At the Heart of Self-Hatred

On Language: Richard Falk, and How We Feel About Ourselves

By Philologos

Published August 10, 2011, issue of August 19, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Since reading the front-page profile of Richard Falk in the July 29 issue of the Forward, I’ve been thinking about the phrase “Jewish self-hatred.” Falk, for those of you who missed the article, is a retired professor of international law who has pilloried Israel repeatedly in different places and capacities, among them that of a United Nations investigator in the Palestinian territories, and recently posted on his blog site a cartoon of a dog with a yarmulke urinating on a blindfolded female figure of Justice. He also, it so happens, is a Jew — one who has been called a “self-hating” Jew by some people, and “nothing of the sort” by others.

Pilloried: Plenty of people hate Richard Falk,
but does he hate himself?
WAYNE SCHOENFELD
Pilloried: Plenty of people hate Richard Falk, but does he hate himself?

Is he or isn’t he? The author of the Forward profile, Naomi Zeveloff, came down delicately on the side of “he isn’t” when she wrote, “To call Falk ‘a self-hating Jew’… would imply that Falk harbors a deep discomfort with his Jewish identity, and that this anguish manifests itself as anti-Semitism in his personal life and academic work.” It’s an implication, her piece suggested, that has no basis, since Falk, although having had little contact with Jewish life, says he is comfortable with his Jewish identity and is acting in the spirit of Judaism’s concern for social justice by helping to lead the international assault on Israel as a human rights violator.

Though someone like Richard Falk is not, to put it very mildly, my favorite kind of Jew, I agree with Zeveloff. Falk is not a “self-hating Jew.” In fact, he appears to be rather fond of himself. If we need a label for such people, we should look for a different one.

Jüdischer selbsthass, or “Jewish self-hatred,” is a term coined in Weimar Germany, where Austrian-born Jewish writer Anton Kuh first proposed it as an improvement on Theodor Herzl’s more ironic “anti-Semite of Jewish origin” in 1921. Its main popularizer, however, was the German-Jewish philosopher Theodor Lessing, who made it the title of a book published in 1930. Lessing, an originally assimilationist German Jew who became a Zionist under the impact of the rise of Nazism, attempted to analyze the widespread phenomenon of German Jews who despised themselves for being Jewish, concentrating on well-known intellectuals like Otto Weininger, Arthur Trebitsch and others.

Trebitsch’s feeling that “as long as I live, I cannot deny the sin of my Jewishness nor purge myself of the curse of it, of that primal, metaphysical guilt that weighs on me like a mountain and by which I know myself to be damned and condemned,” extreme though it may seem, was typical of such men. In discussing it, Lessing, while pointing out that the tendency of Jews to hold themselves responsible for their misfortunes at the hands of their enemies is as old as the biblical prophets, nevertheless distinguished between the Jewish self-blame of a Jeremiah or Amos and the Jewish self-hatred of a Trebitsch or Weininger. Amos and Jeremiah may have thought that the Assyrians or Babylonians were doing God’s will by brutally conquering Israel, but they did not identify with them. Men like Trebitsch and Weininger did identify with German and European culture. The self-hating Jew was a modern phenomenon caused by the unrequited love of Jews for a gentile society that rejected them — a rejection that they then introjected.

As such, self-hating Jews are a product of two things: the Jewish desire to assimilate and anti-Semitism. In times and places where one or the other of these is not strong, as assimilationism was not in premodern Europe, and anti-Semitism is not in 21st-century America, Jewish self-hatred rarely appears. Jews who are accepted as Jews by the non-Jewish world that they wished would accept them have little cause to be disgusted by their own Jewishness.

What, then, shall we say of a successfully assimilated Jew like Richard Falk, who makes a point of singling out a Jewish state for its misdeeds among all the nations of the world and promulgates a scurrilous cartoon aimed at it while claiming to be in the tradition of the biblical prophets? Only, perhaps, that the prophets, despite their ferocious anger at their own people, cared passionately about them and identified fully with their fate, from which they never sought to stand apart or disassociate themselves. This is what gives them their great pathos. They may have sometimes hated their fellow Israelites, but they also deeply loved them, the way one sometimes hates and loves one’s own family.

It’s hard to imagine a Richard Falk, a Noam Chomsky, a Jacqueline Rose or others of their ilk feeling love for the Jewish people or losing any sleep over the people’s fate. What they’re enamored by is their image of themselves as Jews who have the moral courage to attack a Jewish state and the moral impunity to do so, which their Jewishness gives them. (“What, me anti-Jewish? I’m a Jew myself!”) Far from being self-hating Jews, they are self-loving Jews of the I’m-not-one-of-you variety. If you can think of a catchier way to put that, let me know.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.