Victims are not sacrifices

There is a danger that Palestinian subjectivity, Jewish diasporic experience, the use of psychoanalysis and our future options are narrowed by this challenging meditation on Isaac’s sacrifice, argues a British colleague.
Stephen Frosh
10 November 2009

The unspoken sub-text for Uri Hadar’s elegant, emotive and disturbing piece is Primo Levi’s 1982 comment, in the wake of the Sabra and Shatilla massacres, that ‘Everybody is somebody’s Jew. And today the Palestinians are the Jews of the Israelis.’ For many Jews, reading this through the lens of their idealisation of Levi as the most principled writer about the Holocaust, the resonance was unbearable. For those who could think about it and not simply discard Levi as a lost soul, too damaged by the Nazis to know his own mind, the question was, ‘What have we done?’ After Sabra and Shatilla, the relative innocence of those of us who had grown up with heroic tales of Zionism was shattered, and questions of responsibility, of guilt, even of reparation were raised. Over time, this set of questions has been obscured or repressed, then uncovered, then repressed again, in a dynamic that in many ways reveals the potency of Uri’s assertion that what is being enacted is an unconscious transmission of victimhood, in which one people is being made to stand in for another. This assaults a self-image of Jews as ethical, and a religious image of Jews and Judaism as a supposed ‘light to the nations’. As Uri suggests, the ‘need to conceive of oneself as good and just’ results in a terrible twisting of reality in the face of events.

I have some contradictory responses to Uri’s paper, which is a powerful examination of a kind of transgenerational, transpersonal mode of transmission in which victimhood, scapegoating and sacrifice are pushed from one group to another, so seeding murderous aggression and oppression. For Uri, a Jewish sacrificial history is the source of the treatment of Palestinians: he calls it ‘the itinerary for the new korban’ and lists it as ‘first exile’ - the Naqba - ‘then ghettos’ –Gaza - ‘then holocaust’. ‘Surely a full-blown Palestinian holocaust is part of the unconscious itinerary,’ he writes, taking the ‘process of sacrifice conversion’ as necessary to the maintenance of Israeli statehood, and running this together with the history of the Jews as victims, as sacrifices. The destruction of so many Jews in the Holocaust and then in the struggle to found the State has hardened Israel away from compassion for its own people as well as for those it sees as its enemies; the ovens that burnt the victims of the Holocaust become the furnace that melts ‘different metals’ to ‘form a new, particularly hard, homogeneous metal.’ Loss is read as sacrifice for the sake of something else - the survival of the people, the creation of the State - and in an economy of despair this also requires a different sacrificial object, a dehumanised other (the lamb) in place of the beloved son. This substitution, new sacrifice for old, is being enacted in Israel-Palestine along the same lines that such mental substitutions (displacements, condensations) are found in dreams and nightmares, in the unconscious of any individual. Palestinians thus become not so much the hated human other as the dispensable non-human, the animal which can be blithely killed because it stands in the place of the sacrificed. No longer the descendents themselves of Abraham and hence a brother-group to the Jews, Palestinians lose their stake in humanity. 

