Once a Jew Always a Jew – Jewish Self-Hate

always a Jew
Ryan Bellerose during his “week as a Jew”. Used with permission.

Ryan Bellerose, Meti Canadian, put on a kippa for a week and saw what it is like to walk around town as if he was an easily identifiable Jew. In contrast, I left Toronto in 1970 to go to university in Ottawa, leaving my Jewish neighbourhood behind and seeing myself as a citizen of the world first, and Jew second or third or last. Suddenly, as I read Ryan’s article in counterpoint to my experience upon leaving home, I was struck with an idea about one factor that may contribute toward the making of the self-hating Jew. Of course, I have not cracked the phenomenon, but I would like to add my thoughts to the general attempt to understand it.

Ryan wrote about the deep Jew-hatred he experienced among many of those he encountered during that week. He was careful to behave himself (and restraint is not one of his natural qualities) because he recognized that with a kippa on his head he was representing all of us Jews.

I did not feel myself to be representing anybody but myself. I had divested myself of my Jewishness as something inconsequential. I did not deny or try to hide my ethnic origin but I was not interested in it.

With no Star of David around my neck, no Jewish first or last name to give me away, I was, in any case, known to be a Jew by those who interacted with me for any length of time and yet unidentified in chance encounters. In the latter instances I was sometimes sideswiped by unexpected snide remarks about Jews. The resulting scratches in my skin quickly faded away at first. After all, it was not personal. But after sufficient repetitions, the scratches gradually grew deep enough to leave a lasting impression.

After several months, some of those I had considered friends could apparently no longer contain their antisemitism. I was the target of deliberate condemnation specifically because I was a Jew; here are two examples of things said to me in group situations where the entire group remained silent: “You Jews are the cause of all the world’s problems”; and “I’ll type your essays for free; I’m not a Jew!” (I guess they assumed my parents were paying my way through university as theirs apparently were).

always a Jew
Photo of me in Ottawa. My last name then was Burns.

An Arab “friend”, deciding it was time for me to be educated, invited me to attend a lecture with him. The speaker, a British somebody or other, talked about Palestine and the illegality of the entire State of Israel. He said the Jews had no right to live there and, while I am not sure he actually said it this way, I felt like he was looking at me when he made it clear that the place for us Jews was at the bottom of the Mediterranean. When I sought my friend’s eyes, my shock and incredulity most certainly evident, he smiled at me like a Cheshire Cat.

I realized that I had been, all along, an unwitting and unintentional ambassador for the Jews. Like it or not, other people see me as Jew first and human being second or third or last. So if I cannot escape my Jewishness, I need to define the kind of Jew I want to be. That includes mulling over the impact of the very fact that I cannot escape being a Jew any more than a Black can escape being Black or an Asian Asian and that, as such, I am a representative of my people in the outside world. I think this can be a heavy load to carry.

It is a heavy load to carry if one has not clarified the nature of one’s identity as a Jew and sense of belonging to the tribe. Far easier to put the sack down and just try to blend into the majority around. Then again, isn’t that what I had essentially done until others showed me that once a Jew always a Jew? Ryan took off his kippa and went back to being non-Jew. The Jew knows no such relief, even if he or she converts to another religion.

That leaves three options: (1) fully embrace one’s Jewishness, in any of a myriad of available ways; (2) fully reject one’s Jewishness, something that finds expression in the various forms and degrees of self-hate; or (3) continue to work at assimilating into the general population around you. Regardless of which option one chooses, he or she will always represent The Jewish People in the eyes of those outside our community. (Don’t you just hate that fact?)

This post was originally published on Israel Diaries.

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