Communicating Anti-Jewish Ressentiments

This empirical study examines the communication of ressentiments in mainstream German society.

A number of empirical studies have shown that, in Germany, anti-Jewish ressentiments persist not only in specific milieus and in peripheral social groups but also in mainstream society, among average citizens. In contrast to previous studies, this qualitative research project does not aim to ascertain the degree of dissemination of anti-Jewish ressentiments in the Federal Republic of Germany by means of representative surveys using questionnaires or telephone interviews. Instead, the focus is on whether and if so how anti-Jewish ressentiments are articulated by average German citizens in conversations with others. More precisely, what self-chosen words and what rhetorical and argumentative schemes and strategies are employed to communicate such ideas in groups, and how might they be legitimated, verified, and fuelled? On the other hand, how are such articulations countered or contradicted? Thus, this work addresses the communication of ressentiments in actu and the textures of arguments generated in the process as well as, in contrast or in comparison, communication about Jews that is free of such ressentiments or opposes them. The analytical orientation of this study is subject-oriented, phenomenological, and hermeneutic.

Thirty-two group discussions and some one hundred and thirty interviews with individuals, all of them conducted in two cities in eastern Germany and two in western Germany form the empirical basis of this study. In each city, four groups that differed in age and education background from one another were involved for a total of sixteen groups. These groups were recruited from among pupils at schools or vocational schools, students at colleges for applied sciences, teachers, and participants in adult education courses. The youngest, those in the first group of pupils, were on an average eighteen at the time data was collected; the oldest, those who attended public adult education classes, were between fifty-five and sixty-five years of age. The average ages of the other two groups were between the average ages of the first and fourth. Nearly all respondents, including those who were attending vocational school at the time, had graduated from Realschule. The majority of participants in the other three groups had successfully completed their Abitur or Fachabitur. Besides the teachers, who all had academic degrees, a large number of those who were participants in adult education programs were college or university graduates, including chemists, engineers, physicians, and retired teachers, who had previously taught subjects ranging from art to history. The numbers of men and women were roughly equal. All respondents were native-born Germans; the few exceptions, all of them people who lived in western Germany, were born abroad, had become German citizens, and had been residents of the Federal Republic of Germany for many years at the time of data collection. The student cohorts in the western Germany cities included a small number of young people from the eastern part of the country and vice versa. Most interlocutors described themselves as interested in political affairs and were asked in individual interviews conducted before the group discussions what political party they would vote for if elections for the German federal parliament were held on the following Sunday. The spectrum of replies indicated that, besides the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats as the parties most often chosen, participants expressed their support of all other parties represented in the Bundestag. Only one respondent endorsed (albeit, rather half-heartedly) a right-wing party, namely, the NPD.

Each of the sixteen group discussions involved two sessions that addressed a total of seven pre-selected topics related to recent political issues and debates. Of these, one focused on the "conflict in the Middle East" and another took up "immigration to Germany"; within the framework of the second, the question of immigration of Russian-Jewish refugees was expressly mentioned.

Although only two of the seven topics for discussion explicitly suggested an opportunity to talk about Jews, many of the one-and-one-half to two-hour group sessions included sequences that centered on Jews. Most of these sequences were long, self-directed, and at times rather turbulent. Thus, the empirical material collected in these groups is extensive and complex.

Work on the study, which is now nearing completion, centers on the reconstructive interpretation and comparative analysis of the empirical data. This analysis and interpretation aims to elucidate the topics and rhetoric as well as the textures of arguments generated in speaking about Jews; the processes in which communities of interpretation, agitation, and (superstitious) belief that are characterized by ressentiments emerge; discern categories or ideal types of communication, ranging from those that are driven by ressentiments to those that might be labeled as anti-anti-Semites; and possible differences in the idioms of ressentiments in western and eastern Germany.

Comparative and contrastive methods are employed here to heighten both the discriminatory power of data interpretation and the value of the results of this process for theoretical insights. Among the questions addressed in this process are definitions of such terms as ressentiment and prejudice or stereotype and topos, as words frequently used synonymously not only in everyday speech but also in the social sciences; examination of the interaction between persistence and variance in anti-Jewish ressentiments; and images of the Jew and collective self-representations.