On the Origins of Jewish Self-Hatred by Paul Reitter

On the Origins of Jewish Self-Hatred BY Paul Reitter. Princeton University Press. Hardcover, 176 pages. $26.
The cover of On the Origins of Jewish Self-Hatred

From Sigmund Freud to Theodor Herzl, from Alexander Portnoy to Alvy Singer, the stereotypical self-hating Jew is someone who despises his difference and yearns to assimilate. Today, the label has an added political connotation, as Jews who criticize Israel are frequently branded as self-hating. The California-based radical-Zionist website masada2000 offers a list of more than 8,000 "Self-Hating Israel-Threatening" Jews—or "S.H.I.T. Jews" as it labels them. Masada2000 names Rabbi Michael Lerner, Woody Allen, and Noam Chomsky as Jews who "know the Truth but hate their heritage to such a degree that nothing else matters to them except bashing Israel right out of existence." It is rare for a Jewish intellectual to escape accusations of self-hatred.

But as omnipresent as the idea of the self-hating Jew is, few people have any idea where the notion comes from. Ohio State University professor Paul Reitter's On the Origins of Jewish Self-Hatred offers an answer in the form of a revisionist history. Reitter begins with an account of how Jewish self-hatred grew out of the resentment assimilated Jews felt for their ineradicable Jewishness. But Reitter's story is novel in two respects. First, he cleaves Jewish self-hatred from its complex three-hundred-year history of assimilation. Second, Reitter provocatively seeks to rehabilitate Jewish self-hatred, and to reveal its "affirmative and even redemptive Ur-meanings." However, as right as Reitter is to resist blanket condemnations of Jewish self-hatred, his recuperative efforts are meaningless and anachronistic.

Reitter opens On the Origins with an account of early-19th-century Berlin socialite Rahel Varnhagen. Varnhagen—who most people refer to simply as Rahel—is often used as an example of the self-hating assimilated Jew. She was baptized, converted to Christianity, and married a successful diplomat. Yet her letters are filled with self-hatred. Her Jewish birth and physical characteristics hung upon her as inescapable misfortunes. Reitter briefly recounts Rahel's experience of her Jewishness as, in his words, a "shameful, soul-killing stain that couldn't be washed away"—a sentiment common among assimilated Jews at the time.

Reitter could have used Rahel’s story as the basis for a history of anti-Semitism among assimilated Jews, but instead, he takes another approach, one he classifies as “conceptual history.” Through a series of intellectual somersaults, Reitter distinguishes Rahel’s self-hatred (which he bafflingly deems part of the “prehistory” of his subject) from his redemptive version of Jewish self-hatred.

In contrast to what he considers Rahel’s destructive self-hatred, Reitter builds his case for positive Jewish self-hatred in two long chapters recuperating the largely forgotten German-speaking-Jewish writers Anton Kuh and Theodor Lessing. As assimilated Jewish intellectuals from the early 20th century, Kuh and Lessing were deeply critical of assimilation and what it would mean for Jews. In 1918, Kuh wrote "Pogrom," in which he described assimilation as a tragic failure, one that left European Jews "self-alienated" and "spiritually homeless," neither Jewish nor German. “If the Jews press on with their assimilationism,” Kuh warned, “an ax blow will lop off their bowed heads." But Kuh believed that Jewish self-hatred could provide the psychological spur that would elevate Jews above the values of a society that rejected them. In Reitter's summation, Kuh imagines the self-hating Jew as someone who can "break through the rule of bourgeois values… in the hope of paving the way to a fuller, more authentic mode of existence."

Lessing grew up an assimilated Jew who could "loathe [him]self more drastically than anyone else could." After he converted to Protestantism and proclaimed Aryans to be the model ethnic group, Lessing wrote Jewish Self-Hatred, in which he attempted to refashion Jewish self-hatred into something with world-historical, nearly messianic significance. In that work, Lessing likened the alienation of the proletariat to that of the Jews, and presented the latter as a model for coping with oppression. The proletariat, Lessing writes, "is nothing other than a single Jewry. A giant ghetto! It is therefore self-evident that the painful experiences of the Jews can be of use to the proletariat." Lessing argues that self-hatred not only prepared Jews for the experience of capitalist alienation, but also protected them from its worst ravages.

If Reitter had written an intellectual history, his short book would open a fascinating window onto a fringe culture of messianic Jewish thought. But instead, Reitter’s "conceptual history" is more like an intellectual history freed from historical context. Without this much-needed background, Jewish self-hatred can be easily misconstrued as a salve for bourgeois alienation, or as the key to a redemptive world history. Precisely why Reitter goes to such lengths to isolate and defend his conceptual approach remains a mystery, though he does express hope that his "revisionist genealogy. . . will make for more open conversations about the concept." While Reitter does offer a corrective to those who would condemn any Jew who criticizes Israel or other Jews, he fails to make a case for the contemporary relevance of Kuh and Lessing's "redemption-bringing role for Jewish self-hatred." Moreover, though Reitter never directly endorses Lessing and Kuh, neither does he critique the more pernicious aspects of their arguments, or distance himself from them at all. The best that On the Origins has to offer is two fascinating chapters on these thinkers.

The overreach of On the Origins of Jewish Self-Hatred is a shame, because there are undoubtedly good reasons to explore Jewish self-hatred. Jewish art critic Clement Greenberg called on Jews to accept the fact of self-hatred in order to combat the group chauvinism that uncritically embraces Jews as a chosen people. The political thinker Hannah Arendt took inspiration from Jewish pariahs, Jews who internalized outsider status in order to think for themselves outside of societal norms. And Philip Roth gave us Alexander Portnoy, the epitome of Jewish self-hatred. In celebrating instances of Jewish alienation and self-hatred, Greenberg, Arendt, and Roth plumb the depths of Jewish experience, rather than suggesting that Jews possess the key to world redemption.

