Opinion // The Victimhood Olympics
Tragedy shouldn’t be the defining feature of modern Judaism.
By Gershom Gorenberg
On a recent visit to America, I found myself one Shabbat morning in a large suburban shul. During the Torah service, after one of the aliyot, the rabbi gave a brief talk. He started by noting that it was the anniversary of Kristallnacht and ended by stressing the importance of the Holocaust to “our identity.” A couple of aliyot later, he spoke again, this time to point out that it was the first yahrzeit of a terrorist attack in Jerusalem.
To the best of my memory, he made no effort to tie either event to the week’s Torah portion. (It being Shabbat, I wasn’t taking notes.) So in Hebrew we heard the Book of Genesis, and in English, Jewish victimhood—with an implicit message that the terrorist attack in 2014 was a direct continuation of 1938. Ideally, when listening to the Torah being read, you should feel as if it’s in the present tense. In this case, Jewish victimhood—or vicarious victimhood—was as immediate, if not more so.
The synagogue happened to be Orthodox, but I could have heard the same kind of message in other denominations. I remember my son’s account of his visit with an interfaith youth delegation to a Conservative synagogue in New York. Not being used to American shuls, he asked why there was an Israeli flag in the sanctuary. “The Holocaust is very close to our hearts,” the staffer acting as guide replied.
Much as that’s a non-sequitur, it reflects a very wide tendency to link Israel, supposedly on the edge of destruction, with the Holocaust. It’s not an entirely diasporic train of thought. Israel has a prime minister who seems permanently stuck at Kristallnacht with genocide looming. The head of the Knesset Law Committee, Nissan Slomiansky of the right-wing Jewish Home party, described a European Union decision to label products from settlements as nearly the same as requiring Jews to wear yellow stars.
The experience that Shabbat morning made me think back to the late philosopher David Hartman’s classic essay, “Auschwitz or Sinai?” Hartman wrote that it’s “destructive to make the Holocaust the dominant organizing category of modern Jewish history.” It’s “childish and often vulgar to attempt to demonstrate how the Jewish people’s suffering is unique in history,” he said. Implicitly rejecting fellow philosopher Emil Fackenheim’s idea of a “commanding voice of Auschwitz,” Hartman insisted on the commanding voice of Sinai.
Hartman’s wisdom has unfortunately not made enough of an impact. Vicarious victimhood has become all too accepted as the “organizing category ” of 21st-century Jewish identity. There are more problems with that than I can list on this page, but here are a few.
First, the victimhood thing reflects a refusal to see the transformation of the Jewish condition. The vast majority of Jews today live either in North America, a diaspora home qualitatively different from any other in Jewish history, or in a sovereign Jewish state capable of defending itself. Some appreciation, some joy, is in order. Our mood should be borrowed from Pesach, not from Tisha B’Av.
Moreover, to see the situation of Jews in Israel as somehow similar to that of Jews in Europe in 1938 is fundamentally anti- Zionist: It ignores the revolution that Israel has wrought, taking us from powerlessness to the responsibilities of sovereignty.
Lest I be misunderstood, I’m not objecting to the memory of oppression. The Torah itself constantly tells us to remember being slaves in Egypt—but as the prelude to the Exodus and reaching Sinai. Having been oppressed in the past is important because it sharpens our responsibilities in the present.
Admittedly, it’s hard to avoid laying claim to victim status today. In a political atmosphere that treats victimhood as righteousness, it’s easy to be swept into the victimhood Olympics. Thus, the response of politically conservative Jews to any criticism of Israel often comes down to “But, the Holocaust.” At the other end of the spectrum are Jews whose anti- Zionism stems from a basic resentment of Israel for denying them the status of being oppressed.
A very good answer to seeing victimhood as moral superiority was given by the Jewish radical Saul Alinsky. He spent his life organizing the poor. Yet he told an interviewer, “I do not glorify the poor. I do not think that people are specially just or charitable or noble because they’re unemployed and live in crummy housing and. . . feel the weight of every indignity that society can throw at them.” He believed that people should have power over their own lives because they were human beings, not because they were saints.
To be more precise: Being a victim doesn’t make you good or evil; it makes you the object of someone else’s evil. To change that, you need to be empowered, and once you have power, what makes you morally better or worse is what you do with it.
The Torah, wrote Hartman, is “the antithesis of the moral narcissism that can result from suffering and viewing oneself as a victim.” The Torah tells us to remember being oppressed in Egypt so it can demand of us not to oppress the stranger, and not to have different sets of laws for people who are like us and for people who aren’t. I hope that when the rabbi brought up Kristallnacht during the Torah reading, he meant it to be understood in this way.
Gershom Gorenberg is the author most recently of The Unmaking of Israel. He lives in Jerusalem