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.

‘Self-hatred,’ Gilman writes, ‘results from outsiders’ acceptance of the mirage of themselves generated by their reference group – that group in society which they see as defining them – as a reality.’ The oppressor is always an essentialist, but the victim is not always a passive recipient. Or rather, passivity is not a simple thing. There is clearly a significant difference between, for example, adaptation and compliance. The ‘reference group’ defines itself by those it excludes, using them as a repository for ‘its own insecurities concerning its potential loss of power’. In general terms, it makes sense to say that for the Jew to assimilate was to comply with a world that by definition excluded him: as an outsider, you can never be a member of a club that will accept you. But his account omits any real sense of the reciprocity, the malign collaboration, that can exist between insiders and outsiders, or of how people metabolise the images ascribed to them. We make ourselves up between invention and refusal, or invention and impossibility. Jews are not an invention of the anti-semite – or vice versa. It is a reciprocal relationship: each invents the other. Their identity is constituted, but never fixed, as Gilman’s superb individual portraits show, by what goes on between them. The relationship between the anti-semite and the Jew in Europe, at least from the Middle Ages onwards, was an often brutal debate that collapsed into a monologue, and then into silence.

The mere presence of the Jews in Medieval Europe, especially the orthodox Jews, was a considerable provocation. With their obstinate disregard of the Christian revelation, with their refusal to read the Old Testament as an elaborate prefiguration of the New, they were seen as an obstacle to history. They were holding up the Second Coming. The cosmic need to convert the Jews, the wish to find a way of including them, was always underwritten by a sense that they might be, by nature, irredeemable – a race of critics. If the Bible was divinely inspired, the Jews’ misreading of it revealed what is described again and again in the texts Gilman cites as a ‘blindness’. And this innate blindness was at its most pernicious in their ‘heretical Talmud’, the Rabbinic commentary on the Jew’s Bible. In 1315, when Louis X eventually allowed the Jews to return to France, he forbade them to bring their Talmud. For centuries, as Gilman says, the Talmud was ‘representative of those magic, evil books in which the blindness of the Jews is contained’. It was also characteristic of the geographical promiscuity of the Jew that he should be devoted to portable commodities like books. ‘For this may be understood,’ the theologian Johannes Reuclin wrote in 1510 in a debate about Jewish baptism, ‘that one should not take their books from them against their will, for books are as dear to some as a child. And as one says about the poets: they hold the books they create for their children.’

Talmud means ‘study’, and for the Jews – to whom intellectual debate was, and perhaps still is, a form of sanctification – the Talmud represented the continuity of Biblical study and discussion. In the Middle Ages, when Christian theological debate centred on the possibility of a genuine conversion of the Jews, Christian interpretations of the Bible were a direct attack on Jewish traditions. Converts to Christianity who tried to strengthen their position by using their inside knowledge of Judaism to disclose its fraudulence, its insidious hidden language, found themselves in a no man’s land. Disparaged by their fellow Jews, they elicited powerful suspicion among the Christians they aspired to join. The convert, it was believed, might always turn out to be an internal saboteur. What Gilman calls the ‘damaged discourse’ of the Jew, his use and usury of language, revealed his essential difference. Whether he spoke Hebrew, Yiddish or German, he was always a Jew, and the Jew was a quick-change artist. ‘A man can change his language without any trouble,’ Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf: ‘that is, he can use another language, but in his new language he will express the old ideas; his inner nature is not changed. This is best shown by the Jew who can speak a thousand languages and nevertheless remains a Jew.’ For Hitler – and for Luther before him, as Gilman shows in impressive detail – the Jews could never be the real thing. They were a threat to the attempt of the German-speaking nation-states to simulate political unity by imposing a standard German language on quite disparate peoples. It was one of the paradoxical gifts of the Chosen People to suggest that perhaps there was no such thing as the real thing.

By the 18th century, the bad Jew, the Jew who could only lie, was the Jew from the East: a crude, primitive, mystical anachronism whose very appearance, ‘the bearded Jew in his kaftan’, undermined the confidence of the cosmopolitan Jews living in the great cities of Western Europe. ‘Yiddish, the Talmud, the pilpul, the geographic focus of the disputatious Jew in the East’, Gilman writes, had ‘the potential to call forth the wrath of philo-and anti-semite alike’. Pilpul was the form of Talmudic dispute which revealed the Jew to the anti-semite as endlessly argumentative, unable to settle for anything, for ever negotiating in a private language the impossibility of resolution of every issue. It was the work of Moses Mendelssohn, and the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment of the 18th century, to try to diminish the mystifications of the old religion that seemed to invite persecution. In a subtle portrait of Mendelssohn, ‘the second Spinoza’, as some people thought him to be, Gilman sees the project of the Enlightenment as an act of compliance: a ‘fulfilment of the cultural demands of Christian, capitalistic society’. It was an act of integrity that had its opportunistic side. Mendelssohn was clear that the identity of the Jew could no longer be bound up with either Yiddish or Talmudic Hebrew. This turning away from the images of the East would enable the Jews to contribute to a culture that fascinated them.

