by Paul Reitter
Princeton University Press, 2012, 176 pp., $26.95
eing Jewish is a condition that, to the extent it is taken at all seriously, is hard to contemplate with equanimity. One has to love it or hate it. One can accept citizenship in the gentile nations of the world, on the other hand, with a fatalistic shrug. Their origins are shrouded for the most part in prehistory; their citizens have no common memory of having been anything other than what they are now. They do not hate being what they are any more than fish hate being wet. Their nationality is their element, and so it is taken for granted. One hears rarely, if ever, of Russian, Italian, Malay or Peruvian self-hatred.
Not so the Jews, the only nation in the world that remembers having been summoned into being by a singular, supernatural event that transformed the enslaved descendants of a wandering Aramean into the chosen people of the Creator God. C.S. Lewis once wrote that one must consider Jesus to be either the Incarnate God or a lunatic; one might say similarly of Jews (other than Jesus) that they must think of themselves either as God’s chosen people or as presumptuous megalomaniacs. And if the first option isn’t true, how could one not hate, or at least disparage, them? Even when the predominantly secular Zionist movement set out to found a Jewish state that would make the Jews a nation like any other, it did so to the tune of an inadvertent but inescapably, idiosyncratically Jewish messianism.
Other nations, too, do not punctuate political debates by calling their opponents self-hating Slovaks or Portuguese. Google finds more than two million uses of the term “self-hating Jew” and only three for “self-hating Czech.” But no one hates the Czechs any more—not even the remnant of the 2.4 million ethnic Germans expelled from the country after World War II, for which then-Czech President Václav Havel apologized in 1991. Sudetenland irredentists persisted into the early 1990s before disappearing from German public life.
Not so the descendants of 700,000 or so Palestinians who left the Jewish side of the 1948 partition of Palestine. The raw feelings persist despite the fact that their own leaders were to blame for the refugee debacle in the first place, and despite the parallel expulsion of an equal number of Jews from Arab countries. Among all the population transfers at the end of World War II, the exchange of Arab Jews and Palestinian Arabs still occasions implacable, embittered hatred throughout the Muslim world, which comprises nearly a quarter of humanity. So intense is this hatred, and so great the number of people who bear it, that many non-Muslims, including most of the formerly colonial nations of the Third World, as well as their former colonial masters in Europe, appease the haters by hating Jews as well. Surrounded by so much hatred, some Jews are hard put to find a middle ground between a Zionism they do not embrace and a resigned belief that Jew-hatred is in some way justified. If that isn’t quite self-hatred, it’s the next worst thing.
ews are unique not only in the ubiquity of their self-hatred, but doubly unique in the propensity of some to think of self-hatred as somehow virtuous. That is the slant of Paul Reitter’s catty, convoluted essay On the Origins of Jewish Self-Hatred. Reitter, an Ohio State University Germanist who writes for The Nation, draws on now-obscure, Weimar-era writers to argue that Jews today should hate themselves, the better to be proper universalists. Reitter’s argument is refreshing in its own lurid way. Rather than skirt the charge of “Jewish self-hatred” as applied to the anti-Zionist Left, Reitter embraces it:
As Arab-Israeli relations have worsened over the past decade, the term “Jewish self-hatred” has been thrust back into prominence. . . . Since 2000, the website Masada2000.org has kept a list of “self-hating Israeli traitors”, which includes politically moderate American Jews who believe that Israel is, to some degree, responsible for the severity of the Arab-Israeli conflict. . . . Thus a number of Jewish public figures and intellectuals have felt pressed, during the past decade, to rebut the charge that their criticisms of Israel stem from a self-destructive self-loathing.
