Self-Hatred or Self-Help?

By Ben Cohen
Thursday, November 15, 2012

One of the most insightful scenes from Larry David's comedy series, Curb Your Enthusiasm, begins with David and his on-air wife, Cheryl, standing at the entrance to a movie theater.  As they chatter aimlessly, David starts whistling a tune composed by Richard Wagner.  Cheryl's delight at the bewitching melody is offset by the reaction of a bystander, a fellow Jew who rounds on David for whistling a composition written by "one of the great anti-Semites of the world."  The two embark upon a furious argument, which culminates in David's adversary slamming him as "a self-loathing Jew."  "I do hate myself," David barks in response, "but it has nothing to do with being Jewish." 

This splendidly barbed exchange demonstrates the extent to which the accusation of "Jewish self-hatred" has penetrated mainstream culture, particularly in recent years, when disputes over Zionism and Israel among Jews have given the term a fresh lease of life.  Yet anyone seeking to understand exactly what a "self-hating Jew" is would be none the wiser having witnessed Larry David's fury.  Similarly, the invective around the Middle East conflict serves, as Paul Reitter argues in his slim, intriguing volume, On the Origins of Jewish Self-Hatred, to obscure rather than shed light upon this most curious of intellectual labels. 

As with its conceptual godparent, the word "anti-Semitism," the idea of "Jewish self-hatred" is rooted in the frantic, often hostile, debates about the nature of Judaism that sprang forth in Germany in the final decades of the nineteenth century.  Reitter, a professor in the German department at Ohio State University, notes that some Orthodox Jewish commentators began damning the Reform movement as "Jewish anti-Semites" in 1882, just three years after the rabble-rouser Wilhelm Marr, popularly credited with having invented the term "Antisemitismus," published The Victory of Jewry over the Germans. Awareness of Jewish self-contempt also became, Reitter argues, "a kind of metaphor for the more general malaise" that swooped down on a rapidly modernizing, conflict-ridden Europe.  One writer, Herman Bahr, described a Vienna, filled with disaffected individuals shedding old identities and adopting new ones, as "Jewified."  Meanwhile, the 1903 suicide of the youthful philosopher Otto Weininger, perhaps the best-known figure to have been afflicted with Jewish self-hatred, and supposedly the only Jew to have drawn Hitler's admiration, is often held up as evidence of how deadly this complex of attitudes and neuroses could be. 

Indeed, the writer Theodor Lessing, whose 1930 work Der Jüdische Selbsthass (Jewish Self-Hatred) occupies a good deal of Reitter's study, warned that certain manifestations of Jewish self-hatred would "leave you dead."  Yet Reitter asserts that Lessing's book was decidedly not a morbid account of the inevitability and inescapability of self-hatred, but rather an early foray into the self-help genre.  Many of the aphorisms found in Lessing's book—"be whatever you are, and always try to live up to your best potential"—would not look out of place pinned to an office corkboard in large, bolded letters. 

Reitter's thesis is that the notion of Selbsthass was intended affirmatively, as a prop to the mental and social liberation of the Jews.  Before Lessing, Reitter notes, there was Anton Kuh, a German Jewish journalist with a voracious appetite for wordplay, who coined the term in 1921.  For Kuh, Jewish self-hatred was both "an affliction and an existential option"—in other words, not a form of Jewish anti-Semitism imprisoned by self-disgust, but a pathway to achieving harmony and understanding inside and beyond the various Jewish communities. 

When it came to the key options that faced Jews during the interwar period—assimilationism and Zionism—Kuh rejected both.  (Reitter cites a gruesomely prescient remark of Kuh's about the pitfalls of assimilation: "In the end, an ax blow will lop off their bowed heads.")  Inspired by Nietzsche's revulsion in the face of German nationalism, Kuh contended that the embrace of self-hatred contained a healing power that would result in a new spirit of love throughout the human family.  With hindsight, one can read this in several ­ways, few of them generous: Kuh can seem soppy and shallow, as well as painfully short on actual detail—which makes the relatively benign response he received from several of his fellow Jewish intellectuals that much more fascinating. 

It fell to Theodor Lessing to draw the parameters of Jewish self-hatred.  Although born into a prosperous and assimilated Jewish family in Hanover, Lessing grew up petrified of his brutal father, neglectful mother, and a school at which the humiliation of under-performing students was routine.  As a result, writes Reitter, Lessing was ideally positioned to become the primary theorist of Jewish self-hatred.  Before he composed Der Jüdische Selbsthass, Lessing had tracked the polemical exchanges on Judaism between Karl Kraus and Heinrich Heine, engaged in his own with the writer Thomas Mann, and written up his thoughts on the Ostjuden (Eastern European Jews) during a visit to Galicia.  Throughout, Lessing's views are as unsettling as his childhood.  At one point, he opined that, although there was no normative basis to the claims of racial anti-Semites, such as Houston Stewart Chamberlain, they may nonetheless have been functionally correct in their diagnosis of the Jewish Question. 

If the shadow of Gentile anti-Semitism hung over Lessing's work, then the challenge was to overcome it without succumbing to its prescriptions, as Otto Weininger arguably did.  In that regard, Lessing placed enormous stress on the specific historical role of the Jews, as well as on the condition of the Jews as emblematic of a wider psychosocial malaise.  "The Jews," he wrote, "had to think through and resolve problems that came about for younger and happier peoples only later." 

Quite what all this means for the debate about Jewish self-hatred in our own time Reitter doesn't say.  In delving into the archeology of the term, the book locates itself in a comparatively short phase of modern Jewish history, and likewise focuses on individuals who are, for the general reader, a tad obscure. Sometimes it seems as if Reitter is unsure of himself outside of his own detailed framework, such as when he describes "Poale Zionism"—more accurately, Poale Zion (Workers of Zion), the Marxist-Zionist party ­that became a critical political influence in the early years of the State of Israel—as a "maverick" faction. 

More significantly, the book ends too abruptly, almost as if it is unfinished.  True, the book concentrates on the origins of the term “Jewish self-hatred,” but that, surely, makes the later mutations of Jewish self-hatred even more relevant.  One wonders, for example, what Kuh and Lessing would have made of the non-Jew Jean-Paul Sartre's characterization of "inauthentic Jews"—offered in his highly influential post-war work, Anti-Semite and Jew—as "men whom other men take for Jews and who have decided to run away from this insupportable situation."  Nor is there any examination of whether and how the meme of "self-hatred" manifested in studies of other minorities, as it did in various post-war sociological and psychological surveys of African-Americans.  Introducing this comparative element might have put the shared insistence of Kuh and Lessing that, since Jews are uniquely possessed of self-hatred, they are uniquely equipped to deal with it, into a more clinical perspective. 

As for those readers seeking enlightenment about how self-hatred figures into contemporary disputes among Jews over Zionism and Israel, they will be sorely disappointed by Reitter's book.  That in itself is no bad thing; not every inquiry into Jewish identity needs to be framed by references to provocateurs or propagandists.  But their centrality to current explorations of this phenomenon underlines that, whatever the original positive intent behind the term "Jewish self-hatred," the interpretation of it as a form of Jewish anti-Semitism will remain dominant. 

Ben Cohen, a former BBC producer, is a writer based in New York.

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