The New Jewish Self-Hatred
Suddenly, hate crimes are coming with a surprising, punch-to-the-solar-plexus twist.
In September, according to police, Ivaylo Ivanov defaced synagogues and apartment buildings on his quiet Brooklyn Heights street with swastikas. And he seemed to be preparing to do even more, presumably targeting Jews with the pipe bombs, crossbow and sniper rifle that were discovered in his apartment earlier this month. The armaments were found alongside a flier bearing a large swastika saying “Kill All Jews. Israel Land of Pigs, Die, Die, Die.”
Ivanov, according to his lawyer, is Jewish.
In October, George Washington University freshman Sarah Marshak reported that five swastikas had been drawn on her dorm room door over eight days. Another swastika was drawn on another Jewish student’s door, and on a fence near a university hospital. The subsequent investigation revealed that Marshak, who is Jewish, was responsible for most of them.
A few years ago a three-foot-tall swastika and the words “Die Jews” were painted on a university building at Northwestern University. Turns out that there, too, a Jewish student was the culprit.
In September, neo-Nazi Israelis from Petach Tikvah were arrested for assault and for vandalizing a synagogue. And in December, one of those arrested in December’s Q train attack here on Jewish subway riders returning from a Chanukah celebration, Joseph Jirovic, is Jewish, according to his attorney.
And then there is chess great Bobby Fischer, who died earlier this month. Known more in recent decades for his anti-Semitic and anti-American vitriol than for checkmates, Fischer, who grew up in Brooklyn, was born to a Jewish mother and according to some, also had a Jewish biological father.
What happened to old-fashioned Jewish self-denigration, the kind limited to nose jobs and name changes?
Isn’t it enough that those of us who take inordinate pride in the “out” Jews who make it big have had to suffer Ashley Tisdale’s newly ethnically neutered nose?
Tisdale, whose role in the kiddie mega-hit “High School Musical” has made her a huge star, recently had nose surgery to correct a deviated septum, she says. But it’s also changed her looks from vaguely young-Barbra Streisand-cute to post-rhinoplasty Jennifer Grey-generic.
Of course, crimes against Jewish ethnic pride, like nose jobs, aren’t in the same category as the literal crimes listed above. And while the cultural prominence of nose jobs may rise and fall like bumps on a proboscis, are these more serious acts on the rise?
“Jewish self-hatred is alive, well and possibly reawakened,” says writer and cultural critic Daphne Merkin. “We’re far enough away from the Holocaust that a lot of primal identification with historical events has been muted.”
Merkin says that the anti-Semitism enacted by Jews reflects what is going on in society at large.
“Extreme acts are symbolic of certain social undercurrents. I wouldn’t be surprised, though I don’t want to sound as if I think I’m prescient, if this increases,” she says. “Everyone writes about rising anti-Semitism. The lid on genteel anti-Semitism is being taken off more than it’s been.”
According to therapist Esther Perel, the people who act out in this way are simply on the extreme end of a spectrum on which we all exist.
“It’s a gradation, which goes from self-hatred to ambivalence,” says Perel, who practices in Manhattan, and lectures on identity and relationship issues. “All members of minorities grapple with a certain ambivalence about their group belonging. When your group is devalued, when it is not ‘the norm,’ you can find yourself devaluing those very parts of yourself.”
So is this Jewish anti-Semitism an extreme form of internalized anti-Jewishness absorbed from the culture at large, the way some say that skin bleaching and hair straightening among African-Americans is their internalized racism?
Perel says so, though the line between acceptable levels of ambivalence and rejection, and pathological behavior, obviously depend on how far it’s taken.
“It’s always a matter of the rigidity, obsessiveness and psychic energy associated with it,” Perel says.
“For some people cultural or religious belonging becomes the focus of their self-rejection,” she says. They feel, “‘If I can extricate from that part of myself, I can redeem myself. I can project all these characteristics on others, and I’m cleansed from all these evils or ills or traits.’
“Not only do you profoundly reject these parts of yourself but you also attribute them to others you are repudiating. Sometimes you even deny that you’re part of them to others.”
Marshak, the GWU freshman, wasn’t the only one to draw swastikas on her campus. Someone who was later barred from campus but never publicly identified, had also done it. Though she denied having painted any of the hate symbols, when confronted with security video she admitted to painting several, but maintained it was because university officials were not responding appropriately to the first ones.
Some interviewed by The Jewish Week made a distinction between cases like Marshak’s and more violent expressions like those of the Israeli neo-Nazis, and Ivanov’s. After being arrested Jan. 20, Ivanov pleaded not guilty.
There have been dozens of cases like Marshak’s in the last few years, says Sander Gilman, distinguished professor of the liberal arts and sciences at Emory University. “It’s the self-creation of victim status,” he says.
People who do this, like Marshak, “need to see oneself as a victim equivalent to other victims.
“In a college culture, victimization is the common coin of the realm, where people think about victims, and Jews are both the ultimate victim and yet in America not thought to be real victims,” says Gilman, who also authored “Jewish Self-Hatred” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986).
He says that it reflects a lessening of true anti-Semitism in society. “The rarer the anti-Semitism, the more often this occurs,” Gilman says, because of reliance among some Jews on status as a victim for their identification.
There is a more subtle kind of a Jewish attack on other Jews as well, according to Dr. Samuel Klagsbrun, a psychiatrist and executive medical director at Four Winds Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in Katonah.
A Jewish man who he knew through a friend would look for ways to hurt Jewish causes, says Klagsbrun. “He wasn’t as blatant as the swastika types, but tried to find ways to vilify the Jewish community by spreading rumors, telling lies. He tried to undo a major contribution some family was going to make to a Jewish cause.
“This person was much more educated and subtle than these others. It’s much more insidious. He hated being seen as outside their major community, the Christian community. He was reasonably successful in business, had money, would mingle in society and basically hid the fact that he was Jewish.”
Those who take more violent anti-Semitic steps, like Ivanov, share some of the same motivation, but take it in a different direction.
“Their identity is really made up of hatred and a need to lash out against that part of them which makes them feel other, different. They have to kill it,” said Klagsbrun.
In general, he says, Jews who behave in self-hating ways were raised in families that didn’t identify as Jewish in a positive way, “so they grew up in an environment where not wanting to be Jewish was routine, just part of the culture.”
Rabbi Serge Lippe, spiritual leader of Brooklyn Heights Synagogue, which was one of the two defaced by Ivanov’s swastikas, says that he isn’t sure that the alleged criminal’s claim of being Jewish isn’t just a smokescreen.
“Whether or not this guy has a Jewish parent, I would be very surprised to find that this person had any Jewish upbringing,” he says. “If indeed he has some sort of Jewish heritage, it’s sad that it’s clearly such a conflicted and angry one.”
But the truth is, Rabbi Lippe says, “I’m more concerned about his ability to get a hold of explosives and guns than I am the question of whether or not he is on any level Jewish.”