Gefen Bar-On Santor

Self-hate—a seducer?

Credit for image: Carmit Shalev Laifer, “heart in a rock on the seashore in Tel Aviv, Israel,”

In the days leading up to Valentine’s Day, many teachers have been wisely reminding their students that if they bring valentines to school, they should bring one to each person in the class.

But in some more elite contexts, there is one group that, any day of the year, will not get the proverbial “valentines”—Jews who love Israel.  Ever since the Holocaust has come to an end, those who are attracted to the emotional benefits of Jew hate have been searching for a new word to replace Juden so that the pleasures of Jew hate may be enjoyed. Seek and you shall find: the word is “Zionist.”

In this toxic environment, a seductive and rotten deal is on the table for the Judens: you want the illusion that you are loved and accepted?  Distance yourself from Israel so that there is no doubt that “Zionist” is not you.

I have been called simplistic for failing to see the emperor’s new clothes—the presumably fine and important nuances that separate Israel hate from Jew hate.  I would have an easier time seeing in Israel hate more than just the pleasures of Jew hate if I saw Israel hate doing any good for the Palestinian people.  In reality, the opposite can be observed: the world has been quietly tolerating or emboldening a terrorist regime in Gaza that has been repressing their own people rather than offering them the peace and stability that would have been possible, and is hopefully still possible, if they accept the existence of Israel.

But if my views are simplistic, I do not mind making Simplistic my middle name as long as being simplistic keeps me away from the seductive potential of Jewish self-hate, which I know from experience is spiritual death—but not without the possibility of reawakening.

We live in a strange world: the pleasures of Israel hate (Israel being, for about seven million Jews, their home) are luxuriating among some people in elite settings.  And yet, no one that I know of in these environments seems to self-identify as a Jew hater—or as an individual struggling with being a Jew hater, which could have had a redemptive therapeutic ring to it if some people would have said, I am a person who wants to recover from Jew hate.

In this climate, how can I, with my unmistakably Zionist name (Bar-On is the Zionist version of Braun) not hate myself?  And how can I not suspect that triggering this self-hate is one of the deepest pleasures of the Israel hater—a purpose much more vital and immediately achievable than the declared noble goal of helping people in Gaza?

In his 1930 book Jewish Self-Hate, published erringly close to the rise of the Nazis to power, Theodor Lessing describes the anguish of self-hate:

“Do you know what it means to curse the ground on which you must grow, and drink poison from its roots? Do you know what it means to be badly born . . . [a]nd then to nurture a lifetime of senseless hate—against father, mother, teacher, educators, all those who have begotten and shaped us in their own unflattering image. . . ?  Even the most wretched person draws breath like a leaf in a living forest, born by that from which he stems. A venerated history gathers him up, and a permitted culture consumes him in the chorus of the great collective. By contrast, the Jew stands outside. . . the plant’s exasperating struggle against its soil leads to destructive self-analysis. Can a miracle occur? Can a swamp bring forth roses? Can a laurel bloom in the desert?” (pp. 59-60).

The inner struggle of Jewish people with self-hate creates a poisoned soil in which haters may cultivate their malevolent predilections with little or no accountability and endlessly exploit the Jewish willingness to please.  Lessing writes:

“You acquit all others. You become your own judge and executioner. You faithfully devote yourself to foreigners instead of to yourself, your friend, your beloved . . . Woe betide you! You have made your heart a footstool to be trodden upon. The more you give, the more surely you are used up, unseen and without thanks.  You turn your weapons against yourself. You show your friend how vulnerable you are. Unhappy person! One day you will be murdered with the same weapons that you have given him. You speak badly of yourself: a day surely will come when your beloved will be able to use that against you. Become an oppressor and people will honor you. Become violent and they will love you. Become a lamb and wolves will devour you.  Offer yourself as a victim—well and good! They will kiss your hands and then celebrate the slaughter. Those you love most deeply will slaughter you and never will recognize or repent of their deed—no matter how despicable or villainous it may be. They always will find grounds to consecrate their actions. No one loves or pities someone who does not love himself enough” (pp. 61-62).

In his introduction to Peter C. Appelbaum’s translation of Lessing’s Jewish Self-Hate, Sander Gilman quotes from the novelist Jacob Wassermann (1873-1934): “I have known many Jews who have languished with longing for the fair-haired and blue-eyed individual. They knelt before him, burned incense before him, believed his every word; every blink of his eye was heroic; and when he spoke of his native soil, when he beat his Aryan breast, they broke into a hysterical shriek of triumph” (p. 14).

