The Myth of the Self-Hating Jew

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

There are lots of politically and socially liberal and left Jews in the US. Just how many is impossible to tally, but looking at polling data across decades using election results from the New Deal era to the present, the number of Jews supporting progressive/liberal/left causes is significant. For those who eschew electoral politics and the actual outcome of those politics at street level, not much can be discerned from the support of candidates who espouse positive electoral platforms.

At the heart of both secular and religiously affiliated Jews in the US are the beliefs in the worth of the ordinary human being, the ordinary man, woman, and child, and his/her right to live a full life. Behind all of this is Rabbi Hillel’s admonition: “What you yourself hate, don’t do to your neighbor.”

Growing up in a small town in Rhode Island in the 1950s and 1960s, I knew that I was different, but that I was also an accepted member of my community. Anti-Semitism did not affect our community in any way and it was a multiethnic community. During World War II, the synagogue that my family belonged to had a committee that in a small way resettled Jews escaping Europe as Naziism took hold.

At religious ceremonies, and in auxiliary activities centered in that temple, support for the newly established state of Israel was unquestioned. No one discussed Zionism, the expulsion of masses of Arabs from Israel, or the role of Israel as the bastion of US foreign policy in the Middle East. The role of oil was unheard of and we did not discuss the place both Israel and the US played as two post World War II powers. The acceptance of Israel was so universal that in my mother’s book of short stories, Tales of An American Shtetl, which I edited, I had to change her description of a celebration at our synagogue when members of the congregation carried small Israeli flags around the sanctuary of the temple, mistakenly calling them Jewish flags.

No one talked much about the Holocaust, even though the committee from our synagogue had worked to resettle Jews.

My first recollection of the recognition of the rights and abuses of the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank came during the Vietnam antiwar movement. It was an accepted principle within the antiwar movement that if a person was antiwar, he/she would also be in favor of the establishment of a Palestinian state. That view made lots of sense, but it became an almost doctrinaire belief. The Cold War and war in general would create the opening salvos in what is now known as being politically correct and often left behind reasoned debate and differences. According to some in the antiwar movement, the only two evils in the world were the US war in Southeast Asia and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people. In reality, there were many, many evils in the world at that time and the former and latter were but two, though significant, of those evils.

In the 1980s and 1990s, as the march toward endless US wars began, then the attacks of 2001, Israel was the surviving Middle Eastern power that could be depended on to tow the US line of world domination and Israel had immense military power. The movement to democratize many governments in the Middle East generally ended badly and both the US and Israel jumped in to fill the void. The proxy war in Syria is but one example, the failure of the US occupation of Afghanistan another, the destruction of Iraq in 2003 yet another, and the demonization of Iran, even after the successful nuclear agreement put the stamp of US power on the region. Libya, like Iraq, was another example of the failed US effort at regime change through blood.

Part of the equation in US/Israel policy was allowing Israel free rein over the Palestinian Territories and what is called “mowing the lawn,” or the periodic attacks against the Palestinian people by the vastly superior power of the Israel Defense Forces.

The propaganda machine that is driven by the far right in Israel with the acquiescence of US power created the myth of the self-hating Jew. Those forces often stated that if a Jew does not uncritically support Israel, then he/she must be a kind of self-hating pariah.

Most Jews’ points of view in Israel toward the creation of a Palestinian state are different than the opinion of the majority of Jews in the US. Listen to Abby Martin as she interviews the man/woman on the streets of Israel and hear the almost universal animosity toward Palestinians. Hillel again: “What you yourself hate, don’t do to your neighbor.”

Several years ago I wrote an article critical of Israeli policy in a small Jewish publication in Rhode Island. The article was placed side-by-side with a piece written by a supporter of Israel whose criticism of my views bordered on an ad hominem attack. The writer of the piece categorized me as an angry man who had nothing good to say about Israel. Readers can easily conclude what went on there. How unusual to place a commentary in a small paper and its antithesis by its side. Those self-hating Jews must be nipped in the bud.

Anti-Semitism is a constant in US society. The Tree of Life massacre is but one example of the ongoing intolerance toward Jews in the US. The recent attacks in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank have already generated more anti-Semitic attacks. Here is an account of recent anti-Semitic violence in the US in the newspaper of record (“US Faces Outbreak of Anti-Semitic Threats and Violence,” New York Times, May 26, 2021).

The creation of a Palestinian state is a nonnegotiable position with the relocation of Jewish settlers from the West Bank. Reparations to those driven out of Israel at its creation is necessary. The rights of non-Jews in Israel must be at the same level as the rights of Jews in Israel. One state in which Palestinians and Jews live with the same rights is an entirely different discussion. There are many other considerations of Israel’s position of power in the Middle East, but consider the words of an unapologetic and secular Jew: these positions must become realities on the ground.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).