How we’ll beat natural hostility

Antisemitism is a deep-rooted human characteristic. Free markets can help us overcome it.

By Daniel Finkelstein, October 23, 2008

We all knew it would happen, didn't we? The question of whether it would didn't come up. We just instantly knew. So I want to ask a different question, the question "why?" And then I want to put this to you - are we all that much better?

The moment Lehmans went belly-up we knew there would be people who would blame it on the Jews. And when Congress rejected the President's bailout plan, we all just waited for the newsreaders to point out that a new plan couldn't be agreed because of Rosh Hashanah, and for the conspiracy nutters to get to work with that.

We didn't have to wait all that long, either. As the JC reported, a load of New York bankers and billions of dollars was too much for the antisemites to resist. Which only leaves this question - why? And I am afraid I have a gloomy answer. I fear that antisemitism is very deep inside human beings. I think, essentially, that it has always been there.

As human beings, we struggle to ensure the survival of our genes. Those who are most successful in that struggle pass on their successful survival strategy to their descendants. So our behaviour is, to a large extent, inherited. Over the generations, those inclined to behave in certain ways have survived while others have not.

Evolutionary psychologists have puzzled over our willingness to help our fellow beings even when they are not genetically related. Why do we do that? It isn't a simple product of being human, because animals do it, too. By observing vampire bats, the psychologists discovered an answer.

Helping others is a successful survival strategy for bats. When the bat has enough blood to feed others in its group, it does so. And the reason is that it will be helped in turn, when it needs feeding. Sharing, then, is a good strategy, if, and only if, that sharing is going to be reciprocated.

Human beings evolved in the same way. We may favour our relatives, those who carry our genes, but we are willing to help others, in the expectation that the help will be reciprocated.

How, though, can we be certain that those we co-operate with won't simply bank our help and refuse to return it? We can't be. So we do our best to increase the chances of reciprocation.

We do it by joining up with groups of people who are as like us as possible. You can see that behaviour all around us. Professions, for instance, where members look like each other and dress like each other. Elaborate traditions and rules are created, explicitly and implicitly, that increase group cohesion. This creates the atmosphere of trust that allows humans to collaborate.

There is, however, a downside. A big downside. We have evolved as beings who co-operate with others like us, forming groups. Unfortunately, we have also evolved as beings who treat those not in our group aggressively. The instinct to fear strangers and fight with them is deep within us.

A big clue that inter-group violence is an evolutionary strategy, that the whole thing is really about perpetuating our genes, is that aggression between groups is at its worst when a member of one group tries to mate with a member of another.

Antisemitism, then, cuts very deep indeed. It is the result of an instinct to be suspicious of, and aggressive towards, those who belong to another group. The sheer success, cohesion and longevity of the Jewish community has made us a particular target.

It is, in my view, one of the great aims of civilisation that we should stop behaving aggressively to other groups. It is one of the reasons why I profoundly disagree with those who believe that television has made us less civilised. Television helps familiarise us with those we might otherwise regard as strangers. And one result is that we begin to treat them more like members of our own group.

It is also the reason why I believe in free market capitalism. The genius of capitalism is that it allows us to get strangers to reciprocate favours - creating peaceful rather than aggressive relations between members of different groups.

And the internet, which seems at the moment to be the friend of the nutters, will in the end prove the friend of civilisation. It, too, will turn strangers into collaborators.

Yet the Jewish people need not sit there waiting for technology to do its work. There are things for us to do, too. If it is our aim to reduce the aggression between groups, perhaps we can start by ending the aggressive way we, one faction to another, behave towards each other.

Daniel Finkelstein is associate editor of The Times

Last updated: 12:27pm, October 23 2008