Walter Rathenau, Theodor Lessing and Jewish self-hatred

Was there Jewish self-hatred in the ancient and medieval world?

Allowing everyone to participate in Jewish esoteric tradition is one of the roots of Hassidism (photo credit: REUTERS)
Allowing everyone to participate in Jewish esoteric tradition is one of the roots of Hassidism
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Do the Irish despise themselves? Are Italians embarrassed by their grand history? Why are Iranians, who should be ashamed of being the world’s primary state sponsor of global terrorism, so proud of their past? While I cannot gain the proper insight to answer these questions, not being the product of these cultures and societies, I am the son of a people – the Jewish people – that seem to be embarrassed of who they are, ignorant of a history that they condemn, and who vilify the Jewish state that represents the hope of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel for which Jews prayed for 2,000 years.
Was there Jewish self-hatred in the ancient and medieval world? The honest answer is that there were some Jews who abandoned Judaism for paganism or who converted to Christianity and Islam. In 1492, rather than face exile 50,000 Jews converted to Catholicism – but 100,000 Jews chose to hold on to their Jewish identity and left Spain for the dangers of the roads and high seas because they could never imagine abandoning a Judaism they so valued.
Jewish self-hatred and feelings of inferiority are a modern phenomenon.
The modern Jew lacks the “superiority complex” of his ancestor and no longer embraces the central concept of a “Chosen People.” The European Enlightenment drummed into Jews feelings of inferiority – Judaism was primitive, tribal and devoid of ethics, the Enlightenment thinkers said, as a Religion of Revelation that stood in stark contrast to Christianity as the superior Religion of Reason.
With the granting of emancipation and citizenship to Jews, the idea of a Jewish nation and people was wiped away and Jews had to bend over backward to prove their loyalty to their new fatherlands. Heinrich Heine, the great German poet of the 19th century, born a Jew but who abandoned Judaism for Lutheranism, claimed the only reason he converted was because Christianity was “the entrance ticket to Western Civilization.” Obviously, for Heine and many other Jews, Judaism was an embarrassment and an obstacle. Even the rise of modern Zionism did not erase this self-hatred.
While the visionaries of the Zionist movement restored Jewish pride and provided a bulwark against assimilation, the attitude toward 2,000 years of Jewish life in the Diaspora was negative and viewed as a story of suffering, persecution and woe. This was only a partial truth. Economic success, literary achievement and religious creativity were all central to the Jewish experience in Exile.
In my 19 years of teaching Jewish history in adult education programs throughout South Florida, I have come to rely upon one book. The Jew in the Modern World: A Documentary History is a collection of primary sources from the modern Jewish world, edited by professors Paul Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz. On the subject of modern Jewish self-hatred, I found two documents in this collection that stand in startling contrast. The first is “Hear, O Israel” published in Germany in 1897. It was the work of Walter Rathenau, a prominent industrialist and statesman – and a Jew.
Rathenau’s critique of German Jews is devastating and was even used by anti-Semites in Germany as an effective polemical tool against the Jews.
Rathenau later withdrew the essay from his collected writings because it was so caustic.
While Rathenau rejected conversion as the answer to the rejection of German Jews by Christians, he proposes “the conscious self-education and adaptation of the Jews to the expectations of the Gentiles.” His words to German Jews are devastating: “Look at yourselves in the mirror! This is the first step toward self-criticism.
Nothing, unfortunately, can be done about the fact that all of you look frighteningly alike and that your individual vices, therefore, are attributed to all of you...As soon as you have recognized your unathletic build, your narrow shoulders, your clumsy feet, your sloppy roundish shape, you will resolve to dedicate a few generations to the renewal of your outer appearance.”
Rathenau continues – “I do not know what the people of Israel looked like in Palestine – their contemporaries do not seem to share their beauty – but two thousand years of misery cannot but leave marks too deep to be washed away by eau de cologne.”
While Zionist leader Max Nordau’s call a few years later for a “Jewry of muscle” echoes some of Rathenau’s criticism, these two Jews come to totally different conclusions. Rathenau called for Jews to assimilate and ape Gentile society. Nordau called for the emergence of a proud and physically fit Jew who would transcend assimilation.
Standing in contrast to Rathenau’s mocking of the central credo of Jewish faith and the prayer of martyrs that were the title of his essay, his contemporary, German-Jewish philosopher Theodor Lessing, explored the sort of self-hatred epitomized by Rathenau’s call for Jews to shed their embarrassing values and appearance.
While a student, Lessing converted to Christianity but later returned to Judaism and embraced Zionism. His classic work, Jewish Self-Hatred, published in 1930, explored the psychology of Jewish intellectuals who rejected their Jewish roots and despised their origins. Lessing asks: “We all love to use the beautiful phrase: ‘Happy is he who gladly remembers his forefathers.’ But what is left for a child who must turn away in shame from his forefathers because they have played their irresponsible games with energies peculiar to their race and have thrown him, the grandchild, into the world as though he were an accident? Such a child, surrounded by a base and unsatisfactory environment, spends his feeble answers on a hateful tearing against unbreakable chains.”
Lessing called upon Jews to free themselves from their oppressive legacy and not to betray their fate. As Rathenau cried out for Jews to look in the mirror and shed their Jewishness, Lessing calls out with a very different message: “Be firm! You will surely endure your personal hell and attain deliverance in your true self in your eternal people.” For Lessing, the return of Jews to the Land of Israel was a harbinger of Jewish renewal and the end of an unnatural life in Europe that led to self-hatred.
It is an irony that Rathenau and Lessing met similar ends. As foreign minister of Germany in the post- WWI Weimar government, Rathenau was assassinated as a “Jewish swine” by extremists from the Right in 1922.
Lessing was murdered by Nazi agents in Czechoslovakia in 1933. Almost a century later, their debate is alive and well as young Jews flock to the anti-Israel boycott movement in America and Europe and Jewish intellectuals label Israel an “apartheid state” and equate Jewish soldiers in the IDF with Nazis. The post-Zionists who libel Israel by claiming the State of Israel was founded in the “original sin” of genocide and imperialism are also self-haters. As has been said often, Jews are sometimes their own worst enemies. Our great heritage is being squandered and rejected by Jews who despise their roots and their identity, a glorious past and a thriving present that should be celebrated