Chronicles of Love and Resentment

Eric Gans

Post-Victimary Thinking in the Holy Land

No. 218: Saturday, November 11, 2000

One hindrance to GA’s popularity way back in the 20th century was its tendency to arouse resentment. This is itself a convincing argument in its favor, but only for someone who already accepts its premises. In a misguided moment of academic optimism, I once applied for a grant for a project on Resentment. After my proposal was duly rejected, I requested the comments of the grant committee. Aside from one brave soul who had defended the project, the comments expressed righteous indignation… that I dared to equate righteous indignation with resentment.

A while ago (see Chronicles 208 & 209), I attempted to distinguish between the postmodern and a new post-millennial era, inaugurated respectively by the Holocaust and the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is easy to understand why the victimary thinking of the postmodern age was inhospitable to yet fascinated by Girard’s anthropology of the scapegoat. If the model for all unequal relations is that of the Nazis and the Jews, it is obscene to postulate that human society depends from the outset on such relations. At the same time, it is a very short step from positing our dependency on victims to proclaiming, in good victimary fashion, our guilt for their persecution.

The post-millennial age has reluctantly abandoned socialism; what evidence do we have for thinking it is abandoning victimary thinking as well? Is there any sign that such thinking is becoming less functional in the contemporary world?

One not merely symbolic measure of this functionality is conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. In historical terms, Israel is a direct product of the Holocaust. At its founding in 1948, it had the sympathy of the titular leader of the world’s victimary forces (the USSR was the first country to recognize Israel), but this sympathy was quickly lost when it unobligingly won several wars against its invading neighbors.

The Holocaust was "the end" of traditional Western antisemitism; the creation and survival of Israel during the postmodern era drew on this sentiment. Conversely, the revival of antisemitism after this "end," particularly among Moslems and those in their sphere of influence, including many African-Americans, reflects the instability of the victimary position. Prior to WWII, people were proud to call themselves antisemites: antisemitism was a self-confidently indignant defense against the presumably all-powerful Jew (see Chronicle 155). Since the war, antisemitism no longer dares speak its name; it operates both by calling into question the Jews’ victimary credentials through Holocaust denial, and, pointing to the Palestinian situation, condemning Zionism as a form of "fascism."

As the living guarantees of this condemnation, the Palestinians are called upon to present themselves as exemplary victims. Many witnesses have remarked on the joy of martyrdom manifested, for example, at the funerals of young protesters; throwing stones at armed soldiers risks and is in fact designed to invite deadly retaliation, generating in the process new martyrs for the cause. World reaction is divided, but it is far harder for the friends of Israel to denounce the Palestinian martyrdom as self-inflicted when the bodies lie in full sight than for her enemies to denounce the "excessive violence" of the Israeli retaliation, whatever the provocation.

We may say that the post-millennial era succeeds the postmodern when victimary thinking loses its usefulness as a means of judging institutions, when it no longer makes sense to distinguish between victims and persecutors. There have always been intractable political conflicts; the crucial question is whether these are limited and sui generis or local examples of a more general conflict that they may eventually ignite. There are many cases in which opposing nationalities make near-symmetrical claims: Cyprus, Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, the former territories of Yugoslavia. It is no accident that these are all restricted conflicts with relatively little effect on the international economy. In the really significant conflicts of our day, the relations between the two sides, and the mutual accusations they give rise to, are far less symmetrical: they oppose modern, democratic societies to those of the "third world."

The greatest triumph of postwar victimary epistemology was in demonstrating that colonialism and apartheid could be abolished without shattering the social order. It forced on the world the conclusion that overtly unequal institutions, offensive not merely to those subjected to them but to the universal human intuition of equality, are ipso facto unjust institutions; or, in more historical terms, that the ethical awareness consonant with our present level of information sharing and economic development makes it inconceivable that the offense of these institutions to the originary principle of reciprocal dialogue could be outweighed by positive factors, say, in the economic sphere. In contrast, the de facto domination of industrial over pre-industrial societies offers no clear venue for victimary thought. If the poor countries are "victims" of the rich, how is this victimization to be ended or compensated? More crucially, is this approach to the question really the most effective way to make poor countries richer?

