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.

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