The ironies of hating oneself

‘Self-hating Jew’ is a lazy label but sometimes the cap does actually fit

I was faffing around in the end of the 19th century, for reasons connected with another project, when I came across the name of Otto Weininger. Some readers will already know of the young Viennese Jew who converted to Christianity in 1902, published the book Sex and Character in the summer of 1903, and killed himself four months later, but I hadn’t encountered him before.

To modern ears, the striking thing about Weininger is not his pseudo-scientific stance on sexuality — that was common to his period, and is not unknown today.

It isn’t even his misogyny — his determined insistence that women are confined to a lower spiritual plane than men by reason of their physicality. Unfortunately, we can still encounter sects and denominations who make the same argument.

In the context of his times — the deep cultural and historical pessimism that fed the Vitalism which itself was a quality necessary for the delusions that ushered in the First World War — Weininger was not so unusual. Save in one respect — his antisemitism.

Until a few years ago, I had never come across the phrase “self-hating Jew” and, naturally, when it came to hating Jews, I had imagined that all the posts were filled.

Then, at a Jewish Book Week event I heard the term flung by a very right-wing audience member at a fairly left-wing member of a panel. Their disagreement was (as how could it not be?) about Israel, and the trench-lines of their argument are too well dug and surveyed to need description here.

But this Likud man’s use of the term struck me as being both unscrupulous and impertinent. He deployed it to mean something both more and sicker than “traitor”, as though his opponent was afflicted by some pathology.

I never thought of even the most enthusiastic and self-promoting anti-Zionist Jew as in any way “self-hating”, seeing most of them animated by genuine conscience — with perhaps the occasional tinge of adolescent rebellion.

There was one secondhand exception to this, one doodle on the blank slate, and this was Trevor Grundy’s description of his mother’s antisemitism (both parents were active in the British Union of Fascists), followed by his discovery that she was herself Jewish.

And then came my collision with Gilad Atzmon, which I wrote about in the spring, and my witnessing of his ascription of inherent negative and almost anti-human qualities to Judaism, Jewish culture and Jewishness.

Back to Weininger, whose book associated Judaism with the undermining, anti-spiritual, immoral carnality of the feminine. Judaism was, according to Weininger, “cowardly… saturated with femininity, with precisely those qualities the essence of which I have shown to be in the strongest opposition to the male nature”. Parasitic on more manly host nations, Judaism had to be battled against, not least by Jews themselves.

Hitler was to praise the dead Weininger as “the one decent Jew”. But Hitler might not have approved of Weininger’s axiom that “people love in others the qualities they would like to have but do not actually have in any great degree; so also we hate in others only what we do not wish to be.” Hitler imagined himself to be an Aryan and the supreme masculinist, and was happy to love the qualities he himself thought he possessed.

Weininger’s extreme version of “the grass is greener” was achieved at a time of constant and rising antisemitism, given a pseudo-scientific edge by the brittle and neurotic intellectualism of the period. In essence he bought into a description of the essential qualities of his own people that ultimately fuelled their physical destruction.

It is ironic, particularly in the light of Gilad Atzmon’s recent (doubtless ironic) attempts to resurrect Weininger, that the dead Vitalist might well have approved of the muscularity of Israel. These days no one but fundamentalist Islamists thinks of Jews as anything but butch.

    Last updated: 12:05pm, August 6 2009