Rebecca, take off your gown

Adam Phillips

  • Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews by Sander Gilman
    Johns Hopkins, 461 pp, £25.10, March 1986, ISBN 0 8018 3276 4

‘What have I in common with Jews?’ Kafka asked in his diary in 1913: ‘I have almost nothing in common with myself.’ By 1945, European Jews had a catastrophic history in common. ‘Jews are people who are not what anti-semites say they are,’ Philip Roth once wrote, but it is Gilman’s contention in this book that the Jews have tried to become indistinguishable from their enemies: that in the process of assimilation they have had to internalise the anti-semitism of their host nations. Since the Middle Ages the Jews of Central Europe, in order to survive, have had to recognise an unacceptable Jew within – and disown him. What this has in practice entailed is that most virulent, because most contradictory, form of anti-semitism, Jewish anti-semitism. Gilman describes this as the inevitable double bind of the outsider: the only acceptable Jew is the non-Jew. In his view, ‘the ubiquitousness of self-hatred ... has shaped the self-awareness of those treated as different perhaps more than they themselves have been aware.’ He does not make the unacceptably glib point that the Jews simply colluded in their own destruction, but he does make it plain that a lot of powerful anti-semitic polemic had been written by Jews as well as non-Jews before the Nazis. There was, as it were, a great tradition of Jewish anti-semitism.

If self-hatred has been integral to the experience of the Jews, so too has resilience. You don’t meet Hittites these days in European cities. Gilman implicitly makes the point that self-hatred may be, among other things, a kind of self-protection, part of the emotional rigmarole of survival in largely hostile countries. The history of the Jews, as of any dispersed people, has been the history of their obvious, and not so obvious, difference from the various cultures they have inhabited. But it has also been a history, as Gilman makes clear, of the persistent need of some of these cultures to clarify the nature of the difference in order to eradicate it. Jewish Self-Hatred is a historical account, and an attempted psychological explanation, of the co-operation of the Jews in this project. ‘Self-hatred,’ Koestler wrote in 1946, ‘is the Jew’s patriotism.’

The essential difference, the most manifestly unacceptable thing about the Jews, has been what anti-semitic writers have construed as their ‘hidden language’. Whether it was Hebrew, Yiddish or ‘corrupt’ German, it was seen as a language of ancient and furtive allegiances, something dangerous that needed to be translated out. It is, of course, impossible to imagine a culture, or an individual, without a category of the unacceptable, though some people feel the need to be more militant in their discriminations than others. Gilman uses psychoanalytic ideas of projection and internalisation to explain the stubborn ferocity of anti-semitism. In the difficult theoretical section with which he begins the book, he does not consider the problematic question of whether insights derived from a psychology of the individual are suited to a broader context. And he writes of projection – finding the unacceptable parts of oneself in other people – as a mechanism rather than as part of the process of a relationship. His initial discussion of self-hatred turns into a rather over-schematic story in which homogeneous groups of people, Insiders and Outsiders, are driven by irresistible psychological mechanisms to act out the stereotypes ascribed to them.

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