In left-wing and liberal circles, the term “self-hating Jew” is usually considered a joke. The reasons are obvious. For decades, the concept of “Jewish self-hatred” or “auto-anti-Semitism” has been invoked to repel violently all criticism of Israel voiced by Israelis or Jews. From Hannah Arendt to Woody Allen, almost every Jewish thinker or creative artist of the 20th century was accused of self-anti-Semitism. The right wing is busily engaged in exposing self-hating Jews on niche Internet sites and in a range of professional literature devoted to the subject. “Catch the Jew!”, the recently published book by journalist Tuvia Tenenbom, is a particularly ludicrous example of this right-wing obsession.
At the same time, the notion of auto-anti-Semitism is far from being dumb or meaningless. It’s hard to deny that this concept can help us understand numerous phenomena in modern Jewish history.
The term was coined in 1930 by Jewish-German philosopher Theodor Lessing in a book titled “Jewish Self-Hatred.” Surprisingly, this work has not appeared in Hebrew translation, apart from a short excerpt that was translated by right-wing activist and former MK Elyakim Haetzni.
Lessing (not to be confused with the 18th-century German writer and dramatist Gotthold Ephraim Lessing) is barely remembered today, though he led a dramatic life. Born in 1872 to an assimilated Jewish family in Hanover, he converted to Protestantism as a young man, like many Jews of the bourgeois class at the time.
Lessing had close ties to German nationalist circles, and in World War I was an enthusiastic volunteer in the army. After the war, he gradually distanced himself from German nationalism and associated himself with Judaism, drawing the wrath of the German right. In the wake of Hitler’s rise to power, he fled to Czechoslovakia, where Nazi sympathizers assassinated him in August 1933.
Lessing’s “Jewish Self-Hatred” offers portraits of some of the anti-Semitic Jewish intellectuals of his era. The best known of them is Otto Weininger, the Viennese philosopher who committed suicide in 1903, at the age of 23, after publishing his misogynistic and anti-Semitic book “Sex and Character.”
In his book, Lessing arrives at an interesting insight: that the Jews are always being accused of certain characteristics and their polar opposites. They are castigated for being calculating and rationalist, on the one hand, and instinctual and physical, on the other; too spiritual and too materialist; excessively primitive and excessively modern. They are accused of being both communists and capitalists; of the crimes of religion and the sins of secularity. The list goes on. There are apparently many ways to be anti-Semitic or auto-anti-Semitic.
Reshaping the ‘old Jew’
Accusations of Jewish anti-Semitism are heard from all quarters, most vociferously from the right, which labels anyone who is critical of Israel’s actions – and who is not a Jewish nationalist – an anti-Semite. On the other side of the spectrum, the radical left accuses the Zionist movement of being anti-Semitic. Anti-Zionist historians have pointed to the common interest of Theodor Herzl and anti-Semites of his time in persuading the Jews to leave Europe, and cited David Ben-Gurion’s contempt for the Diasporic Jew.
Indeed, the writings of Zionism’s founders show that they wanted the world from which they themselves sprang – the shtetl with its Yiddish-speaking, religiously observant population – to be expunged, so that they could forge the secular-national-Zionist world of tomorrow. Their attitude toward the Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent) was also tainted with anti-Semitism. Very often the Ashkenazi establishment viewed their way of life as a vestige of the “old Jew,” pious and feeble, who needed to be reshaped as a proud secular sabra.
Anti-Semitism can be the root of an obsessive hatred of Israel: a desire to push out of sight those masses of Zionists who brandish Israeli flags and who, like it or not, constitute the bulk of the Jewish people of our time. Hatred of ultra-Orthodox Jews and Mizrahim is also closely interwoven with anti-Semitism. But there is another form of hatred, which is less talked about, even though it bears a particularly crass anti-Semitic face: hatred of intellectuals.
Throughout almost the entire modern era, anti-intellectualism has gone hand in hand with anti-Semitism. All the anti-Semitic movements in Europe targeted the rational, alienated Jewish intellectual. In the Soviet Union and its satellite republics, too, Jewish intellectuals suffered from waves of purges. Despite the Jews’ central role in the development of communism, the Stalinist regimes purged their ranks of the “aloof intellectuals” of Jewish origin, claiming they were obstructing the progress of the true proletarians and the masses. In the United States, anti-intellectualism has been interwoven with anti-Semitism dating back to the period of the McCarthy witch hunts and up through the present day.
Zionism’s rejection of the Diaspora also carried an anti-intellectual thrust. The militarist ideology of Mapai, the forerunner of Labor and the ruling party from the pre-state period until 1977, scorned the aloof Jewish cognoscenti who were mired in self-doubt and self-criticism, almost as much as it disdained the shtetl dwellers with their curly earlocks. It was precisely this approach that Mapai bequeathed to the present Likud state.
A particularly powerful anti-intellectual wave is now surging across Israel. Populist politicians are egging on the masses who are bestializing themselves in the social networks and are demanding that the rootless leftist intellectuals be pushed off the stage and, if possible, for their eyeglasses to be smashed as well.
This sentiment – to punch the intellectual in the face – is also resonating within left-wing circles that want to shed their alienated, cosmopolitan image. If only the left had sprung organically from society’s weakened classes and not be drawn from the ranks of humanities students and lecturers, it would surely win power. Or so many on the left fantasize. Thus an almost universal consensus emerges: to strike at the intellectuals and save the “people.”
We have heard all kinds of reactions to the minister of culture’s campaign against creative artists. Not everyone who speaks in the name of “Israel’s artists” is necessarily more worthy of assuming the mantle of the angry-prophet intellectual than Minister Miri Regev herself. But it’s hard to ignore the resemblance between Ms. Regev’s campaign and other well-known anti-intellectual waves in history, which were often accompanied by expressions of Jew-hatred. And when Regev’s supporters hail her for expressing what they say are healthy folksy feelings, and add a snort of contempt for elitist, abstract, contemporary art – it starts to sound very unpleasant.
Considering the Jewish poets, philosophers and artists who were persecuted in the 20th century, it’s clear that Jews were killed in defense of avant-garde art and individual thought, and not only as martyrs for the faith or in the defense of the homeland. Still, it’s not so surprising. Israeli Jews have all become somewhat anti-Semitic – a privilege granted to us by the Jewish state.
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