Diaspora Jews Embracing the Indictments of Their Enemies

, February 1, 2007

No. 53

  • Jews embracing as truth the indictments of their enemies has been a fixture of Jewish life throughout the history of the Diaspora. It became even more widespread with the weakening of Jewish communal institutions in recent centuries in the context of the emergence of modern nation-states.
  • Segments of populations under chronic siege commonly take to heart the indictments of their besiegers, however bigoted and outrageous. They hope that by doing so and reforming accordingly they can assuage the hostility of their tormentors and win relief.
  • The paradigm on the level of individual psychology is the psychodynamics of abused children. Such children almost invariably blame themselves for their predicament, ascribe it to their being “bad,” and nurture fantasies that by becoming “good” they can mollify their abusers and end their torment.
  • The embrace by members of an abused community of the indictments of their abusers is obviously both debilitating and dangerous. It is debilitating insofar as it entails perceiving oneself and one’s community as tainted and reprehensible. And as the history and indeed current predicament of world Jewry amply illustrate, it is dangerous when it diverts the individual’s, and community’s, gaze from genuine external peril, and from essential defensive measures, to focus instead on self-reform.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, as the issue of extending citizenship rights to Jews was first being considered in the states of Central Europe, those opposed to granting such rights pointed to characteristics of the Jews that ostensibly rendered them unfit. Whatever such indictment was offered of the Jews, however bigoted or outrageous, some within the Jewish community invariably endorsed the charges.

For example, it was claimed that Yiddish was a crude, bastardized, unwholesome language that reflected the degenerate nature of the Jews and illustrated their unfitness for citizenship rights. Many Jewish leaders and members of the Jewish cultural elite embraced this assessment of Yiddish and condemned it as, in the words of one such figure, “a language of stammerers, corrupt and deformed, repulsive to those who are able to speak in a correct and orderly manner.”1 He also remarked, “I am afraid that this jargon has contributed more than a little to the immorality of the common man.”2

Jews were also criticized at the time for being primarily engaged in trade. It was interpreted as another mark of their degeneracy and inappropriateness for citizenship, and this too won the endorsement of some Jews. Indeed, a major effort of the maskilim – the devotees of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment – was to encourage and even force Jews to cast off their supposedly reprehensible endeavors and take up more wholesome occupations like farming and the crafts. This, it was thought, would make them more worthy of acceptance by their neighbors.

In the course of the nineteenth century, Jews in substantial numbers abandoned Yiddish as their primary language to speak, for example, “good” German. Significant segments of the community also succeeded in leaving behind the commercial occupations of their fathers to become poets, composers, philosophers, and intellectuals of various other stripes.

Many leading voices in the surrounding society then argued that Jews might gain command of the German language, or master German poetic or musical forms or the subtleties of German philosophy, but still were doing so with alien Jewish minds and sensibilities. Such voices maintained that Jews were still unable to apply their learning to true aesthetic or intellectual creativity but instead were subverting what they had learned to some lesser, alien end. Even this indictment was embraced by some in the Jewish community, who insisted that Jews were indeed being too pushy in their cultural endeavors and that most who took part in these were, in fact, introducing alien and lesser “Jewish” elements that were coarsening German culture.3

All these instances of Jewish absorption of anti-Jewish indictments were propelled by Jews’ desires to propitiate their attackers, and they all reflected delusions of propitiation. It is common within besieged communities – whether minorities marginalized, denigrated, and perhaps attacked by the surrounding society or small states under chronic siege by their neighbors – that some members of the community will take to heart the indictments of the assailants, however absurd and biased. The hope is that by doing so and reforming to address the indictments, they can win relief.

The Paradigm of Abused Children

The paradigm on the level of individual psychology is the response of children subjected to chronic abuse. Such children almost invariably blame themselves for their suffering. Although this has most often been ascribed to children’s naїveté, their taking at face value accusations of blame, the deeper explanation lies in the existential predicament of such children. They can, on the one hand, acknowledge that they are being unfairly victimized and are powerless to change their situation, and reconcile themselves to its hopelessness. Or they can blame themselves, interpret their predicament as a consequence of their being “bad,” and endure the self-criticism that this perspective entails but thereby sustain a fantasy of control. In such a fantasy, by becoming “good” they will elicit more benign behavior from their tormentors and win relief. Children almost invariably seek to avoid hopelessness at all costs, and adults do the same.

