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There are some people it’s hard to argue with and win: your mother, Cubs fans, and people who accuse you of self-hatred. The last, of course, is an intractably loaded allegation–especially for Jews, for whom debates about allegiance to the Jewish people or the State of Israel hold profound political and personal implications. These days, when debaters pull the self-hatred card in debates over Middle East politics or Jewish continuity, the term takes over the argument, virtually rendering all retorts empty. Invariably, the more you protest, the more you indict yourself.
The Roots of Self-Hatred
Today, accusations of Jewish self-hatred are most commonly levied in discussions of Israel and Zionism. Interestingly, the modern concept of Jewish self-hatred actually has its roots in early debates about political Zionism, where the groundwork for its use was laid by Theodor Herzl, founder of modern Zionism.
In his seminal 1896 book The Jewish State, Herzl criticized enemies of his plan to create a Jewish state in Palestine, calling them “disguised anti-Semites of Jewish origin.” A mere two years later, in 1898, Karl Straus–an opponent of Zionism–turned the term back on its creator, suggesting that, like traditional anti-Semites, Herzl was preoccupied with Jewish difference, and wanted only to remove Jews from Europe.
However, it wasn’t until 1930, with the publication of Theodore Lessing’s book Juedischer Selbsthass, translated as “Jewish Self-Hatred,” that the precise term came into vogue. In it, Lessing, a German Jewish philosopher and newly minted Zionist, slung the term “self-hating Jew” at academics opposed to Zionism.
For Lessing, who had years before converted to Christianity and then returned to Judaism, discovering anti-assimilationist Zionist literature was a turning point, which ultimately led him to write this book urging Jews to repudiate assimilation and embrace their Jewish roots. He took aim at German Jews who had chosen to distance themselves from Judaism, but he also believed that self-hatred was unfortunately equal opportunity, and could be found in any minority group discriminated against by the majority.
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