The tendency of the self-hating Jew to worship others only emboldens hate.  Writing so close to the rise of Nazism, Lessing describes apparently hopeless and endless suffering:

“The Jew has always been placed into a position of struggle. He cannot demand gratitude like a blossoming flower or a child, just because of his flowery existence. He must create ‘values,’ to justify his existence to himself and to others. The result is that, driven out and falling out of himself, his sense of self-worth disappears. As a result, a gruesome caricature appears, like a merchant selling spoiled goods, calling out to his customers, ‘Believe me, my merchandise is good, only I stink.’” (p. 49).

Jew hate and self-hate has always been a projection.  Today, whose merchandise is spoiled?  Have those pandering Israel hate on the streets and in elite settings been able to help the people in Gaza?  And has the Jewish tendency toward excessive self-criticism done much good?

For Lessing, this is what the Jew faces compared to other people less susceptible to self-hate: “They are not better and do not achieve more than I do. But they have one thing that I lack: they like themselves” (p. 60). And Jews who do not like themselves are vulnerable to spiritual slavery: “The humiliated self-consciousness of a long-enslaved people sees their commander or despiser as their born master” (p. 45).

Is this why today Israel haters shout cease fire—knowing that the true meaning of the phrase (as the Israeli comedy show Eretz Nehederet pointed out) is not peace but temporary rest for the Jew-hating warriors until another opportunity to seize fire and murder, rape, torture, burn and kidnap comes along?  Do they believe that our genuine love of peace will subjugate us to the masters who wish to preside over (or loudly or quietly celebrate) future massacres?

In their fantasy world, the “masters” have forgotten that the IDF, which did not exist when Lessing published his book on the eve of the Nazi catastrophe, is not a toy for the mock-epic masters to command as they please. It is a military force dedicated to defending Israel according to the laws of war.  And the acronym IDF also happens to correspond to I Don’t give a F—which is the response to Israel haters who try to seduce and trigger self-hate.  I care about the Palestinians, but Israel hate only harms them by emboldening destructive leaders.

Isn’t it interesting that today’s Israel haters who claim that their focus is on the welfare of Palestinians are essentially recreating the tormented emotional universe that Lessing describes—and that existed long before the IDF came into being and could cease or un-cease fire?  Herein lies the selfishness of Western Israel haters and their betrayal of the real interests of the Palestinians to live peacefully with Israel: While some haters in elite settings are enjoying the pleasures of Israel hate from a position of security, with institutional leaders unlikely to do much to assert consequences for Israel hate, the people of Gaza, in contrast, are facing the soldiers of the IDF who are risking and sacrificing their lives to protect Israel.  For that reason, the people of Gaza, unlike Western Israel haters, have a very real incentive to abandon Israel hate—and letting go of the fantasy that Israel can be undone should be the genuine pro-Palestinian message.  Encouraging that fantasy will only lead to more suffering for everyone.

Those unconvinced that Israel hate is the latest metamorphosis of the Jew-hate disease might wish to reflect on Lessing’s description of how the Jews have been twisting themselves into knots to try to please—in vain:

“We cannot do right. People say, ‘You are parasites on others,’ so we have elected to leave our adopted homes. People say, ‘You are always middlemen,’ so we bring our children up to be gardeners and farmers, and people say, ‘You are degenerate, and have become cowardly sissies,’ so we go out to battle, proving ourselves to be the best soldiers. Then people say, ‘Wherever you are, you are really only tolerated.’ We respond, ‘We have no greater longing than to emerge from mere toleration.’ When we stand up for own rights, they respond, ‘Have you not yet learned that dogged self-preservation of a special people is nothing more than treachery against universal human, transnational values?’ We answer that after hundreds of killed and wounded, we have disbanded the Jewish Legion [who fought against the Ottomans in WWI]. We have forgone our right to self-defense, placing it under the protection of Europe’s collective conscience. What is the answer? Today, 6 September 1929, the answer appears to be: “It makes no difference what you do: you will be tolerated as long as we can use you.’” (p. 25)

In the world in which the IDF exists, can those attracted to Jew hate find a way to moderate that attraction so as to encourage the idea of living peacefully with Israel?

Ironically, perhaps one of the best things that Jewish people, on their part, can do to moderate Jew hate, which is also indirectly harming the people of Gaza, is to refuse to accept the haters as masters.

