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The "Other" as Threat: Demonization and Antisemitism

by Prof. Yehuda Bauer
Our problem at this conference has been that we tried a first: a discussion of one of the main questions confronting scholars who try to probe intergroup relationships, the issue of how groups relate to others as being essentially different and perhaps threatening, and hence possessed by some dark and mysterious forces.

No one, I think, could have opened the conference better than Saul Friedlaender, who dealt with the European Right and the Jews at the beginning of the twentieth century. The Right's perception of a Jewish threat was not just an aspect of general xenophobia, but had some peculiar characteristics. The most pronounced of these was their belief in a sinister conspiracy of the Jews threatening to undermine and destroy Christian civilization as part of a quest to control the world. This phantasmagoric image was, however, based on a latent level that was not only culturally transmitted but that also expressed some of the most basic fears of the contemporary imagination. The Jewish danger, Friedlaender argued, was perceived as so terrible not only because of the difference between Jews and the societies in which they lived, but precisely because there was a kind of dialectical relationship between that difference and the sameness Äthe similarity and familiarity of the Jew. The Jew was both inside and outside of the collective self, and thus threatened it all the more.

 The Jew was portrayed both as a powerful and sinister demon Äand as a pestilence, subversive and sinister. In the hallucinations of the antisemitic ideologues there was that small but immensely powerful force devouring the brains of the larger societies and gaining control over them. The deepest layer of these fears was that of the alleged formlessness of the Jew, the imagined impossibility of really grasping him, the terror of a ghost, the imagery of suffocation and of gas.

We are not, of course, discussing these matters today in a void, and they are far from being merely abstract. We are influenced by what we see around us. As observers, we feel the impact of the mass media's instant, graphic reporting of the spectacle of Bosnia, Rwanda, Burundi, Chechnya, and many other recent and immediate cases. Can we, as a result of our investigations, explain things better than we could before? Is there then a possibility that we might also help to find solutions? After all, without knowing the whys, there is little hope of finding out the how of prevention or at least mitigation.

There is no doubt that a context was needed, one that might define the larger, global picture, against the background of which we can discuss "The `Other, as Threat."

Where do we stand now? Are we wiser, or more knowledgeable than we were before? I think that we do indeed know more than when we started and that we have dealt with a general problem that may lead back to the world of action. It is obvious enough that we are all opposed to manifestations of antisemitism, xenophobia, viewing the "Other" as threat, to demonization, and any form of racism. We are not objective in this endeavor. We have learned that there is a general psychological background to these negative phenomena, that we need to find out more about the way stereotypes could be changed and the societal conditions that might make this possible. We may not be able to uproot the fear of the demonic or the stigmatization of out-groups in general, but we may be able to weaken it. We know that human beings are quite capable of believing in the most ridiculous superstitions and appeals to reason may not always be the most effective way to counter that tendency. We ought to explore the mass potential of the electronic mass media, of film, the impact of long-term education, and consider the place which religion may have in furthering or opposing negative stereotypes.

The wealth of knowledge assembled and presented here is a prerequisite for further steps and this summary hardly does justice to it. The ultimate goal goes beyond the purely academic -- to paraphrase Marx, our purpose must be not only to explain the world but to change it. However, explanations and understanding are necessary steps before any change can be intelligently implemented. A community of scholars is necessary to present reliable findings, contradictory though these may be, as we grapple with our problems as individual researchers in different disciplines. Such a community can and does at times have an impact on the so-called men and women of action. Some of my best friends are politicians, but societies are too complicated to leave them to their tender mercies.

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