Have you ever been privy to Jew-bashing? Chances are you have.
“Community X is so materialistic, it’s disgusting. They are constantly raising standards and have such superficial values.”
“So many yeshivos have a terrible English program, they are fanatical about avoiding secular education and are setting their students up to be ignorant failures in society.”
“Frum schools are terribly corrupt, they fleece the government and lie about stuff to get grants.”
“Group Z is super aggressive in business; they give Jews everywhere a bad name.”
Today we are talking about when Jews bash Jews.
Feel free to swap any of these examples with any other sub-group of your choice: kollel guys, yeshiva boys, chassidim, Sephardim, Israelis, Bais Yaakov teachers, seminary girls, frum vegetarians, Orthodox businessmen, YU rabbis, whatever.
Sure, we recognize this ugliness whenever there is an Israeli-Palestinian incident, and media sites around the country trot out a vile slew of Jewish commentators to condemn Israel and decry it as an apartheid state. It’s a little harder to recognize when it’s around our own dinner table and someone gets all fiery because “group A is not careful about hygiene and personal appearance” or “community B is too loud and obnoxious in general.”
It’s an ugly topic.
In the words of Rav Avigdor Miller: “We have to study this and know that there’s a certain anti-Semitism in Jews themselves. When Jews knock the frum community, it’s nothing but an echo of anti-Semitism in their own hearts.”
What does this have to do with the story of 19th century Jewry we have been exploring?
Because it was during this period that something brand-new was born: Jewish shame.
You may challenge that, but anyone who has studied the agonizing thousand years of European Jewish history preceding the 19th century knows that a Jew who felt the prick of Jewish shame would not have made it through those devastating centuries of chronic, unending, degrading anti-Semitism. The Jew of old had long managed his sense of shame.
Yet this “seasoned veteran of history” – Berel Wein’s descriptor for the Jew of old – is replaced with a newborn, an amateur of history, eager and ready to please. Unlike the old Jew who knew all justifications for hating the Jew were really one and the same – irrational, voracious hate – this Jew of new believed each critique was valid, each accusation something to be accepted and internalized.
This new Jew believed anti-Semitism is his own doing and that the reason the gentile hates him is because of his own foibles.
Thus begins a century-and-a-half of self-flagellation.
(Please note that this section is describing the quasi-religious and assimilating Jewry of the period. The religious Jews of this time are to be admired and revered for having such conviction and commitment to the Torah and the Jewish people while under assault from their fellow Jews.)
What started out as a gentle apology by Moses Mendelssohn for the Jewish religion, became a more vigorous explanation of Jewish “backwardness” by Naftali Herz Wessely, where he beseeches his brethren to look inward and understand where the Jew has gone wrong.
“There is one people in the world alone who are not sufficiently concerned with human knowledge and who have neglected the public instruction of their youth in the laws of etiquette, the sciences and the arts. We, the children of Israel, who are dispersed through all of Europe and who live in most of its states, have turned our back on these studies” (The Jew in the Modern World: A Documentary History edited by Paul Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz ).
This era is intent on excavating the real source of anti-Semitism, the real reason the Jew is hated. And the reason always lies within – because in his own eyes, the Jew is inherently flawed.
And thus, the self-hating Jew is born. Suddenly he is everywhere, in every publication, on every tree stump, at every conference.
First comes Isaac de Pinto, with his work literally called, “An Apology For the Jewish Nation (1762),” a letter in response to Voltaire’s Jew-hatred, in which he does not argue that Voltaire unfairly maligns the Jews, but that Voltaire’s critique may be true of some Jews, but not the former Portuguese Jews, a sophisticated, irreproachable cultural group of which he counts himself.