The sobriquet “self-hating Jew” is routinely hurled at American Jews with lukewarm feelings about the State of Israel, as well as outright anti-Zionists. In response, anti-Israel Jews either insist that they didn’t suffer from Jewish self-hatred even if others did, or that the concept of Jewish self-hatred was a Zionist canard to begin with. Writing in the Jewish Quarterly of Summer 2008, for example, Anthony Lerman laments:
The concept of the ‘self-hating Jew’ strengthens a narrow, ethnocentric view of the Jewish people. It exerts a monopoly over patriotism. It promotes a definition of Jewish identity which relies on the notion of an eternal enemy, and how much more dangerous when that enemy is a fifth column within the group. . . . It is too much to hope that by revealing just how bankrupt a concept ‘Jewish self-hatred’ is, discourse among Jews on Israel and Zionism could become more productive, both for Jews themselves and for the sake of achieving justice in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
In the usual understanding of the term, “Jewish self-hatred” simply means Jewish anti-Semitism, as in the Viennese playwright Artur Schnitzler’s bon mot, “Anti-Semitism was getting nowhere until the Jews got behind it.” Reitter asks instead, “But why should ‘hatred’ refer here only to self-directed anti-Semitic bigotry? Why shouldn’t the ‘hatred’ in “Jewish self-hatred” refer also to an animus that played itself out more fruitfully and incisively?”
As political invective, Reitter contends, Jewish self-hatred loses the rich and pregnant character with which the term was first imbued by its inventor, the Viennese raconteur Anton Kuh. Kuh and his contemporary, Theodor Lessing, popularized the idea of Jewish self-hatred, albeit from opposing standpoints.
Lessing’s Der jüdische Selbsthaß (“Jewish Self-Hatred”) caused a stir in 1930 with brutal portraits of Jewish contemporaries who had crossed the line into anti-Semitism. Lessing was a courageous man: He lost his teaching job in 1926 after prophetically denouncing Hindenburg as a “zero” behind whom “lurks a future Nero.” Nazi agents murdered him in 1933 after he fled to Czechoslovakia. But his work has aged badly, which may explain why no English translation of his best-known book is available. He is more cited than quoted, as a few extracts (my translation) should make clear:
The ghetto was a piece of romantic antiquity in the midst of the all-civilizing Christian State. Our opposition to the civilized Christian world was untenable. It was precisely as in vain as the resistance of the Indians, Negroes, Arabs, Bedouins, Chinese or Hindus against Kultur.
That is why self-hatred is “not a Jewish phenomenon in any way at all.” On the contrary,
[Self-hatred] is a phenomenon of the whole human race! But this general human phenomenon of self-hatred is illuminated in an especially clear way in the psychopathology of the history of the Jewish people.
Lessing then asked, “What recourse have those who bear such a heavy burden?”
I see three possibilities. First: it is possible that the badly born becomes the judge of the world. He becomes martinet, zealot, guardian of public morals, and preacher of penitence, for there is a strength of ethos that only can arise from corrupted blood. . . . The second path—nobler and greater than the path of the World-Judge and prophet—turns all the thorns against one’s own heart. You acquit the other and become your own judge and executioner. You love the stranger more than yourself. . . . [The third way is that] you become “one of the others” and become fabulously authentic—perhaps a bit too German to be entirely German.
Lessing proposed to resolve the problem through a reinterpretation of Zionism, in which the Jews would propagate the superior German culture in Asia.
More prescient than Lessing was Kuh, the Bohemian literary Luftmensch whose disordered life ended at age fifty in New York with a heart attack in 1941. He not only invented the term “Jewish self-hatred” but drew out its full implications. Gentiles might internalize the negative image that others held of them and come to despise themselves. For the Chosen People, by contrast, self-hatred became a missionary commitment to self-destruction. When Jews hate themselves, they do so in a characteristically Jewish way. Just as Judaism embraces every facet of life, Jewish self-hatred must reach into and ruin Jewish life as a whole, most emphatically the Jewish family. Just as Judaism strives for redemption, Jewish self-hatred seeks a perverse sort of redemption through the utter liquidation of the Jewish people into a bland, ethically nonchalant universal brotherhood.
