews for the uncomfortable consequences of their own inertia.

To wind up this series of reflections on the WHY of the Holocaust, I would say that the Holocaust was the product of craziness run amok. The Jews were seen as the killers of Jesus Christ and as the murderers of children so that their blood could be used to make matzoh—thus, the Jews were the devil incarnate. The Jews were believed to possess an inferior language and inferior racial traits—thus, the Jews were non-human parasites. From this followed the obsession with racial purity and the fear of possessing the slightest taint of non-Aryan blood. The Nazis’ will to dominate the world and to exterminate all others was projected onto the Jews—and there followed the need to get rid of “them” before they get rid of “us.” All of this culminated in an escalating and all-consuming paranoia that led to the ghetto, to forced emigration, to pograms—and finally to the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

This is mass craziness. Unfortunately, it is not unique. Similar craziness had happened before, as seen in the Inquisition of the 15th and 16th centuries, and it has happened since, as seen in the attempt at ethnic cleansing during the War in Bosnia of the 1990s. I don’t know how to prevent such craziness from happening, but seeing it for what it is does constitute a first step. I don't know when we will take the next step—prevention.

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