BOOK REVIEW: On the Origins of Jewish Self-Hatred
Reitter, Paul. On the Origins of Jewish Self-Hatred.
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012. 166 pp. ISBN 978-0-691-11922-9.
The issue of Jewish self-hatred is much in the news of late. The term “self-hating Jew” is frequently bandied about, especially in the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict, where Jews espousing a pro-Palestinian line are often called self-hating by their critics. This state of affairs deeply disturbs Paul Reitter, so much so that he wrote a book on the origins of the concept of Jewish self-hatred that seeks to set the record straight.
In this book, Reitter, a professor of Germanic Studies at the Ohio State University, brings us back to the origins of the concept, in the Germanic lands of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. What he finds is that Jewish self-hatred, at the time the term first emerged, was far from the completely negative concept it has mostly become. Instead, it embraced, in the imaginations of its originator and most prominent populizer, “the paradox of a redemption-bringing role” (p. 117).
To flesh out this contention in a thorough and learned way, the author evokes for us the intellectual atmosphere of assimilated German-speaking Jewish intellectuals of the turn of the twentieth century, personified by figures like Otto Weininger and Sigmund Freud, in which one of the most drastic things a Viennese intellectual could do was to switch cafés (p. 56). He traces at length the careers and thought of two essentially secondary figures, Anton Kuh and Theodor Lessing. Kuh apparently coined the phrase, in 1921, while Lessing popularized it in his 1930 book, Der jűdische Selbsthaß.
So what did they mean by it? For Kuh, Jewish self-hatred was in fact the best—though not the easiest—option for Jews. As Reitter summarizes Kuh’s not entirely lucid presentation:
“What the Jews need to do is choose their self-hatred, the world’s oldest, ripest, and most severe self-hatred. They need to embrace their self-hatred, to activate it productively. Only in this way, paradoxically, will the Jews solve the problem of Jewish self-hatred. And in so doing, they could also achieve much more than that. They could set an example for the rest of humanity, which might prompt it to get beyond its self-hatred and, in the process, overcome a network of related blights, like nationalism, and sexual and political oppression” (p. 40).
Lessing, for his part, posited that, as Reitter expresses it:
“More than anyone else, the Jews have dealt with the condition of self-hatred. And while self-hatred and the ‘darkness of Geist’ continue to plague them, compromising their lives and their talents, the Jews have still been able to make much of themselves. They have even brought self-hatred to the level of ‘genius’, and thus the Jews…can become a source—or the source—of healing instruction for the whole world” (pp. 117-118).
Reitter wants to make sure that the reader fully understands that the concept of Jewish self-hatred did not originate as a censure of Jewish “self-haters”, but rather as a positive, quasi-messianic solution not merely to the “Jewish Problem”, but to all that ails the world at large. For that reason, the author states, “a revision, if not an apologia, is in order” (p. 2).
While the author is surely right that most contemporary usage of the phrase “Jewish self-hatred” is not in the spirit of its early twentieth century origins, it is nonetheless true that the original spirit of Jewish self-hatred is alive and well. It is expressed especially well in the thought of Israeli-born, radical pro-Palestinian activist Gilad Atzmon, who readily characterizes himself as a “self-hating Jew”. For him, self-hate has the very messianic, world-redemptive aura of Reitter’s sources. Atzmon has recently written:
“History teaches us that the most universally inspiring Jews, I mean, those who contributed something to humanity rather than merely to their own people or even just themselves, were motivated by some form of self hate. The first names that come to mind are Christ, Spinoza and Marx.… Jewish self loathing is becoming an intellectual tide. But it doesn’t just stop there, thanks to some great creative minds that are involved in this emerging discourse; Jewish self loathing is also a poetic universal and ethical humanist message. (http://www.gilad.co.uk/writings/a-film-review-a-serious-man-the-poetic-side-of-self-hatred-b.html?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=facebook)."
Anton Kuh would have been proud.
Academic Fellow, CIJR
Prof. Frederick Krantz, Director (Canadian Institute for Jewish Research)
Rob Coles (Canadian Institute for Jewish Research)