Internalized Anti-Semitism: How Do We See Ourselves?

Aron: There’s a topic we’ve touched upon in the last few weeks, but I think we should give it a fuller treatment: anti-Semitism. I’m not interested in talking about whether Bannon is an enabler of anti-Semitism (he is), whether certain parts of the BDS movement are anti-Semitic (a few, in effect if not intention), or whether we’ve got more to fear from far-left anti-Semitism or far-right anti-Semitism (who knows!).

Rather, I’d like to talk about internalized anti-Semitism, which we can define as the ways in which generations of hatred and prejudice directed against Jews have conditioned, rightly or wrongly, the ways we see ourselves and the world. (In this context, I’ll be talking about the Ashkenazi experience, since I can’t speak to others.) The fact that some of us (myself included) don’t have grandparents who were in the Holocaust and haven’t experienced much, if any, direct anti-Jewish prejudice doesn’t preclude the possibility that the trauma our ancestors and fellow community members experienced has conditioned our outlook.

I’ll point to three distinct phenomena:

1. How we see ourselves: Jews were told for hundreds of years that our physical features were unappealing. It’s hard to imagine that hasn’t conditioned how we see our own bodies. Isn’t part of the reason we fetishize Israeli soldiers because they represent a rejection of the stereotype of Jews as frail and defenseless? You don’t have to look hard in the Ashkenazi community for Jews looking to pass as Aryan. Philip Roth’s American Pastoral is all about a blonde-haired blue-eyed Jew who is the pride of his small Jewish community precisely because he doesn’t look or act “Jewish.”

2. How we see the world: A history of extermination has conditioned us to see all threats as existential. This isn’t to say that there aren’t existential threats to Jews, but rather, as Leon Wieseltier wrote in 2002:

“The community is sunk in excitability, in the imagination of disaster… Death is at every Jewish door. Fear is wild. Reason is derailed. Anxiety is the supreme proof of authenticity… Holocaust imagery is everywhere.”

How much of your time in Hebrew school was comprised of learning about suicide bombings, concentration camps, death squads, Haman, Antiochus, the destruction of the Temples, the Crusades, and other atrocities? I don’t mean to suggest that they’re not worth learning about or that we should forget them. It seems reasonable to believe, though, that focusing much of Jewish education on that material leads Jewish children to see the world as unambiguously against them.

3. Our psyche: It’s an old trope that Jews are anxious. Research in genetics suggests that some of that anxiety might be attributable to our families’ experiences. Studies suggest that children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors suffer higher rates of PTSD, depression, eating disorders, and other conditions. It appears safe to assume that such effects, compounded over generations and reinforced by communal norms, might produce ingrained psychological tendencies in our community, even among members whose grandparents weren’t in the Holocaust.

I don’t mean to suggest that we should condemn any of these trends or that we should be unsympathetic to ourselves; far from it. Instead, I just want to start exploring the ways these things affect us.

Allen: When I first heard you make these claims, I couldn’t help but be skeptical. As for most American Jews of my generation, “trauma” isn’t the first word I’d describe myself with. I’m wary of sweeping claims about our communal psyche, which can easily devolve into pseudoscience. There are plenty of other factors out there to explain the scars on our Jewish sensitivities — the trauma of immigration, the insecurities of baby-boomer America, the incompetence of our parents’ religious instructors.

Granted that anti-Semitism explains every problem you’ve mentioned, what are we going to do about it? How should we deal with the anti-Semitism in our own lives? How are we supposed to struggle against a psychological abstraction?

Aron: I didn’t say that we’re individually traumatized; just that the literal trauma that our grandparents’ generation faced has conditioned us in ways we may not realize. It’s certainly not the only thing that’s influenced our community — that would be an extremely reductive assertion — but it’s an important one whose subtleties are often overlooked.

I want to clarify a distinction between anti-Semitism and internalized anti-Semitism. The former is a prejudice; the latter is the internalized issues that results from it. That’s why the question of how we should deal with anti-Semitism is different from the question of how we should address the ways anti-Semitism has affected our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.

This isn’t a psychological abstraction — it’s a visible phenomena with concrete consequences. For one, it makes us magnify risks. I know plenty of Jews who insist Israel can’t withdraw from the West Bank because doing so will lead another Holocaust. For another, it encourages us not to “rock the boat” politically for fear of being scapegoated by the government or the masses (we could devote an entire blog to this particular phenomena).

Allen: I’ll always remember when my eighth-grade English teacher announced we’d be reading Elie Wiesel’s Night. One of my Jewish classmates spoke up: “Do we really have to read another book about concentration camps?” I’m not sure what to call it, but something strange is going on in our community; twelve-year-olds shouldn’t have to complain that they’ve seen too much of the Holocaust.

This dynamic becomes especially clear within the field of Jewish thought. One of the most popular concepts to come out of post-Holocaust theology has been Emil Fackenheim’s “614th commandment”: “Thou shalt not give Hitler posthumous victories.” Fackenheim writes:

“We are commanded to survive as Jews, lest the Jewish people perish […] We are commanded to remember in our very guts and bones the martyrs of the Holocaust, lest their memory perish […] We are forbidden to deny or despair of God, however much we may have to contend with him or despair with him, lest Judaism perish.”

I won’t enter into a critique of Fackenheim’s claim here, nor will I deny that his words retain potent rhetorical force, even a generation gone. Enough to say that holding the gas chambers and crematoria constantly before our inner eye, “with all our hearts, with our our souls, with all our might,” inevitably takes a severe psychological toll. The question then becomes what sort of Jewish life would do tribute both to those murdered and those not yet born, the cries from the mass graves and the cries from the womb. That’s a problem left to our generation, and it’s one in which your framework should play a real part.

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