In A.B. Yehoshua’s novel The Only Daughter, Rachele, a precautious half-Jewish child from a prosperous Italian family, is naturally drawn toward pleasing the family’s driver Paulo:

“The world darkens to greet the New Year, and two stars promptly appear. Rachele burrows into her pillow but can’t fall asleep. And she decides to prove to Paolo, even as she is bound by two seat belts, unable to see the road, that she can recite from memory the names of towns and villages on the way, provided they’ve remained faithful to their location. But Paolo is unimpressed. The fact that the Jews sometimes excel more than us Catholics doesn’t endear them to people. ‘So what should they do to be loved a little?’ ‘They could try taking a real interest in people who aren’t rich and successful like them . . . Ask about their lives, their hardships, their troubles.’ ‘But exactly so, Paolo,’ exclaims Rachele, ‘That’s exactly what I try to do with the girls in my class, but it hardly ever works.’ ‘Maybe because you’re too smart.’ ‘Too smart? That’s my fault?’ ‘It’s not your fault, no,’ declares the driver, ‘but someone with that kind of advantage has to be especially careful and polite, to say thank you whether it’s necessary or not.’ ‘In which case, thank you, Paolo. Whether you need it or not, I’m telling you, thanks again, and thanks again and again . . .’ (p. 90-91)

Lessing’s translator Peter C. Appelbaum observes about Jewish Self-Hate: “Parts of it moved me to the depths of my soul. No Jew can comprehend this book and remain unchanged.”  At the time of the publication of the translation in 2021, Appelbaum notes that “the subject of Jewish self-hate is just as cogent today as it was when the book was published ninety years ago. One need only observe the current divided, quarrelsome, and aggressive American political, journalistic, and progressive academic scene to observe examples of this phenomenon. And yet, the answer is so simple—authenticity, ‘Become what you are.’ Sadly, not enough take this message to heart.” (pp. 8-9)

For Lessing, “the Jewish people are the first—and perhaps the only—nation that has only sought solely within themselves the blame for world events.  Jewish doctrine has, since ancient times, responded to the question ‘Why are we not loved?’ with ‘Because we are guilty’. . . . The tendency to interpret every misfortune that occurs as atonement for sin lies deeply rooted in every Jewish soul.”  Lessing contrasts the long-suffering Jews to more normative people who “have no reason for self-flagellating, self-tormenting analysis that endangers a healthy attitude toward life and natural self-esteem. They answer ‘Why does misfortune happen to us?’ with a forceful accusation against those who, in their opinion, caused the misfortune” (pp. 26-27).

Today, after the most horrific massacre of Jews since the Holocaust and in the midst of the tragic defensive war that Israel has been forced into, Lessing’s insights echo with significance.  Let the following words from Lessing be a “valentine” for souls at risk of being seduced into self-hate and into temptation to accept the hater as master:

“Be what you are and accomplish what is in you the best way you can. But never forget that tomorrow you and this entire earthly world will decay and change. Fight incessantly. But do not forget that every life, even the most defective and criminal, needs love. No being can do more than fulfill himself, as much as soil, weather, and climate permit. Who are you? Are you the son of Nathan the shifty Jew merchant, who accidentally inseminated sluggish Sarah because she brought him a large dowry? No! Your father was Judah the Maccabee, Queen Esther was your mother. The chain continues from you, although some links might be defective, to Saul, David, and Moses. They are in all things present and past and can be again in the future.  Do you carry a burdened heritage? Good! Unburden your heritage. Your children will forgive you for being your parent’s child. Do not cheat your destiny but love it, and follow it until death. Take heart! Through all the hells of your human ‘I,’ you always will return to the heaven of your eternal self, to your eternal people” (p. 63).

Golda Meir famously said that Israel will have peace only when its enemies love their children more than they hate Israel.  Perhaps another condition should be added: only when haters sense that the willingness of Jews to hate ourselves is no more than that of the average non-Jewish person.  With real self-love, we can respond to murder, rape, torture, burning and kidnapping with “a forceful accusation against those who. . . caused the misfortune.”  And it is from that position of strength that we might one day have the hope for real peace—as opposed to deceptive cease fire.

Lessing quotes are from Lessing, Theodor. Jewish Self-Hate. Berghahn Books. Kindle Edition.  Translated by Peter C. Appelbaum.

About the Author
Gefen Bar-On Santor teaches English at the University of Ottawa, as well as adult-education literature courses at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre in Ottawa, Canada. She is an enthusiastic believer in life-long learning and in the relevance of fiction to our lives. She also writes at
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