Peace with Realism

Home Contents Site Map Links Search

Jewish Self-Loathing

So far we have looked at misguided idealism and fear as reasons why some Jews may be engaging in openly one-sided denunciations of Israel out of all proportion to the facts. We need to consider one more motive: the discomfort many Jews feel with being Jewish and the desire to escape their Jewish identity. Sometimes this is called being a "self-hating Jew," but we get nowhere until we go beyond the labels in an effort to understand what it really means.

Recently Tikkun Magazine published a virulently anti-Israel piece entitled "Letter of Resignation from the Jewish People."(16) This lengthy letter, appearing in a Jewish journal that publishes many articles critical of Israel, offers some stunning insights about the discomfort of being Jewish that often underlies Jewish hatred of Israel.

Just today one of my hospice patients, a Jewish man, said something that moved me. He told me that he's not sure he really wants to be Jewish. He said he didn't want to be "smarmy and arrogant." Israel, and by extension the Jewish people, is often portrayed in the media and in Palestinian propaganda as "smarmy and arrogant." Somehow this popular impression leached into my patient's self-image.

The "Letter of Resignation from the Jewish People" was written by Bertell Ollman, a self-described radical Marxist professor at New York University and another Jewish man with a deathbed horror of being Jewish.

In this letter we find expressions of the unbalanced idealism of which we have been speaking. But there is also something else, just below the surface of much Jewish anti-Israel writing but more discernible here: contempt and loathing for one's own Jewish identity.

The title itself says it: Ollman wants to resign from his own ethnic group. This is rather odd. Israel is not the only country accused by many of war crimes. Yet one does not hear of China's occupation of Tibet making Chinese people no longer want to be Chinese, Russia's brutalization of Chechnya making Russians no longer want to be Russian, or Serbia's ethnic cleansing of its Muslim population causing Serbians to cease being Serbian. Yet because Ollman hates Israel, he no longer wants to be a Jew. What makes being Jewish so different?

By yoking his Jewish identity to the actions of Israel of which he disapproves, Ollman is actually performing a classic anti-Semitic maneuver: he is identifying all Jews with Israel, and using his antipathy towards the latter to justify stigmatizing the former. Not just Israel but the Jews have become his target. One may wonder whether Ollman, like many Jews, has internalized these anti-Semitic values and incorporated them into his own Jewish identity.

Let's look at what Ollman actually says. Here is how he begins:

Did you ever wonder what your last thought would be just before you died or believed you might die? Well, I did, and a few years ago in the waning moments before going under the knife for a life-threatening operation, I got my answer. As the nurses wheeled me into the operating room, what burst upon my consciousness was not, as might be expected, the fear of dying but a terrible angst at the idea of dying a Jew. I was appalled to finish my life with my umbilical cord still tied to a people with whom I can no longer identify. That this should be my "last" thought greatly surprised me at the time, and it still does.

Ollman expresses a mixture of complex emotions: anger, shame, and fear. How sad that his greatest fear on facing the prospect of death is to be thought of as Jewish. Does he consider himself guilty for the crimes of the Jewish people? It would seem not - he shows no hesitation denouncing them. Nevertheless, the thought of being Jewish is so hateful to him that it is his greatest deathbed fear.

Ollman is very much aware of what this sounds like. And so he writes:

From what I've said so far, it would be easy for some to dismiss me as a self-hating Jew, but that would be a mistake. If anything, I am a self-loving Jew, but the Jew I love in me is the diaspora Jew, the Jew that was blessed for 2,000 years by having no country to call his/her own.

That sounds very nice, but if it's true, then why must Ollman resign from the Jewish people as a whole, including diaspora Jews, many of whom could hardly care less about Israel?

It is very clear that Ollman is not merely talking about resigning from the Jewish religion, but from Jews as a people:

One can quit a club, a religion (one can convert), a country (one can take out another citizenship and go live elsewhere), and even a gender (given current medical science), but how do you resign from a people into which you were born?

And why would you need to? Is Ollman proposing a theory of collective guilt? (Or perhaps more to the point, collective shame?) Are all Jews tainted with Israel's rancid smell? If Jews really are so bad, why not remain one and help fix the Jewish people from the inside? If Ollman really loves the diaspora Jew in him, then why is he so afraid of dying as one? His actions belie his words.

