It was Peretz Smolenskin (1842-1885), an early Zionist thinker, who asserted that ant-Semitism is a direct consequence of the absence of Jewish self-respect. If Jews do not respect themselves, gentiles will not respect them either.
Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin of Volozhin, known as the Netziv (1816-1893), shares a similar view. In his view assimilation is the greatest enemy of the Jewish people. Assimilation is symptomatic of Jews who have lost self-respect. It is a theme that recurs in his biblical commentaries. Jews must fight against surrendering Jewish identity to joining the majority culture.
For instance, in his Ha’amek Davar, he explicates the blessings of Bil’am (Numbers 23:21-24) by observing: “When other nations go into exile and assimilate into the nation that exiled them, they are treated with more love and respect than they were shown when they lived as a separate people. This is not the case with the Jews: When they live in isolation and do not intermingle with their host nation, they are able to lead quiet lives and they are respected by the Gentiles. It is written, ‘And all people of the earth shall see that thou art called by the name of the Lord’ (Deuteronomy 28:10); no one will compete with us. When Jews assimilate, the gentiles lose their respect for them and do not even regard them as human beings.”
The challenge of Jewish life today is to live lives committed to Jewish values and traditions and to honor those commitments proudly. No one will respect those who do not respect themselves.