The specifics of the Israeli-Palestinian situation allow us to sharpen our analysis. Here the first-world vs third-world opposition is complicated by territorial and religious factors. Whatever the ancient claims of the Jews to the land, the Palestinians can always point to their recent collective presence. Whatever the Jews’ pre- and post-Holocaust justification for Zionism, the Palestinians can present themselves as innocent victims of its demographic imperative. Just as the unilateral destruction of the Jews in Europe imposed the victimary paradigm in the postmodern era, so the undecidable status of the Jews in the Middle East provides a model for the dilemmas of the post-millennial. Can it be a coincidence that the ultimate ambivalence of the role of the Jews as the Other of Western civilization is revealed at just the moment when it is becoming necessary to construct, on the basis of the Western and related "first-world" economies, a non-exclusionary global civilization?

If victimary thinking is outdated, on the basis of what paradigm are the conflicting claims of Arabs and Jews to be adjudicated? The apparent lesson of the peace process whose fragility we have seen is that victimary claims are unbounded and that both parties to a dialogue must ultimately renounce them. There are no relative victims; the binary structure of sacrifice is unsuitable for negotiation.

The non-punitive end of apartheid, including amnesty for most of its enforcers, might be cited as a counterexample. But whatever compromises the black majority has made with the white minority in South Africa, it was never required to renounce its condemnation of apartheid. Conversely, the enforcers of apartheid may not have been punished, but they were not allow to retain any justification for their doctrine. Nor would a South African solution appease the Palestinians; in their eyes, not unequal treatment but the very presence of the Jews on "their" land constitutes victimization.

This and other examples suggest that, in contrast to the relative stability of the cold-war era, the post-millennial age may well be a "time of troubles." However crude it may be, the victimary criterion is relatively objective; the elimination of overt institutional domination brings clear ethical progress as well as social stability. Now that only the hard cases remain--including such things as the oppression of women and minorities in "third-world" countries that themselves claim victimary status--the idea that an appeal to the overarching principle of reciprocal justice can settle all disputes is no longer tenable. This does not mean that we must resign ourselves to the uncontrollable violence of these conflicts; on the contrary, vigilance is required to prevent them from igniting a global conflagration. In the international sphere as well as the domestic, the greatest danger is utopianism. Just as we have had to renounce our dreams of socialism as the solution to conflict within individual societies, so are we forced to renounce the idea that to resolve international disputes it suffices to "take the side of the victim."

Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity as the religion of resentment makes him the prophet of the modern rejection of victimary thinking. The irony is that what made the victimary thought of the postwar era far more radical than the expressions of national and class resentment in Nietzsche’s own day was the reaction to the horrors brought about by the Nazis’ not altogether unfaithful adaptation of Nietzschean thought. The "superman" who stands above the petty conflicts of the mutually resentful is no more than a pernicious and self-serving mask for the man of resentment. (This is a pervasive theme of the various dramatizations of the Leopold-Loeb murder, such as Hitchcock’s Rope.) If there were indeed a superman, he would not consider himself such, nor would he need Nietzsche’s philosophy to come into being; he would live like Jesus (not Nietzsche’s Zarathustra) in the assurance that his kingdom is not of this world. We do not want to be supermen; perhaps we can be artists remaking in our image a world where information transfer in the service of the imagination increasingly trumps material constraints. But where does this leave us with respect to the political problems of the post-millennial era?

The cure for the failure of socialist utopia was relatively simple. As soon as one realizes that exchange is fundamental to human relations, one learns to focus one’s hopes for human betterment within the market system rather than on working for its destruction. To the extent that socialism hangs on as a form of government, it becomes, as in China or even Cuba (where participation in the global economy consists in reopening the fleshpots of old Havana to dollar tourism), an authoritarian accompaniment to the market system rather than a substitute for it. The "end of history" consecrates the realization that the stable system within which the human social order can continue to evolve has already been found.

The analogous solution to first-third world conflict in general and Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular is to be found in the global economic system, whose beginnings not surprisingly provoke violent reactions among the diehards of victimary thinking, the remnants of the sixties’ New Left. Can the global economy integrate the societies of the Middle East that have so far been unable to contribute anything to it but raw materials? Can we tell the Palestinians to stop hating the Israelis and start writing software?

