Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Overcoming the Shame of the Holocaust

I have been working my way through Saul Bellow's collected essays, among which is a lecture Bellow gave in 1988 about being a Jewish writer in America. Bellow comments at length on a passage from the memoirs of Lionel Abel, which offers a view of Israel and the Holocaust that I can't remember ever seeing expressed in quite this way. Abel:
During the war I of course heard accounts of the Nazi terror. But I had no real revelation of what had occurred until sometime in 1946, more than a year after the German surrender, when I took my mother to a motion picture and we saw in a newsreel some details of the entrance of the American army into the concentration camp of Buchenwald. We witnessed the discovery of the mounds of dead bodies, the emaciated, wasted but still living prisoners who were now being liberated, and of the various means of extermination in the camp, the various gallows and also the buildings where gas was employed to kill the Nazis victims en masse.

It was an unforgettable sight on the screen, but as remarkable was what my mother said to me when we left the theater. She said, 'I don't think the Jews can ever get over the disgrace of this.' She said nothing about the moral disgrace of the German nation . . . only about a more than moral disgrace, and one incurred by the Jews. How did they ever get over it? By succeeding in emigrating to Palestine and setting up the state of Israel.
I too had seen newsreels of the camps. . . . My reaction to this was similar to that of Mrs. Abel -- a deeply troubling sense of disgrace or human demotion, as if by such afflictions the Jews had lost the respect of the rest of humankind, as if they might now be regarded as hopeless victims, incapable of honorable self-defense, and arising from this, probably the common instinctive revulsion or loathing of the extremities of suffering -- a sense of personal contamination and aversion. The world would see the dead with a pity that placed them at the margin of humanity.
Bellow disagreed with Abel about some of his interpretations of how these events played out, but he agrees about the essential thing:
What was certain was that the founders of Israel restored the lost respect of the Jews by their manliness. They removed the curse of the Holocaust, of the abasement of victimization, and for this the Jews of the Diaspora were grateful and repaid Israel with their loyalty and support.
I find this fascinating. On the one hand it makes perfect sense. World War II was a great drama on the theme of power -- the Nazis had the power and used it however they wanted, until they were torn down by the even greater power of the Russians and the Americans. It was an age of hard thinking, a time when pity was shoved aside by naked force. The kind perished and the strong survived. Of course many Jews felt redeemed from their victimhood only when Jews acquired real power of their own.

But this is also very troubling, for two reasons. First, it portrays the events in Palestine as a drama entirely about the Jews, a sort of Old Testament story in which only the Jews matter and everyone else is just scenery. Second, it summons up a vision of the world as a chicken coop or baboon troop in which the dominant animals beat up on those beneath them, who salve their emotional wounds by immediately finding some lesser animal they can beat up on on, and so on down the hierarchy until the bottom hens and baboons have to find some smaller organism (worm, mouse) on which to displace their own humiliation. There was much more to the founding of Israel than that; it was the realization of a 2000-year dream, and the achievement of an effort toward which many Jews had been working for two generations. The Holocaust showed to many Jews the importance of setting up a Jewish state somewhere to serve as a refuge should the pogroms begin again.

But the notion that military defeat is a moral humiliation that can only be redeemed through victory is deeply rooted in humanity, and we need to do what we can to banish it from our world.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

"There was much more to the founding of Israel than that; it was the realization of a 2000-year dream, and the achievement of an effort toward which many Jews had been working for two generations."

A dream of freedom and security, dreamed by those robbed of it, fulfilled by robbing others of it.

The Germans followed the same path of thought and action. Their various defeats to the armies of Napoleon instilled in them a sense of shame which drove them to try to compensate for it. Napoleon's defeat did little to salve their egos - they succeeded by coalition, reliant on others. But eventually the Franco-Prussian war turned the tables, and drove the French into their own anxiety. This helped lay the groundwork for the first World War, and once again the Germans were defeated and ashamed. This led to the rise of the Nazis and the second World War.

Defeated once again, it would only have been natural for the Germans to continue the cycle. But they were beaten so utterly, so severely and profoundly, that their spirit was largely broken. Occupied, effectively conquered by outside forces, they could do nothing but slide into a collective cultural depression, the effects of which linger on today. Much the same thing happened to Japan as well.

Since then, in both nations, every so often you see extremists agitating for a return to nationalism and militarism, but they are fringe elements who can gain no traction with the majority of the population. And with the larger concerns of the Cold War dominating the world's attention, what else would you expect?

Subsequently, a generation or two were born, grew up, and had their own children all without ever knowing a culture of nationalism and militarism. And there is now a strong tradition of resistance to such notions among those cultures - the Germans and the Japanse have become remarkably peaceable and agreeable peoples compared to their ancestors of just a century ago.

We've seen that the cycle can be broken. But so far, it's only been accomplished at a terrible price, and entirely by accident.

Israel may yet be a test case for if we can break the cycle of nationalistic violence with actual intent, and without terrible wars and crushing defeats. If they can find it within themselves to take responsibility for the suffering of the Palestines caused by their actions, and to make amends, we might yet see success. But if they simply ignore the injustice which they both profit from and perpetuate, eventually the Palestineans will be able to endure no more, and it will be yet another senseless bloodbath.