Spotting the Enemy

Could you spot a Jew in a crowd? And if so, what does it say about you? These questions, believe it or not, have been the subject of much hair-splitting in the academic study of nonverbal behaviour for the past seventy years. Although nonverbal behaviour (and psychology more generally) does not fall within my “expertise,” I stumbled upon this scholastic circus recently during an evening with some friends. As the night progressed, and not finding the subject of conversation among one group particularly interesting, I drifted towards a smaller knot of individuals who had assembled in front of a television of monstrous proportions. On screen was an inconsequential news item, but what drew my attention was the interviewee. It would be facile for me to name this individual, but I was struck by his appearance. I had neither heard of him, nor seen him previously. Nonetheless, I was struck with a certain sense of recognition. “A Jew,” I said. “He’s a Jew.”

Those nearby, some aghast and some smirking, turned to face me. A female acquaintance sitting nearest to me asked “How can you tell?,” while another nearby asked someone for the name of the interviewee (not, it appears, a typically Jewish name) and reached for his iPhone in an effort to verify my “psychic” supposition. A small number, I noted, began slowly moving away. I remained silent while the technophile consulted his phone, and only when he looked up, smiling and nodding, did I respond to the good lady beside me. I couldn’t then, and still can’t, articulate precisely what it was that led me to deduce that the interviewee was a Jew. The volume of the television was low, so I could neither hear his accent, nor pick up on any of the typically Jewish sound bites like “tolerance” or “persecution.” Having only recently sat in front of the television, I was entirely ignorant as to the content of the news item, and could see no indication as to this man’s profession. In terms of his bodily movements, the interviewee was not a wildly gesticulating remnant of the ghetto. In fact, he was almost perfectly still. To dismiss any further stereotypical notions, his nose looked perfectly European. Rather, it was something about the placement of his eyes, his pallid complexion, the texture of his hair, the shape of his forehead. He struck me as inescapably different. Some of my friends, not entirely satisfied with this explanation, joked that I must have known the man was Jewish. Others, evidently to some extent unsettled, asked quietly how it could be possible for someone to have such an acute awareness of the ethnic origin of someone in whom they themselves could see no visible difference from the White mean. My own curiosity aroused, I departed later that night into the cool evening air with more questions that I had answers.

In the days that followed I departed from my usual daily habits, and devoted some time to a further enquiry into the subject of indentifying Jews by sight alone, ultimately stumbling upon a 2009 paper from the psychology publication, The Journal of Nonverbal Behavior. The paper in question, “Anti-Semitism and Identification of Jewish Group Membership from Photographs,”[1] provides us with a fascinating insight into some of the mechanics of identifying Jews by sight alone. However, riddled as it is with problematic, loaded, and spurious terms, not least of which is “anti-Semite,” much of its value resides in its existence as a propaganda piece, and the blatant manner in which it shifts its theoretical foundations in order to “prove” a preconceived conclusion; to wit, that “anti-Semites” have an extreme deficiency in “interpersonal sensitivity.”

The authors of this article, a team of psychologists from Northeastern University led by Elizabeth Salib, state at the outset that their research arose from an apparent contradiction between early findings relating to ability to discern the Jewish origin of an individual by sight, and more recent research into interpersonal sensitivity. Salib, who has recently collaborated on a project designed to “prove” an “empirical relationship between modern anti-Semitism and opposition to Israel,”[2] states that “early literature found that holding more anti-Semitic attitudes positively predicted ability to discern whether a photograph was of a Jewish or non-Jewish person.”[3] Research since these early studies, some of which dates back to the late 1940s, has indicated that an ability to discern such information from photographs and with a lack of nonverbal ‘cues,’ strongly suggests a high level of interpersonal sensitivity. As Salib et al state: “Researchers generally consider interpersonal sensitivity to be a desirable skill for individuals to have. People who have this skill tend to be better adjusted, less dogmatic, less hostile and manipulating, more democratic as teachers, more effective in human relations-related occupations, more extraverted, less socially anxious, more empathetic, more encouraging and less shy…” In addition, they are “cognitively more complex.”[4]

