On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I Am Reminded Our Struggle is Against Human Nature


Human nature is the real enemy when it comes to divisiveness.




At my synagogue in Milwaukee, we celebrated the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day yesterday with a panel discussion about the intersectionality of anti-Semitism and racism. What we had forgotten is that yesterday was also the first-year anniversary of the hostage taking of a synagogue in Texas.

Once again, we are reminded that anti-Semitism is often the “canary in the coal mine” with the potential to remind individuals of the danger around us. The danger holds true for all groups that are scapegoated by those with power, including the dozens of Ukrainians killed yesterday in a missile strike by Russia.

I was seated in the middle of the panel with 2 younger Black women activities, one of whom was also Jewish. I, given my age, had embarked on my career in psychiatry during the Civil Rights era, deciding to devote myself to the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam, to try to help heal the world by helping those in more need.

I imagined if Rip Van Winkle had slept from then to now, some progress might be seen in the condition among Black individuals in the United States, but some things might actually be worse as far as anti-Semitism goes. Police brutality to Black individuals is complemented by rising anti-Semitic hate incidents toward Jewish individuals. But this is no desired contest about who is more in danger.

As I was trained, psychodynamic psychiatrists look below the surface to try to understand recalcitrant thinking and emotional problems in our patients. The relationship between Black individuals and Jewish individuals has ebbed and flowed over the past 60 years, but the conflicts between different cultures, religions, belief systems, and surface appearances, have existed around the world throughout history.

As I said during the panel, that leads me to conclude that, as the cartoon character Pogo says, we have met the real enemy and the enemy is us. It is our human nature, a human nature that by historical necessity needed to be able to respond rapidly with fight or flight to perceived real danger. That perception can lead to a quest for safety, security, and well-being by obtaining power and scapegoating the “other.”

Fortunately, the evolution of our cerebral cortex allows us to both quickly and slowly override the fight or flight response when it is unnecessary in our modern times. We can see that challenge in our patients with posttraumatic stress disorder, whose unconscious is on guard should the past trauma reemerge, causing sensitivity to triggers that remind them. The interpersonal unease can also be present in patient and clinician matches of cultural differences. The challenge is to learn what is real danger and what is imaged danger.

That the panel and audience could positively connect with one another and had the bridge of someone who was among the growing number of those both Black and Jewish gives me hope for the future. That younger individuals in general are increasingly becoming mixed and comfortable in terms of cultures and beliefs may ultimately lead to more unity in our diversities, as long as we use our human tools of verifiable trust and psychological insight to get there.

Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who has specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry. A prolific writer and speaker, he received the one-time designation of Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association in 2002. He is an advocate for mental health issues related to climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism for a better world. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times™.

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