A few years ago, as a cocktail party joke, I began telling friends that I wanted to write a book defending self-hatred. The response was immediately positive: their eyes lit up, they identified, they looked slightly relieved. I was a little surprised: were all my friends secretly admitting they hated themselves? I thought I was the only one.
Jewish self-hatred was first popularized by Woody Allen, whose neurotic self-criticism came to define American-Jewish urbanity in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Many of us suburban misfits, Jewish or not, identified with Allen’s charming self-questioning as we fled towards the closest cosmopolis. By the 1990s, Jewish comedy became even more popular with Seinfeld—where Larry David’s self-loathing was hidden in the generic ethnicity of George Castanza. As Larry David quips, after being accosted for whistling Wagner: “I may hate myself, but it has nothing to do with being Jewish.” The suburban success of Seinfeld marks the moment when Jewish self-hatred was transformed into generic American entertainment. Everybody loves self-hatred.
Well, not everyone. In some circles, the accusation of being a ‘self-hating Jew’ is a dire insult. Usually, this accusation is made when one is seen to be acting against the interests of the Jews as a whole. So: you are allowed—perhaps even encouraged—to hate yourself; but not when this self-criticism is applied to the larger Jewish collective. In other words, self-hatred is fun and amusing as long as it doesn’t question the tribe itself. In this logic, any criticism of one’s community must be transformed into a problem with one’s self. Hello, Freud! Enter psychoanalysis—where the social problems of modernity play out on the stage of the individual middle-class psyche.
Self-loathing is an amusing Jewish pastime, as long as you keep it to yourself and don’t challenge certain tribal values. There’s nothing funny about being a Jew who, for example, criticizes Israel. If, in the previous generation, the worst sin was to marry a non-Jew, the New Taboo—where one’s very Jewishness comes into question—is if one questions the state of Israel. Out come the big guns accusing critics of being ‘self-hating Jews.’
Well, then, fine. But in a world filled with self-aggrandizing pricks, what’s wrong with a little self-hatred? Don’t we all wish Stephen Harper hated himself a little more? And what’s wrong with busting your tribe’s balls—particularly when they’re acting like schmucks? As it says in the Bible, we all have a certain instinct to bash our brother over the head or trick him into giving us his birthright. We all have the impulse to put our own interests ahead of all others’. And the basic message of the Bible is that we must curb the impulse to worship ourselves—circumcise it, for ethical purposes. These days a lot of people think circumcision is barbaric and brutal. But I submit for your consideration the fact that many people out there, right now, could use having a little bit of their dick chopped off.
We are born into specific families, communities, and political cultures: tribes. They teach us values, politics, ways of being. They tell us who we are. Well what if your culture produces assholes? What, for example, do you do if your father is an idol-worshipper—what if he even runs a shop that sells false idols? This, according to the Talmud, was Abraham’s dilemma. He couldn’t take all his dad’s idolatrous bullshit: so he hit the road and got chosen by God and founded monotheism. (Which sounds a lot more fun than just internalizing your dissatisfaction and going into psychoanalysis.)
A little self-hatred can be a wonderful thing: it can help us poke fun at the false idols erected by our various tribes. People who worship their own tribe, without question, are never funny. (Not on purpose.) Take Avigdor Lieberman, the extreme right Israeli politician who calls his political opponents Nazi collaborators and calls for the execution of Arab politicians: not exactly a bowl of laughs. Don’t get me wrong, self-love is a wonderful thing. But worshipping yourself is different from love: when you worship yourself, you put yourself on a pedestal up above all others. It’s like saying: me and my ancestors are so special that we deserve this land more than you. So what happens if you question this “my tribe is more sacred than yours” logic? Today, the Jew who criticizes the state of Israel is accused of being the infamous ‘self-hating Jew.’
Well screw that. Self-love is not the same as self-worship, which turns tribal identity into a false idol. For Judaism is born—according to the Talmud’s stories about Abraham’s difficult teenage years—in the refutation of idol worship. Nowhere does the Bible say that the Jewish people are supposed to worship the Jewish People. No: we are the worshippers, who are supposed to follow the Law. Interpretations differ on details, but the Law comes down to something like: don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to you. In other words: don’t just worship yourself. Stop and look at things from the other’s perspective. Wander over to the other person’s side and look at yourself from over there. A nomadic ethics, created by a displaced people who were kicked around a fair bit. So what happens when people throw out the Law, ignore the Talmud’s diasporic debates, and decide instead to just worship their own identity? You get self-righteous pricks.
Anyone who feels the call of nomadic ethics—anyone who can question their own self-interest and look at themselves from the perspective of the other—is going to criticize their tribe for worshipping itself above others. Does this mean we hate ourselves?
When I told my shrink I was writing something in defense of self-hatred, he did not approve. As he argued, self-hatred results when we internalize the opinions of others: the Other’s negative opinion of me overpowers my own self-love. Self-hatred thus inverts the idolatry of self-worship. So what’s an analysand to do?
Self-hatred and self worship are both lopsided manifestations of power: either I dominate you, or you dominate me. And this is where comedy kicks in: because funny self-hatred bounces back and forth, alternating between taking the side of the self and the other. Take one of Sarah Silverman’s gems: “I once used the word “Chink” on a network talk show. Obviously, it was in the context of a joke, but still, the president of an Asian-American watchdog group was up in arms about it and he put my name in the papers calling me a racist. And it hurt. As a Jew,” and here she looks meaningfully at the audience, “as a member of the Jewish community, I was really concerned.” Silverman pauses, sensitively, “…because we seem to be losing control of the media.”
The laugh comes from an identity reversal: first seeing myself from my perspective, then seeing myself from your perspective. The joke thus plays with opposition between self-worship and self-hatred in order to create some movement between them—a ‘nomadic’ move that yanks the rug out from under a fetishized tribal identity. The joke is a little like monotheim: it attacks false idols. Plus, it wins the media battle: I can make fun of my tribe, too bad you can’t.
Silverman doesn’t hate herself, and neither do the Jewish critics of Israel. The capacity for confident self-critique is based on a respect for the Jewish traditions of questioning, joking, and refuting false idols. If we see Judaism not as a matter of genetics, but rather as the development of a nomadic ethics, then it’s those who censor criticism that negate Jewish history. The critics and the comics are the ones that affirm—and love—our ethical tradition.
And if we love self-hatred so much—why not share it with the rest of the world? Here, then, are the real Protocols of the Elders of Zion: we must become a light unto the nations and teach the world how to hate itself just a little more.
Luckily, we control the media.
Joseph Rosen is a writer and teacher based in Montreal’s bagel district. He has a PhD in how fucked up the world is, but secretly he is hopeful. This article is part 1 in a series called Talmudic Graffiti.