To start with, I don’t believe that anti-Israel Jewish activists are literally hating themselves. Israel has engaged in quite enough wrong-doing and morally questionable policies to explain their way of thinking. Yet I still see Jewish self-hatred as having credibility as an analytic concept, and perhaps in explaining the vehemence of such views.

Joseph Stalin; is Stalinism implicated in 'Jewish self-hatred'?

These views often focus exclusively on Israeli misdeeds without any regard for provocations and misdeeds from the other side, nor proportionate concern for far greater human rights catastrophes in much of the Arab and Islamic worlds. To cite some glaring examples: mass murders in the Sudan over the last 30 years and still occurring, Qaddafi’s blood-soaked rule and downfall in Libya, the ongoing terror attacks against civilians in Iraq and Pakistan, and the ever-growing death toll in Syria.

What got me thinking about this phenomenon was a recent piece by the conservative Jerusalem Post columnist and blogger Isi Liebler. He abuses the term to attack liberal and left-leaning Israelis and Jews, even as he denies doing this. For example, he concludes his “self-hatred” screed by warning against applying this term “indiscriminately against naïve well-meaning ‘bleeding hearts’ or legitimate critics of Israeli policies with whom we may disagree.” Yet in the scores of columns and blog posts I’m aware of, I cannot recall Liebler ever granting legitimacy to such critics.

Still, Liebler is correct that the modern phenomenon is largely a by-product of left-wing political culture. It originated with the large number of Jews who involved themselves in mass parties on the left in early to mid-20th century Europe and the English-speaking countries. (It may be noted in this connection that while never breaking through to major-party status, both the American Socialist and Communist parties had tens of thousands of members and the Socialists won about a million votes nationally at least twice.) These Jews often attempted to ingratiate themselves with their Gentile comrades by either not being overtly “Jewish” or showing themselves “progressive” by loudly denouncing legitimate Jewish concerns as “parochial” or not “universalistic.”

Hence, explicitly Jewish political movements, whether Zionist or of the Jewish Labor Bund, would often be assaulted bitterly in those terms—despite the fact that Bundists and left-Zionists identified with the international proletariat. I hasten to add that such attacks were more common and vociferous from Stalinists, Trotskyists and others of the more radical sectarian left than from democratic socialists.

I am partly informed in this opinion by two recent conferences at the YIVO research institute in New York, on Jewish involvement with Soviet espionage in the US and the event this past May that focused more generally on “Jews and the Left.” At least one of the historians featured at YIVO made the point that for Jews to advance their careers within the Communist Party-USA, they had to anglicize their names and to eschew activity with Jewish ethnic/cultural affiliates of the Party.

I also recall discussion of the still-current phenomenon of the “as a Jew, Jews”: radical anti-Israel activists with marginal Jewish identities whose major “Jewish” activity is to roll themselves out “as Jews” who denounce Israel or Zionism.

Historically, there was the emotional insecurity of Jews trying desperately to escape antisemitism by being assimilationist or even anti-Jewish, when anti-Jewish prejudice was nearly universal and even penetrated the left. Add to this the deadly culture of Stalinism, in which mere critics or opponents would be characterized as enemies, and even comrades could be denounced as class traitors, national chauvinists, Zionists or worse and–depending upon the country they were in–pay with their lives for such charges. (I’ve just this minute received an email reminder of this terrible history: an announcement of the Manhattan gathering at the YIVO Institute, Sunday, August 12, “marking 60 years since the Soviet regime executed the Yiddish writers active with the Jewish Antifascist Committee: Dovid Bergelson, Itzik Fefer, Dovid Hofshteyn, Leyb Kvitko and Perets Markish.”)

To me, the ferocious and hateful way in which Zionism and Israel have come to be regarded within most of the hardcore left is a function of this Stalinist legacy (even among many people on the left who never participated in Stalinist movements) because the vocabulary and habits of thought of radicalism were largely (albeit not entirely) shaped by Marxist and Leninist discourse. This includes a polemical style of political analysis and debate that demonizes opposing views and defines issues in narrow zero-sum terms.

I speak here of visceral hatred of a sort that sees Israel as almost uniquely evil. This does not mean that such hatred cannot subside if Israel’s ongoing conflict with the Palestinians were peacefully resolved. But until such a time, it’s virtually impossible to argue rationally with the smug certitude of far-left anti-Zionists.

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