Oy Bay!

"My heart is in the east, and I in the uttermost west." — Yehudah Ha-Levi

The Utility of Wicked Sons

Posted by FriarYid on July 20, 2007

archangelinamerica’s post on David Mamet’s book Wicked Son got me thinking. Not about Mamet specifically (I haven’t read the book), but rather about the larger trend of Jewish boundaries. When I blogged about Mamet’s book last year, the main thing that kept irking me about it was the impression (again, potentially unjustified) that Mamet somehow thought that he had all the answers and was in a position to dictate and lecture all the Wicked Sons of Israel. An extra wrinkle was the fact that it didn’t seem very clear exactly how he was defining the term “Wicked Son” in the first place. From what I ascertained via book reviews, his ultimate answer to disaffected Jews seemed to be summed up as, “It doesn’t matter if you believe or practice Judaism, you should belong anyway, because not belonging isn’t good, either.” I don’t disagree on the importance of a community or that Judaism or Jewish culture don’t have things of value to offer, but I don’t see how “just fake it” is a satisfactory response to people with real issues or boundaries to Judaism. In that regard, I have to wonder just how productive Mamet’s book is- exactly who is its audience, and what change is it meant to effect?

I don’t just say all of this because I have an almost automatic tendency to identify with doubters, critics and naysayers (it’s genetic; my father doesn’t just say the glass is half-empty, he says it has acid in it and there’s dust on the rim), but also because I think that there’s a potential danger in identifying every disaffected and critical Jew as some sort of enemy or threat (see, for instance, the responses to Avraham Burg). The fact that some Jews choose to opt out of the Jewish experience should be seen as, at least in part, an educational opportunity for the rest of us to identify why such people leave. Is it Jewish illiteracy? Is it a lack of Jewish relevance? Is it attraction to other issues or causes that they don’t feel are addressed by the/their Jewish community? Are of their complaints actually valid? Or is it indeed, in some cases, actual “self-hatred,” and largely the product of an individual agenda or axe to grind with the Jews? Incidentally, how many people labeled as “self-haters” actually conceive of themselves in those terms? To me a study of the phenomenon of “former Jews” or “self-haters”, an exploration of their reasons and motivations for doing what they do, would have been far more fascinating, and informative, and potentially useful, than what Mamet offers up. If nothing else, it would have been an opportunity to look at how they see themselves, instead of an emotion-based critique by an outsider.

Bradley Burston of Ha’aretz has a thoughtful (and timely, given archangelinamerica’s post) column on, of all things, self-hatred. Burston sees self-haters (perhaps a more accurate term would be “harsh critics”) as important voices in the Jewish conversation, not necessarily to be totally agreed with or always interpreted on total face value, but as a sort of sociological canary in the Jewish mine, letting us know the harsh truth of what is and isn’t working. Of course, this also demands that the popular understanding of self-hating Jews shift from viewing them as suspected traitors or pariahs to committed Jews (or people of Jewish descent) who are driven by a desire (however potentially condescending or misguided) to lift Jews, Judaism and Israel up, rather than merely tearing them down. Burston cheers the phenomenon of “healthy self-hate.” I’d prefer to describe it as “call ’em like you see ’em,” a principle that I think has a longstanding history in Jewish history, American journalism and politics (muckraking, straight-talk express) and blogging itself.

The question of the motivations and ultimate effects of self-hating Jews reminds me of the maskilim of the 18th and 19th centuries, especially in Eastern Europe. It was all well and good for German Jews to walk away from Orthodoxy and Jewish cultural entrenchment; they had comparatively more options, they could attend universities, study non-Jewish philosophy, even start their own congregations. Haskalah-enthusiasts in Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania, on the other hand, were entrenched within Orthodox Jewish culture, and it was pretty much the only ball game in town until the 1900s. The people and systems they were critiquing weren’t distant ideas or constructs, they were their own families, and turning ranks against them- in public- must have been rather painful. Some of the great figures of the Jewish Enlightenment had even been rabbis and teachers, living, in effect, a double life. When they left those old lives and “came out” in favor of Jews joining the 20th century, they were called a lot of names, too, and some version of “self-hating Jew” was probably among them. Yet, despite the rhetoric, a lot of the arguments of the Maskilim were, in fact, correct. Becoming part of modern society, learning non-Jewish languages and philosophy, joining in non-Jewish educational systems, etc… were actually good ideas. In the 1920s and 1930s, Jewish Eastern Europe was undergoing a political, philosophical and cultural renaissance, with hundreds of different flavors of Judaism and Jewishness. And all of that happened thanks in no small part to the Maskilim, who urged their brothers to come out of the ghetto.
I’m not saying that every member of the Haskalah was a saint, or that every identified (or self-identified) self-hating Jew is a modern-day Moses Mendelsohnn. But it can be very hard to determine people’s true motives and ideology, particularly when that ideology is in a state of flux (as it often is with, for instance, young twenty-somethings), or when one’s main picture of someone is via a series of cherry-picked soundbites. I don’t object to Mamet’s passion, but Burstyn’s caution has its place, too, and I would hate for passionate Jewish critics to be turned off because of a false impression that the Jewish community isn’t interested in introspection. Kicking the self-haters in the ass might be fun, but again, I’m unsure of its productivity, particularly when the term remains so amorphous.

