Antisemitism Influences Freud’s Jewish Identity

Review of Merle Molofsky’s (Ed.) Jew-Hating: The Black Milk of Civilization (International Psychoanalytic Books, 2022), ISBN: 978-1- 956864-35-9, 356 pages, paperback, $35.
Written by Eva Fogelman, 2024.

Anti-Semitic incidents rose 12% from 2018 to 2019, with 56% more harassment cases, according to the ADL. (Ted Eytan / Creative Commons)

The current proliferation of expressions of antisemitism motivates psychoanalysts to take a look backward and explore how Freud manifested his Jewish identity, living as a Jew in Vienna in the rampant antisemitic milieu of Central Europe at the turn of the 20th century. This is not surprising since Freud’s identity as a Jew plagued him as well. Merle Molofsky, editor of Jew-Hating: The Black Milk of Civilization, has compiled a multifaceted, engrossing collection of 13 essays in response to Arnold Richards’ incisive lead essay, “Freud’s Need Not to Believe.” Richards combines Freud’s commitment to cultural assimilation (Bildung), the impact antisemitism had on his Jewish identity, and how “Freud’s godlessness” influenced some of his theories.

Some of the reactions in Molofsky’s book are personal; others emphasize Freud’s ideologies as a reaction to being subjected to antisemitic attacks; a few essays outline the history and various types of anti- semitism; and yet others explore the extent to which Freud was influenced by Jewish texts of Kabbala, mysticism, and the Bible. To enhance the relevance of the subject of antisemitism, Molofsky includes an essay by Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, which focuses on the current rise of antisemitism. In her book, Molofsky reviews an edited book on the new antisemitism. Further, in the addendum, Jacob Arlow’s essay on the blood libel accusation against Jews is noteworthy.

Psychoanalyst Arnold Richards is at the forefront of re-examination of Freud as a Jew. His essay is replete with evidence of Freud’s knowledge of Yiddish and Hebrew from childhood, which he minimized in his adult years. Richards offers a useful chronology of Freud’s encounters with antisemitic attacks, which began when Freud was a student in Gymnasium, where he was made to feel that he belonged to an “alien race” (p. 20). Freud understands that he “must take up a definite position” (p. 20). Richards concludes with a significant psychohistorical insight that Freud’s “contempt for religion was not based in his childhood and not in his personal—psychological history, but after adolescence in his social—psychological history” (p. 21). More specifically, it is Freud’s shame of his fellow Jews who appear as different and follow ancient rituals. This shame is what shapes his identity as a “godless” Jew.

Molofsky collects noteworthy essays in Jew-Hating, which together result in fascinating discussions of Richards’ analysis of a “godless Freud.” Each essay strengthens Richards’ point of view or adds new dimensions. For example, David Lotto concludes that Freud’s “militant godlessness” was not a rejection of his Jewish identity. Lotto explains how Freud’s anti-religious dogma emphasized his devotion to science, which to Freud is antithetical to religion. Jewish observance of rituals and Jews’ manner of dress are fodder for antisemites. Lotto goes on to explain that since all infants need to be taken care of by “all-powerful parents,” there is no need for God. Therefore, religion can be viewed as an illusion.

A different point of view for why Freud rejected religion is expressed by Daniel S. Benveniste in “Musings on Arnold Richards Paper.” Benveniste suggests that Freud, in renouncing his Jewish religious tradition, can be understood as disavowing the Jewish mysticism of Kabbala, which Benveniste claims is more similar to psychoanalysis. Another intriguing interpretation is that Freud’s father may have been wise not to fight the antisemite who threw off his hat. Therefore, says Benveniste, “Freud’s conflicts with his father [are] only secondary [to] the antiSemitic bullies” (p. 38). The positive outcome of the antisemitism Jews confronted “created a community of outsiders” (p. 39), which enabled Jews to become “critics and innovators in art, literature, and science” (p. 39), including Karl Marx, Albert Einstein, Ludwig Fleck, and of course, Freud.

Adding to our understanding of antisemitism’s influence on Freud’s psychoanalysis is Pamela Cooper-White. Cooper-White, an ordained Episcopal priest, was sensitized to antisemitism in growing up with friends whose parents had numbers on their arms. She embarked on a study to read the minutes of Freud’s Wednesday Night Psychological Society, which was attended mainly by Jews, and to study Freud’s writings published from those gatherings. The participants discussed a wide range of interdisciplinary topics, from the paranormal to religion in different historical periods and cultures. Cooper-White concluded that religion was not just viewed in negative terms, but that it advanced “the sublimations and compromise formation necessary for civilization” (p. 196). Most importantly, Cooper-White stresses that the “repressive Austrian Catholicism casts its shadow over everyone in Vienna” (p. 197).

Cooper-White’s findings substantiate Richards’s thesis that the social pressure of the other Jewish analysts played a role in Freud’s god- lessness. However, her research led her in a new direction. She views the antisemitism of the time as an impetus to develop psychoanalysis in order to understand the psyche of racists. Cooper-White bemoans that “psychoanalysis has been among the slowest to recognize the impact of context of the psyche — both on the level of the individual patients’ suffering, and at the level of society” (p. 198).

In the addendum to Jew-Hating, the reader is introduced to Arlene Kramer Richards’s incisive review of Dennis Klein’s historical analysis of the psychoanalytic movement, the place of Jews in psychoanalysis in America, and current antisemitism. The authors make a convincing case that Jewish analysts had to assimilate to integrate into the greater society and achieve the upward mobility that had been denied to Jews. Freud was pessimistic about the possibility of his psychoanalytic theories as a science to spread to the outside world. He was convinced that this could only happen if a non-Jew would disseminate his ideas.

Salvador Dali. Nightmare of Moses – Moses and Monotheism. Original engraving, lithograph on soft glove sheepskin. Edition 1975. “The Official Catalog of the Graphic Works of Salvador Dali” by Albert Field. Ref. 75-2, page 100. Published by The Salvador Dali Archives.

In Moses and Monotheism (1939), Freud’s final portrayal of himself as a Jew, Freud identifies himself as the Moses who will never see the land and portrays C. G. Jung as the Joshua who will lead the people to the promised land. Antisemitism ultimately influenced Freud to acknowledge, at the age of 70: “I prefer to call myself a Jew.”

Eva Fogelman, PhD, is a social psychologist, a psychotherapist in private practice in New York, a filmmaker, and the author of the award-winning Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust (1995). Dr. Fogelman moderates the podcast The Blue Card Stories.

Publication Date:Spring 2024


Eva Fogelman. “Antisemitism Influences Freud’s Jewish Identity”. Vol 30 Number 3, Spring 2024. Clio’s Psyche.

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