Donald Trump is the best friend the Jewish people ever had in American politics. He set off another firestorm when he declared last week:
Where has the Democratic Party gone? Where have they gone where they are defending these two people over the state of Israel? And I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.
Like many of the president’s utterance, this is crude, blunt, jarring, inaccurate on the surface but true in a deeper sense. I wish he had said it differently. I know any number of religious Jews who love Israel and still won’t vote for Trump, who are neither ignorant nor disloyal, but rather trapped in the framework of the 1940s. That was when Eleanor Roosevelt begged her husband to allow Jewish refugees from Hitler to come to the United States (he didn’t), and the grandparents of today’s evangelicals threatened to vote Republican if Roosevelt opened the door to persecuted European Jews. That was then. This is now.
Nonetheless the president is entirely correct, although I would have said it differently. Why are there self-hating Jews? In a 2013 review-essay for The American Interest I attempted to answer the question. Here are some excerpts:
Being Jewish is a condition that, to the extent it is taken at all seriously, is hard to contemplate with equanimity. One has to love it or hate it. One can accept citizenship in the gentile nations of the world, on the other hand, with a fatalistic shrug. Their origins are shrouded for the most part in prehistory; their citizens have no common memory of having been anything other than what they are now. They do not hate being what they are any more than fish hate being wet. Their nationality is their element, and so it is taken for granted. One hears rarely, if ever, of Russian, Italian, Malay or Peruvian self-hatred.
Not so the Jews, the only nation in the world that remembers having been summoned into being by a singular, supernatural event that transformed the enslaved descendants of a wandering Aramean into the chosen people of the Creator God. C.S. Lewis once wrote that one must consider Jesus to be either the Incarnate God or a lunatic; one might say similarly of Jews (other than Jesus) that they must think of themselves either as God’s chosen people or as presumptuous megalomaniacs. And if the first option isn’t true, how could one not hate, or at least disparage, them? Even when the predominantly secular Zionist movement set out to found a Jewish state that would make the Jews a nation like any other, it did so to the tune of an inadvertent but inescapably, idiosyncratically Jewish messianism.
Other nations, too, do not punctuate political debates by calling their opponents self-hating Slovaks or Portuguese. Google finds more than two million uses of the term “self-hating Jew” and only three for “self-hating Czech.” But no one hates the Czechs any more—not even the remnant of the 2.4 million ethnic Germans expelled from the country after World War II, for which then-Czech President Václav Havel apologized in 1991. Sudetenland irredentists persisted into the early 1990s before disappearing from German public life.
Not so the descendants of 700,000 or so Palestinians who left the Jewish side of the 1948 partition of Palestine. The raw feelings persist despite the fact that their own leaders were to blame for the refugee debacle in the first place, and despite the parallel expulsion of an equal number of Jews from Arab countries. Among all the population transfers at the end of World War II, the exchange of Arab Jews and Palestinian Arabs still occasions implacable, embittered hatred throughout the Muslim world, which comprises nearly a quarter of humanity. So intense is this hatred, and so great the number of people who bear it, that many non-Muslims, including most of the formerly colonial nations of the Third World, as well as their former colonial masters in Europe, appease the haters by hating Jews as well. Surrounded by so much hatred, some Jews are hard put to find a middle ground between a Zionism they do not embrace and a resigned belief that Jew-hatred is in some way justified. If that isn’t quite self-hatred, it’s the next worst thing.
Franz Rosenzweig, the great Jewish theologian of Lessing’s generation, diagnosed his countrymen’s obsession with Election more clearly than any contemporary writer. “Precisely through Christianity the idea of Election has gone out among the individual nations, and along with it the claim upon eternity that goes with Election”, he wrote. The European tribes, though, never satisfied themselves with the promise of eternal bliss in the next world. Instead, they wanted to be eternal in their own skins, to be a chosen nation like eternal Israel. The continued presence of Israel in their midst was therefore a constant reproach to the Gentile pretension to the status of chosen people. Lurking under Christian supersessionism was a deeper hatred borne of tribal envy. That is the Urquell, the primordial source, of Jew-hatred, and Jews who identified with the Election of the Germans in place of Israel became Jew-haters. Unlike Theodor Lessing, Rosenzweig was no Zionist at all; he thought the Jews should stay in Europe to fulfill their providential mission to “convert the inner pagan inside each Christian.” He died in 1929, before the futility of his hopes became evident. But Rosenzweig’s work still speaks to us: He explains why a billion and a third Muslims cannot abide the presence of six million Jews in their own historic homeland. Islam asserts that Jews and Christians rejected the prophecies that were given to them and corrupted their sacred texts, of which the Quran is supposedly the restored original. Islamic countries frequently have tolerated Jews as a second-class and often humiliated minority, but the idea of a powerful and prosperous Jewish state in land formerly part of the Dar al-Islam, and with its capital in Jerusalem, calls into question Islam’s claim to supersession.
Moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem was an historic act, not a piece of political symbolism. Irredentist Muslims who never accepted the existence of a Jewish state in the Holy Land consoled themselves with the idea that if the Jews didn’t have Jerusalem, their presence was temporary, and if the rest of the world didn’t accept Jerusalem as their capital, they really didn’t have it. That is why there was such ferocious opposition to the transfer. It had nothing to do with the “peace process” (a U.S. embassy in West Jerusalem has no bearing on Palestinian claims on East Jerusalem). The issue is the legitimacy of the Jewish state. Enlightened opinion across the world held that it was dangerous to debunk the obsession of a billion and half Muslims merely to do justice to a few million Jews. Only an outsider with contempt for conventional wisdom would have done the right thing, as Trump did. God bless him for that.
Some Jewish self-hatred takes the form of quiet assimilation. Other times it turns into obstreperous Messianic secularism. There are plenty of world-beating secular saviors on the loose, and a lot of them are Jewish. The tin-hat contingent sees a “Bolshevik-Jewish conspiracy,” or an arcane alliance between international bankers and leftist revolutionaries. In the hands of a Hitler, this sort of paranoia got millions of people murdered. Uniquely among the world’s religions, Judaism emphasizes human partnership with God and asks mortal man to elevate himself to the status of a co-Creator with God. Traditional Judaism also teaches humility: the central institution of Jewish life, the Sabbath (“cessation”), forbids any sort of creative action, including the use of fire and machinery, as testimony that the world is the Lord’s, not ours. See my PJ Media essay, “The Revolutionary Conservatism of the Jews.”
The balance between “majestic man,” who reaches for the stars, and “covenantal man,” who asks why the Lord takes notice of man, is not easy to achieve. When it goes wrong, we produce sectarian separatists on one hand and social justice warriors on the other. I came up from the Left, and I understand the mindset. Still, the Jews have managed over our 3,500-year history to contribute more to the general welfare of humanity relative to our numbers than any other people in history. Israel remains “the exemplar and paragon of a nation” (Rosenzweig) and an inspiration to all who look to the future with hope and determination rather than Nihilism and self-pity.