If there is any term thrown around by Jews as much as “antisemitism” it is “Jewish self-hatred,” a concept made famous by the notorious Otto Weininger over a century ago, and ever since hurled at any Jew (by fellow Jews) who purportedly violates normative communal standards. By this point, the paradigm has been reduced to virtual caricature; when Larry David proudly quipped that he hates himself, but it has nothing to do with being Jewish after having been branded “a self-loathing Jew” for whistling Wagner on a memorable episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, it seemed as if the concept was relegated to the well of comedy and little else.
But I have become convinced that the paradigm of “Jewish self-hatred” has merit for diagnosing a large percentage of the Jewish activists and academics who relentlessly and recklessly take an intense, vocal, and militant stand against Zionism and the state of Israel, even though I am reluctant to use the term. I do not have in mind the casual Jew who has little interest in discussing or visiting Israel. I do not have in mind the Jew whose identity is constructed around our rich diaspora culture, or a Judaism theologically grounded in the rituals that allowed our people to survive centuries of hostility in a (largely Christian) Judeophobic landscape of stateless vulnerability. And I do not have in mind the Jew who understands the historical necessity of the Jewish state’s existence, yet recognizes that Israel is far from perfect and the protracted conflict between Jews and Palestinians – as with other ethno-national conflicts across the world – continues to harm innocent people. It is perfectly normal for a Jew to be ambivalent, wary, and critical of much that Israel’s government has done. I certainly am and when I teach the conflict; I do my best to teach Israel with all its imperfections.
No, I have in mind the Jews who center their hostility toward Zionism and Israel in their public expression of Jewishness. The people I have in mind certainly reject such a characterization, insisting that their Jewishness is rooted in so much more, that alleged obsession with Israel is merely a sideshow amplified by a cabal of antagonistic Israel-advocates (vilified as “Hasbara trolls” on social media). Yet their unremitting activism, op-eds, academic publications with anti-Zionist friendly presses, and quotidian tweets and Facebook posts suggest otherwise. They platform and elevate the voices of bonafide antisemites who despise Israel with a fanaticism one usually encounters among religious fundamentalists and militant communists.
Such Jews insist that their anti-Zionism – or as many disingenuously put it, their duty to ensure anti-Zionists, however troubling their words may be, do not get silenced – is premised on Palestinian rights and nothing else, and the malevolent Jewish state must be held accountable for trampling on a downtrodden population. But this is misleading, as their stance in reality stems from their sheer revulsion over the very idea of Jews exercising collective power and agency in a world where Jews are under the constant gaze of suspicious non-Jews.
That this is about “Jewish power” broadly defined rather than Israel in and of itself is made abundantly clear by the political record of Jewish activist organizations and publications, including Jewish Voice for Peace, IfNotNow, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, the Jewish Studies Activist Network, and Jewish Currents.
On the one hand we see their willingness to sign with alacrity petition after petition defending “embattled Palestinian advocates” (even if they almost never document actual embattled advocates) that are allegedly being silenced on college campuses and elsewhere because of widely accepted definitions of antisemitism such as the one produced by the International Holocaust Remembrance Association. Although the IHRA definition does little more than provide a framework for Jews to defend themselves in a manner all racial minorities should have, such activists have derided it as a “destructive [tool] not only for academic freedom but also for antiracist struggles on campuses.”
On the other hand, such groups remain deafeningly silent anytime Jews are targeted for their Zionism and support of Israel. They are also deafeningly silent whenever antisemitism is unleashed by anyone who is not a white supremacist, when Jew-hatred is voiced by the political left or expressed by racial minorities, even if discourse over Israel is not involved. Why? Perhaps it is because in such situations, Jews are perceived as being in positions of power.
The only time such groups broach Israel is to condemn it (and its American supporters) as the aggressor, the colonialist, the global menace. That 40 percent of global Jewry live in Israel and have endured their own internal and external struggles against Jew-hatred never factors into their obstinate politics. These Israeli Jews are, by their definition, the powerful.
Which brings me back to the paradigm of “Jewish self-hatred.” The archetypal self-hating Jew yearns to escape being Jewish because he has bought into Gentile antisemitic stereotypes, which date at least from the Enlightenment if not earlier. But unlike the classic self-hating Jew, the twenty-first-century “Woke” Jew does not wish to cease being Jewish. Far from it. He seeks to redefine Jewishness and in the process efface all other manifestations of Jewishness he rejects; all manifestations that cannot be sublimated into the current progressive social justice movement; all manifestations of what he contemptuously sees as Jewish tribalist power, which includes, but is not limited to, the state of Israel.
So why call this Jewish self-hatred? Why use a widely abused term that is greeted more often with an eye-roll emoji than gravitas? I am arguing for its conceptual utility because these Jews ache to present our people in a manner that is acceptable to the proverbial goyim, characterized by acquiescence and powerlessness. The Jew who can be “bettered” and “civilized”, to paraphrase the Enlightenment philosophers who debated Jewish emancipation, and the subsequent antisemites who came to regret even allowing the debate to have transpired. The Jew who can abandon his tribal loyalties to what Henry Ford called “the International Jew” or to what later took shape as the Jewish state. A refashioned Jew who is devoid of power and exercises no agency on behalf of his community, for whom Leon Pinsker’s auto-emancipated Jew and Chaim Nachman Bialik’s reawakened Israelite are the true source of shame.
This latter-day self-hating Jew seeks to appease what passes for enlightened society today, the so-called progressive movement, whose “working definition” of an acceptable Jewish collective is one that simultaneously accepts its complicity in American white supremacy (and by extension European imperialism), yet also expresses guilt for having triumphed over centuries of oppression through willpower and force, through socio-economic mobility and nationalist self-determination. The Jew is thus unlike any other minority because he has achieved power by illegitimate means. He has forsaken his claim to victimhood and enjoys no right to tribalism, even though victimhood and tribalism are respectively the insignia and birthright of all other minority communities in America today. But for the Jew, tribalist auto-emancipation should be shameful, because it evokes the perennial fear of the antisemite: successful Jews with power.
Israel has become the incarnation of the archetypal demonized Jew of the antisemite, and these scholar-activists have accelerated their campaign against Zionism in recent months, not because of anything Israel has done, but because people and institutions are beginning to adopt the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism. Their newest tactic is to sign petitions protesting the IHRA definition, and – far more duplicitously – to offer “alternative definitions” of antisemitism, which upon closer inspection give cover to the very antisemites who project their anxieties and loathing of imagined conspiratorial Jewish power onto the state of Israel. As David Hirsh recently put it, these “new efforts are not about fighting antisemitism; they’re about fighting efforts to fight antisemitism. They’re not about protecting Jews from antisemitism, they’re about protecting antisemites from accusations of antisemitism.”
The term self-hating Jew should not be thrown around lightly because of its history of abuse and the emotional baggage that inexorably comes with its use. But any Jews who help those working toward the liquidation of Israel yet remain silent when Jews are attacked for exercising their internationally recognized right to self-determination have bought into antisemitic stereotypes; they are ashamed of their community. They hunger to eliminate an intrinsic component of Jewish identity and a sovereign nation-state, irrespective of the damaging effects – including the palpable danger of violent decimation – their campaign may have on our people. Their aspirations entail the negation of what constitutes twenty-first-century normative Judaism because non-Jews demand it. What is the proper term to describe such a phenomenon? Perhaps we need a new epithet for people who may not hate themselves for being Jewish, but hate the values of the collective to which they belong. Or perhaps not. The underlying principles and their genealogy are clear, and they are tied to the long history of fear and contempt for Jewish power.