Born in Romania in 1907, Iosif Mendel Hechter wrote novels, newspaper articles, and plays under the decidedly less Jewish-sounding name Mihail Sebastian. His autobiographical novel For Two-Thousand Years, published in 1934 and only recently translated into English, tells the story of Iosef, a student at Bucharest University, where it is difficult for a Jew to make it through a lecture without being slapped or punched by fellow students. Dara Horn writes in her review:
The term “self-hating Jew” has by now lost nearly all of its descriptive value, and when one reads For Two-Thousand Years, one sees why. Despite our own era’s ample ranks of, say, Jews who cheer for anti-Semitic murderers, the psychology of someone like Sebastian or his narrator is so far beyond anything seen in our lifetimes that For Two-Thousand Years, warts and all, is eminently worth reading. As a novel, it’s flawed to the point of near-failure, with a rambling structure, an utterly irrelevant middle section, and basically no plot. But as a psychological case study, it’s an absolute shocker that will linger in your mind for years to come. It’s also beautifully observed and brimming with insight, not a word of which feels even slightly contrived. . . .
What animates the book . . . is how Iosef almost unconsciously translates [the constant physical and verbal] attacks, and the many humiliations that continue into his adult life, into self-flagellation. “I will never be sufficiently tough with myself,” he berates himself after another beating, “will never strike myself hard enough.” Yes, you read that correctly. . . . If the self-loathing here weren’t clear enough, Iosef later becomes blunter still: “I’d like to hate myself, without excuses or forgiveness. I’d like to be an anti-Semite for five minutes.”
At no point in his endless ruminations does Iosef question his internalized critiques of himself as weak-willed, impure, overly emotional or, paradoxically, overly rational. The fact that his self-image is formed from caricatures straight out of a 2,000-year-old anti-Semitic playbook is acknowledged only in the book’s title—which is, in fact, the point. Iosef is a victim of anti-Semitism less because of how anti-Semites have injured his body than because of how they have scarred his soul. They have told him what Jews are, and he believes them.