The 3000+ year history of the Jewish People is inextricably linked to the history of our persecution. The number of massacres, antisemitic legislation, ethnic cleansings, forced conversions, and genocides our ancestors have been subjected to is difficult to fathom. Though our identity is so much more than the people that have tried and continue to try to exterminate us, it’s inevitable that the Jewish experience has been heavily shaped by the experience of antisemitism.
In fact, many of our holidays, such as Hanukkah, Purim, and Passover, tell the story of our persecution and survival.
The psychological effects of political persecution and displacement (i.e. asylum seekers, refugees) are well-documented, particularly in those who’ve experienced said traumas while under the age of five. There appears to be a strong connection between those who experience trauma in early childhood and the development of mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. Those who experience political persecution and displacement at later ages — even into adulthood — have significantly higher rates of depression and PTSD.
As Jews, we are not only grappling with our personal traumatic experiences with antisemitism, but also carrying the heavy burden of 3000 years worth of intergenerational trauma. A slew of studies demonstrate that children of Holocaust survivors experience much higher levels of stress and stress-related disorders than their Jewish counterparts who are the children of non-Holocaust survivor parents. The grandchildren of Holocaust survivors also experience higher rates of anxiety and depression than the general population.
In recent years, studies on epigenetics have shown that environmental factors — particularly the experience of highly stressful events — can affect the genes of your children and even grandchildren. Traumatic events such as the Holocaust can affect the body’s ability to regulate cortisol, also known as the “stress hormone.”
Some newer studies are even starting to suggest that perhaps you can inherit the memory of trauma. However, that research is rather new and still evolving.
Jewish trauma, however, is not passed down exclusively through genetics.
For example, between 46-55% of Holocaust survivors suffer from severe PTSD, as opposed to only 12.5-45% of WWII veterans. It’s important to note that in reality those numbers were probably much higher, but studies on PTSD are a relatively new development (as opposed to in the years following WWII).
The vast majority of Holocaust survivors found refuge in Israel. In the 1950s, statistics from Israeli hospitals showed that around 2000 Holocaust survivors were chronically and repeatedly hospitalized in psychiatric hospitals, with the most common diagnosis being schizophrenia.
Holocaust survivors suffering from mental health conditions — or Jewish survivors from any sort of persecution-related trauma — could likely create a home environment that would have negative impacts on their children. For example, a Holocaust survivor might hoard food or force their children to eat past full, which would in turn create a traumatic situation for the child.
Jewish trauma is not just a thing of the past. A 2005 study found that aging Holocaust survivors are at an increased risk of suicide. The study focused on elderly patients admitted into psychiatric hospitals in Israel; of the patients in the study, 14.6% of the Holocaust survivors had attempted suicide in the month prior to admission. Of the patients with no Holocaust experience, only 8.2% attempted suicide.
Studies from the late 90s indicate that Jewish males have significantly higher rates of depression than the general population. A 1992 study from the National Institutes of Health also found that Jews have higher rates of schizophrenia, depression, and various phobias than their non-Jewish counterparts.
In 2013, it was discovered that Ashkenazi Jews have a genetic variation that makes them 40% more likely to develop schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, and bipolar disorder.
Contemporary antisemitic violence also has a devastating effect on Jewish mental health. 40% of Jewish children living in the Israel-Gaza border town of Sderot suffer from PTSD, a rate that is four times higher than that of children in the rest of the country.
Beyond personal and family traumas, the Jewish People as a whole are also grappling with a tremendous collective trauma.
Collective trauma is a psychological effect affecting an entire group of society that has experienced a highly traumatic event. Collective traumas are known to play an important role in identity formation, which would explain why the descendants of Holocaust survivors so strongly identify with the experience of their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.
Another key finding from collective trauma studies is that successful rehabilitation for survivors is near impossible in settings where the entire society has experienced said trauma. It’s worth noting that over half of Israeli Jews are the descendants of Jews who experienced the ethnic cleansing in the Middle East and North Africa. As of January of this year, there are still 192,000 Holocaust survivors alive in Israel.