The embrace by members of an abused community of the indictments of their abusers is obviously both debilitating and potentially dangerous. It is debilitating insofar as it entails perceiving oneself and one’s community as tainted and reprehensible. And it is dangerous in those instances where it diverts the individual’s, and the community’s, gaze from genuine external peril, and from essential defensive measures, to focus instead on self-reform.

But communities are not entirely helpless in the face of the psychological depredations of chronic assault. Communal institutions, if strong enough and possessing sufficient moral suasion, can be effective in conveying a countervailing message. Such a message will emphasize that there is an essential integrity and goodness to the community, that the attacks of its enemies are unfair, and that ultimately the community will move beyond current travails to enjoy better fortune.

On the level of the abused-child paradigm, a similar role can be played by a caring adult, a grandparent perhaps, who conveys to the child that he or she does not deserve ill-treatment, that the “bad” party is the abuser, and that ultimately the child will escape current tribulations and go on to a better life. Such an adult may not be able to help end the child’s current difficulties but can help arm him or her against all the debilitating psychological consequences of the child’s embracing the tack of self-blame and propitiation.

In the history of the Diaspora, it has been a virtually constant phenomenon that some Jews embrace the indictments of the Jews’ tormentors. But the emergence of modernity and the modern nation-state was accompanied by a dramatic weakening of Jewish communal institutions. This entailed a weakening of the countervailing messages those institutions offered and left Jews significantly more vulnerable to the psychological corrosiveness of surrounding communities’ anti-Jewish depredations.

Another noteworthy aspect of this phenomenon is that those who take to heart the indictments of the Jews’ tormentors typically cast their stance not as an effort to assuage anti-Jewish attitudes but rather as reflecting some higher moral or ethical position. For example, those who criticized Jewish involvement in commerce typically argued that there was indeed something intrinsically reprehensible in commercial endeavors and morally superior in other types of employment.

Similarly, in response to claims by anti-Jewish voices that the Jews were only interested in their own wellbeing, pursuing solely their own parochial agendas, Jews often aggressively sought to avoid focusing on the needs of the Jewish community, even as the community suffered disabilities that were unique to it. Such Jews sought instead to enlist in broader causes, and cast their doing so not as attempting to assuage those who accused them of parochialism but rather as a righteous emphasis on broader social needs.

In a related vein, another indictment by people who sought to deny Jews citizenship rights was that the Jews were a separate nation and so should not be absorbed as equal citizens. One Jewish response to this occurred within reformist congregations that were founded by Jewish communities in the German states. These congregations, among other accommodations, often sought to expunge longings for Jerusalem and a return to Eretz Israel from the Jewish liturgy as a means of demonstrating that Judaism entailed a purely religious and not national identity. Those who advocated such reforms did not cast their doing so as an effort to appease anti-Jewish opinion but rather as representing a progression of the Jewish faith toward an exclusively universal ethical message and mission. In such a context, any longing for Return was seen as narrow-minded and atavistic.

Again, this reflects a pattern discernible in abused children’s interpretation of their predicament as being caused by their own behavior. Such children’s images of becoming “good” are clearly driven by fantasies of pleasing their abusers in a manner that will win relief. However, they typically comprehend what constitutes their being “bad” and what it would mean to reform and become “good” as representing transcendently meaningful ethical and moral choices.

Categorical Thinking

One can argue that attempts by minorities to accommodate the wider society can and do at times succeed in winning them greater acceptance. This is true; for example, Jewish exertions to give up Yiddish and master normative German could be perceived as having been a pragmatic step. But that is very different from endorsing the derogation of Yiddish as intrinsically primitive, inferior, and corrupting. Such endorsements were founded on the desire to believe that Jews were regarded with distaste and loathing and treated as inferior because they spoke an inferior language and had been coarsened by it. Becoming linguistically equal to their neighbors, then, would assure their being treated as equal – a wish-driven delusion.