My response to this is akin to the one generated by Levi’s original comment – ‘What have we done? What terrible thing have we become?’ But I am also put off by what Uri does in the paper, by its determinism, which, however seemingly justified it might be by the appalling realities of what is happening in Israel-Palestine, occludes those invitations to openness that reside both in Palestinian agency and, ironically, in Jewish life itself. Something has gone awry here, I think, or feel; something is of course awry in reality, in the obfuscations and denials with which murderous aggression is covered up, and in that aggression itself; but I also feel there to be something awry in the perspective that Uri takes, that leaves me troubled and unsure, despite wanting to agree with him and learn from him. This might be simply a wish that things would be different or a narcissistic wound on my part connected to the pain and responsibility for damage that accrues to being Jewish in the context of Israel, which Uri’s paper reveals so powerfully. But I wonder if it could also have to do with a failure in the paper to distinguish between Israel and Jews, a distinction which is still difficult to make (Jews pray for the well-being of the State of Israel in the synagogue service and most still support its existence as a ‘Jewish state’), but which is historically significant and currently may be opening out again (as testified to by organisations such as Independent Jewish Voices). Linked to this is my own, diasporic, refusal to buy into the reading of Jewish history as inevitably leading to the Holocaust (‘first exile, then ghettos, then holocaust’ is Uri’s précis of this history) and hence to be a story of suffering only justified by the establishment of the State. This is the standard Zionist account of Jewish history, one I suspect that is not shared by Uri, but that is reproduced in his paper as the psychic origin of the ‘process of victim conversion’. What is assumed by this is that the only way Jews will escape their fate as victims and sacrifices is to find another people to take it on in their place. ‘Today the Palestinians are the Jews of the Israelis.’ And on top of this I want to assert something else: despite the failure of Hebrew to distinguish between victims and sacrifices, these are not the same thing: victims are not sacrifices, in the sense of always being offered up in order to achieve some greater end; much more often, they are just victims.

Whilst Uri’s paper seems to focus on Jewish experience, I have a troubled sense that it comes from somewhere else, from a place in the Israeli psyche that struggles to acknowledge other perspectives. Again this is not an accusation of failure, but rather an attempt to understand what it is like to be immersed in a national culture dominated by narratives of history and survival that are so strong as to make it exceptionally difficult to step outside them, to imagine another terrain. For example, in this paper, even in its act of expressing solidarity, the Palestinian other is made invisible by not being imagined as a source of agentic subjectivity: as Uri says about Nathan Alterman’s poem, ‘The Palestinians [are] simply not present, not even as an agent of death, not even as a hostile other.’ The Palestinian is positioned as victimised other to the Israeli Jew, but always from the point of view of the Israeli Jew; that is, what one might call the ‘voice’ of the Palestinian is left unheard. I am not going to dwell on this, because my own position as a British Jew leaves me even more bathed in ignorance, and my capacity to make this imaginative leap is far more limited than is Uri’s. I am rather trying to acknowledge a difficulty here: that one speaks from where one is, as if one speaks the truth; but the other as human subject is deeply elusive, and in many situations – including and especially the one we are dealing with here – this is not an abstractly philosophical issue, but one with consequences. Uri is writing about and to the Israeli Jewish psyche, which to some extent justifies his focus; and I am trying to think about this writing from outside that place, and can see an absence, which I cannot fill.  

The exclusion that implicates me more strongly, however, is a more surprising one: seeming to be about the Jew and the impact of Jewish history, the paper, in an odd way, loses the Jew as subject. Of course this is a complex issue. Uri’s paper calls on Jewish identity, and it draws on the traumatic experiences of European Jewish history to make its point. It shows the dead hand of the Holocaust lying on the Israeli imaginary; it references the Zionist running-together of the Holocaust and the founding of, and need for, the State of Israel; and behind that a consciousness of Biblical imagery, of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, and a notion of sacrifice and substitution that is taken as emblematic of Jewish history. But to my mind the perspective is distorted by its embeddedness in that same Zionist myth that it tries to deconstruct. Jewish culture and history is written off in the same way that Zionism itself writes it off, as if all Jewish history is a precursor to Zionism and hence all the destructiveness of contemporary Israeli society is the endpoint of developments since Biblical times. Uri writes of Jewish diasporic history in the apocalyptic terms used by Zionists who see the future of the Jewish people as lying solely in Israel: ‘first exile, then ghettos, then holocaust.’ As rhetoric this is precisely the way Zionism establishes its hegemony amongst the Jewish people; and it is a common Israeli account of the poverty of the diaspora, reproduced even by such supposed ‘doves’ as A.B. Yehoshua in his May 2006 assertion that only Israel can save the Jews. As history, cultural awareness and ethics, however, it is actually a travesty.

