Last year, my cousin – whom I love and respect – used a phrase to describe one of my best friends whom I also love and respect.
It was a pejorative term that accuses the named person of committing that greatest sin in our identity-obsessed world: traitor to one’s own kind.
You’re not sitting here in suspense, of course, because you see the title of this piece. You know that I am talking about the ‘self-hating Jew.’
But, my friend isn’t self-hating. She’s proud to be Jewish and expresses it in meaningful ways. She went on Birthright Israel, a philanthropic opportunity for Jewish youth. She attends local Jewish events and hosts Shabbat dinners at her apartment. She’s also critical of Israel.
This article isn’t a referendum on the morality of Israel. I make no value judgments about Israel’s actions. This is about the reasons Jewish people criticize Israel, and how a Jewish community full of diverse perspectives on Israel – and everything else – can learn to better understand and respect each other.
Rightly or wrongly, global Jewish identity has become totally intertwined with Israel. The conflation of these two concepts manifests itself in different ways. On one hand, it’s the reason my friend feels compelled to criticize Israel; she feels automatically complicit in Israel’s decisions, so she wants them to represent her values. When these decisions don’t, she resents that they are being perpetrated in her name – so she speaks out.
On the other hand, it informs the way many Jewish people react to criticism of Israel – since Israel is an integral component of Judaism, Israeli criticism amounts to veiled anti-Semitism.
That accusation is often – though not always – a valid claim. But valid or not, it creates an “us vs. them” mentality, a binary into which Jews who are critical of Israel do not neatly fit. Following that train of thought: if it’s us vs. them, and these Jews are with “them,” then they are against “us.” With the abuse we face from the rest of the world, how can our fellow Jews add to that in good conscience?
The term ‘self-hating Jew’ is powerful when invoked in this context, but if my friend and like-minded people were truly self-hating, they wouldn’t feel emotionally invested in, and responsible for the actions of other Jewish people. They would simply hate other Jewish people.
Meanwhile, there are people around the world who really do hate Jews. We are judged by a double standard – Israel is subject to more scrutiny than every other country. No matter what your opinion on Israel’s existence and actions, it clearly is not responsible for over half of the human rights abuses in the world. Yet if you look at a list of United Nations Human Rights Council resolutions, over half of them are against Israel.
Unfortunately, we have become so accustomed to denouncing this clear double standard from without that we don’t recognize the value of a strong critical voice when it comes from within. We should hold ourselves to a higher standard. We should be proud of our actions, and strive to improve them.
It’s important to have a subset of the community that’s critical of Israel, just as it’s sometimes important for a person to question his or herself. It’s also important to have a subset of the community who is confident in Israel, just as it’s important for a person to feel self-assured and secure. But self-assuredness and security isn’t a psychological plateau; it’s an ever-shifting goal that we as individual people, and as a community of people, must constantly work towards.
Communities depend on engagement, and criticism is undeniably a type of engagement. In a secularizing world where spiritual leaders bemoan religious apathy among youth, this criticism should be seen as a gateway to Judaism, not a roadblock.
My friend and other proud Jews I know are critical of Israel precisely because they feel a connection with the land, because being Jewish is important to them.
They speak out not against Jews, but as Jews. They’re excited to experience and learn about many aspects of Judaism – not just Israel. If we dismiss their passion, we all lose out on a valuable opportunity to enrich our mutual religious lives.
Instead of calling people “self-hating Jews,” we should consider their purpose. Are they working towards improving our collective actions as a Jewish people? If so, that’s a worthwhile Jewish goal. People inevitably disagree about methods and ideas, but we shouldn’t be so quick to doubt each other’s motivation; we should not label fellow Jews as “them” in our false binary view of the world.
“They” are our Jewish family. “They” share our heritage. As parts of the world population wish us harm, or even total destruction, it’s all the more important we stay strong together and accept the different parts of Jewish identity for what they are instead of denigrating them for what they aren’t.
If you meet a Jewish person who actively spouts hatred against Jews and Judaism, then you’ve met a self-hating Jew. If you meet my friend, a proud Jewish person who is sometimes critical of Israel, then you’ve met a sister working hard at being Jewish in her own way.