Self-hating Jew is a pejorative term used to allege that a Jewish person holds antisemitic beliefs or engages in antisemitic actions. The concept gained widespread currency after Theodor Lessing's 1930 book Der Jüdische Selbsthass ("Jewish Self-hatred"); the term became "something of a key term of opprobrium in and beyond Cold War-era debates about Zionism". However, similar accusations of being uncomfortable with one's Jewishness were already being made by groups of Jews against each other before Zionism existed as a movement.
According to one academic author, the expression "self-hating Jew" "is often used rhetorically to discount Jews who differ in their life-styles, interests or political positions from their accusers". The term has a long history in debates over the role of Israel in Jewish identity, where it is used by right-wing Zionists against Jewish critics of Israeli government policy. The concept of Jewish self-hatred has been described by critics as "an entirely bogus concept", one that "serves no other purpose than to marginalise and demonise political opponents" and one that is used increasingly as a personal attack in discussions about the "new antisemitism".
The origins of the concept of Jewish self-hatred lie in the mid-nineteenth century feuding between German Orthodox Jews of the Breslau seminary and Reform Jews. Each side accused the other of betraying Jewish identity, the Orthodox Jews accusing the Reform Jews of identifying more closely with German Protestantism and German nationalism than with Judaism. According to John P. Jackson Jr., the concept developed in the late nineteenth century in German Jewish discourse as "a response of German Jews to popular anti-Semitism that primarily was directed at Eastern European Jews." For German Jews, the Eastern European Jew became the "bad Jew". According to Sander Gilman, the concept of the "self-hating Jew" developed from a merger of the image of the "mad Jew" and the "self-critical Jew", and was developed to counter suggestions that an alleged Jewish stereotype of mental illness was due to inbreeding. "Within the logic of the concept, those who accuse others of being self-hating Jews may themselves be self-hating Jews."
However the specific terms "self-hating Jew" and "Jewish self-hatred" only came into use later, developing from Theodor Herzl's polemical use of the term "anti-Semite of Jewish origin", in the context of his project of political Zionism. The underlying concept gained common currency in this context, "since Zionism was an important part of the vigorous debates that were occurring amongst Jews at the time about anti-Semitism, assimilation and Jewish identity." Herzl appears to have introduced the phrase "anti-Semite of Jewish origin" in his 1896 book, Der Judenstaat (The Jews' State), which launched political zionism. He was referring to "philanthropic Zionists", assimilated Jews who might wish to remain in their home countries while at the same time encouraging the Jewish proletariat (particularly the poorer Eastern Jews) to emigrate; yet did not support Herzl's political project for a Jewish state. Ironically, Herzl was soon complaining that his "polemical term" was often being applied to him, for example by Karl Kraus. "Assimilationists and anti-Zionists accused Zionists of being self-haters, for promoting the idea of the strong Jew using rhetoric close to that of the Anti-Semites; Zionists accused their opponents of being self-haters, for promoting the image of the Jew that would perpetuate his inferior position in the modern world." Anton Kuh argued early in the twentieth century that the concept of "Jewish anti-semitism" was unhelpful, and should be replaced with the term "Jewish self-hatred", but it was not until the 1930 publication of Theodor Lessing's book Der Jüdische Selbsthass (Jewish Self-hatred) that the term gained widespread currency. Lessing's book "supposedly charts Lessing’s journey from Jewish self-hater to Zionist."
In English the first major discussion of the topic was in the 1940s by Kurt Lewin, who was Lessing's colleague at the University of Berlin in 1930. Lewin emigrated from Germany to the United States in 1933, and though focused on Jews also argued for a similar phenomenon among Polish, Italian and Greek immigrants to the USA. Lewin's was a theoretical account, declaring that the issue "is well known among Jews themselves" and supporting his argument with anecdotes. Following Lewin's lead, the concept gained widespread currency. "The 1940s and 1950s were ‘the age of self-hatred’. In effect, a bitter war broke out over questions of Jewish identity. It was a kind of ‘Jewish Cold War’..." in which questions of Jewish identity were contentiously debated. The use of the concept in debates over Jewish identity - for example over resistance to the integration of African Americans into Jewish neighbourhoods - died down by the end of the 1970s, having been "steadily emptied of most of its earlier psychological, social, and theoretical content and became largely a slogan."