I am not suggesting, of course, that Uri himself is unfamiliar with both the difficulty and the political uses of this kind of discourse; rather, that in its use of the Zionist version of Jewish diasporic humiliation and tragedy – a use which buys into the discourse at the same time as it laments it - this paper presents too deterministic an account of what the Palestinians might mean for the Jews (I use the term advisedly) – and of what alternatives to oppression might be found in Jewish ethics and history. Additionally, if one can descry two such moments of narrowness in the piece (Israel-centredness that obscures Jewish diasporic experience and Palestinian subjectivity) perhaps there is also a third that supplies its unwarranted epistemological background: the psychoanalysis is also formulaic – as if each victim has to pass on its victimhood to another. Even if one can accept the controversial notion of an ‘historical unconscious’ in which psychoanalytic narratives of defensive individual processes are deployed to explain a historical and social phenomenon, one has to ask about the rigidity of the mechanism that is being claimed. ‘This move away from the victim position,’ writes Uri, ‘involves the positioning of a replacement victim, a sacrifice, all in the same concept.’ But why? Can nothing ever change? Is it always impossible to work something through?

We can learn a lot from terminology, from the harmonics of words. In a passage that Uri references but does not quote – reading it as a revelation of how the ‘sanctifying of the holocaust is… our blind spot’ - Agamben (1999) carefully and bitterly analyses the history of the term ‘holocaust’, which he sees as applied against the Jews, to justify extermination as a sacrificial act. Agamben argues that the notion of ‘holocaust’ is ‘essentially Christian’ and in particular was used in polemics against the Jews. Contrasting the use of ‘Holocaust’ with the term ‘Shoah’, which also means ‘devastation, catastrophe’, Agamben comments,

Even if [Primo] Levi probably refers to this term [i.e. ‘shoah’] when he speaks of the attempt to interpret the extermination as a punishment for our sins, his use of the euphemism contains no mockery. In the case of the term ‘holocaust,’ by contrast, the attempt to establish a connection, however distant, between Auschwitz and the Biblical olah [sacrificial act] and between death in the gas chamber and the ‘complete devotion to sacred and superior motives’ cannot but sound like a jest. Not only does the term imply an unacceptable equation between crematoria and altars; it also continues a semantic heredity that is from its inception anti-Semitic. 

Agamben refuses to use the term ‘holocaust’ because of this, and despite its prominence and ubiquity I would prefer to do the same: ‘holocaust’ suggests a fire-offering, precisely the sacrifice that Uri refers to. But this is a backward-looking argument, from the perspective of those who wish to see the Nazi extermination as either a meaningful consequence of sinful acts (the despicable perspective that some religious commentators have taken on it) or a necessary precursor to what came afterwards (the hegemonic Zionist discourse). Whatever the political traces (there is little doubt that support for the establishment of Israel as a Jewish state was enormously enhanced by people’s realisation of the extermination of Jews in Europe), the Shoah was not a ‘sacrifice’, it was, precisely, a ‘devastation, catastrophe’. Those who died did not give up their lives in order to achieve something, either to appease an angry God or move the politicians and state-makers; they were, simply, killed. The link is ideological; no-one wants or needs the sacrifice, they just make use of it for their own ends. This also means, I think, that we should not see the Palestinians as the displaced sacrificial lamb of the Jews: this justifies oppression, it says to the Israelis, ‘because of your history, you cannot help but treat others as victims, sacrificing them to your own cause.’ One dangerous response to this might then be, ‘Too bad, one has to do what one has to do to survive.’

