JTA – I used to joke that I am not a self-hating Jew: It’s all those other Jews I can’t stand.
Like I said, I used to tell that joke.
In the current political climate, self-hatred is no laughing matter. Calling another Jew “self-hating” is pervasive and toxic – so toxic, in fact, that some observers can’t distinguish it from actual anti-Semitism. A lot of liberal Jews label Breitbart News anti-Semitic in part because of an article by right-wing activist David Horowitz that essentially called William Kristol a self-hating Jew. (Horowitz’s actual term was “renegade Jew.”)
Similarly, the Washington Post explained last week that William Bradford resigned from the Energy Department over reports of his “racist and anti-Semitic tweets.” In the aftermath of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg urging followers not to vote for Trump, Bradford posted this tweet that the Post called anti-Semitic: “Who is this little arrogant self-hating Jew to tell anyone for whom to vote.”
Pretty nasty, but it turns out Bradford himself is Jewish. So is Horowitz, who explained that he called Kristol a renegade Jew because he felt the conservative pundit, in opposing Trump, had “betrayed the Jews.” Like Horowitz, Bradford apparently saw himself not as an anti-Semite but as a Defender of the Faith. Just like the Hungarian Jewish journalist who called financier and philanthropist George Soros a self-hating Jew. Or the Republican Jewish leader in Israel who called comedian Sarah Silverman a self-hating Jew. Or the JTA reader who called the late pundit Christopher Hitchens a self-hating Jew. Or the famous Jewish comedian (OK, Jackie Mason) who called Bernie Sanders a self-hating Jew.
All of those who fling the charge would deny they are themselves being anti-Semitic. Here’s Mason justifying his use of the term to describe Sanders’ views on Israel: “If a non-Jew was saying it, people would call him an anti-Semite because he is an anti-Semite. Just because he’s a Jew doesn’t mean he can’t hate being Jewish because he obviously is a viciously self-hating Jew.”
No doubt, there are Jews who are “viciously self-hating” – or at least they base their worldview on what Leon Wieseltier has called “the internalization of the standpoint of the enemy.” We’ve had our traitors and kapos and turncoats. Post-emancipation, the Jews who believed that the “mirage” of anti-Semitic stereotypes was the real thing, as the historian Sander Gilman once put, were the subject of communal fascination and disgust and the topic of serious scholarship. We know this because there are some really good jokes about self-hatred (look up the one with the punchline, “Is that all you people ever think about?”).
But nowadays the charge is invariably political, pure and simple. Last month Naftali Bennett, Israel’s minister of education, used the term “auto-anti-Semitism” – from a Hebrew term for Jewish self-hatred – to describe critics of a government-approved science textbook that included the prayer for rain.
“Auto-anti-Semitism is a social-psychological phenomenon in which a Jew develops obsessive contempt and hostility toward Jewish tradition, Jewish customs and traditional Jews,” Bennett explained on Facebook, according to The Jerusalem Post.
Secular parents in Israel insist, meanwhile, that they don’t hate themselves or Judaism; it’s religious coercion that they can do without.
Anshel Pfeffer, writing in the left-wing newspaper Haaretz, noted that the Jews who voted for Trump “aren’t self-hating Jews,” which of course suggests that some people think they are. On the flip side, The Jerusalem Post gave space to a 2,300-word essay arguing that “liberal Jews” who oppose Trump or criticize Israel are self-hating. In June, a writer for the The Daily Wire, the right-leaning news site, called Sanders (him again) a “self-hating Jew” because he gave a speech opposing the Israeli occupation.
If you’re interested, this is what Sanders said to earn the honorific:
“I know so many of you agree with me when I say this occupation must end. Peace, real peace, means security not only for every Israeli but for every Palestinian. It means supporting self-determination, civil rights and economic well-being for both peoples.”
Describing Jewish liberals and Jewish critics of Israel as “self-hating” has become a reflex on the right, although occasionally the charge goes the other way, casting no more light on the issue at hand.
Accusations of self-hatred are serious business not just because they shut down debate. They seek to excommunicate people based on political differences, and put the accuser in the position of Jewish Grand Inquisitor (and even Pope Francis has been known to say, “Who am I to judge?”). And they ascribe deep psychological motives to people based on flimsy evidence.
If you plan on calling someone a self-hater, you have to be pretty sure of two things: One, that the opinions they hold are those of genuine anti-Semites and not just people with whom you disagree; and two, they came to their opinions via some sort of self-lacerating neurosis.
Or just ask yourself this the next time you find yourself disagreeing with Bernie Sanders or Jared Kushner: What does “self-hater” add to your argument except a signal that you may not trust yourself to win the debate on its merits?
ANDREW SILOW-CARROLL is editor in chief of JTA.