Similarly, it was not unreasonable that Prussian Jews, at the time of Prussia’s struggle against Napoleon, might look to demonstrations of patriotism as positive, pragmatic steps toward winning the acceptance of the surrounding society. But note the more wishfully definitive expectations contained in a call to arms issued by two leaders of the Berlin Jewish community, Eduard Kley and Siegfried Gunsburg: “There upon the battlefield of honor…where all work for a single goal: for their fatherland…there also will the barriers of prejudice come tumbling down…. Hand in hand with your fellow soldiers you will complete the great work; they will not deny you the name of brother, for you will have earned it.”4

From 1813 to 1815, seventy-two soldiers from the small Prussian Jewish population won the iron cross; fifty-five Prussian Jewish officers died at Waterloo.5 Nevertheless, as has so frequently happened, the Jews in post-Napoleonic Prussia faced hostile political and social forces that transcended anything they as a community did or did not do.

These last examples reflect a propensity for “categorical” thinking – that is, choosing to think in absolute, categorical terms about what may be simply pragmatic steps that could or could not have salutary consequences. Such a predilection is driven by the desperate desire for acceptance and a consequent wishful thinking that acceptance could inexorably be won by the right communal policies. The same mindset can be seen in other stances as well.

For example, Central European liberals – some on the basis of principle, others for pragmatic reasons – were generally more receptive to the extension of rights to Jews than were more conservative elements. But many Jews, in aligning themselves with liberal groups, chose to construe this sympathy not as at least partly driven by a convergence of political interests that could change in the future. Instead, in their desperation for support and for opportunities to diminish Jewish vulnerability by linking their fate to broader, and more powerful, social identities, they wishfully construed the link with liberal parties as having transcendent significance and endurance. Likewise, they chose to see the liberals as the force that was certain to shape the future.

Gabriel Riesser was a leading German Jewish liberal activist in the mid-nineteenth century and almost unique among Jewish political activists at the time in his vocal and energetic pursuit of the cause of Jewish legal equality. In addition to those Jews who responded to anti-Jewish indictments by embracing them at face value and urging Jewish reform, some Jews reacted, of course, by choosing to separate themselves from the tainted identity of “Jew.” Still others even took the further step of joining the Jews’ tormentors as a way of more definitively casting off the taint. It was common for Jews who entered politics in the German states to take one of these latter paths.

Riesser, for his part, eschewed any position that would appear too parochially Jewish and wishfully linked the Jews’ fate to presumably sympathetic broader forces. Thus, he repeatedly articulated stances that subsumed the problem of Jewish disabilities to more general political and nationalist matters and that put unbounded faith in liberal support. Riesser declared at one point: “Give me Jewish equality in one hand and the realization of the beautiful dream of Germany’s political unification [primarily a liberal objective at the time] in the other…and I will unhesitantly choose the latter, for I am convinced that unification also encompasses equality.”6

The extent to which many Jews chose to idealize the connection with German liberals and the fruits of Jewish self-effacement is captured in an exchange between Riesser and the conservative German academic and theologian H. E. G. Paulus. Paulus argued that as long as Jews adhered to their religion they constituted a separate nation and were entitled to be protected subjects in Germany but not full citizens. Paulus also suggested that the Jewish push for full integration as Germans would end in their expulsion or even extermination. Riesser responded that German unification would inexorably be built on liberal Enlightenment principles of justice and equality and so would inevitably entail the granting of full equality to the Jews.7

The issue is not that Riesser proved so catastrophically wrong. It was not impossible that events could have unfolded very differently and more in keeping with his hopes. The point is his willful, self-deluding certainty, despite much countervailing evidence, that the right Jewish alliances and self-effacements would inevitably yield the results he desired.

Identification with the Left

Jews’ categorical identification with parties of the Left became commonplace throughout Central and Western Europe. It was driven both by a desire to eschew what might be condemned as Jewish particularism and by wishful thinking that embedding Jewish aspirations in larger movements could assure Jewish wellbeing. For some, this identification went beyond liberal parties to socialist and communist groups.