Of course I am not suggesting that Uri buys into this, only that the critique his paper develops may reproduce rather than challenge the Zionist account of Jewish history and consciousness. If this is right, and the pessimistic determinism of the ‘exile-ghetto-holocaust’ narrative is to be opposed, what alternatives does it open up for us? I want to finish with a few very brief suggestions here. First, this narrative is history written in reverse. In fact, for much of the period of ‘exile’, Jews lived amongst others precariously, for sure, as a consequence of Christian antisemitism, but also creatively and in a settled way. The great Jewish civilisations of Spain and Poland are examples; the thriving Jewish mercantile cultures of the Mediterranean and north Africa are others; and the explosive presence of secular Jews in nineteenth and twentieth century European culture a third. The point is, despite Jewish suffering this is not the story of a victim nation that can only survive by casting its victimhood elsewhere. The alternative story to draw on is one of learning, ethical striving, relational complexity and at times openness to others; why should it not be these more ‘hospitable’ elements of the Jewish past that are brought into the present? Only from a perspective of a self-justifying Israel-centred discourse in which diasporic history becomes solely the story of prolonged death and persecution does it look like we cannot escape the status of potential victims.

Secondly, the choice of founding narratives is important. Uri is right to point to the significance of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, in Jewish thought. Jews read this passage on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, as a reminder of the trials of faith and a message about the possibility of reprieve. On the first day, however, they read the passage immediately before this one, in which Ishmael and his mother Hagar are cast out by Abraham. In this story, Hagar gives up on the boy and abandons him to die, only for the angel (who reappears in the Akedah) to step in to rescue him. These are parallel tales: they do not have the same valency, and it is definitely the case that Isaac is preferred; but they nevertheless have a similar structure in which the violence of the father towards his sons is tempered by the angel. Should we read this merely as the beginning of a prolonged history of bloodthirsty sacrifice? As scholars have often noted (and Robi Friedman points this out in the paper to which Uri refers), the shock of the Akedah is such that Sarah dies and Abraham loses the capacity to talk to God or to his son; that is, he may be rewarded but he is also punished, his sacrificial zeal is too much for him and his family. Ishmael wanders in the desert, and seems to be cast out; but the Jewish tradition is that after the death of Sarah, Abraham remarries Hagar, and Isaac and Ishmael are reconciled, coming together to bury their father when he dies. This is a story not only of sacrifice, which I am not denying is present in it; but also of loss and reconciliation, an attempt to put aside deeply felt conflict, bury the past and move on. We should also note here that in the Koran, the story of the Akedah is very similar – but there is one highly significant difference. The son with whom Abraham is tested is not Isaac, but Ishmael; and the reward given to Abraham for his faith is, specifically, the gift of another son, Isaac. That is, the sacrifice is tempered by generosity: the forefather of the Jews as a gift that comes about through the ancestor of the Muslims. Why, when drawing on these kinds of narrative for our histories of the psyche, should we constantly miss their humanising possibilities, in which, for example, from both religious perspectives Ishmael is not the inhuman other to the Jew Isaac, but actually the brother?

Let me try to make it clear again that I am not trying to reduce the terror and outrageousness of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, nor the complexity of the Israeli imagination in terms of its own fears and repetitions as they are played out in relation to the dehumanised other. Much of what Uri says about this is too clearly true to be repudiated. But I think what happens in the use of psychoanalysis as only a study of trauma and its reproduction, and in the rendering of Jewish history from the point of view only of Zionism, is that we are left with no resources with which to battle our burning memories, with which - if you like - to burn them in the sense of disposing of them so we can live anew. If we are to move out of this terrible morass, we have to find alternative narratives both from within the Jewish and Israeli traditions and from that of the Palestinians, in which the focus is not on sacrificing ourselves or others, but rather on what can be brought together, what hospitality is possible.

I agree, to echo Uri’s closing words, that we must ‘liberate ourselves from the throes of the holocaust and sacrificing logic,’ but we cannot do this by repeating that logic over and over again. A first step is to set aside the notion of victims as sacrifices: there is no such justification for their suffering. A second step is to look for those traces and contradictions in our apparently seamless stories of how we become what we are, and to disrupt these stories in the name of a more open set of possible relations. And maybe a third is to do something that my colleague Lisa Baraitser never tires of calling for, and that (as she has pointed out) I have singularly failed to do here, which is to spend less energy on reconstituting our own justificatory narratives, and to try to involve ourselves in the founding stories and narratives and ethics of others.

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