By Richard Forer
In the past the label self-hating Jew was associated with Jews who were ashamed of or who hid their heritage. But as criticism of Israeli policy toward Palestinians has intensified, self-hating Jew, like anti-Semite, has become a routinely brandished retaliatory weapon. The idea that a three-word label can encapsulate the character of a person is problematic. A human being is far more than what a single phrase can say about him, and accusations such as self-hating Jew are so divisive that they make tolerance and cooperation impossible, eradicating the possibility for genuine understanding.
Nearly every Jewish critic I’ve met believes that by opposing policies that relegate Palestinians to lives of second-class citizenship, they are rescuing the integrity of their religious tradition. These critics have no desire to harm the state of Israel. Their desire is to prevent the state of Israel from harming Palestinians. They advocate equal rights for all because they know that equal rights lead to peace.
What is self-hating (or anti-Semitic) in such a position? Is honoring the humanistic values many Jews were taught at synagogue a betrayal of their religious roots? Is caring about another people synonymous with hatred? Is learning about a painful subject likewise symptomatic of anti-Semitism? Isn’t thirst for knowledge a hallmark of Judaism and isn’t it fundamental to solving problems? If criticism of deliberate violations of international law expresses hatred, what does turning one’s back on the suffering of millions express? If calling on Israel to end its human rights abuses expresses hatred, are we to forsake a people who cry out against the destruction of their homes or the traumatizing of their children?
Where, then, is the hatred? The hatred is conceived in the minds of those who are afraid to ask why someone is critical of Israel. Rather than conduct honest research to refute or confirm the criticism, the accuser panders to feelings of fear, confusion and anger, all of which are animated by unexamined beliefs and images within his own mind. This mind colors his perception so that he sees the world in terms of personal victimhood vs. the world’s hostility.
Because he is unconscious of this pattern, the accuser can only project his perception onto the world and then presume that the world he sees proves the reality of his perception. Creating his own suffering, he narcissistically scapegoats and blames the world (in this case Palestinians and their sympathizers) for the suffering.
Triggered through denial, this inner thought process attributes to Palestinians and their sympathizers the accuser’s own hatred. The accuser makes the other responsible for, and the repository of, his unresolved pain. He objectifies the other and rejects his humanity. Then he supports inhumane policies, which he justifies under the guise of an existential danger to Israel. In so doing, he brings the world’s anger down upon Israel, which reinforces and perpetuates the cycle of perceived victimhood. This process is a defense mechanism that stems from the fear of inquiring into one’s presumed identity through the questioning of one’s beliefs and images.
I have not met one defender of Israeli policy who has impartially studied the actual history. The real conflict for these defenders is not Israel vs. a hostile world or Israel versus the Palestinians. The real conflict — and the basis for claims of self-hatred and anti-Semitism — is the failure to integrate the hard-to-believe but inescapable awareness of Israel’s treatment of non-Jews with unquestioned loyalty to the Jewish state. One consideration acknowledges Israel’s dark side; the other denies the dark side exists.
Only by committing myself to the truth was I able to apprehend that, in reality, criticism of Israel was never a serious concern. Incredibly, I had never defended Israel, at least the Israel that actually exists. I had always defended an idealistic image of Israel that was projected or superimposed upon the Israel that actually exists. This projection enabled me to repress or deny painful revelations that I would have learned about Israel and about myself if only I had looked without the errant influence of an unexamined mind. Denial and projection go hand in hand. What I denied about Israel and about myself, I projected onto the other, who necessarily became my enemy.
Equating Palestinian freedom with terrorism, I worried that if Israel relinquished strict control over its subjects, the lives of its Jewish citizens would be imperiled. Fearing annihilation, I unconsciously superimposed Nazi images onto the Palestinian people, and then refused to believe that the Jewish state could act indefensibly toward them. Fear prevented me from empathizing with the pain of Palestinians and it blinded me to the likelihood that a country I had invested so much faith in could administer such brutal policies.
I further indoctrinated myself into the idea that some Jews were willfully blind to the evil intentions of the Palestinians, and that their willfulness demonstrated support for that which I feared most: the annihilation of the Jewish people.
Truthfully, my reaction to criticism was motivated more by the fear of taking on the challenge that the criticism posed to my identity than by genuine disagreement or fear for Israel’s existence. For a split second, though, before denial and repression set in, this challenge reflected the prejudice that induced me to deny the humanity of the other. And in order to avoid encountering my own lack of humanity, I ignored documented evidence, thereby consenting to the subjugation of millions. By turning my back on the suffering of others, I had sacrificed the very values Israel once personified.
I never used the term self-hating Jew. I am thankful I didn’t. I believe the label is a powerful barrier to understanding. The key to understanding is dispassionate intelligence. Fear and anger permeated every argument I made in defense of Israel. Invariably I moved from the quandary of fear to the apparent certainty of anger. But I never crossed over into hate. There is a special feeling that accompanies the words self-hating Jew. The key is in “hate.” Characterizing someone in any way with this word introduces viciousness to the mind. This viciousness makes the mind utterly dualistic — and utterly obtuse. The subtle awareness that my ingrained perspective was perhaps incorrect would have been extinguished if I had described Israel’s Jewish critics as self-hating. As it was, because I did not become involved in hate, I remained open to a dispassionate investigation of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
The notion that any Jew who is dedicated to justice for all people harbors self-hatred defies common sense. Given the self-esteem it takes to stand for justice amidst fierce denunciation, a more accurate assessment is that these are self-loving Jews.