The Self-Hate Hustle

Why the argument between conservative and progressive Jews over Israel sounds a lot like the African-American 'house negro' debate.

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Getty Images

Accusations of ethnic disloyalty have long been a feature of the debate between liberal and conservative Jews over the actions of Israel. In the blogosphere, conservative Jews have a term for a group of prominent liberal Jewish bloggers who have been critical of Israel’s behavior in the region: the “Juicebox Mafia.” Two weeks ago, Jamie Kirchick, a blogger for Commentary and The New Republic, wrote that the “Juicebox Mafia crew” was motivated by “a visceral hatred” of its “Jewish heritage,” prompting Matthew Yglesias to assert his love of knishes and Woody Allen. Commentary has since taken the post down, but Google has recorded it for posterity.

It’s not surprising that this kind of uncensored Jewish identity politics has become part of the argument over Israel in the blogosphere. A few weeks ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sounded exactly like a right-wing Jewish blogger when he called David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel “self-hating Jews” for toeing the administration line on freezing Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories. If this kind of commentary isn’t beyond the Israeli prime minister, why would it be in the blogosphere, where vicious bluster is a central part of our Internet traditions?

What makes this kind of argument particularly interesting, however, is how much it resembles intraracial arguments between black folks about loyalty and authenticity. In the eyes of those who support all of Israel’s actions uncritically, the “Juicebox Mafia” are “House Jews”: Jews whose positions on Israel are motivated by their internalizing long-standing anti-Semitic myths and identifying with those who seek to oppress the Jewish people. These Jewish conservatives are, ironically enough, embracing the same kind of bare-knuckle identity politics as the blacks they love to hate.

The problem is that the arguments of those who envision themselves as “Field Jews”—those who like to think they have the best interests of the community in mind—implicate themselves with their arguments. Time columnist Joe Klein ignited a firestorm last year when he implied that neoconservative Jews had “divided loyalties” in pushing for war with Iraq and Iran in order to make Israel safer; Klein’s critics said he had played into the most vicious stereotypes about Jewish manipulation and influence. But the comments made by Netanyahu and Kirchick prove Klein correct. If one’s opinion on Israel’s actions should depend on, or be influenced by, one’s Jewishness, then by definition those who view their support for Israel through such a prism have divided loyalties. Black folks fighting for civil rights were motivated by ethnic solidarity—but their actions were ultimately in the interest of strengthening the United States as a country. America and Israel are different nations, so it is axiomatic that there will be times when their interests are at odds.

There’s nothing actually wrong with having divided loyalties—if that means that being Jewish means that Israel matters more to you than America. This is part of the game in a nation made up of immigrants—the politics of affiliated nations matter. It’s part of the double standard shouldered by ethnic and religious minorities that such behavior is seen as somehow sinister. I’ll cop to caring about Israel more because I’m Jewish—but that doesn’t mean I’ll evaluate its actions uncritically out of blind loyalty. In fact, in most cases it’s precisely because liberal Jewish bloggers care about Israel that they’re critical of its actions: They see Israel’s behavior in the region, particularly its treatment of the Palestinians, as harming Israel’s long-term interests.

That’s where the accusations of self-hatred break down entirely. As Randall Kennedy writes in his 2008 book Sellout, there should be a high threshold for accusations of racial betrayal. Accusations of selling out should be reserved for those who actively work against the interests of the community—not those who simply disagree about what is in the group’s best interest. Those who accuse Jewish liberals of self-hatred aren’t offering insight. They most resemble what Glenn Loury calls those “self-appointed guardians of racial virtue” in the black community who enforce a dangerous and enervating form of “black political correctness.” Like black partisans who accuse any conservative black intellectual of being a sellout, the Juicebox Mafia’s detractors are simply trying to shut down debate over Israel’s actions, which is hardly in the long-term interest of Israel or the Jewish community in the Diaspora.

Kennedy concludes that being able to punish the most egregious forms of ethnic betrayal is necessary to any group—particularly groups, like blacks and Jews, that have a history of discrimination and oppression. But he cautions that “anyone who indicts another for selling out should be held responsible for that accusation. If it is found to be unwarranted, the accuser should be made to feel at least some of the pain that his or her accusation has wrongly inflicted on an unsuspecting target.” The self-hating label can be useful in maintaining group solidarity—instead of groupthink—only when it is deployed against those who are consciously trying to hurt the community, and there should be serious social consequences within the group for those who make unfounded accusations of ethnic betrayal.