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  • On the Origins of Jewish Self-Hatred by Paul Reitter
  • Allan Janik
On the Origins of Jewish Self-Hatred Paul Reitter. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012. 166 pp.

Paul Reitter’s snappy essay in aid of correcting a number of misconceptions about the murky polemical concept of “Jewish self-hatred” on the basis of the term’s genealogy is a welcome addition to the literature even if it leaves the crucial question about what might—or might not—be explained on its basis largely untouched.

In many situations self-hatred has been invoked where Jews have criticized what is typically “Jewish,” and more recently, when Jews from abroad have criticized Israeli politics, especially with respect to the Palestinian problem, allegations of Jewish antisemitism or self-hatred have been the response. What is problematic about the term is a clichéd way of lumping together criticism and prejudice rather than reason. Moreover, it has been frequently [End Page 142] claimed that such Jewish antisemitism is rooted in a general sense of inferiority in Jews who attack things Jewish, instead of precise biographical information about the individual psyche in question. Thus circular reasoning and ad hominem fallacies have sometimes been involved in the idea that Jews criticized Jewish things because they lacked a Jewish identity. In hands of the crudest polemicists self-hatred has been typically wielded against “assimilationist” critique of things Jewish. Thus self-hatred becomes available as a rhetorical weapon to critics of assimilation. Of course, it is certainly possible that there were Jews who harbored such a negative self-image and possessed such a strong desire to be accepted in a society that was covertly and residually hostile to Jews that they would have fit the cliché. However, there is nothing about criticism of things “typically Jewish” that demands a feeling of inferiority. Indeed, David Sorkin and Steven Beller have provided us with accounts of how vigorous Jewish criticism of Jewish life, Socratic self-criticism, was part and parcel of a self-consciously Jewish “enlightenment” (haskalah) from the time of Moses Mendelssohn. As assimilation in European society (especially in the German-speaking world) ceased to be possible, self-criticism took on all the negative features normally associated with self-hatred, which became an element in the politics of being Jewish. Such were the considerations that led me to my critique of Peter Gay, Paul Giniewski, George Mosse, Jacques LeRider, Michael Pollock, and the like twenty five years ago. A similar critical attitude to the historical perplexities surrounding the concept of “self-hatred” in turn forms the point of departure for Paul Reitter’s entirely fair and precise critique of my views (as well as those of Sander Gilman and Shulamit Volkov, for example), from which his new, expanded account of the genealogy of self-hate proceeds.

Following Gay’s lead, I identified Theodor Lessing and Kurt Levin as the historical sources of the concept. That was erroneous, as it turns out—and that in two senses: by not going back far enough historically and by misconstruing a passage in Lessing’s work, a reference to Jewish blood that allegedly is not racist as I (and the Nazi racial theorist Alexander Centgraff) claimed. Be that as it may, Reitter wants to set the record straight by reevaluating Lessing’s views by recontextualizing them in the framework of interwar Central Europe. Thus Reitter traces the concept’s original meaning back to the book Jews and Germans by the Viennese publicist Anton Kuh. There Kuh developed the idea of self-hatred as arising as a form of Oedipal conflict between fathers and sons in Jewish (but not only Jewish) households that in fact marked the highest stage in assimilation [End Page 143] and in cultural achievement, for example, in a non-Jew like Goethe, a creative act of adolescent rebellion that dialectically negated the identity that the paterfamilias attempted to impose upon his son with a view to the son’s achieving an identity on his own. For the generation that discovered Freud all of this had to be intensely sexual as well as sociocultural. Kuh had a concrete model for such generational rebellion in the father of his sister...


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pp. 142-145
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