Unlike Lessing, Kuh abhorred Zionism with Freudian zeal. Zionism “wears a silk patriarchal cap”, Reitter quotes him. “Zionism says yes to what should be rejected, and sees as precious what should be destroyed: family, marriage, and a vengeful God. . . . [it is] the call of the family, rather than that of the world brother. Kuh opposes two archetypes:
The man of the state. Or put more exactly, he is the person who has solidarity with the Ur-sin and the mentality of sexual ownership. The revolutionary: that is the son, the enemy of the family. He is the world person. He wants to atone for his inherited guilt, and he wants a future of freely chosen relationships.
Reitter notes approvingly that Kuh “wants to see the aesthetic self-hatred of the pre-war era become politicized under postwar circumstances; he wants to see it evolve into something that will engender a revolution-inspiring self-awareness.” Kuh was effervescent, irresponsible, obnoxious, self-destructive—and right: The road to Jewish destruction, dissolved away in the tepid soup of “world brotherhood”, does lie in self-hatred, and it does require the destruction of Jewish marriage and the Jewish family.
chnitzler’s joke about Jewish anti-Semitism contained a nugget of truth: Only assimilated German Jews could so thoroughly conflate the Election of Israel with Germany’s national sense of cultural superiority. Kultur had become a substitute religion before the First World War. As historian Peter Watson recounts:
On October 4, 1914, two months into the Great War, ninety-three German intellectuals published . . . the Manifesto of the Ninety-Three, addressed ‘An die Kulturwelt’ (To the Civilized World), in which they . . . made it clear they viewed the war not as a campaign against German militarism but above all as an assault on German culture.
The signatories included physicists Max Planck and William Roentgen, biochemist Paul Ehrlich, psychologist William Wundt, composer Engelbert Humperdinck and the painter Max Liebermann. The great Max Weber wrote in 1916, “It would be shameful if we lacked the courage to ensure that neither Russian barbarism nor French grandiloquence ruled the world. That is why this war is being fought.”
Not long afterward Nazi playwright Hans Johst had a character exclaim, “When I hear Kultur, I release the safety on my pistol.” This is almost always misquoted to suggest that the Nazis disliked culture, which is untrue; Hitler was an artist, if a mediocre one, as well as a music lover. On the contrary, Johst’s line was a reproach to the Wilhelmines for attempting to root the Election of the Germans in Geist rather than race.
Race trumped Kultur after the First World War because Kultur was an avatar for a deeper ambition, namely the Election of the Germans. The preeminent Lutheran theologian Ernst Tröltsch had written in 1903,
The great religious movement of modern times, the reawakened need for religions, develops outside the churches, and by and large outside theology as well. . . . The German faith is a faith in the inner moral and spiritual content of Germanness, the faith of the Germans in themselves, in their future, in their world mission.
Here we can see that the self-hating Jews of Lessing’s generation understood clearly what Paul Reitter utterly fails to grasp; namely, that Jewish self-hatred meant the abnegation of the Election of the Jews in favor of the Election of the Germans. As Michael Geyer and Hartmut Lehmann note, “If the Jews were the people that the Germans wanted to become under Protestant leadership, then they could hardly be included as an integral component of the nation.”
Franz Rosenzweig, the great Jewish theologian of Lessing’s generation, diagnosed his countrymen’s obsession with Election more clearly than any contemporary writer. “Precisely through Christianity the idea of Election has gone out among the individual nations, and along with it the claim upon eternity that goes with Election”, he wrote. The European tribes, though, never satisfied themselves with the promise of eternal bliss in the next world. Instead, they wanted to be eternal in their own skins, to be a chosen nation like eternal Israel. The continued presence of Israel in their midst was therefore a constant reproach to the Gentile pretension to the status of chosen people. Lurking under Christian supersessionism was a deeper hatred borne of tribal envy. That is the Urquell, the primordial source, of Jew-hatred, and Jews who identified with the Election of the Germans in place of Israel became Jew-haters. Unlike Theodor Lessing, Rosenzweig was no Zionist at all; he thought the Jews should stay in Europe to fulfill their providential mission to “convert the inner pagan inside each Christian.” He died in 1929, before the futility of his hopes became evident. But Rosenzweig’s work still speaks to us: He explains why a billion and a third Muslims cannot abide the presence of six million Jews in their own historic homeland. Islam asserts that Jews and Christians rejected the prophecies that were given to them and corrupted their sacred texts, of which the Quran is supposedly the restored original. Islamic countries frequently have tolerated Jews as a second-class and often humiliated minority, but the idea of a powerful and prosperous Jewish state in land formerly part of the Dar al-Islam, and with its capital in Jerusalem, calls into question Islam’s claim to supersession.