To Salib and her team (and those providing the funds for this research),  this correlation is simply unconscionable. In their words, the scientifically proven presence of this ability in ‘anti-Semites,’ “contradicts the well established finding that interpersonal sensitivity is generally associated with healthy psychological characteristics.”[5] Already, in the first paragraph of the article, we have departed from any semblance of scientific or academic impartiality. There is no allowance for the fact that someone with ‘anti-Semitic’ beliefs or attitudes (never clearly defined) may be psychologically healthy, that anti-Jewish hostility may be rational under certain sets of circumstances, or that in fact the problem may lie in the deeply problematic terms ‘anti-Semite’ or ‘anti-Semitism.’ As they repeat later in the paper, “considering that ability to detect social group membership is a kind of interpersonal sensitivity, this result lies in direct contrast to the work that suggests that the ability to decode states, traits, or other qualities in another person from minimal nonverbal cues is often correlated with positive personality traits and attitudes.”[6] The goal of the article is therefore clear: since positive identification of ethnic origin from non-verbal cues is a sign of high levels of interpersonal sensitivity, and since interpersonal sensitivity is indisputably deemed a good and “healthy” characteristic, it must be argued that the original studies were flawed, and that in fact, ‘anti-Semites’ are less accurate at identifying Jews than the average white.

Let us first return to the original studies. In 1946, long before the study of interpersonal sensitivity and long before such findings could taint these early experiments, Allport and Kramer found that following a study of student responses, “those who were better able to discern whether a photo was of a person who self-identified as Jewish or a non-Jewish person tended to be more anti-Semitic that those who performed more poorly on this task.”[7] One of the more interesting things to note about this early study was that it was designed to be a typical study of the “authoritarian” personality. What was expected was that those students deemed ‘prejudiced’ following a questionnaire, when presented with an equal number of photos of Jews and whites, would disproportionately lean towards selecting “Jew” for their set of photographs, thereby allegedly proving their paranoia. What became evident, however, was that rather than the expected ‘scattergun approach’ those deemed prejudiced had demonstrated not a ‘trigger happy’ tendency but a significantly greater accuracy in ‘detecting’ Jews among the photographs.

Confronted with these results, Allport and Kramer argued that ethnocentric White students, somehow pathological, “were more prone to see those who were members of a minority group as threats and they had developed the ability to quickly and accurately ‘spot the enemy’ in new environments.”[8] Salib and her crew took issue with this, because in their view prejudice is “maladaptive in many different domains.” Further, the ‘spot the enemy’ hypothesis, they argued, “suggests that there is something to be gained from exercising prejudice.”[9] Again, this is anathema to the worldview they espouse.

Salib et al attempt in the first part of their paper to undermine the basis of the original experiments. This consists primarily of an attempt to argue that the ‘anti-Semites’ had in fact utilized a scattergun approach to the task but that this had not been picked up on because of the methodologies of the early studies. Much time is spent discussing how this could have been missed. For example, certain studies were said to have “confounded accuracy with bias” because they counted only hits, rather than misses or correct rejections. However, the writing in this part of the article, together with its reasoning, is rambling and generally incoherent. More importantly, it ends right back where it started. The only remotely solid conclusions that are reached in relation to the ‘scattergun approach’ are that some of the early studies were “potentially” guilty of confusing accuracy with bias (hardly a concrete assertion), and that some of the more definitive studies such as that of Allport and Kramer, had used an equal number of Jewish/non-Jewish faces and had included correct rejections as well as hits in their data—thereby reinforcing findings that those deemed ‘anti-Semitic’ were more accurate than biased after all. With no real case to stand on, they concede that “it is highly unlikely that methodological factors can explain the inconsistency.”[10]

This is somewhat of an understatement. Tucked away at the end of their paper is a table designed to show the results of the original studies with all possible methodological interference accounted for. Even with these adjustments, and in their own words: “these studies show that those who were more prejudiced towards Jews were more accurate at the Jewish identification task than those who were less prejudiced.”[11] Although they can’t bring themselves to state it explicitly, the implication is clear: that our 1940s ‘anti-Semites’ were better adjusted and psychologically healthier than the average, ‘tolerant’ White.

