Arming Our Children Against Anti-Semitism
To the Editor:
Bruno Bettelheim’s article (“How Arm Our Children Against Anti-Semitism?” in the September COMMENTARY) is the best thing that I have read on the subject.
The difficulty I find in implementing Dr. Bettelheim’s thesis is that it would seem to require the proper emotional and mental conditioning not only of all of the Jewish children before they have reached their fourth year, but of the children included in the world’s population. Then, one is confronted in the restricted Jewish area with the vicious circle that parents are called upon to rid themselves of their own anxieties before they can deal with their children. But how are the parents to do that when they themselves have not had the proper conditioning before reaching their fourth year?
New Orleans Jewish Welfare Fund
New Orleans, Louisiana
To the Editor:
I believe Bruno Bettelheim did Kurt Lewin an injustice when he described him as “a distinguished proponent” of the idea that “group belongingness” can best be attained by having children educated in parochial schools. After reading Bettelheim’s article I was moved to reexamine Lewin’s position as set forth in his paper “Bringing up the Jewish Child” (in Resolving Social Conflicts). While their formulations and emphasis are no doubt different, the gulf between them, as I see it, is not unbridgeable.
Unlike so much of his other work, Lewin’s paper was not written for the professional psychologist. On the contrary, it was intended as guidance for parents. Although he stressed the need for group belongingness, he did not point to any specific path to that end. He realized that some would find it in the parochial school, some in the synagogue, some in family ritual, others in the dietary laws, and perhaps still others in Zionism, language, folk music, or humor. . . .
That this is the correct interpretation to be put on Lewin’s work can be seen from the fact that nowhere in the article does he mention the parochial school as the solution to the problem. He concedes the ambiguity of Jewishness and holds that, whether Judaism be conceived as a religion, race, nationality, or culture, children must be armed against anti-Semitism. . . . In short, Lewin urges the Jewish parent to acknowledge his Jewishness, and by some means to foster in his children the sense that they are members of a less privileged minority. A child so reared might, incidentally, be as familiar with “Jew” as was Dr. Bettelheim’s daughter with “shoe” and would know that her friends called her “a Jew” because she was in fact a Jew.
While Dr. Bettelheim grants that the individual gains immeasurably from the sense of security that results from belonging to the larger Jewish group, he goes on to argue that the key to the problem lies in rearing emotionally stable children by establishing security and self-respect within the family group, thus creating the impression that the two views are mutually exclusive. The conclusions of Lewin’s research on the effect of harmonious and democratic relationships in the home, school, and factory, bear witness to the fact that he too would place primary emphasis on parental care, warmth, love, protection, etc. What he is asserting is that these are necessary but not sufficient ways to arm children against anti-Semitism.
Dr. Bettelheim grants too that “the older Jewish child, at the proper time, must be educated openly and realistically” about anti-Semitism. While Lewin urges parents to develop the sense of belongingness “very early,” Dr. Bettelheim, on the other hand, believes that any attempt “to explain matters to the satisfaction of the young child may actually have mischievous consequences.” The difference, for the most part, therefore, seems to be one of timing. Bettelheim’s “proper time” appears to come later than Lewin’s “early age.” And yet neither one is wholly right because in each instance what steps to take and when to take them would depend upon the nature of the community and the problems faced by the child in his daily activities. There is, then, no universal principle which can be applied blindly without regard to the facts in the case. . . .
Brooklyn, New York
To the Editor:
Since Dr. Bruno Bettelheim’s advice to Jewish parents, in the September COMMENTARY, was intended at least in part as a refutation of the position of Kurt Lewin and other advocates of a positive Jewish environment for children, it may be appropriate to examine some of the underlying differences between the two points of view. . . .
Drastically oversimplified, Lewin’s position on the issue in question may be outlined roughly as follows: Jewish children are born into a group characterized by a common past and to a certain extent a common future, with both positive and negative implications deriving from their Jewish identification. The positive aspects include the potential inheritance of a rich culture and literature, and the opportunity for identification with the Jewish people and their various institutions; the negative aspects include the underprivileged status of a minority group member, and the harsh realities of discrimination. If, in such a situation, Jewish group membership is experienced only in its negative aspect, and its positive values are ignored or denied, then the individual would appear likely to look upon his Jewishness as an unwelcome burden, and to meet prejudice with greater or less frustration and inner conflict. If, on the other hand, Jewish children are surrounded by a positive Jewish “atmosphere” in their developing years, then their Jewishness should become a source of personal enrichment and satisfaction and any slights suffered on that account would be met with greater confidence and security. . . .
Dr. Bettelheim appears to proceed from a different premise regarding Jewish identification. Starting with the assumption that much of Jewish participation and activity derives from the “supreme motivation” of self-defense, he questions the feasibility of strengthening the group belongingness of Jewish children on the basis of the “unalterable reality” of cultural integration for many Jews, and the inevitable fears of children of being in any respect different from others. . . .
In addition to questioning whether it is possible to “contrive” the kind of group identification envisaged by the advocates of positive Jewish education, Dr. Bettelheim goes so far as to question whether it would be desirable in any case, apparently feeling that “belongingness” may be too high a price to pay for immunity to prejudice. The exact basis of this doubt is not made clear.
To be sure, the foregoing references to certain aspects of Dr. Bettelheim’s discussion do not in any way do justice to the many psychological insights and penetrating observations that comprise the bulk of his paper. Nevertheless, it seems difficult to avoid the conclusion that there is little positive valuation of Jewish culture or identification per se to be found in his analysis, and that herein may lie the basis of his inability to accept Lewin’s arguments. . . .
Sidney E. Zimbalist
School of Social Work
St. Louis, Missouri
To the Editor:
I am truly grateful for the article “How Arm Our Children Against Anti-Semitism?” in the September issue of COMMENTARY.
In my view, Dr. Bettelheim’s essay has not only great intrinsic merit as a solid and thoroughly scientific treatment of the subject, but renders a first-class public service of enlightenment to the Jewish community. It did my heart good to see how he demolished the late Kurt Lewin’s views, which are, to my mind, false in theory and harmful in practice, being all too facile and panacea-promising.
The reference to anti-Semitism as a “psychological necessity” to the Jew is as timely as it is profoundly true. I am convinced that in the interests of Jewish mental health and rational living, this must be said again and again.
Johannesburg, South Africa