Self-Hating Jew?

Jonathan Freedland on Bibi Netanyahu

For myself, I’ve always hated the term “self-hating Jew.” A device to shut down dissent, dished out when the dissident has crossed some line marked out by other Jews, it’s also a classic evasion – an insult that plays the man rather than the ball, seeking to probe the denouncee’s psyche rather than tackle his or her arguments.

So I tend to avoid the phrase in all but the rarest cases: those whose psychological history has clearly left them detesting that part of themselves which is Jewish. (Though it can be hard to be precise on that point. Recall Larry David’s response to the accusation of self-hatred: “It’s true I hate myself, but that’s got nothing to do with being Jewish.”)

But here’s the unlikely question that popped into my mind when reading Anshel Pfeffer’s excellent new biography of Binyamin Netanyahu. Could Israel’s hawkish prime minister – the self-styled leader of the Jewish people – be one of those Jews who actually despises other Jews?

At first the notion seems absurd. Steeped in Jewish history, seeing himself as a direct descendant of the Maccabees, he’s the son of a scholar of the Jews of medieval Spain and the grandson of a rabbi. Netanyahu’s lifelong cause is Jewish nationalism; he’s a Jewish particularist of the most intense kind. Surely his love for the Jewish people is, if anything, too consuming, blinding him to the needs of others, especially Israel’s most immediate neighbours, the Palestinians?

But that is to reckon without the details Pfeffer provides. We learn that the young Bibi, who spent his formative years in New York and Philadelphia, developed an early and deep disdain for American Jews, whom he saw as weak and feckless. They, after all, would never be called to do what he and his brothers were about to do: to wear the uniform of the IDF and defend the motherland. Liberal Jews were deemed especially worthy of Bibi’s contempt – an attitude he has not shaken to this day. Pfeffer suggests Netanyahu can talk the talk if he has to – tickling liberal US Jews’ tummies by hailing Israel as a land of hi-tech and gay rights – but he has no respect for those Jews who regard their liberalism as equal in importance to their ethnicity.

Perhaps Netanyahu is simply an old-school Zionist who regards the diaspora Jew as a neurotic, atrophied creature, while revering the new, muscular Hebrew of modern Israel? Except to watch Bibi these days, especially as ongoing corruption investigations inch ever closer towards him and his family, is to see a man lashing out at every corner of Israeli life. If he’s not attacking the noisily, and admirably, robust Israeli press, he’s laying into the Israeli legal establishment. He hates Israeli academic elites, except those involved in cutting-edge, commercially applicable science, and has never shown much interest in Israel’s highly diverse communities, except as component parts of his electoral coalition.  Even the Israeli military inspires little affection or respect. Netanyahu’s loyalty has always been to his own small, elite unit; the rest of the IDF he once dismissed as “the big and stupid army.”

It adds up to an Israeli prime minister with a low opinion of Israeli society – the self-appointed leader of the Jewish people who doesn’t think much of actual Jews. We can analyse the origins of this apparent paradox, starting perhaps with the poor esteem in which his father, Benzion, held the “the human material” that would forge the Jewish state. But that might be to miss the extent to which Netanyahu exemplifies a wider phenomenon.

Look closely at today’s ultra-nationalists, whether Viktor Orban in Hungary, Nigel Farage in Britain or Donald Trump in the US. All of them are avowedly patriotic in the abstract, of course, but what do they say about their beloved homelands as they actually exist? Trump was inaugurated speaking of “American carnage”, describing a republic riven by crime, fear and warped values. Farage’s whole message boils down to a lamentation that his country has gone to the dogs – that it’s all been downhill since 1950.

Perhaps this explains why Bibi is so comfortable with what Yascha Mounk calls “the illiberal international” of populist demagogues, even though so many of them, including Orban, Trump and Farage, have voiced attitudes that are overtly antisemitic. It’s not merely that, like them, he is a nationalist who doesn’t rate his own nation. Maybe he also shares their rather dim view of Jews.

Still, that probably does not quite merit a diagnosis of self-hatred. Netanyahu might not have much respect for Jews or Israelis – but he seems to think the world of himself.

This article appears in the Summer ’18 issue of Jewish Quarterly.

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