In Western Europe, many of those Jews who embraced socialism did so because they had become disenchanted with the liberal parties, which provided, for example, no bulwark against de facto discrimination and the rise of anti-Semitic political parties in the wake of German unification. Some Jews hoped that in immersing Jewish concerns in the struggle of other disadvantaged groups, particularly the working class, and in seeking a more radical restructuring of society, they might win relief from persisting Jewish disabilities. Some hoped in particular that by Jews distancing themselves from the bourgeoisie and the excoriated Jewish link with the middle class, many of their enemies would be mollified. Other Jews in Western Europe embraced parties of the far Left in an effort to divest themselves of a Jewish identity entirely, assuming the alternative identity of champion of the working class.

In Eastern Europe, which at this time meant most notably czarist Russia, Jews retained more of a national consciousness and more robust communal institutions than elsewhere. Hence, in response to czarist depredations, Jews formed parties of the Left that were specifically Jewish, in contrast to Jewish socialists elsewhere who were more typically inclined to break with the Jewish community. But in Russia as elsewhere, Jews who affiliated with the socialist parties commonly took to heart anti-Jewish assaults on the Jewish bourgeoisie. They tended to view both the Jewish middle class and traditionally religious Jews as the true targets of Jew-haters and their own path as at once progressive and future-oriented and an escape from the shadow of anti-Semitism.

Throughout Europe, those Jews who supported socialism while retaining a sense of Jewish identity nevertheless tended to ignore or even give some credence to the intense anti-Jewish rhetoric that was almost everywhere an element of socialist cant. As for Jews who embraced socialism as an alternative identity and sought to shed any link to the Jewish community, they often endorsed anti-Jewish socialist rhetoric.

Supporting the Democrats

European Jewish immigrants to America, both from Central Europe and from those eastern areas where the vast majority of Jewish immigrants originated, brought their political predilections with them. Although in the first decades of the twentieth century this translated into some support for American socialist parties, with the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt Jews became overwhelmingly aligned with the Democratic Party.

Both pragmatism and principle figured in this embrace of the Democrats. At a time of intense anti-Semitism in America, starting in the post-World War I years and exacerbated by the socially corrosive effects of the Depression, Jews suffered expressions of bias that affected their basic capacity to function in the society. As historian and rabbi Arthur Hertzberg noted of this period, “Almost no Jew could make a free, personal decision about his education and career. At every turn, the fact of his Jewishness meant that many, if not most, options were simply not available to him.”  The public employment and other programs Roosevelt introduced as part of the New Deal were largely open to Jews at all levels and broke the prevailing blackballing of Jews.

In addition, the Jewish predilection to seek to immerse Jewish objectives in broader social agendas, and to pursue alliances of the disadvantaged as a means of winning greater acceptance, converged with Roosevelt’s building of his grand Democratic alliance of the disadvantaged.

At the same time, one can see operative during these years delusional elements similar to those at work in Jewish communities in Europe and reflective of Jewish vulnerability and Jewish embrace of anti-Jewish canards. These include a fear of appearing to pursue “parochial” interests, a casting of eschewing such a course as actually reflecting a higher, ethical commitment to broader social agendas, a wishful thinking that inclined Jews to construe pragmatic and possibly transient alliances as representing transcendent and enduring convergences of interests and goals, and a consequent debilitating blindness to changes in the political landscape and slowness to respond to them

With the rise of the Nazis in Germany, and even with the revelation, in late 1942, of the Nazis’ program to exterminate all of Europe’s Jews, these elements of Jewish political life in America compromised the American Jewish community’s response. To be sure, effectively promoting the rescue of Jews from Europe faced great hurdles related to prevailing anti- Jewish attitudes and, more particularly, the hostility of the State Department. Yet it was primarily through the efforts of a small group of Jews acting outside the mainstream leadership that the Roosevelt administration was finally prevailed upon to create the War Refugee Board in early 1944. These Jewish activists were the so-called “Bergson group” led by Hillel Kook, a Revisionist Zionist emissary in the United States at the time who adopted the pseudonym Peter H. Bergson. The War Refugee Board succeeded, despite persistent administration obstruction, in contributing to the rescue of perhaps two hundred thousand Jews.