Reitter follows a long line of Jewish self-haters who believe that if we hate ourselves strongly enough, our enemies won’t bother to. He misunderstands their motives. The most dangerous anti-Semites believe devoutly in the Election of Israel. They think of Jews the way a pretender to a royal throne regards the rightful heir: Jews may abdicate the crown, but the usurper always will live in fear of the prospective return of the rightful king. That is why Jews can never hate themselves enough to appease the Jew-haters. Germans could not be the Master Race in the continued presence of the Chosen People; Mohammed cannot be the Seal of the Prophets as long as the Biblical prophets still speak through voices of living Jews.
By the same token, Jews who repudiate the idea that God chose them from among all the peoples cannot at length avoid the path indicated by Kuh. Self-hatred is a central leitmotif of secular Jewish culture, as Joseph Rosen observed a September 2001 essay for the Montreal webzine Shtetl:
Jewish self-hatred was first popularized by Woody Allen, whose neurotic self-criticism came to define American-Jewish urbanity in the ’70s and ’80s. . . . By the 1990s, Jewish comedy became even more popular with Seinfeld—where Larry David’s self-loathing was hidden in the generic ethnicity of George Costanza. As Larry David quips, after being accosted for whistling Wagner: “I may hate myself, but it has nothing to do with being Jewish.” The suburban success of Seinfeld marks the moment when Jewish self-hatred was transformed into generic American entertainment. Everybody loves self-hatred.
The comedy of self-hatred, though, accomplishes just what Kuh predicted: the destruction of the Jewish family, the Jewish people in microcosm. Kuh’s “future of freely chosen relationships” is the incessant theme of Woody Allen’s cinema and Philip Roth’s fiction. They have proven Tolstoy wrong: All their unhappy families are unhappy in the same way. And note that while American exceptionalism differs radically from the German pretense to chosenness of the 19th and early 20th centuries, many secular Jews find it more congenial than the Election of Israel, preferring what Lincoln called the “almost chosenness” of America.
Self-hating Jews eventually will cease to be Jews at all. Repudiating the Election of Israel was, after all, the founding premise of Reform Judaism in the early 19th century. It seems to have passed its expiration date. Liberal Jewish denominations are losing members at an alarming rate. A Reform rabbi, Lance Sussman, wrote last year in Jewish Review of Books that “the Reform movement has probably contracted by a full third in the last ten years.” The shrinkage in Conservative Judaism is nearly comparable. By contrast and as a result, almost three quarters of all Jewish children in New York City come from Orthodox families, according to the United Jewish Appeal-Federation’s 2012 demographic survey. As Kuh foresaw, Jews who abhor the “patriarchal silk cap” of traditional Judaism will reject the Jewish family: Secular Jews have the lowest fertility rate of any definable segment of the American population, at barely one child per female, lower than that of any European ethnicity with the possible exception of the Hungarians.
That may explain why observant Jews and orthodox Christians in America find more in common with each other than with the “progressive” wings of their own faiths. Jews cannot accept Jesus of Nazareth’s messianic claims any more than Christians can accept the Jews’ refusal to recognize the man they believe to be the Messiah foretold by the prophets. But they recognize in each other a commitment to a radical truth, even if the truths they acknowledge are mutually incompatible.
By depicting Jewish self-hatred as the evil twin of the Election of Israel, Paul Reitter has done a service, however unintentional, to people of faith. Jews cannot repudiate their election and the responsibilities that entails without coming to despise their Jewishness. It is embarrassing to hear this truth from the likes of Professor Reitter, but it is better than not to hear it at all.