Sunday, August 21, 2011

"Join the club"

In a thread in which compromise seemed impossible, I (thank you, thank you very much) made it happen: it's been decided that we're going to retain the expression "Jewish self-hatred" to refer to that multifaceted phenomenon, but abandon its use as a term to describe (or, worse, be hurled at) individual Jews. Point being, there are many ways in which Jewish self-hatred expresses itself (from the classics - name-change, nose-change - to the "cringe," to the claim some "I'm-the-exception" Jews will make that they and they alone stand apart from those materialistic/warmongering/disgusting masses known as "the Jews"), so to scrap the term altogether makes it impossible to explain those phenomena. But in individual cases, the accusation is pointless-bordering-on-offensive, because it reads as being about telling someone their behavior fails to match up, in Jewiness, with their name or physical appearance. Given that a key part of anti-Semitism is not letting Jews define Jewish identity for themselves, it's a bit much to claim to be fighting anti-Semitism by telling those who don't identify strongly (or in one's preferred ways) as Jews that they're traitors to their true selves.

Also - and this can't be emphasized enough - telling someone he's a self-hating Jew will if anything encourage someone who already thinks he's telling-it-like-it-is to The Jews, all of whom (save him) lack the courage to tell it like it is about (typically) Israel. Case in point. Roger Cohen would obviously like nothing more than to hear from other Jews that he's a self-hating Jew. And given that he writes an opinion column for the New York Times, and allows comments, he's no doubt been called every name under the sun, so it's far from inconceivable that Cohen is, "to self-styled 'real Jews,' not Jewish enough, or even — join the club — a self-hating Jew."

Meanwhile, the actual irritating thing about Cohen's writing on Israel isn't that OMG horror of horrors someone named Cohen is a traitor to Our Kind and has dared to say that the Israeli government does some crappy things. It's that when Cohen writes about Israel, it's always in this cringe-inducing - yes! cringe-inducing - way, where it's obvious beyond doubt that all the man wants, all he wants commenters to affirm (and many always do), is that he's not like those other Jews, that he stands bravely alone and dares tell truths no other Jews will.

It's irritating, because if there are a handful of old-timer sorts who hurl "self-hating Jew" at anyone who thinks being a Jew means something other than 110% support of Israel, there are precisely a trillion zillion younger and more plugged-in Jews - Israeli and Diaspora - who also see Israel as fallible and speak up about it. Recognizing this would, alas, mean that Cohen is - wait for it - just like many other Jews after all, which isn't what he wants to hear.

Given the chunks of his own biography we get from his columns, especially this latest one, it's not all that surprising that Cohen would be on some level have been deeply impacted by the "whisper" (aka "cringing") phenomenon he denounces but apparently grew up with. Thus, even though I'm totally fine with someone named Cohen being a pro-Palestinian activist, becoming Pope for all I care, I do see the temptation to call Roger Cohen a self-hating Jew, simply because one gets the knock-you-over-the-head sense, from his writing, that what he hopes to achieve in criticizing Israel is some kind of official recognition that he's an exception. Some kind of "You're a Good Jew!" plaque. But as tempting as it is, I won't, because R.C. will interpret that as proof that The Jews can't handle his refusal to think the settlements were/are a fabulous idea. There's nothing to be gained from telling Roger Cohen that maybe he suffers from Jewish self-hatred and should have that checked out. There is, however, something to be gained from recognizing that this is a phenomenon, and knowing it when you see it.


Dan O. said...

I suppose that your dislike for first person narratives evidences a deep misanthropy (it's a pattern). You are that kind of person who exhibits human self-hatred, in the sense that when you speak as-a-person, you wish others to affirm what an exceptional person you are. And if an ordinary someone like me says that you're actually just a sarcastic misanthrope, all the better. Here's more proof of your super-humanity: you are a disingenuous punk.

Now we're both happy.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Any way you can try and be clever without being so nasty alongside?

Micha said...

It wasn't clever.

Dan O. said...

The political currency of Liberal Zionism is not valued in proportion to number of its adherents. We seem to lack identification with our part in the problem. I don't know why, and I'm hardly special for saying so. I suspect it's the general problem that complexity doesn't sell well. [Which is why rightist's message that J-Street is pro-Palestinian dominates over J-Street's requests to check its stated positions on its website.] Still, this is what Cohen is after, and he's right to be getting after it. We need energy despite complexity. But he's doing it in the wrong way.

I disagree with Cohen that liberal Zionism, as a position, is determined by anything about Jewish "character formed through history" - Cohen's character or anyone else's. Derivations of future behaviors, policies, and politics from "character formed through history" are arbitrary, and therefore nonsensical. It's as wrong the for the Liberal Zionist as it is for the ultra-Nationalist who feels his Jewish character developed in Soviet Russia determines his politics.

When one psychologizes one's politics, one opens oneself up to psychoanalytical critiques. The nature of such critiques, as was the psychologized politics critiqued, are arbitrary.

