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Jewish Self-Hatred

The phenomenon of self-hatred arises among minority groups forced together by outside pressure and produces a negative attitude on the part of members toward their own group, but the very word is absent from important dictionaries of the English language, and it would appear to have been coined by Theodore Lessing (see below), since in his book dealing with it he gives it in quotation marks.

It was first diagnosed in Central European Jewish social theory and fiction. As expressed by Jews, it is both a group phenomenon and an individual trait. One Jewish group may take a hostile position toward another, e.g., German Jews against East European Jews in Europe; Orthodox Jews against Conservative and Reform Jews in the United States and the State of Israel; and vice versa. A Jew who expresses self-hatred, according to Kurt Lewin, "will dislike everything specifically Jewish, for he will see in it that which keeps him away from the majority for which he is longing. He will show dislike for those Jews who are outspokenly so, and will frequently indulge in self-hatred" (Lewin, Resolving Social Conflicts. p. 164).

With the decline of positive traits of Judaism and Jewish identification in Western Diaspora communities, both in Europe before World War II and in the United States afterward, self-hatred became endemic. The most important early analysis of the phenomenon among Jews appeared in Berlin, 1930, in Theodor *Lessing's Juedischer Selbsthass (Berlin, 1930). To the self-hating Jew, all misfortune derives from the fact that one is Jewish. The Jews, moreover, are held responsible for their own fate and are therefore "to blame for all their misfortunes." Clinical reports by Lessing include Jews who urge the Aryans to exterminate the Jews like vermin, and others who remained childless or even committed suicide so as "to remove the stain of Jewishness from mankind." Lessing therefore describes Jewish self-hatred as an acute pathology of psychosis.

In Western democracies, on the other hand, Jewish self-hatred appears as a chronic malady of neurosis. But, while in Central Europe the self-hating Jew removed himself as far as possible from Jewish associations, in the United States he found himself at the top of Jewish community life. Lewin diagnosed this phenomenon in 1941. "In a minority group, individual members who are economically successful… usually gain a higher degree of acceptance by the majority group. This places them culturally on the periphery of the underprivileged group and makes them more likely to be 'marginal' persons. They frequently have a negative balance and are particularly eager not to have their 'good connections' endangered by too close a contact with those sections of the underprivileged group which are not acceptable to the majority. Nevertheless, they are frequently called on for leadership by the underprivileged group because of their status and power. They themselves are usually eager to accept the leading role in the minority, partly as a substitute for gaining status in the majority, and partly because such leadership enables them to have and maintain additional contact with the majority." This type of person Lewin calls "the leader from the periphery." He uses his position to de-Judaize the Jewish community and remove those traits which make Jews Jewish.

With the renaissance of Jewish pride and self-respect consequent upon the establishment of the State of Israel and its positive impact upon Jewish and world public opinion of the 1950s and 1960s, Jewish self-hatred tended to decline. Indeed, the rise to public prominence of clearly identified Jewish personalities in the Western democracies and of the State of Israel served as a powerful antidote to both public and private self-hatred. Evidence of the development of Jewish self-respect is the dramatic shift in budgets of Jewish community federations and welfare funds, and of public opinion affecting those budgets in favor of positive evidences and programs of Jewish self-identification.

Lewin regarded Jewish self-hatred as a social-psychological phenomenon in that it occurs among entirely normal persons. He therefore concluded: "Jewish self-hatred will die out only when actual equality of status with the non-Jew is achieved. Only then will the enmity against one's own group decrease to the relatively insignificant proportions characteristic of the majority groups. Sound self-criticism will replace it." It is generally maintained, therefore, that through Jewish education feelings of inferiority and fear may be counteracted by positive identification with the Jewish people. For example, Zionism in the Germany of the 1930s was a powerful force in the face of Hitler for hope and Jewish affirmation ("Jasagen zum Judentum"). On this subject Lewin further commented: "… there is nothing so important as a clear and fully accepted belonging to a group whose fate has a positive meaning. A long-range view, which includes the past and the future of Jewish life, and links the solution of the minority problem with the problem of the welfare of all human beings, is one of these sources of strength. A strong feeling of being part and parcel of the group and having a positive attitude toward it is … sufficient condition for the avoidance of attitudes based on self-hatred." Since, as noted, Zionism before 1948, and the State of Israel thereafter, provided that locus of unity and long-range view of a past of courage and a future of hope which Jewish self-esteem demands, it is not to be wondered at that the growing impact of Zionist activity in the Western countries as well as among the Jews of the former U.S.S.R. materially limited the formerly commonplace and endemic expressions of this phenomena.


K. Lewin, Resolving Social Conflicts; Selected Papers on Group Dynamics (1948), 159–68, 186–200; T. Lessing, Der juedische Selbsthass (1930); J. Neusner, in: Midstream 15 (1969), 34–53; idem, American Judaism: Adventure in Modernity (1972), 15–34, 61–116.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.