Although the Jewish leadership did try to promote rescue, its exertions were compromised both by fear of an anti-Jewish backlash and by loyalty to Roosevelt.

Some in the mainstream leadership worried about Jewish advocacy of rescue being seen as Jewish parochialism and lack of patriotism in a time of war. This concern, however, was often cast as reflecting not fear of anti-Semitic responses but a morally correct eschewing of particularist objectives. (It was very often non-Jews who led the way in asserting that the Nazi assault on the Jews was not just a Jewish issue but a crime against humanity.) For example, throughout the Nazi era the American Jewish leadership avoided campaigning for increasing Jewish immigration to the United States for fear of an anti-Jewish backlash.

Roosevelt’s Indifference to Jewish Plight

In addition, key elements of the Jewish leadership were averse to criticizing Roosevelt, even though it was very clear that he could have saved large numbers of people at minimal political cost to himself and that he was at best indifferent to the plight of Europe’s Jews. Simply insisting that the State Department stop erecting additional barriers to the issuing of visas and to the use of visas that had already been issued, and that it allow Jews to immigrate at least to the extent allowed by immigration quotas, would likely have saved several hundred thousand people; but Roosevelt refused to do so. At times he even parroted Nazi anti-Jewish assertions.

For example, at the Casablanca Conference in January 1943, while discussing possible projects for resettling rescued Jews in North Africa (projects subsequently torpedoed, mainly by the United States), Roosevelt suggested restricting the number of relocated Jews allowed to practice the professions. This “would further eliminate the specific and understandable complaints which the Germans bore towards the Jews in Germany, namely that while they represented a small part of the population, over 50 percent of the lawyers, doctors, school teachers, college professors, etc. in Germany were Jews.”9 The figure for Jewish involvement in these occupations is, of course, wildly exaggerated.

Caught up in categorical thinking about who was with them and who was not, it was very difficult for many Jews to look objectively at Roosevelt. They essentially refused to acknowledge that the leader who had forged the alliance of the underprivileged, whose administration employed Jews at all levels in a manner that contrasted dramatically to the obstacles to employment Jews routinely encountered in the wider society, was not interested in offering succor to the Jews of Europe being murdered by the thousands daily in a program of total annihilation.

Rabbi Stephen Wise, leader of the American Jewish community and its efforts to promote rescue, defended Roosevelt even as he repeatedly encountered the administration’s obstructionism. “[Roosevelt] is still our friend, even though he does not move as expeditiously as we would wish,” he declared,10 and he took to task Jewish critics of the president. In June 1944, the Republican National Convention put a strong pro-Zionist plank in its platform for the upcoming election and criticized Roosevelt for not pressing Britain to open Mandate Palestine to Jewish refugees. In reaction, Wise wrote to Roosevelt, “As an American Jew and Zionist, I am deeply ashamed of the reference to you in the Palestine Resolution adopted by the Republican National Convention. It is utterly unjust, and you may be sure that American Jews will come to understand how unjust it is.”11

This loyalty to Roosevelt also led the Jewish leadership to limit its engaging of the president’s political foes in efforts to promote rescue. In contrast, the small group outside the leadership that did succeed in bringing about the creation of the War Refugee Board did not hesitate to work with sympathetic Republicans, and doing so was a key factor in its success.

US Anti-Semitism Diminishes

In the years after World War II, anti-Semitism in America dramatically diminished. Yet American Jews, according to polls, continued to believe otherwise. A 1990 survey of affiliated Jews showed that some 75 percent considered anti-Semitism a serious problem in America.12 Perhaps for this reason elements of the community have continued to display psychological stigmata associated with besieged groups, such as the taking to heart of anti-Jewish canards.

American Jews also believe anti-Semitism is more rife among American conservatives than liberals, even though actual surveys of American opinion regarding Jews do not support this assumption.13 This is linked with that tendency to categorical thinking about political “allies,” a wish to see protection in immersing Jewish interests in larger groups, particularly alliances of the disadvantaged, and a consequent difficulty recognizing that perceived allies may not see things the way one imagines and wishes. American Jews have, in fact, largely redefined the Jewish vocation, or Jewish identity, to focus mostly on alliances with or in support of the disadvantaged, alliances around so-called “social justice” issues. A 1988 survey by the Los Angeles Times found that when Jews were asked which among three facets of Jewish identity they most valued, many more chose the pursuit of social justice and equality (50 percent) than either Israel (20 percent) or religion (20 percent).14

Although support for Israel could be seen as a particularist issue that the American Jewish community has energetically embraced, such support is made easier by the fact that Americans have generally been sympathetic to the Jewish state. Sometimes Israel has come under greater criticism, particularly in the American media, and has been a target on American campuses and in so-called “liberal” churches. In such situations, it appears that segments of the Jewish community, particularly those whose political predilections make them sympathetic to the biases of the media, the campuses, or the “liberal” churches, have been more inclined to voice similar criticisms of the Jewish state.

A notable related phenomenon is that even though support for Israel has in recent years been significantly stronger among Republicans than Democrats, American Jews remain overwhelmingly Democrat. Illustrative of the former point is a poll of American opinion conducted in August, during the Israel-Hizballah war, by the Pew Research Center. To a question presenting various choices of what should be America’s position on the war, 54 percent of Republican respondents favored supporting Israel and 5 percent preferred criticizing it. In contrast, 31 percent of Democrats chose support for Israel, 11 percent criticism. To a question of who was most responsible for the war, 55 percent of Republicans answered Hizballah, 9 percent Israel. Among Democrats, 33 percent said Hizballah, 15 percent Israel.

Regarding the political affiliation of American Jews, in October 2006 the American Jewish Committee released its “Annual Survey of American Jewish Opinion” reflecting polling from late September to mid-October. It turned out that 54 percent of American Jews identified themselves as Democrats and 15 percent as Republicans (29 percent as Independents). In the 2004 presidential election about three-quarters of American Jews voted for the Democratic candidate, and in the recent congressional elections at least that percentage again voted for Democrats.

For those who, in the face of collective memories of anti-Jewish depredations, have hollowed out their “Jewish” identity to reduce it largely to a political commitment to the Left imagined as some righteous alliance of the traditionally targeted and disadvantaged, current political predilections are not likely to change. For those whose Jewish identity is richer and in whom the dissonance between Jewish wellbeing and old political assumptions might arouse some inner tension, that tension could result in a shift in traditional political allegiances.

But in America, as in Israel itself, the besiegement of the Jewish state will continue to generate among significant segments of the Jewish community an impulse – as in the abused child – to take indictments by Israel’s enemies to heart, and to urge Jewish self-reform and amends in the hope of thereby winning relief. Such reactions will continue to compromise Jewish wellbeing and even undermine Israel’s survival.

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Kenneth Levin is a psychiatrist and historian and author of The Oslo Syndrom: Delusions of a People under Siege (Hanover, NH: Smith & Kraus, 2005).

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 Notes

1. Moses Mendelssohn, cited in Sander L. Gilman, Jewish Self-Hatred (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), 102.

2. Cited in Michael Meyer, The Origins of the Modern Jew (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1967), 44.

3. Perhaps the best-known expositor of this view was the Austrian Jewish writer Karl Kraus. See, e.g., Harry Zohn, Karl Kraus (New York: Twayne, 1971).

4. Ibid., 139.

5. Ibid.

6. Cited in Shmuel Ettinger, “The Modern Period,” in H. H. Ben-Sasson, ed., A History of the Jewish People (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976), 830.

7. “Gabriel Riesser,” Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol.14, 166-69, at 167.

8. Cited in Barry Rubin, Assimilation and Its Discontents (New York: Times Books, 1995), 86.

9. Cited in Deborah Lipstadt, Beyond Belief (New York: Free Press, 1986), 47-48.

10. Cited in Rafael Medoff, The Deafening Silence (New York: Shapolsky, 1987), 113.

11. Ibid., 178.

12. Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab, Jews and the New American Scene (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), 69.

13. Ibid., 152.

14. Ibid, 54, 134.