Telling a story through first-person narrative is one thing (duh). But when Cohen says, "The lesson is clear: Jews, with their history, cannot become the systematic oppressors of another people.," he is no longer telling a story - he's jumped from narrative to imperative. It's a non sequitur. {As an aside, although Cohen does this, Benedikt is careful not to. Among all her faults, she understands the difference between narrative and apology.)

What Phoebe does is take (bad) psychologized politics, and launches an arbitrary attack (also bad). There was no value in doing it, and nothing at all to be gained by, "recognizing that this is a phenomenon, and knowing it when you see it."

It took no cleverness for me to plug 'n chug and play along. (And Phoebe's post, like my response, took no cleverness, only bile). I don't like having words put in my mouth, as if I agreed to be made a party to this post. I mean, either Phoebe expected my response, thinks me stupid, or doesn't give a rat's ass. (If I had to guess, it's at least two of the three.) Either way, it was rude, and I was rude back.

I was under the impression that we agreed to treat self-hatred to the pile of concepts that include penis-envy. Maybe they have currency in abstract academic discussions, and maybe (though I doubt it) in the relationship between a person and her psychoanalyst. But they are mere slurs when directed at a particular person.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I did not say it makes sense to call Roger Cohen or anyone else for that matter a self-hating Jew. My point was merely that I think Cohen is misinterpreting why he is sometimes seen as fitting the bill. He thinks it's because he dares criticize the settlements (and this is not me psychoanalyzing him, but right there in his article), whereas I think it's because in his Israel articles, he presents himself as a heroic exception Jew.

Anyway, I'm always happy to have commenters who disagree with me. But please keep blood-pressure low, nastiness to a minimum. Commenters who think that responding angrily is just playing along with how it goes here have misread the tone and purpose of this blog. In this case, I'm not sure your political views on this issue are terribly different from mine, so if the comments remain nasty and I do delete, you can rest assured it wasn't out of fear of dissent.

Dan O. said...

So, to sum, Roger Cohen misinterprets why he is called a self-hating Jew through exhibiting self-hatred. That's what I read. Can that be right?

If you agree with me that psychological notions of identity and character just don't justify one's politics, and that attendant narcissism doesn't glorify them, why imply a like attack? It's as counterproductive to imply as it is to do.

I mean, you don't know the contents of his inbox over the years. Maybe it's been the same or worse as this:

Clearly, Cohen doesn't have Goldberg's chops. But, I still don't get it.

Are you saying that while you don't condone calling Cohen a self-hating Jew, you sympathize with those who do? Is that like being against the death penalty, but sympathizing with the family of the victim who wants the murderer dead? I get that. But what one sympathizes with is their anger and loss, not the motive for blood vengeance. Likewise in this case, one could share the frustration of those who make charges of self-hatred, but lack the motive to smear. I believe your last paragraph went well over that line.

I'm sorry for the rudeness, but I really did read the post as snark, as mocking the so-called compromise, and I'm still not clear it wasn't.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I know the kind of arguments you mean - the ones Goldberg mentions - and don't doubt Roger Cohen gets those as well. I've even been the recipient of things along these lines. Everyone Jewish who writes on Jewish matters will occasionally get the crazies who think a "real Jew" favors a Greater Israel and thinks intermarriage is basically Nazism. It happens. My point was that there's a not-so-ridiculous reason Cohen's writing elicits that response, and he's only addressing the more-ridiculous reason.

As for snark, no, I really did mean that I don't think there's any point calling Roger Cohen a self-hating Jew, even if there are not-insane reasons - reasons I sympathize with - that his writing would inspire that accusation. I don't agree with you that this accusation is somehow massively damaging to recipients of it, but I see how if many using it intend it as a slur, that's reason enough not to use it. That, and the other reason I mention, namely that the accused will if anything take pride in getting that accusation. I know that on the occasions I've been a recipient of that kind of accusation, I have felt my own sanity affirmed, and have not had the intended response, namely to question the authenticity of my Jewishness.

eamonnmcdonagh said...

Phoebe, cracking stuff.

On a more trivial and unjustifiable note; despite the weaknesses you ascribe to it, I find calling people like RC "self-loving Jews" to be a good way of annoying them and not entirely divorced from reality. Some of the the ones I've met in real life positively glow with self regard when they start to intone "As a Jew...

Dan O. said...

"It happens."

Really? I had no idea.

Look, I don't really care about Cohen. I don't care about anyone's authenticity at all. (I care mine and others' commitments, but that's totally different.) People change all the time, thank God, and psychological straight-jackets are stupid and unrealistic. I'm with Frankfurt - authenticity is bullshit.

I do care about sympathy being expressed for the views of people who make threats, and I think you should too.

Brian Goldfarb said...

Re Eamonn's comment, he calls to mind a comment by Anthony Julius at an EngageOnline meeting. He said that people like RC and many others are far from self-hating Jews; on the contrary, they love themselves. It's their parents they hate.

And Eamonn further makes the point about those who attempt to make their left-wing (Nick Cohen's "progressives") pals think the better of them: they regularly support anti-Zionist positions by starting their comments (ex- or implicitly) "as as Jew,...", as though makes _others_ anti-Zionist assertions alright. After all, Jews support it.

This is what Roger Cohen is aiming at.