At the turn of the 19th century, Martin Buber was writing of the Hassidic tradition of the East as ‘something ageless, primeval ... something lost, longed-for, recurring’. In fact, he validated the partly anti-semitic notion of a primal Jewish identity, something that all forms of assimilation merely glossed over. This is a crucial irony, which sheds a new light on Buber’s sense of Zionism as ‘the restoration of the context, the renewed rootedness in the community’. ‘The antithesis between acculturation, which Buber views as a surface phenomenon,’ Gilman writes, ‘and the true roots of Jewish identity, perceived by him as inherent in the Jew, is but the standard paradigm of Jewish uniqueness presented by racial anti-semites given a positive value.’ As the Chosen People, the Jews had an essence conferred upon them which was, so to speak, a mixed blessing. Either Jewish identity, like any sense of identity, is born of conflict, and so always provisional, or it is something intrinsic and untouchable. The two are not entirely incompatible, but the first at least has the advantage of dispensing with misleading metaphors of purity.

The protracted identity crisis of the European Jews is most clearly evoked by Gilman’s vivid descriptions of individuals making sense of their Jewish identity. Börne, Heine, Marx, Kraus and Freud all become exemplary in their various confused passionate solutions to the problem of having been born Jews in largely hostile German-speaking countries. All of them, apart from Freud, evolved a sense of themselves by defining themselves against an unacceptable version of the Jew. Each in his own distinctive way was preoccupied with the idea of the Jew betraying himself through his language, which revealed either a small-minded, vulgar materialism or the pretentious aspiration to a higher culture which had always excluded him. What the Jews had – at least, according to Gilman, since the 18th-century invention of the schlemiel – was a tradition of specifically Jewish humour, a humour in which vulnerability is exploited as a kind of strength. Obviously on the verge of self-contempt, it is also always on the verge of parodying the implicit anti-semitism of the audience. It is never clear, as it were, who the joke is on. The invention of the schlemiel was part of the Jews’ attempt to educate themselves through self-ridicule out of an unacceptable version of Jewishness.

Gilman shows, for example, how crucial Jewish jokes were to the early development of psychoanalytic theory. Many of the jokes in Freud’s ‘Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious’ turn on the difference between good and bad German, the disparity between the language of the cultured Jew and the Jew who spoke Mauscheln, the anti-semitic name for the ‘corrupt’ German of the Jews. Little of this is evident when one reads Freud in translation. In 1897, Freud reports to Fliess that he has compiled a ‘collection of profound Jewish stories’ that he will eventually use in his work on dreams. Gilman lists the numerous Yiddishisms used for comic effect in Freud’s correspondence (one of them, incidentally, is Dalles, meaning ‘poverty’). And he notes that the ‘rather enigmatic punchline’ in the crucial letter to Fliess in which Freud acknowledges that his seduction theory of the origin of the neuroses is wrong comes from a Jewish joke in Freud’s collection. Unfortunately, he doesn’t tell us what the joke is. In order to illustrate his profound disappointment at having to abandon the theory, Freud mentions ‘a little story from my collection ... “Rebecca, take off your gown, you are no longer a bride”’. This has always been rather mystifying, but it is clearly the punchline from a joke Fliess was presumably familiar with. ‘The punchline,’ Gilman writes, ‘is made even more telling by the use of the Yiddishism Kalle, which is itself a sexual double entendre meaning both bride and prostitute.’

However, in describing the relationship of Freud’s work to the new sciences of race and language, Gilman fails to grasp the opportunity which the context of his book provides for redescribing some of Freud’s central ideas in the light of the prevailing anti-semitic ethos in which Freud worked. For example, in the psychoanalytic session, the Jew as analyst is both present and invisible: a relatively passive recipient-interpreter of the patient’s projections, which will be understood as belonging to the patient though they are ascribed to the analyst. The analysand will invent the analyst and his relationship with him out of his earliest familial relationships – this is what Freud will call ‘transference’. In order to reconstruct these early relationships, the analyst will be attentive to the most oblique references to himself in the patient’s material: that is to say, integral to the psychoanalytic method is a form of benign paranoia which is called ‘interpreting the transference’. The analyst, thanks to his knowledge of the new science of psychoanalysis, will be in a position to reconstruct the patient’s personal history from the hidden language of the unconscious as revealed in dreams, slips of the tongue and free-associations. The analysis will reveal how the patient has come to terms with the unacceptable in himself. In placing the Oedipus complex at the centre of his theory, Freud was emphasising the constitutive human experience of being left out, the narcissistic blow of being an ill-equipped child in a world of seemingly competent adults; the universal difficulty of living with ambivalent feelings about everything and everybody one cares for; the irresolvable conflicts engendered in the child by coming in in the middle of a conversation he can’t understand, and growing up to the horrible realisation that the participants don’t understand it either. The anti-semitic image of the Eastern Jew can be seen in Freud’s description of the child as a rapacious, exploitative materialist, just as the image of the assimilated Jew can be seen in his extraordinary theory of the Family Romance. Central, in fact, to the distinctively Freudian topography of the mind is the fantasy of the unconscious as a nomad or a smuggler. The visionary pragmatism that is psychoanalysis contains, among many other things, a powerful imaginative account of the Jews in the Diaspora.

The Nazis decreed that ‘Jewish works appear in Hebrew. If they appear in German they are to be labelled as translations.’ After the holocaust, the Jews could no longer really speak German because it was the language of their torturers. The poems of Paul Celan, like the mandarin polemics of Adorno, bear ample witness, as Gilman shows, to the new impossibilities. It is not surprising that the Jew as a mad person, the Jew as someone maddened by the world, should come to haunt post-holocaust literature. ‘If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.’