Faced with these realities, Salib and her team resort to a logic which at first seems reasonable but which quickly corrupts into a twisted fancy. They come to the conclusion that the ‘anti-Semites’ of the 1940s were indeed more accurate, and that Allport and Kramer had been wrong in deeming them pathological—they were healthy, well-adjusted people. They state: “In an earlier era, far from being associated with social deviance or maladjustment, the possession of anti-Semitic attitudes was respectable. At prestigious universities, anti-Semitism was openly espoused by many members of the student body, students’ families, faculty and administration.  Indeed, prejudice against minorities was previously seen as being rooted in normal processes, and the natural superiority of some groups over others.”[12] They conclude their discussion of the earlier studies by arguing that “the high prejudiced person of the past used to possess more well-adjusted psychological characteristics.”[13]

At this point however, we reach an important juncture. To Salib et al., a concession that those with ‘prejudiced’ or ‘anti-Semitic’ views in the present may be rational, healthy or, dare I say it, better adjusted than average is beyond comprehension. The team first set out with their own experiment designed, we can be sure, to first of all show that an ability to discern Jews among ‘modern anti-Semites’ is non-existent. Their study consisted of over 550 Northeastern students, split into five groups. The ‘anti-Semitism’ of a given participant was based on positive responses to such specious questions as: “Do you think Jewish people stick together too much?”[14] Departing  significantly from the methodology of Allport and Kramer, the ethnic make-up of the students was not 100% white—the maximum Caucasian representation in any of the studies was 74%, the lowest being 67.4%. Also complicating matters was the introduction in three of the groups of a range of different ethnicities among their photographs—participants were not faced with a simple choice between Jewish and White, but were bombarded with the faces of mixed-race individuals, Hispanics, and Arabs of varying hues. A veritable sea of foreignness in which to discern a few sparsely scattered Jews (of Ashkenazi or Sephardi origin who can say? The matter was never elaborated on).

Unsurprisingly, given these and other obstacles, the modern study produced the desired result—now it was the ‘average’ American who could better identify a Jew, with the ‘anti-Semite’ now barely able to tell a Dutchman from a sub-Saharan bushman. To the team, this represents a momentous breakthrough, a triumph of scientific rigor. Now, they argue, simply because society no longer deems certain views acceptable, this societal shift has miraculously transformed the ‘anti-Semite’ from the possessor of high levels of interpersonal sensitivity, to one who is representing a “kind of social deviance or pathology.”[15] They state that “because being prejudiced is now seen as abnormal rather than normal, the characteristic of the high prejudiced person and the low prejudiced person have changed over time.”[16]

At this point in the article, I must confess to having increasingly deep doubts over the ability of people using this type of logic to expound on what constitutes ‘normality.’ They elaborate: “The person who espouses high levels of outgroup prejudice today is likely to possess a range of problematic psychological characteristics that are inconsistent with the development of interpersonal sensitivity, whereas we can speculate that the high prejudiced person of the past used to possess more well-adjusted psychological characteristics.”[17] Marvellous! Should we then, in the near future, expect the reputational rehabilitation of Luther, Voltaire, Grant, Stoddard, Chamberlain and untold thousands if not millions of others? I won’t hold my breath.