It's worth considering just what Ollman means by "diaspora Jew." What Ollman values in the diaspora Jew is the potential to become a universalist, a "citizen of the world." What Ollman doesn't mention is that such values have roots in prophetic Judaism, with its call both for universalism (all people united as creatures of the one universal God, yet preserving their national identities) and social justice. What Ollman does rightly emphasize is the effect of the Jews' marginalization from mainstream society:

By being an outsider in every country and belonging to the family of outsiders throughout the world, Jews on the whole suffered less from the small-minded prejudices that disfigure all forms of nationalism. If you couldn't be a full and equal citizen of the country in which you lived, you could be a citizen of the world, or at least begin to think of yourself as such, even before the concepts existed that would help to clarify what this meant.

An example of the type of Jew Ollman admires is Albert Einstein, who turned down the presidency of Israel and who claimed that Judaism's most salient feature was "the democratic ideal of social justice, coupled with the ideal of mutual aid and tolerance among all men." But it seems that like poor Lot, Einstein and the few other Jews like him are not enough to save the wicked city. The Jewish people failed by giving in to the worst affliction of all: nationalism.

The modern form of Jewish nationalism, and apparently the most pernicious according to Ollman, is Zionism. Ollman's rejection of the Jewish people is rooted in his anti-Zionism. In the establishment of the state of Israel the Jews lost more than they gained:

Like all nationalisms, Zionism is also based on an exaggerated sense of superiority as applied to members of the in-group and a feeling of indifference, bordering on contempt, for members of other groups. Jews entered world history with an extreme act of chutzpah (for which a new word had to be invented) in which they posed one just God who created everyone, and then, for reasons best known to him, chose the Jews to be his special people (why Christians and Muslims so happily accept their inferior status in this arrangement I'll never understand).

This statement is unworthy of a college professor, since it exhibits profound ignorance of both Christianity and Islam. Also, even if one were to grant Ollman's assertion that nationalism leads to ethnocentrism, why are only Zionists singled out? Why no word about the venomous ethnocentrism pervading the Arab world, as well as other cultures?

In addition to this, Ollman makes other statements that seem to reveal more about his inner conflicts than they do about the Jewish people:

If neither socialists who reject the nationalist and religious aspects of diaspora Judaism nor Zionists who reject its universal and humanist dimensions (and often its religious aspects as well) are Jews, then the real debate is over which tradition has retained the best of their common Jewish heritage. Despite their constant chatter about Jews, I would maintain that it is Zionism that has less in common with Judaism.


The first kind of Jew, most of whom are Zionists and therefore in my language really "ex-Jews," have gone so far as to unashamedly transform the Holocaust itself into a club with which to bash any critic who has the temerity to question what they are doing to the Palestinians, supposedly in self-defense.


Zionists insist that by creating their own state, they have improved the safety of Jews not only in Israel but everywhere. Unfortunately, Israel's abominable treatment of the Palestinians, together with its "Wieselian" hypocrisy and increasingly arrogant rebuffs to the world community, have created more real anti-Semitism not only in the Arab countries but throughout the world than has probably ever existed.


Israel's policies also call into question the official story of Israel as victim of the same kind of terrorists who bombed New York (hence, deserving our sympathy and help) rather than as a major instigator of Muslim violence around the world.

Let's put this all together: Zionism is not a legitimate expression of Judaism; it is a betrayal of Judaism. In fact, Zionists are not even real Jews; they are "ex-Jews." Through Zionism, Jews actually cause anti-Semitism and instigate Muslim violence around the world. (The gratuitous attack on Elie Wiesel also deserves mention: if Ollman is accusing Wiesel of hypocrisy, let him say what he means. Nothing is easier than calling names.)

If Ollman believes that Zionists are not really Jews, then why does he need to drop out of the Jewish people? With the odious Zionists written out, what is there left to secede from? If the Zionists have "hijacked" the Jewish label, as Ollman claims, then it should be up to "real Jews" like him to take it back. Unless, of course, the thought of being any kind of Jew at all is simply too loathsome.