Roger Berkowitz is Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College. He blogs regularly at Learn more at

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On the Origins isn’t primarily about the phenomenon of Jewish self-hatred. The book’s focus is the concept “Jewish self-hatred,” and more specifically, the early history of the concept. As Berkowitz himself notes, just before things go awry in his review, not much has been said about the emergence of that particular term, despite the fact that in addition to serving as an analytic category, it is a widely used and much bemoaned instrument of censure. When I became interested in the history of “Jewish self-hatred,” I did what any academic would do: I looked up what had been said. What I found was that the existing narratives didn’t check out. Some scholars had argued that the concept gained currency in Germany and Austria at the fin de siècle, others that Theodor Lessing coined it in 1930. I knew the context well enough to know that neither claim was true. And so I had my questions. When and how did “Jewish self-hatred” take shape? What were its original meanings? Why has its history been so hard to track?

The revisionist revelation of my book is that the concept was born in the aftermath of the First World War, as part of an anarchist, expressionist, anti-Zionist, anti-assimilationist attempt to rethink “the Jewish Question.” As it turns out, moreover, among the original connotations of “Jewish self-hatred” were positive ones, even redemptive ones. Anton Kuh used his new concept to evoke what he saw as a problematic condition that entailed its own world-saving solution, and Lessing followed Kuh in this, in the book of 1930 that made “Jewish self-hatred” famous. The concept wasn’t coined or popularized as a straightforward extension of an ongoing, largely censorious conversation about Jewish self-disdain. “Jewish self-hatred” was forged, rather, in opposition to such similar-sounding older notions as “Jewish antisemitism” and “Jewish self-contempt.”

There are a number of reasons why commentators have missed the dialectical origins of “Jewish self-hatred.” One is that “Jewish self-hatred” has a way of calling forth the very sort of hastiness that critics of how the term has been used purport to be against (Berkowitz’s review furnishes us with a nice example of this). Another reason has to do with how students of the concept “Jewish self-hatred” have practiced conceptual history.

In order to avoid the mistakes of the past and put myself in a position to mark the original difference between “Jewish self-hatred” and the older terms (e.g., “Jewish antisemitism”) that the concept’s history has, in effect, been folded into, I survey the development of those terms, too, situating it an array of historical and intellectual contexts: accelerating Jewish assimilation; the rivalry between reform and orthodox Jews in Germany; the rise of political antisemitism, etc. It’s this terminological development, and not Rahel Varnhagen’s actual self-hatred, that I treat as the “prehistory” of Kuh’s counter-concept. Nor do I distinguish Rahel’s Jewish self-hatred from my “redemptive version of Jewish self-hatred.” For one thing, I don’t have a redemptive version of Jewish self-hatred. And for another, I’m interested in distinguishing Rahel’s discussion of her self-contempt from certain later discussions, though I also note that her way of talking about Jewish self-contempt anticipates important twentieth-century writings on the topic.

But on at least one point Berkowitz and I agree. He generously describes my chapters on Kuh and Lessing as “fascinating,” and while I won’t make the same claim for my work, I will say that I find Kuh and Lessing to be captivating characters. In addition to being all those things mentioned above (an anarchist, an expressionist, an anti-Zionist, etc.), Kuh was, as well, a dazzlingly witty journalist and one-man act, who made good on his anti-bourgeois commitments by being perpetually broke (he dubbed himself the “king of the shnorrers”). Lessing, for his part, was a feminist, a socialist, a medical doctor, a philosopher, a maverick Zionist, and a pioneering anti-noise activist, who was the target of one of the first political assassinations carried out by the Nazis after Hitler was appointed chancellor. Around the time Hindenburg became president of the Weimar Republic, Lessing presciently remarked, “some say better a zero than a Nero, but behind the zero there often lurks a Nero,” and the far Right in Germany never forgave him for this. Even in his own day, much of Lessing’s theorizing about culture seemed strangely close to the ideas of his fascist enemies; yet he was also adept at identifying and expressing uncomfortable truths. Which isn’t to imply that he was on to the truth in his (much misrepresented) book Jewish Self-Hatred.

My conclusion, however, does propose that we can learn from Kuh. For a long time, scholars have insisted that there’s always a line between salutary self-criticism and expressions of the phenomenon we should call “Jewish self-hatred.” It seems to me that this definition has a serious shortcoming. In the writings of many German-Jewish authors—e.g., Lessing and the satirist Karl Kraus—we find evidence of hatred animating original, incisive criticisms of fellow Jews. How to talk about this sort of cultural production? If we define “Jewish self-hatred” as referring only to the false consciousness of internalized antisemitism, which is basically what most scholars have been doing, then we run the risk of leaving something out of the equation.

It’s here that Kuh might help us. And here’s what I wrote: “To say that Kuh’s way of working with ‘Jewish self-hatred’ accommodates such complexity better than [Sander] Gilman’s or [Shulamit] Volkov’s isn’t to suggest that we should embrace Kuh’s speculations about how Jewish self-hatred is formed, or his thoughts about how Jewish self-hatred might save the world. That is, we don’t have to accept those heady propositions to appreciate—and find value in—the flexibility Kuh gave his fledging concept.”

Let me add a final point. In making the claim that self-hatred was, in certain cases, intellectually energizing, I did my best to proceed with due caution. It’s an aphoristic warning by Kraus that gets the last word in my book: “If hatred doesn’t make you productive, it is wiser to try love.”

Paul Reitter, author of On the Origins of Jewish Self-Hatred

Roger Berkowitz is Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College. He blogs regularly at Learn more at