If, as Mamet says, we cannot reason with self-haters, then the next-best thing might be a two-pronged approach. First, we should listen to them, to get a sense of what issues we may be overlooking that are, in fact, worth paying attention to (note that merely listening does not imply or require an endorsement of said views. Such an exchange could take place via a round table discussion, or a debate). And second, we should encourage the critics themselves. If the Jewish community were to engage with so-called “self-haters” and give them a JEWISH platform from which to speak, such critics might not be so eager to jump into bed with actual enemies. I can’t help wondering if part of the reason why self-haters are “flocking” to non-Jewish causes or organizations is because they feel that they are being ignored or stigmatized by the Jewish mainstream.

Not everything self-haters say is correct, useful, or intelligent. That’s fine, neither is everything said by mainstream Jewish organizations. But we would be well-served to try to avoid alienating these people further (who knows what they might wind up offering the Jewish people later on) and to not discount their critiques merely because we don’t like the messenger. If not for their sake, then for our own.

Edit: Speak of the Devil, the “current” (May) issue of Jewish Currents has a series of interviews with a number of “self-hating” Jews (unsurprisingly, they don’t use that terminology). Check it out.


6 Responses to “The Utility of Wicked Sons”

  1. minsky said

    The whole notion of “self-haters” is ridiculous. It is a political term, used to shut up jewish intellectuals critical of Israeli policy. It shouldn’t even be in use, and if used, those who use it should be questioned.

    As for such types being instructive, maybe a list of them would help. Then we can try judging them on their merrits.
    By the way, on a different note, did you know it was OK to raise funds for Likud abroad? I mean imagine Romney going on a China trip and raising a million or two in the primaries. And with evangelicals of all people?! Who da self-hater here?


  2. FriarYid said

    As for such types being instructive, maybe a list of them would help. Then we can try judging them on their merrits.

    Burston mentions a particularly odious website with a rather expansive list. Unfortunately it epitomizes your (and my) problems with the term itself- most of the people on it seem to be there because they’ve made the unforgivable sin of supporting a two-state-solution or similarly trivial issues, almost exclusively Zionist in focus. Included are Chief British Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Edgar Bronfman, Rabbis for Human Rights, Peace Now, most of the notable the non- and anti-Zionist haredi leaders of the later 20th century, and a smorgasbord of Jewish leaders from the Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal and Conservative denominations. And let’s just say when it comes to language and Godwin’s Law, restraint isn’t their strong suit.

    Ugh, don’t get me started on the Jewish right pandering to evangelicals. It reminds me of this shining moment of self-congratulatory, utterly meaningless circle-jerking.

  3. Oyster said

    Burston must be referring to Masada2k or their ilk who support such nasty infighting.

    I think it’s wrong to interpret Mamet’s novel as just restricting the definition of ‘self-hating Jews’ to those who are anti-Israel. I believe that he means it to be a more expansive definition, including Jews who downplay or belittle Jewish culture and history, in the name of another (or the dominant) culture.

    I agree with Minsky that the term ‘self-hating Jew’ is a flawed one, but not by his terms. The expression is flawed because there are few undisturbed individuals who actually loathe themselves. The phrase really derives from those who perceive other Jews, and hate them for the ideas that they espouse, and therefore would hate themselves if they were the other Jew.

    I prefer to use the expression apologist Jews. Or Jewishly-illiterate Jews. I never “call out” my friends if they aren’t religious Jews (because I don’t view being Jewish as solely a religious expression), but I do call them on being Jewishly illiterate or apologetic.