For what it’s worth, I think the answer is a qualified "yes." If there is any possibility of peace in the Holy Land, it will come via the economic rather than the political process. Which is to say that the goal of the political process should be to separate the two sides and to "economize" their relationship as much as possible until better days become conceivable.

The great symbolic point of contention in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the one that has apparently blown the peace process apart, is sovereignty over Jerusalem. This controversy is an exemplary case for the abandonment of victimary logic. Jerusalem is and always has been the holy city of the Jews. If it has significance for Islam and Christianity, it is only as a derivative of this prior sacred status. Christianity aside, Islam has holier cities, over which it exercises complete control, forbidding non-Moslems even to enter them. (Imagine if the Jews suggested running Jerusalem the way the Moslems run Mecca.) Israel acquired sovereignty over the Old City only after the 1967 war in which Israel was invaded by its neighbors--the original model of one side throwing stones and the other shooting back. Under Jordanian rule, we should not forget, synagogues and Jewish holy places were trashed, and no Jewish access to the latter, including the Western Wall, was permitted. This contrasts sharply with the access and control Israel has granted to Moslems at the Dome of the Rock.

As an ultimate gesture to the victimary logic of the peace process, Barak made an offer that no Israeli government had dared openly even to discuss: sharing sovereignty over Jerusalem with the Palestinians. Because the Palestinians were the "original" inhabitants, because they had lost land and been occupied by Israeli forces, because, in a word, they could make a case for being considered victims of Israel, the appropriate solution seemed to be to give them a share of the Holy City while requiring nothing from them in return but peace, meaning an end to stone-throwing and presumably to resentment.

As we saw, it didn’t work out that way. The style, if not the substance, of Barak’s offer offended Palestinian sensibilities, particularly those of Arafat. The crude but effective victimary technique of throwing stones and getting the Israelis to shoot back was used to destroy the viability of Barak’s offer. Part of this may justifiably be put down to Arafat’s manipulation of the Palestinian "street," but the latter was no mere passive puppet. Clearly all the Israeli concessions of the peace process, including this last one, had done nothing to allay the seething rage displayed in the Ramallah lynchings. On the contrary, the evidence suggests that the nearness of the day on which this rage would have to be abandoned made peace increasingly intolerable.

This only apparently paradoxical process reveals an underside of victimary logic that is observable elsewhere in the aftermath of its postwar triumphs. Most post-colonial societies are still just that, dominated politically by resentment against their former masters and the developed world in general, mired in political and economic backwardness. With regard to the Middle East, it has often been remarked that the enthusiasm of the crowds for yelling "death to the Jews!" and burning the American flag is proportional to their utter lack of any other means of expressing oppositional political sentiments. It's a lot safer to burn Uncle Sam in effigy than Uncle Saddam.

This does not imply that the victimary epistemology that led to the victories of the civil rights and colonial liberation movements was in error. What it does mean is that elimination of de jure differences that directly violate our intuition of human equality only sharpens collective awareness of any remaining de facto differences and the resentment that accompanies it, generating continued appeals to victimary logic that fuel a symmetrical backlash of their own. The victimary dies hard, and its potential for provoking conflict can be defused only by the gradual and always imperfect abandonment of resentment by both the former "victims" and their former "oppressors." Just as the "final conflict" of socialist utopia was a lie, so is the hope given out by victimary thinking that eliminating an oppressive institution suffices to remove the resentment it produced; still more pernicious is the converse notion that the remaining resentments of the former victims are in themselves proof of continuing oppression.

We should be wary of giving further nourishment to victimary thinking. Israel’s retention of control over Jerusalem while permitting the birth of a Palestinian state would put an end to the current peace process without mutual affection but hopefully without full-scale combat. By rejecting victimary logic, the Israelis would take us a step further beyond an era dominated by the epistemology of the victim. The coming times may well be more unsettled than those we have known since WWII, but if we manage to avoid blowing ourselves up, we will emerge from them with a clearer understanding of humanity--with a better anthropology.

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Eric Gans / gans@humnet.ucla.edu
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