Sander L. Gilman on Jewish Self-Hatred:
Real History & Imputed Motives

by Ralph Dumain

Gilman, Sander L. Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986. xi, 461 pp.

I recently found this mini-review among my papers. There is no indication of the date, but, judging from a certain hyberbolic rhetoric, I estimate I wrote it in the late 1980s. I do not know to what extent my judgment of this book was oversimplified, but short of re-reading it, I am editing my original review to make it more palatable, and hopefully my slightly softened remarks will hold up under further scrutiny. The most conspicuous omission on my part is a set of examples of the valuable historical information that Gilman does provide, especially concerning the relation between language and imputed inferiority or inauthenticity. One striking example that comes to mind is the German equivalent of minstrel shows. I have eliminated my original comments about postmodernism as I can no longer remember to what extent Gilman employs the “discourse” discourse.

This is a highly detailed history of anti-Semitic ideology from the late Middle Ages to the present, mostly in Germany, but also in the United States in the post-Holocaust period. Aside from a detailed account of racial/ethnic stereotyping, the book is of special interest for its focus on language. The Jews stand accused of possessing a hidden language—sometimes Hebrew, most of the time Yiddish, but also various dialects, accented German, or even Esperanto—which purportedly exhibits their deceptive, manipulative, and degenerate racial/cultural characteristics. The hidden language of the Jews is not merely the outward linguistic system (e.g. Yiddish), but the inward system of meanings and intentions which remain constant no matter what language the Jews speak. Thus to Hitler, the Jews may speak German or French, but think “Jewish”. This is the most paranoid conception of the “hidden language of the Jews.”

This poses a particular problem for assimilation. If the Jews are convinced of their own cultural inferiority and wish to rid themselves of their separateness by taking on the characteristics, language, and values of their oppressors, will they be permitted to do so, and how do they justify their efforts to themselves, to the Jewish community, and most of all to a dominant culture that will not accept them regardless of what they do to prove themselves?

Throughout most of modern European history, the issue has been not culture alone, but primarily religious conversion. How does the converted Jew prove his authenticity to an inquisitor who is convinced of his duplicity, and how does he counter-calumniate the Jewish community that accuses him of inauthenticity (not to mention treason)? One strategy is to accuse the Jews of all the negative qualities ascribed to them by the dominant group and then to dissociate oneself from the group. In later history, this would take the form of defending the assimilationists or Jews of the “host” country and ascribe all the negative, barbaric, “subhuman” characteristics to Eastern European, specifically Polish, Jews, who were perceived to be less “white” than Western European, specifically German, Jews.

Naturally, the more assimilated Jews (or simply, the intellectuals, more specifically the writers) may have shared or were accused of sharing “objectionable” Jewish qualities. Their strategy was to accept psychologically that “Jewish” qualities are indeed objectionable, and to dispel their own fears of exhibiting these qualities in themselves by rejecting everything Jewish and projecting the stigmata of differences onto other Jewish subgroups. Thus is born the project of distinguishing “good” from “bad” Jews. This is the essence of self-hatred.

Gilman focuses his study on Jewish writers, whose status would be inherently contradictory, and whose mentality presumably would be discernible from their writings. One must wonder whether this sampling constitutes an adequate basis for extrapolating the psychology even of “assimilationists”, let alone of a whole people.

The book provides invaluable data on the all-pervasive racism of European and in this focus especially Germanic civilization, from religious bigots to the greatest of philosophers such as Immanuel Kant. The author also carefully scrutinizes the inner logic of adaptive strategies in the face of this situation.

But to sum up all of this social history under the rubric of “Jewish self-hatred” injects a distortion of historical perspective. Some of the people referred to are obvious cases of self-hatred, but for others, such an attribution is highly tendentious.

Moses Mendelssohn is purported to create his own image of the “good” vs. the “bad” Jew. The good Jew (vs. the Christian Jew-baiter) avoids all polemics and controversies and likens Christian disputation to the equally deplorable Talmudic disputation (bad Jew). Mendelssohn is reluctant to enter into any public controversy. He is quoted thusly: “I am a member of an oppressed people that finds itself compelled to appeal to the good will of the authorities for protection and shelter.” To extrapolate from this that Mendelssohn identifies with and internalizes the values of his oppressors, and that his support of the German Enlightenment, rationalism, and aversion to religious obscurantism, even of his own people (whether Talmudic scholars or aggressive Christian converts) reveals his self-hatred, is a stretch if not downright sophistry. Rhetorical strategies and self-defense cannot be construed as self-hatred without corroborating evidence.

Worse yet is Gilman’s defamation of Karl Marx. Using a favored device of rupturing quotations from context, Gilman attempts to prove Marx’s entire construction of historical materialism and theory of the dynamics of capitalism to be nothing but a reaction to Marx’s hatred of his own Jewishness (and ‘blackness’—he was dark-skinned, by Aryan standards). Gilman’s pitiful attempt to dismiss Marxism in this way makes one wonder about his agenda.

Gilman follows the stages of anti-Semitism up through the Holocaust and beyond. Finally, he deals with attempts of American Jewish authors to exorcise Jewish self-hatred in a social context obviously quite different from the classic European situation, and concludes, predictably, that Jews have finally arrived, and that Jewish self-hatred has finally reached historical closure, to be laid to rest once and for all. And of course the existence of the State of Israel has provided a whole new image for the Jew.

According to Gilman, there is, nevertheless, a new form of Jewish self-hatred—anti-Zionism. This assertion tips Gilman’s hand. Arbitrary imputations of self-hatred throughout the book are applied to any Jew who doesn’t conform to the mold of religious fealty and ethnic separatism. Whole thought systems and world views are reduced to self-hatred via the same psychological trick. European history is presented in a fragmented manner. Rationalism, cosmopolitanism, and cultural adaptation are attacked. Finally, any Jew who dares to question Israel can be summarily dismissed as a Jewish anti-Semite. How unfortunate that Gilman presents us with so much valuable historical material and then frames it in such a distorted and base fashion. Gilman is most likely a liberal rather than a reactionary, but his framework invites one down the reactionary road.

Written late 1980s
Edited & uploaded 20 February 2011

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Uploaded 20 February 2011

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