  4. ArchangelinAmerica said

    The term “self-hating” may be inaccurate. I think this is getting us into a distinction without a difference though. Yes, the “self-hating” Jew (or any arbitrary ethnicity) may not actually hate himself. He may hate his heritage and feel he has risen above it. By the same token, anti-semitic behavior may be commited by a person who does not actively wish the destruction of the Jewish people. As they say, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

    Of course, one can be critical of Israeli policy or government and not be anti-semitic. But there is criticism that is anti-Semitic and often it is spoken by people who probably don’t hate Jews or don’t think they do. And when one singles out Israel as the primary target of harsh criticism in the region, or the cause of all evil in the world, while ignoring travesties throughout the region, that (in my opinion) is anti-Semitic in action, if not intent.

    Mamet certainly does refer to Israel a few times in his book. “Don’t let an instance of anti-Semitism pass. Stand up for yourself, and stand up for your people. It is possible to support the Palestinian cause without being and anti-Semite, and there are people of goodwillwho do so. But much of the pro-Palestinian feeling in the West is a protected example of anti-Semitism, and, when and as it is such, it should be opposed.” He also speaks on a broader scale though. A good segue though, is his criticism of the wicked son as one who stands up for any and all peoples and causes except those of the Jews.

  5. Oyster said

    A good segue though, is his criticism of the wicked son as one who stands up for any and all peoples and causes except those of the Jews.

    Oh man, AAIA, don’t get me started! 🙂

  6. minsky said

    A couple of points. In his original post FriarYid didn’t single out “self-haters” as those whose views of Israel fall out of bounds, but precisely as you say Oyster, he dealt with the larger issue of being Jewish, while not wanting to be; viewing Jewishness as a burden, rather than blessing. That’s why he dwells on Mandelsohn and similar reformers.

    It is me that is saying that the term is of recent vintage, a neologism. It was constructed in the fierce debate over Israel, and US foreign policy. Now I say this, knowing full well I dont have supporting evidence, but the list the Friar mentions, comes close. I mean come-on, the names comprise a political blacklist!

    I wont actually bother doing the research, to see if my hunch about the ontogeny is right, and I’ll just try to transfer the burden of proof. Can those who believe that the term “self-hating” is aged and hoary, find its usage going back any more than say thirty years, and in a context not-having to do with Israel?

    I agree Oyester, that the term is aptly applied to medieval apostates, and perhaps Jews for Jesus, but does it fit Noam Chomsky, and if not, why is it constantly applied to him and his like? As apt as the term may be, it is a neologism.

    This is a technical question, and if I am wrong about my hunch, let me know.

    As for the general utility of the term. I sincerely believe “self-haters” are a rare phenomenon, and we need to be weary of politicized terms. They are what I call “censorship terms”, terms that can be applied, with no need for proof, which soil just by association. Terms like anti-semite, racist, sexist, apartheid. Terms that you just need to scream, and point a finger in order to magically transmit culpability.

    The utility of such adjectives and nouns, no doubt serves their linguistic purpose. But unlike, say the word “salary” or “woman”, they denote by connotation, not connote by denotation. They are more emotional, than rational, more political, than conversational; often failing those accused, always exposing the frailty of the accusers.

    Remember Durban, Zionism = Racism? Worked, didn’t it?
    Remember the Apparthaid wall? Remember “freedom-fighters” vs “insurgents” vs “terrorists”. I

    I think that those who want to use the term “self-hating”, are choosing to use dumbed-down, censorious terms. They want to play language-games, with loaded dice. They prefer restricted “discussions” about Israel, featuring Martin Indyk against Thomas Friedman, not Noam Chomsky. The results of such discussions are akin to eating a dinner at a diner, which fancies it self fancy, but is pretty much just that: fancying itself.

    My final note, ArchangelinAmerica on anti-semitism and Isreal. Totally disagree. This is the anti-semite by association, through inappropriate thought, by default of your political position. I don’t agree with anti-semitism without intentionality, or through ignorance, and I can’t accept this argument. For a variety of legitimate reasons, Israel does stand out on the international stage. For proof, check-out AIPACs website and read its sales-pitch. But that’s another discussion. Regrettably, there is too much similarity between the censorious nature of “self-haters” and of unintentional anti-semitism, and not just because both are politicized.

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