Could Strengthening the Association Between Antisemitism and Mental Illness Help to Curb It?
This antisemitic sign targeting Jews at Yale University was posted in New Haven, Conn. Photo: Twitter.
In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) removed homosexuality from its official Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM.) Aside from defusing the anger and shame of many gays and lesbians — which helped to improve their mental health — the APA shift facilitated great strides in the social, cultural, political, and legal arenas in subsequent decades. As unceremoniously absurd as the overnight change of status was, it remains a stunning model of social engineering, cultural amelioration, and of what grassroots political activism can achieve. As a Jew fighting antisemitism, I find this very instructive.
If the APA has the power to de-stigmatize human behavior by eliminating supposed disorders, might it have the power to stigmatize and shun other behavior by adding previously unlisted ones?
I would like to propose that if renewed research on antisemitism can more forcefully demonstrate its association with psychopathology, its institutional recognition through the APA manual may help to curb it.
There is indeed a body of literature that makes a good case for antisemitism as a sign or symptom of serious mental illness. To be accurate, antisemitism itself would not be the disorder, but the content of some other structural disorder, such as delusional or narcissistic personality disorder.
Furthermore, it has been broadly proposed by several prominent researchers that racist and antisemitic feelings, thoughts, and behaviors can be a principal co-occurring symptom of psychopathology.
Neuroscientist Mortimer Ostow has done great work in this field. Ostow conducted a major study and concluded plainly that “to the question of whether there is a mental health component to antisemitism, the answer at least statistically, is yes.” Through his interviews with patients, Ostow found that the more one held antisemitic beliefs, the more likely they were to harbor psychotic thinking.
Psychologists Carl C. Bell and Edward Dunbar used a prejudice rating scale to assess and describe levels of prejudice. They too found clear associations between highly prejudiced people and other indicators of psychopathology.
It is time for the American Psychiatric Association to designate extreme racism as a mental health problem by recognizing it as a delusional psychotic symptom.
To be clear, my goal here is not to shame and stigmatize the truly mentally ill. Psychopathological antisemitism should be regarded as a cry for help, whether from a crazed gunman in Kansas City, a delusional British politician or rock star, or an abused and despairing Arab teen.
However, let me be equally clear that for the social/cultural antisemite, I do believe that shaming and stigmatizing is in order, because their bigotry, willful ignorance, and misinformation are shameful and dangerous.
We must devise smarter, reinvigorated strategies for curbing the misplaced and deadly enmity that is antisemitism. I call on researchers, scholars, academics, and activists to consider new research with workable data, so that we may lobby the APA to help us combat the scourge of antisemitism.
Dahn Hiuni is a New York-based Israeli artist, playwright, and freelance academic. He is a research fellow at the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy. Please see dahnhiuni.com or isgap.org for a more extensive article on the subject.