The article concludes with some rambling and contradictory ruminations on the idea that the ‘spotting the enemy’ hypothesis may hold some validity after all. It is said that in the 1940s “the motive to bar Jews from attaining power and privilege would have been well served by a finely honed ability to identify them.”[18] Now though, with it almost impossible to avoid or exclude Jews, the value of the ability has greatly diminished. According to Salib et al, given that many Jews in modern times do not conceal their group membership “the prejudiced person has much less need to develop sensitivity to subtle cues indicating Jewish group membership.”[19]

However, there are several flaws with this statement. Firstly, the statement that Jews concealed or were able to conceal their group membership in the past isn’t fully elaborated upon. Indeed, given the relatively recent nature of mass Jewish immigration to the United States, Jews in the 1940s would have had fewer means of effective concealment than they have at their disposal today. I am thinking of course in terms of last names, accent, and the persistence of certain traits or mannerisms. This is of crucial importance since the basic premise of the statement is that concealment has changed, or to be more specific, has dramatically reduced.

It also ignores the fact that one of the main concerns among those who would be described as present day ‘anti-Semites’ is that Jewish influence is out of proportion to their population in the United States, and therefore that concealment to them remains as important, if not more so, than ever. In addition, their beliefs are factually defensible, as Jeffrey E. Cohen pointed out in his 2010 Perceptions of Anti-Semitism among American Jews, 2000-05, A Survey Analysis, “politically, Jews are overrepresented in the halls of Congress. In the 110th Congress Jews held 13% of Senate seats, 18% of House seats, and 22% of Supreme Court seats [now 33%], where the Jewish population has been estimated about 2%.”[20] That the vast majority of Jews remain concerned about anti-Semitism despite their being “more successful than other ethnic, racial, and religious groups”, states Cohen, reflects more on the fact that “Jewish identity may sensitize a person to the concept of anti-Semitism and may lead them to interpret some events and behaviors as anti-Semitic,” than any tangible basis to their paranoia.[21] To sum up, just because Jews find it easier than ever before to gain influence, wealth and power, doesn’t necessarily mean that the issue of concealment is no longer a factor for Jews or those deemed ‘anti-Semitic.’ As such, there may be more to the ‘spotting the enemy’ hypothesis than Salib and her team would have us believe.

In any event, I have a party to attend this evening with my previously mentioned friends. I must admit to being rather uneasy though – the latest research suggests they may all be raving anti-Semites!

[1] S. Andrzejewski, J. Hall & E. Salib, “Anti-Semitism and Identification of Jewish Group Membership from Photographs” Nonverbal Behavior, (2009), 33, pp.47-58.

[2] F. Cohen, L. Jussim, & E. Salib “The Modern Anti-Semitism Israel Model: An empirical relationship between modern anti-Semitism and opposition to Israel”, Conflict and Communication, Vol. 10, No.1, 2011.

[3] S. Andrzejewski, J. Hall & E. Salib, “Anti-Semitism and Identification of Jewish Group Membership from Photographs” Nonverbal Behavior, (2009), 33, pp.47-58 (p.47).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, p.48.

[7] G. Allport & B. Kramer, “Some Roots of Prejudice,” Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied, 22 (1946), pp.9-39.

[8] S. Andrzejewski, J. Hall & E. Salib, “Anti-Semitism and Identification of Jewish Group Membership from Photographs” Nonverbal Behavior, (2009), 33, pp.47-58 (p.48).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, p.54.

[11] Ibid, p.52.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid, p.51.

[15] S. Andrzejewski, J. Hall & E. Salib, “Anti-Semitism and Identification of Jewish Group Membership from Photographs” Nonverbal Behavior, (2009), 33, pp.47-58 (p.54).

[16] Ibid, p.54.

[17] Ibid, p.54.

[18] Ibid, p.55.

[19] Ibid.

[20] J. Cohen, “Perceptions of Anti-Semitism among American Jews, 2000-05, A Survey Analysis” Political Psychology, Vol. 31, No1. (2010), pp.85-104 (p.86).

[21] Ibid, p.90.

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