Jewish Self-Hatred

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

A disturbing phenomenon of social history is the unholy fascination exerted by victimizers on their victims and the tendency of the latter to “identify with the aggressor” (Anna Freud)—what Guy Stern has described as “the willingness of pariah groups to embrace the calumnies of their oppressors and to affix them to subgroups within their own ranks.” In the light of the Holocaust, this phenomenon has acquired particular poignance in the case of the Jews. Sander L. Gilman has now produced the most searching analysis of Jewish self-hatred since Theodor Lessing’s paradigmatic study Der jüdische Selbsthass (1930), providing an entire typology of Jewish modes of alienation, insecurity, compensation, self-laceration, and other outward projections of inner anxieties. He defines self-hating Jews as individuals who accept and internalize the premises underlying anti-Jewish rhetoric and behavior. “This present study,” the author writes, “examines how a group defined as different by society as well as by itself responds to one very specific stereotype, the image of its language and discourse.” Gilman then goes on to elucidate what he terms the “classic double bind situation”Society has stated, through its literary institutions: Become like me—speak my language, think within my constraints, express yourself within my forms, undertake the same search for origins as I do—and you will become one with me. The state says: If you speak like a Jew, you are treated like an object; I can see beyond your superficial attempts to disguise yourself as a member of the intelligentsia and identify you.

Full acceptance by the reference group seems to beckon if the marginal group agrees to abandon its otherness and play by the majority’s rules, as it were. That is the liberal promise, but there is also a conservative curse: “The more you are like me, the more I know the true value of my power, which you wish to share, and the more I am aware that you are but a shoddy counterfeit, an outsider.” In this way acceptance becomes a mirage, a double-bind situation. Gilman is careful to point out that“self-hatred” among Jews is not the special prerogative of any specific group of Jews; it is the result of the internalized contrast between any society in which the possibility of acceptance is extended to any marginal group and the projection of the negative image of this group onto a fiction of itself that leads to “self-hatred” or self-abnegation.

What distinguishes Gilman’s wide-ranging, impressively researched study from other books on anti-Semitism or problems of Jewish acculturation and identity is its in-depth treatment of the perception of the Jew as a marginal member of society, as “Other.” This otherness has been expressed in a certain language or discourse. The Other can never possess “true” language; the hidden language, the true articulation of Jewishness, is the language of otherness: “The Other’s language is hidden, dark, magical, dangerous, private.” What is meant by “hidden language” or “damaged discourse” is whatever is perceived as being at the core of the Jews’ otherness, and at various times and in different places this has been Hebrew, Yiddish (or Yiddishized German), language and rhetoric generally, journalism, trading, materialism, wit, sexuality, and (after the Holocaust) even the silence of the survivors. The author points out that on one level or another everybody is an Other to some group. Certain ethnic, racial, or religious entities—Jews, blacks, homosexuals—have always been labeled as different. The trouble starts when culturally determined, more or less arbitrary and “unfair” patterns of Otherness are applied whoesale to groups rather than individuals, and “self-hatred arises when the mirages of stereotypes are confused with realities . . . when the desire for acceptance forces the acknowledgment of one’s difference.”

The author sets out to “use the written words of Jews about the Jews in a number of historical and cultural contexts to examine the articulation and implication of self-hatred for Jewish indentity.” Gilman’s breadth and interdisciplinary orientation are evidenced by the fact that as a professor of humane studies he is a member of the departments of German and of Near Eastern studies at Cornell University in addition to serving as a professor of psychiatry at Cornell Medical College. The present book was suggested to the author, who has also written on blackness, insanity, and psychiatric photography, by his seminar on stereotypes of women in nineteenth century thought. (Paradoxically, he excludes Jewish women from consideration—because of “the double-double bind of being Jewish and being female” and the “discontinuity of texts by women and . . . their essentially private nature.”) Since Gilman is primarily a Germanist, his study gives pride of place to German Jewry.

In tracing Jewish anti-Semitism (or anti-Judaism) as a “label for a specific mode of self-abnegation that has existed among Jews throughout their history,” Gilman points out that in the sixteenth century Haim ben Bezalel described one of the first examples of Jewish self-hatred: baptized Jews railing against the Talmud. In the Christian medieval world, Hebrew was the “hidden language”: its status as an arcane, magical language explains the importance of Jewish physicians in the Middle Ages: They were thought to have access to occult knowledge. Johannes Pfefferkorn, a Jew baptized in 1504, became a willing tool of the hidebound Cologne Dominicans. The polemics between him and the “wise Christian” Johannes Reuchlin became a cause célèbre of European intellectuals in the struggle between the old order and the new humanism. The model of self-hatred supplied by Pfefferkorn and other Jewish converts—the “good” Jew who accepts Christ and gains true insight, and the “bad” Jew whose blindness and obduracy lead him to evil and destructive acts—decisively shaped Martin Luther’s vulgar Jew-baiting and became part of a tradition that continued to generate negative self-images within German Jewry. Luther dehumanized the Jews by denying their claim to control of the magical Hebrew language and disseminated the notion that thieves’ argot derived...

(The entire section is 2567 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Choice. XXIV, September, 1986, p. 192.

Chronicle of Higher Education. April 2, 1986, p. 6.

Congress Monthly. LIII, November-December, 1986, p. 16.

Kirkus Reviews. LIII, December 15, 1985, p. 1374.

Jewish Quarterly. XXXIII, No. 4, 1986, p. 28.

Judaica Book News. XVII, No. 1, Fall-Winter, 1986, p. 40.

London Review of Books. May 8, 1986, p. 7.