On the Origins of Jewish Self-Hatred
By Paul Reitter
Princeton University Press, 176 pages, $26.95
What do we talk about when we talk about Jewish self-hatred? That’s the question Paul Reitter tackles in his new book, “On the Origins of Jewish Self-Hatred.” After tracing the first appearances of the term “Jewish self-hatred” in interwar Germany, and filtering out contemporary polemics, he looks for what remains. The precipitate, achieved through a painstaking literary decanting of both primary texts and secondary scholarship, is odd as well as remarkable.
“Jewish self-hatred,” according to Reitter, originally meant something positive. It was not simply internalized prejudice, nor was it a club with which to beat your political opponents. Rather, it was a distinctive, ironic and redemptive way of being: “the capacity through which the Jews could teach the world how to heal itself.”
If that inversion sounds like intellectual alchemy, it helps to know something about the topsy-turvy world of fin de siècle Austro-German journalism, or of what was much the same thing, fin de siècle Austro-German Jewry. Those circles were at once headily intellectual and intensely petty. You might switch cafes to woo a potential lover, but the result could be a mind-expanding exposure to “anti-patriarchal psychoanalysis.” Everyone — Reitter’s cast includes such luminaries as Martin Buber and Sigmund Freud — knew everyone. Writing for this small, connected elite, journalists produced “feuilletons”: belletristic, baroque essays in self-referential, insider codes.
As a result of this involution, anti-Semitic tropes and stereotypes — like everything else — had many meanings. Compared with the feuilletonists, debates over “hipster racism” seem like child’s play (and if you don’t know what “hipster racism” is, well, at least you have a taste of the allusive obscurity involved in the feuilleton). Reactionary anti-Semites, for instance, constantly attacked the “Jewish press” for its supposed decadence and immorality. If you wanted to attack journalists, whether you were a folkish nationalist or a hard leftist, anti-Semitism was a handy way to signal your opposition — even if you couldn’t care less about the Jews.
In his first book, “The Anti-Journalist: Karl Kraus and Jewish Self-Fashioning in Fin-de-Siecle Europe,” published in 2008, Reitter rehabilitated German-Jewish journalist and sometime anti-Semite Karl Kraus on such grounds. Employing anti-Semitic tropes and arguments, Reitter argued, didn’t mean Kraus was a mindless bigot anymore than graduate students toting books by Slavoj Žižek actually share the Slovenian philosopher’s radical politics: They are symbols or styles, the intellectual equivalent of a handbag. And like handbags, anti-Semitism could be worn self-consciously and ironically.
Kraus, for instance, viciously attacked feuilletonistic writing and wrote an anti-Semitic attack on Heinrich Heine for using his “parasitic” and “uncreative” Jewish genius to import stylized, effete and insubstantial essays into “pure” German discourse. But Kraus was himself a master feuilletonist, and his anti-Semitic attack on Heine is full of ironies and subtle self-contradictions. Here is how Kraus summed up his own positions: “My hatred of the Jewish press is exceeded only by my hatred of the anti-Semitic press, while my hatred of the anti-Semitic press is exceeded only by my hatred of the Jewish press.”