On Jewish ‘Self-Hatred’

On Jewish ‘Self-Hatred’

To start with, I don’t believe that anti-Zionist or anti-Israel Jewish activists are literally hating themselves.  Israel has engaged in quite enough wrong-doing and morally questionable policies to explain their way of thinking.  Yet I still see Jewish self-hatred as having credibility as an analytic concept, and perhaps in explaining the vehemence of many such views.  

Raphael Magarik’s article in The Forward, “Self-Hatred as Self-Help,” reviews On the Origins of Jewish Self-Hatred by Paul Reitter (Princeton University Press). The young Magarik is described as “a freelance writer, luftmensch and soon-to-be Dorot fellow in Israel.” The book he reviews looks at so-called Jewish self-hatred as having begun as a kind of intellectual parlor game or pretentious “code” employed by Austro-German-Jewish cultural elites hob-nobbing and squabbling with each other in cafe society.  
But this phenomenon should be seriously examined apart from this tiny self-referential setting, and also as apart from the condemnatory lens of right-wing ideologues like the Jerusalem Post columnist and blogger Isi Liebler who abuse the term to attack liberal and left-leaning Israelis and Jews.  In the case of Liebler, he explicitly denies doing this, even as he does it: i.e., he concludes his “self-hatred” screed by warning against applying this term “indiscriminately against naïve well-meaning ‘bleeding hearts’ or legitimate critics of Israeli policies with whom we may disagree.”  Yet in the scores of columns and blog posts I’m aware of, Liebler almost never grants legitimacy to such critics.

Still, Liebler is correct that the modern phenomenon is mostly a product of left-wing thinking and culture.  It originated with the large number of Jews who involved themselves in mass parties on the left in early to mid-20th century Europe and the English-speaking democracies, and attempted to ingratiate themselves with their Gentile comrades by either not being overtly “Jewish” or showing themselves “progressive” by loudly denouncing legitimate Jewish concerns as “parochial” or not “universalistic.”  Hence, explicitly Jewish political movements, whether Zionist or of the Jewish Labor Bund, would be assaulted bitterly in those terms—despite the fact that Bundists and left-Zionists identified with the international proletariat.  I am partly informed in this opinion by two recent conferences at the YIVO research institute in New York, on Jewish involvement with Communist espionage in the US, and the meeting this past May that focused more generally on “Jews and the Left.”  

First there’s the emotional distress of Jews trying desperately to escape antisemitism by being assimilationist and even anti-Jewish in certain ways, at a time in which antisemitism to varying degrees was nearly universal, and even shockingly prevalent on the left.  Add to this the deadly culture of Stalinism, in which opponents had to be characterized as enemies, and even comrades could be denounced as class traitors or Zionists or worse and–depending upon the country they were in–pay with their lives for such a charge.  
To me, the ferocious and hateful way in which Zionism and Israel have come to be regarded within most of the hardcore left is a function of this Stalinist legacy (even among many people on the left who never participated in Stalinist movements) because the vocabulary of radicalism was largely shaped by the Communist movement.  I am not talking about people like ourselves who see plenty in this and past Israeli government policies to oppose, but I speak here of visceral hatred, of a sort that sees Israel as almost uniquely evil. This does not mean that such hatred cannot subside if Israel’s ongoing conflict with the Palestinians were peacefully resolved.  But until such a time, I find it exceedingly difficult (even as a lifelong left-Zionist) to argue rationally with the smog certitude of far-left anti-Zionists.  
By | 2012-08-09T10:36:00-04:00 August 9th, 2012|Blog|2 Comments


  1. DenverChuck September 7, 2012 at 8:31 pm - Reply

    As a proud listee on the self-hating Jew website for the crime of signing an ad that appeared in The New York Times criticizing Israel, I find the author’s commentary unfocused. He says that anti-Zionist or anti-Israel Jewish activists don’t, in his opinion hate themselves. He discusses Isi Liebler, who also denies such a position, but as he points out actually abuses the term. Having argued via email with Isi, I have to agree. He then reviews some early to mid-Twentieth Century thinking he believes is the source of Left self hate. He labels it Stalinist and boom today’s Left is what? I am Left. I am not anti-Israel. I am not anti-Zionist, if Zionism means that those who wish to live in Israel should have a right to live there and that there should be a Jewish State. My problem with the analysis is that it doesn’t sufficiently take into account critics of Israel such as myself, who have been activists in J Street and its predecessor BTVS. He leaves a very narrow impression. He presumes that there are actually self hating Jews. I personally have never met one.

  2. Ralph Seliger September 8, 2012 at 5:43 pm - Reply

    Thanks, Denver Chuck, for caring enough to comment. I began with The Forward review of that book on Jewish self-hatred to provide context; but in the end, since the book described seemed trivial, I did not include it in my slightly different Tikkun blog post on the same subject: http://www.tikkun.org/tikkundaily/2012/08/10/whats-true-not-true-about-jewish-self-hatred/. And since I am also active in J Street, (being the “left-Zionist” I refer to in my final paragraph), it’s not this “left” that I’m talking about. Please return to my last three paragraphs for the meat of my argument.

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