On the Ori­gins of Jew­ish Self-Hatred

Paul Reit­ter
  • Review
By – June 20, 2012

The term Jew­ish self-hatred” has come to be under­stood as an exam­ple of self-loathing and has often been used as an instru­ment of cen­sure and crit­i­cism, par­tic­u­lar­ly when it is applied to Jews crit­i­cal of con­tem­po­rary Zion­ism and Israeli pol­i­cy. Paul Reit­ter argues that the term’s orig­i­nal mean­ing had noth­ing to do with Jew­ish self-con­tempt and runs direct­ly counter to con­ven­tion­al wis­dom, recent schol­ar­ship, and usage, such as Sander Gilman’s much cel­e­brat­ed book, Jew­ish Self-Hatred. It was for­mu­lat­ed, rather, to pro­mote a more pos­i­tive out­come. For Anton Kuh, the pop­u­lar Vien­nese-Jew­ish jour­nal­ist and come­di­an, and Theodor Less­ing, the Ger­man-Jew­ish philoso­pher, who respec­tive­ly coined and pop­u­lar­ized the con­cept in the inter-war peri­od, the term had a very seri­ous and redemp­tive mean­ing. Its pur­pose was to offer Jews a dif­fer­ent exis­ten­tial option from the pre­vail­ing alter­na­tives of Zion­ism or assim­i­la­tion. Giv­en the chal­lenges faced by Ger­man Jews, whose inte­gra­tion had stalled by the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, the con­cept of Jew­ish self-hatred emerged as part of a nuanced self-crit­i­cism and affir­ma­tive dis­course with the pur­pose of help­ing Jews and oth­ers move away from self-hatred into a more promis­ing future. Thus as orig­i­nal­ly for­mu­lat­ed and under­stood, the term was pos­i­tive, even salvif­ic, more a solu­tion to the Jew­ish sit­u­a­tion than a symp­tom of it.

The book pro­vides an inter­est­ing lens through which to view the chal­lenges faced by Ger­man Jews and some orig­i­nal and self-crit­i­cal and intel­lec­tu­al con­tri­bu­tions made by Kuh, Less­ing, and oth­ers to help posi­tion Jews as they stood on what would become the eve of destruc­tion. The tragedy is, of course, that these ideas were soon eclipsed by real” hatred and geno­cide and thus were not able to get the hear­ing they deserved.

Michael N. Dobkows­ki is a pro­fes­sor of reli­gious stud­ies at Hobart and William Smith Col­leges. He is co-edi­tor of Geno­cide and the Mod­ern Age and On the Edge of Scarci­ty (Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press); author of The Tar­nished Dream: The Basis of Amer­i­can Anti-Semi­tism; and co-author of The Nuclear Predicament.

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