Latter Day Weiningers

“Dietrich Eckart once told me that in all his life he had known just one good Jew:  Otto Weininger, who killed himself on the day when he realized that the Jew lives upon the decay of peoples” – Adolf Hitler

There is a must-read post at Normblog by Shalom Lappin, on the not-so recent phenomenon of the psychologisers of the Jewish psyche:

In the past few years an interesting mode of discourse has gained currency among some critics of Israel. It consists in characterizing most Israelis, and the Jews who are concerned about Israel’s continued existence, as suffering from a deep collective psycho-pathology that conditions them to commit or to endorse systematic brutalization of the Palestinians. It takes Israel and its supporters to be acting out the effects of a long term historical trauma that reached its climax in the Holocaust. They are deflecting the intense anger, helplessness and shame accumulated over centuries of persecution in Europe on to innocent Arab victims in Israel/Palestine. These victims are surrogates for the real but no longer accessible oppressors of the Jews. The analogy driving this discourse is that of the abused child who grows into an abusive adult, imposing his childhood experiences of violence on members of his family and his adult environment.

Lappin’s critique of of  these cod-psychologisers of Jews is broad ranging, and makes an interested comparison to the once-popular and hugely influentual work by the Austrian philosopher of Jewish heritage, Otto Weininger. The article is worth reading in full, but here is the extract that deals with Weininger:

Using group psychological profiling to attribute to Jews an unnatural and diseased nature is not new. In 1901 Otto Weininger published Sex and Character in Vienna (an anonymous English translation appeared in 1906, published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York). In this book, Weininger contrasts masculine and feminine character types. He identifies men with reason, virtue, heroism, ego, cultural creativity (genius) and social order. The female is weak, dependent, cowardly, amoral, lacking in ego, driven by sexual passion, incapable of genuine creativity, and subversive of order. Weininger cites a variety of biological and medical ‘facts’ to argue for his description of male and female typologies. He then distinguishes between ‘Aryan’ and Jewish characters, claiming that the Aryans instantiate male properties, while the Jews are largely feminine in nature.

Weininger wrote in turn of the century Vienna, when pseudo-scientific theories of race and sex were invoked to support racist anthropological views and misogynist attitudes towards women. These cultural themes defined the context in which Weininger formulated his ideas. They also provided the basis for Nazi policies in the following decades. However, it is important to distinguish carefully between some of these themes and Weininger’s enterprise. While there are clear racist elements in his book, he is careful to insist that he is not characterizing Jews as a racial entity, but as an idealized psychological type, instantiated to a greater or lesser degree by actual Jews. He also clearly states that he opposes any attempt to persecute or disenfranchise Jews. He holds out the prospect of escape from their respective natures to both individual women and Jews. For women this requires adopting male values and forms of behaviour. Jews can redeem themselves from their type by converting to Christianity and embracing Aryan culture. Weininger himself had adopted Lutheranism. He identified with Protestantism, rather than Catholicism, because of a strong admiration for Kant and the reliance on individual conscience in achieving moral responsibility.

It is tempting to dismiss Weininger as a crackpot (Freud, who met him briefly, described him as ‘highly gifted but sexually deranged’). He committed suicide at the age of 23, two years after the publication of Sex and Character, and became a romantic cult figure. In fact, his book had a significant impact on intellectual life in Vienna and abroad. Prominent cultural figures hailed it as a work of genius. So, for example, Karl Kraus, the noted Viennese satirist, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, the influential Austrian philosopher, expressed great admiration for Weininger’s work. Like him, they were both converted Jews. Weininger’s view of Jews resonated widely through Austrian literary society.

Weininger was an early therapist to the Jews. There are, however, fundamental differences between his project and that of the latter-day therapists: he regarded Jews and Judaism as a disease to be escaped; they, in general, do not, although they frequently slide into such a view of Israel. Some even present themselves as the guardians of ‘true’ Jewish values in the face of Zionist corruption. The traits that Weininger stigmatizes in his caricature of a Jewish cultural type are largely disjoint from those that the contemporary therapists select for opprobrium. Weininger states that the origins of the Jewish type are a mystery to him. By contrast the contemporary therapists explain negative collective Jewish features as the result of group trauma.

But important analogies do exist between Weininger’s writings on Jews and the psychologizing discourse that has emerged in recent years. In both cases traditional anti-Jewish prejudices are effectively legitimized through a pseudo-scientific exercise in collective psychological portraiture. Weininger and the latter-day therapists both offer an exit from group stigma through recognition of the pathology that provokes it, and the adoption of an alternative set of cultural commitments. For the Jews among the therapists, this is a route out of quarantine into the mainstream of civilized opinion. No wonder, then, that it should prove to be attractive in the face of a hostile social environment.

Read the lot.