In these statements fear is also evident: the Jews make people hate them, so better not be a Jew. The Jews cause anti-Semitism and instigate Muslim violence. Never mind all the anti-Jewish hatred that existed before 1967, before 1948, before there ever was an Israel. Never mind the religious and ethnic incitement throughout the Arab world against Jews as Jews, not because Jews are occupiers but because Jews are Jews, enemies of the Arabs and of Islam, to be subjugated, driven out, or destroyed regardless of what borders Israel might choose to have. At this point Ollman might likely accuse me of Zionist paranoia. I would only refer him to the various Arab media from which these anti-Semitic sentiments are very well documented.

Ollman's hatred of both Israel and Jews becomes fully apparent toward the end of his piece.

For example, ideologically, there is no longer a need to accept that Israel presents us with a clash of two rights, as some moderate and even socialist Zionists have put it. There is one right, and the Zionists, who are the invaders and the oppressors, are in the wrong.... We cannot regard the violence perpetrated by the Zionist government against Arabs and by Arabs against Jews in Israel today in the same manner. Certainly, I can and do deeply regret all the killing and destruction that is taking place, and I sympathize and suffer more than I can say with the victims and their loved ones on both sides. Only Israel, however, its government, and its supporters, deserve to be condemned.

The Jews of Israel have no rights? Including the refugees from Hitler and the Jews driven out of Arab lands? Where are they supposed to live? Only Israel deserves to be condemned? Ollman's words of sympathy with the victims of Arab terrorism ring hollow if he cannot bring himself to condemn that terrorism. Am I, as a "supporter" of Israel, more to be condemned than the terrorist who killed two children at their home in Metzer, firing at them through their mother's body? Ollman's words are raw hatred disguised as political ideology.

Ollman would put his hatred of Israel into action, declaring Israel a "rogue state" (forget about Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, or North Korea), barring Israel from the Olympics, boycotting it economically, stopping all U.S. aid, and imposing trade sanctions. He offers no word about applying any influence whatsoever to the Arab side. Why should he? According to Ollman, Israel is the devil. He even compares Israel to the Nazis.

If Zionism is indeed a particularly virulent form of nationalism and, increasingly, of racism and if Israel is acting toward its captive minority in ways that resemble more and more how the Nazis treated their Jews, then we must also say so. For obvious reasons, the Zionists are very sensitive about being compared to the Nazis (not so sensitive that it has restrained them in their actions but enough to bellow "unfair" and to charge "anti-Semitism" when it happens). Yet, the facts on the ground, when not obscured by one or another Zionist rationalization, show that the Zionists are the worst anti-Semites in the world today, oppressing a Semitic people as no nation has done since the Nazis.

This hysterical diatribe says far more about Ollman than it does about Israel. It should hardly be necessary to say once again that there is no comparison between Israel and Nazi Germany. Israel is not trying to exterminate the Palestinian people, is not herding them into death camps, and is not ethnically cleansing them from their land. "Oppressing a Semitic people as no nation has done since the Nazis": why is it so important that the Palestinians are "Semitic"? Perhaps so that by a trick of language Ollman need not mention the real ethnic cleansing of Muslims by the Serbs, the Chinese oppression of Tibet, or the atrocities Arabs have committed against Christians and blacks in the Sudan.

And why should Jews not be sensitive about being called Nazis? Not only has the comparison obviously no basis in fact, the equation of Jews (or even "Zionists") with their worst persecutors in all of history is clearly meant to offend and hurt Jewish sensibilities.

Is Bertell Ollman a "self-hating Jew"? Let the reader decide. Suffice it to say that clearly evident in his writing are the fear and the loathing of the very idea of being Jewish that seem to drive many Jewish Israel-haters today.

Finally, just a word about the appearance of this article in Tikkun. Ollman's piece is an expression of hatred both toward Israel and toward the Jewish people. One might wonder what it is doing in a journal that professes to have the interests of Jews in mind. This is not a question of free speech - Ollman's piece has appeared in many places and has gotten wide circulation - it is a question of the views and values one chooses to promote.

Michael Lerner has acted very questionably in choosing to promote this piece, and in consenting to - or at the very least not protesting - the publication of his own writing on anti-Israel and anti-Semitic web sites. As a rabbi who is supposedly committed to Jewish welfare, he has a responsibility not to act in any way that would cause harm to the Jewish people. Criticizing Israel is a fair game for anyone to play, and Lerner should, if he chooses, publish pieces critical of Israel. But that is not all he publishes. It is one thing to criticize; it is quite another to vilify.

Previous Next

Israeli-Palestinian Conflict:
Peace with Realism