Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Paul Reitter's "On the Origins of Jewish Self-Hatred"

Paul Reitter is associate professor of Germanic languages and literatures at Ohio State University. He is the author of The Anti-Journalist: Karl Kraus and Jewish Self-Fashioning in Fin-de-Siècle Europe.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, On the Origins of Jewish Self-Hatred, and reported the following:
I like to think that the book stands up to the test pretty well. On the Origins is an attempt to understand how the particular concept “Jewish self-hatred” got its start. Its first chapter is a broad-ranging discussion of the long build-up to the birth of that category, in 1921. The next two chapters focus on the colorful, paradoxical figures who, respectively, coined and popularized “Jewish self-hatred”—Anton Kuh and Theodor Lessing. Page 99 falls about mid-way through my account of how it was that Lessing came to write his book Jewish Self-Hatred (1930), which is the work through which the concept gained prominence. The page tracks Lessing’s commitment to progressive education and his emerging opposition to antisemitism in German culture.

One reason why the history of “Jewish Self-Hatred” has been widely misrepresented is that Lessing has been widely misunderstood; and one reason for that is Lessing’s paradox-laden attitude toward his fellow German Jews. Lessing resisted antisemitism. And he was also a Zionist who called, in the years between 1901 and 1914, for Jews to be proud of themselves and their heritage. Yet Lessing often did so in terms that sound (and sometimes are) antisemitic. He was hardly unique in this. But even in a rough context of debate, the harshness of Lessing’s writings about German Jews stood out. As a result, scholars have tended to treat his book Jewish Self-Hatred as an expression of nothing other than, well, his Jewish self-hatred. Picking up on this line of interpretation, critics of the concept “Jewish self-hatred” have argued that the concept’s (persistent) original meanings are deeply problematic. Lessing’s book is, according to one scholar, a “worse instance of Jewish self-hatred than any of the authors it discusses.”

I don’t try to make Lessing out to be a misunderstood genius or saint. What I attempt to do, rather, is show that in his book Jewish Self-Hatred the progressive Lessing gets the upper hand. That is, I try to show that Jewish Self-Hatred is very different from the earlier writings with which it is usually lumped together—from writings where Lessing heaps scorn on what he calls German Jewry’s “self-contempt.” Indeed, I argue that Lessing turned to the particular concept “Jewish self-hatred” (for the first time) in Jewish Self-Hatred precisely because he wanted to do something very different there. Which brings me to the hook of my own book. My big claim is that thanks to Kuh, the real coiner of the concept, “Jewish self-hatred” actually had positive connotations when Lessing came to it. Read Lessing’s book closely, and you’ll see that it builds off of Kuh’s work. Rather than delivering a “Zionist polemic,” Lessing offers plenty of uplift in Jewish Self-Hatred. Like Kuh, he uses “Jewish self-hatred” in such a way that it refers to a problem that will heal itself, and even help save the world!
Learn more about On the Origins of Jewish Self-Hatred at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue