Tuesday, April 14, 2009

What (and who) is a self-hating Jew?

My previous post regarding Gideon Levy's essays in Haaretz raises the question of accusing somebody of being a "self-hating Jew". This post is a minor revision of a letter that I actually sent to Mr. Levy and to the editorial desk of Haaretz (I received no acknowledgment). Since I am not so sure about the definition, and because bloggers are not immune to charges of libel, I did not use this term to describe Mr. Levy himself, but only to characterize his writing.

But the question is an interesting one. What is a self-hating Jew?

Jewish history is replete with Jews who renounced or denounced their Judaism and then became its harshist critics. But the phenomenon did not become become widespread until the 18th and 19th centuries following the emancipation. Up until that time, the Jew in Christian Europe lived in a traditional community, surrounding by hostile populations or governments who kept the Jews in their place. Upward mobility was not an option. Jews in Muslim lands fared somewhat better, but were still relegated to 2nd class citizen status. Following the emancipation, when European Jews where given citizens rights in various countries, the doors opened up for Jews who wished to progress socially and economically. Jews began to assimilate, and various liberal reinterpretations of Judaism appeared, which incorporated the new knowledge acquired by science, and accomodated the desire for many Jews to not appear different from their Gentile neighbors. These Jews preferred to disassociate themselves from the image of the Eastern European "shtetel Jew", with his traditional garb, mannerisms and langauge.

This assimilation, however, did not solve the "Jewish problem"--the dilemma of trying maintain the Jewish people's identity, while avoiding the disabilities of discrimination and anti-semitism. There were still formal and informal strictures which interfered with upward mobility for the Jew. There was still cultural anti-semitism. So many Jews simply renounced their Jewish faith by being baptized. They adopted Christianity in its cultural sense, but not necessarily its faith. This opened the doors further, allowing the likes of Heines, Mendelssohn, Marx to become accepted and famous. Often, the route that they chose included denouncing the Jewish faith, culture and its people, in the most vile and stereotyped manner. Others, however, remained "philesemitic" such as Disraeli. The advent of Zionism brought the identity of Judaism into sharper relief, with lines drawn between Jews for or against the zionist enterprise.

So classically, the "self-hating Jew" was somebody who severely criticized his people by attacking "core" characteristics of Jews and Judaism, often adopting the narratives of the Gentile anti-semite. In the 1930s and 40s Lessing and Lewin were the first to attempt to understand the phenomenon. In essence, the term is perjorative and used by others to describe and discredit the critic. Whether the self-hating Jew actually hates himself or his Judaism is unclear. The assumption is that because the Jew is uncomfortable or ashamed with being a member of a disliked minority, he responds by internalizing the ideas of the critics of Jews and attempts to disassociate himself with the disliked group. Furthermore, it is assumed that because of some deep dark internal conflict, the self-hating Jew turns against his core identity. More recently Finlay has proposed that the term is used by opponents to "pathologize" dissent. In this case, the accuser of self-hatred has defined some "core values" which in his view catergorizes Jew from non-Jew. Thus, when somebody opposes one of these core values, such as support for Israel's policies or some other public issue, he is considered to be "self-hating". The problem, of course, lies in what these core values are, given that there is considerable debate among various factions of Jews-- liberal or conservative, religious or secular, zionist or non-zionist. So how can I avoid labeling anybody who disagrees with something dear to me as "self-hating"? Interestingly, Finlay points out that although there are vigorous debates in the Christian world about theology and dogma, nobody calls someone a "self-hating Christian". The desenter might be called an apostate or heretic, but not self-hating. So why do we characterize such Jews as self-hating?

I think that the term self-hating is intertwined with the unique nature of the term "anti-semitism". We don't really have a similar term for other religions-- we don't speak of an "anti-Christian" or "anti-Muslim" in the same sense. We might call them bigots or racists. However, anti-semitism is unique in that it implies certain characteristics present in the anti-semite himself-- irrational hatred, advocacy of violence, envy, and perhaps psychopathology. Anti-semitism is also uniquely illegitimate in the civilized world. A garden variety bigot is not pathologized in the same way. Because of the magnitude of Jews' suffering at the hands of anti-semites, any form of bigotry against Jews or Judaism is demonized and the focus of particularly sharp condemnation. Jews are particularly sensitive to anti-semitism, perhaps more so that any other group is sensitive to bigotry against it.

So self-hating is essentially seen as home grown anti-semitism. Therefore, Dershowitz's famous 3 D's can be applied-- demonization, double standard, deligitimization-- to detect "self-hating Jews", just as they are used to detect anti-semitism.

So each reader can judge for himself if Gideon Levy is a self-hating Jew.

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