The term had been used in a derogatory way since the 1940s by "'militant' Zionists", but the 1963 publication of Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem opened a new chapter. Her criticism of the trial as a "show trial" provoked heated public debate, including accusations of self-hatred, and over-shadowed her earlier work criticising German Jewish parvenu assimilationism. In the following years, after the 1967 Six-Day War and 1973 Yom Kippur War, "willingness to give moral and financial 'support' to Israel constituted what one historian called ‘the existential definition of American Jewishness’." "This meant that the opposite was also true: criticism of Israel came to constitute the existential definition of ‘Jewish self-hatred’." Even Commentary, the Jewish journal which had once been "considered the venue of self-hating Jews with questionable commitments to the Zionist project", came under the editorship of Norman Podhoretz to staunchly support Israel. The use of the concept of self-hatred in Jewish debates about Israel has grown more frequent and more intense in the US and the UK, with the issue particularly widely debated in 2007, leading to the creation of the British Independent Jewish Voices.
Social and Psychological Explanations
The issue has periodically been covered in the academic social psychology literature on social identity. Such studies "frequently cite Lewin as evidence that people may attempt to distance themselves from membership in devalued groups because they accept, to some degree, the negative evaluations of their group held by the majority and because these social identities are an obstacle to the pursuit of social status." Modern social psychology literature uses terms such as "self-stigmatization", "internalized oppression", and "false consciousness" to describe this type of phenomenon.
Kenneth Levin, a Harvard psychiatrist, says that Jewish self-hatred has two causes: Stockholm syndrome, where "population segments under chronic siege commonly embrace the indictments of their besiegers however bigoted and outrageous", as well as "the psychodynamics of abused children, who almost invariably blame themselves for their predicament, ascribe it to their being "bad," and nurture fantasies that by becoming "good" they can mollify their abusers and end their torment."
It is argued by some academics that the concept of Jewish self-hatred is based on an essentialisation of Jewish identity. Accounts of Jewish self-hatred often suggest that criticizing other Jews, and integrating with Gentile society, reveals hatred of one’s own Jewish origins. Yet both in the early twentieth century, where the concept developed, and today, there are groups of Jews who had "important differences in identity based on class, culture, religious outlook, and education", and hostility between these groups can only be considered self-hate "if one assumes that a superordinate Jewish identity should take precedence over other groupings of Jews." Yet such hostility between groups has at times drawn on some of the rhetoric of antisemitism: "criticism of subgroups of Jews which drew on anti-Semitic rhetoric were common in 19th and 20th century arguments over Jewish identity". In practice, according to one academic, whilst there have been Jewish writers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who consistently employed virulent anti-semitic rhetoric without seeming to value any aspects of being a Jew, too often "those who accuse others of being self-haters search for examples of when they have criticized Jews or Judaism but ignore examples of when those they criticize have shown they value being a Jew."
The term is in use in Jewish publications such as The Jewish Week (New York) and The Jerusalem Post (Jerusalem) in a number of contexts. It is used "to criticize a performer or artist who portrays Jews negatively; as a short-hand description of supposed psychological conﬂict in ﬁctional characters; in articles about the erosion of tradition (e.g. marrying out and circumcision); and to discount Jews who criticize Israeli policies or particular Jewish practices." However the widest usage of the term is currently in relation to debates over Israel. "In these debates the accusation is used by right-wing Zionists to assert that Zionism and/or support for Israel is a core element of Jewish identity. Jewish criticism of Israeli policy is therefore considered a turning away from Jewish identity itself."
Thus some of those who have been accused of being a "self-hating Jew" have characterized the term as a replacement for "a charge of anti-Semitism [that] will not stick," or as "pathologizing" them. Some who use the term have equated it with "anti-Semitism" on the part of those thus addressed, or with "so called ‘enlightened’ Jews who refuse to associate themselves with people who practice a ‘backward’ religion." One novelist, Philip Roth, who - because of the nature of the Jewish characters in his novels, such as the 1969 Portnoy's Complaint - has often been accused of being a "self-hating Jew", argues that all novels deal with human dilemmas and weaknesses (which are present in all communities), and that to self-censor by only writing about positive Jewish characters would represent a submission to anti-semitism.
"Self-loathing Jew" is used synonymously with "self-hating Jew". "Self-hating Jew" has also been compared to the term "Uncle Tom" as used in the African-American community. The term "auto-antisemitism" (Hebrew: אוטואנטישמיות) is also used in Hebrew synonymously. In a column in Haaretz, Uzi Silber used the term "Jew Flu" as a synonym for Jewish self-hatred.
- Dan Burros
- The Operated Jew (1893 book)
- The Believer (2001 film)
- Race traitor
- Chicano vendido
- Uncle Tom syndrome
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- (fr) Martine Gilson, Le petit soldat de la pieuvre noire, Nouvel observateur, 2003-10-09
- (fr) Les « traîtres juifs » d'Alexandre Adler, 2003-11-01
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