The psychology of obsession

Understanding the fixation on Israel and the Jewish people through the lens of OCD.

Anti-Israel protesters in front of the Plaza Hotel in New York City, Dec. 23, 2023. Photo by Syndi Pilar/Shutterstock.
Anti-Israel protesters in front of the Plaza Hotel in New York City, Dec. 23, 2023. Photo by Syndi Pilar/Shutterstock.
Sacha Roytman. Credit: Courtesy.
Sacha Roytman
Sacha Roytman is CEO of the Combat Antisemitism Movement (CAM).

The intricate dynamics of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), characterized by persistent, intrusive thoughts and the compulsion to engage in repetitive behaviors, offer a profound metaphor for understanding the enduring fixation on Israel, the Jewish people and the deeply rooted issue of antisemitism.

While this analogy is not meant to trivialize OCD, it illuminates the irrational persistence of societal fixations that closely mimic the disorder’s mechanisms.

Jews have faced intense scrutiny and aggression throughout history, a pattern that persists despite the establishment of the State of Israel. This societal phenomenon parallels OCD, wherein an individual fixates on irrational thoughts or behaviors.

Societies have long harbored obsessions with Jews and Israel fueled by myths, stereotypes and conspiracy theories that, despite being thoroughly discredited, continue to influence international viewpoints, policy-making and public discourse.

Effective OCD treatments, such as Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), rely on patients acknowledging and contesting their irrational thoughts and actions. However, when individuals perceive their compulsions as rational and indispensable, it resembles a state of psychosis in which delusions and hallucinations affirm the necessity of their actions.

This mirrors how some individuals justify their biases against Jews and Israel, despite evidence to the contrary. This necessitates a sophisticated approach to treatment and intervention.

Helping a patient move from a state of “antisemitic psychosis” to a treatable “neurosis” is complex. Some extremist groups like Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and white supremacists may prove resistant to change and require containment or confinement to protect society from potential harm.

For those more open to dialogue, a skilled approach involves “joining” the patient in their delusional world, seeking common ground and guiding them to recognize their delusions as irrational.

In the context of antisemitism, this would entail engaging with individuals willing to participate in civil discourse, agreeing to examine facts while allowing them to express their views and explore the origins of their beliefs.

The ultimate goal is to either help the “patient” see their “antisemitic psychosis” as an irrational, ego-dystonic “OCD” that can be treated through education or to contain the psychosis and resulting dangerous behaviors through legal means like involuntary hospitalization if they pose a threat to others.

To break this historical cycle, it is imperative to address the roots of our societal anxieties and resist falling back on familiar patterns of blame and conspiracy. Education is pivotal in challenging the myths and stereotypes fueling antisemitism and the obsession with Israel.

Much like ERP therapy, which encourages individuals with OCD to face their fears without resorting to compulsive behaviors, exposing society to factual, unbiased information about Israel and the Jewish community can effectively disrupt the cycle of fixation and unfounded allegations.

The Combat Antisemitism Movement (CAM) champions an immersive approach, positing that firsthand experiences in Israel could profoundly change perceptions. Many displaying antisemitic tendencies have never personally encountered Jewish individuals or visited Israel. The foundation of their views is baseless conspiracy theories. This strategy of direct engagement and exposure to facts is designed to foster understanding and empathy, challenging deep-seated biases and misconceptions.

Yet addressing antisemitism and the fixation on Israel within this framework necessitates a comprehensive strategy that leverages psychological principles employed in OCD treatment. Viewing antisemitism through the lens of a mental disorder challenges established societal norms and calls for a concerted effort to surmount this bias. Like OCD, which requires a personal commitment to managing anxiety without relying on compulsive behaviors, combating antisemitism demands acknowledging historical patterns of scapegoating and conspiracy, combined with an active effort to foster a more informed and nuanced discourse.

This approach highlights a critical distinction: The willingness to recognize antisemitic behaviors and engage in therapy. Analogous to the way some individuals with OCD are prepared to seek treatment, recognizing the baselessness of their thoughts and actions, a segment of society is similarly willing to face and rectify their antisemitic prejudices.

Conversely, a troubling comparison emerges with those who either dismiss the irrationality of their antisemitic beliefs or wholeheartedly endorse them, gravitating towards extremist ideologies like neo-Nazism, radical leftism and radical Islamism. In these circles, antisemitism is not just prevalent; it is a deeply embedded and celebrated part of the ideology.

The progression from unacknowledged or rejected prejudice to vehement ideological antisemitism signifies a perilous shift from ego-dystonic to ego-syntonic conditions in which destructive actions and convictions are seamlessly assimilated into one’s self-concept and perceived as logical and imperative.

Educational initiatives must provide accurate historical and contemporary perspectives on Jewish history and Israel’s geopolitical stance. Moreover, programs that promote direct cultural and interpersonal exchanges can greatly diminish prejudices, paving the way for mutual understanding and respect.

The OCD metaphor offers a valuable framework for analyzing and addressing antisemitism and fixations on Israel. By employing strategies used in OCD treatment, we can dismantle these irrational biases.

Our journey towards eradicating antisemitism mirrors the individual battle against OCD, emphasizing the importance of education, comprehension and the rejection of baseless narratives. As we commit to breaking the cycle of obsession and bias, we inch closer to a future free from such prejudices, fostering a world marked by tolerance, understanding and peace.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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