Next comes Solomon Maimon’s vicious denunciation of the yeshiva of old, (an institution he frequented as a boy), and the melamed who ran it, in his essay, “My Emergence From Talmudic Darkness (1793)” –
The school is commonly a smoky hut, and the children are scattered, some on benches, some on the bare earth. The master, in a dirty blouse sitting on the table, holds between his knees a bowl, in which he grinds tobacco into snuff with a huge pestle like the club of Hercules, while at the same time he wields his authority. The [assistants] give lessons, each in his corner, and rule those under their charge quite as despotically as the master himself. Of the breakfast, lunch and other food sent to the school for the children, these gentlemen keep the largest share for themselves. Sometimes the poor youngsters get nothing at all; and yet they dare not make any complaint on this subject… Here the children are imprisoned from morning to night.
Then come the great intellectuals, with their wise insight and powers of deduction, who lecture the Jew on how to become more lovable. For Walter Rathenau, a statesman and writer, anti-Semitism exists because of the Jew’s lack of German finesse. If the Jew would only perfect his outer appearance, the German will cease to hate him. In his treatise, “Hear O Israel (1897),” he scolds his own people in such impressive terms, that the Nazi party saw fit to make this mandatory reading in German schools, because look, even the Jew understands how abhorrent he is. (Is there no better propaganda than that?)
Look at yourselves in the mirror… Your east Mediterranean appearance is not very well appreciated by the northern tribes. You should therefore be the most careful not to walk about in a loose and lethargic manner, and thus become the laughingstock of a race brought up in a strictly military fashion. As soon as you have recognized your un-athletic build, your narrow shoulders, your sloppy, roundish shape, you will resolve to dedicate a few generation to the renewal of your outer appearance. During that time you will refrain from donning the costumes of the lean Anglo-Saxons, in which you look like a dachshund dressed up like a greyhound. You will not offend nature by wearing a sailor’s dress on the beach, or half-stockings in the Alps.
In short, the Jew is hated because he looks foolish in a German waist-coat.
For Otto Weininger, a psychologist and philosopher, the explanation for anti-Semitism is the Jew’s feminine qualities. Succeeding in being both a woman-hater and Jew-hater in the same breath, his essay, “The Jew Must Free Himself of His Jewishness (1903),” lays it out.
The Jew is more saturated with femininity than the Aryan, to such an extent that the most manly Jew is more feminine than the least manly Aryan…
Jews (like women,) prefer moveable property, (as opposed to land-property which is masculine, reflecting nationalistic sentiments; men are bound to the land of their forefathers, it’s their identity).
Citizenship is an un-Jewish thing, and there has never been and never will be a true Jewish State…the true conception of the state is foreign to the Jew, because he, like the woman, is wanting in personality; his failure to grasp the idea of true society is due to his lack of a free intelligible ego. Like women, Jews tend to adhere together, but they do not associate as free independent individuals mutually respecting each other’s individuality.
As there is no real dignity in women, so what is meant in the word gentleman does not exist among the Jews…
To defeat Judaism, the Jew must first understand himself and war against himself.
And so it goes. Skies of paper. Lakes of ink. Mountains of words.
If the 19th century has any characterization, it is that of a Jew in flight; from his people, from his heritage, from his identity. And then, once he is far away, atop a high hill, far enough from Jewry so he can be accepted as a “legitimate” voice by the gentile whom he hopes to placate, then he bashes Jewry. He yells and wails and flings his arms about, decrying this foolish, ugly, backward, ignorant, barbaric people.
Because, if he bashes loudly and vociferously enough, then maybe, just maybe, he will be excused for being a Jew. The gentile world will finally open its arms to him and say, “Yes, you may be a Jew, but you are not like them. You understand the evils of the Jew. Therefore you are cleansed of them.”
And then the early 20th century Jew, after shouting and flailing and emitting his venom, is left alone on top of the high hill, wondering where the embrace is, when it will come, how warm it will be, only to realize it will never come, because there is always more, always, so much more that is wrong with the Jew, no amount of paper will transcribe it all.
His self-flagellation does not bring him redemption.
To end where we began, with the words of Rav Avigdor Miller: “We have to understand that we have another obligation and that’s to love the frum, and to look up to them… Now there could be sometimes here and there is a frum Jew who is dishonest, here is a frum Jew that doesn’t have good manners, but by and large they’re the best people in the world!”