Over the course of Jewish history, there has likely been no anti-Jewish canard, however absurd and bigoted, that has not won the endorsement of some Jews.
It is, in fact, common within chronically besieged communities that some members will take to heart the indictments of the assailants. They hope that by doing so, and by promoting reform to address the indictments, they can win relief.
The paradigm on the level of individual psychology is the response of children subjected to chronic abuse. Such children almost invariably blame themselves for their suffering. The explanation for this lies in the existential predicament of such children. They can, on the one hand, acknowledge that they are being unfairly victimized and are powerless to change their situation, and reconcile themselves to its hopelessness. Or they can blame themselves, interpret their predicament as a consequence of their being “bad,” and endure the self-criticism that this perspective entails – but thereby sustain a fantasy of control.
In such a fantasy, by becoming “good” they will elicit more benign behavior from their tormentors and win relief. Children almost invariably seek to avoid hopelessness at all costs, and adults do the same.
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, as the issue of extending citizenship rights to Jews was first being considered in the states of Central Europe, those opposed to granting such rights pointed to characteristics of the Jews that ostensibly rendered them unfit. They claimed, for example, that Yiddish was a crude, unwholesome language that reflected the degenerate nature of the Jews and illustrated their unfitness for citizenship rights, and that Jews were primarily engaged in trade and this was another mark of their degeneracy and inappropriateness for citizenship.
Both indictments, and others like them, were endorsed by important Jewish leaders and members of the Jewish cultural elite.
During the nineteenth century, Jews in substantial numbers abandoned Yiddish as their primary language to speak “good” German. Significant segments of the community also succeeded in leaving behind the commercial occupations of their fathers to become poets, composers, philosophers, and intellectuals of various other stripes.
Many leading voices in the surrounding society argued that Jews were still unable to apply their learning to true aesthetic or intellectual creativity but instead were subverting what they had learned to some lesser, alien end and were coarsening German culture. Even this indictment was embraced by some Jews.
One can argue that attempts by minorities to accommodate the wider society can and do at times succeed in winning them greater acceptance. This is true, and Jewish exertions to give up Yiddish and master normative German could be perceived as having been a pragmatic step. But that is very different from endorsing the derogation of Yiddish as intrinsically primitive, inferior, and corrupting.
Such endorsements were founded on the desire to believe that Jews were regarded with distaste and loathing and treated as inferior because they spoke an inferior language and had been coarsened by it. Becoming linguistically equal to their neighbors, then, would assure their eing treated as equal – a wish-driven delusion.
This example reflects a propensity for “categorical” thinking – that is, choosing to think in absolute, categorical terms about what may be simply pragmatic steps that could or could not have salutary consequences. Such a predilection is driven by the desperate desire for acceptance and a consequent wishful thinking that acceptance could inexorably be won by the right communal policies. The same mindset can be seen in other stances as well.
For example, Central European liberals – some on the basis of principle, others for pragmatic reasons – were generally more receptive to the extension of rights to Jews than were more conservative elements. But many Jews, in aligning themselves with liberal groups, chose to construe this sympathy as intrinsic and not as something at least partly driven by a convergence of political interests that could change in the future.Kenneth Levin