To Sit in the Dark, Victimhood and Jewish identity by Gilad Atzmon
March 24th 2005
A talk at the SOAS Palestinian Society 23.4
I am sure that some of you are familiar with the old Jewish joke: What does it take for a Jewish mother to change a light bulb? Then impersonating an elder Jewish mother, applying a high pitch east European accent you spit it out: ”no vorries I vill sit in the dark”. As it seems, the Jewish mother embodies the essence of modern Jewish existence. To be a Jew is to sit in the dark, to be a Jew is to be a victim and to enjoy your symptoms. If we analyse this bizarre tendency in the light of Freud’s pleasure principle, we might mistakenly deduce that the Jewish mother finds pleasure in inflicting pain on herself. Some may even diagnose the Jewish mother as a mythical masochistic figure. In fact, it is the other way around, The Jewish mother doesn’t enjoy her own suffering at all. The Joke is supposed to reveal a very different message. The Jewish mother, instead of improving her general state of being, rather than enjoying reading the ‘Jewish Chronicle’ in the light, she voluntarily offers to sit in the dark, she gains satisfaction initiating some remorse feeling amongst the Other, whoever the Other is. Usually it is her beloved kind (son) but it can as well be her partner, the neighbour, the social worker, the Swiss banker or even the United Nations. The Jewish mother vill sit in the dark as long as someone there is happy to feel guilty for her sitting in the dark.
To be a proper Jewish mother means to daily exploit the entire victim vocabulary. But it isn’t really the Jewish mother, as it seems, victim mentality is occupying the hard nucleus of modern Jewish identity. As we all know many of those who call themselves Jews are far from being religious. Some are even atheists. Many of our Jewish friends are far from being Zionist (at least that’s what they say), some are even anti Zionist, but then once a Jew drops his victim status he becomes an ordinary boring being. To be a Jew is to believe in the holocaust, to be a Jew is to believe in a historical narrative constructed around endless merciless sagas of persecution and harassment. To be a Jew is to believe that all that suffering is far from being over, in fact a new holocaust may be re-launched tomorrow morning, why tomorrow, today, this very minute! To be a Jew is set oneself in a state of self imposed paranoia. Thus, to be a Jew is to believe in 'us and them' rather than in just ‘being amongst others’. To be a Jew is to believe that anti Semitism is an irrational tendency intrinsically symptomatic to Gentile existence. But who are the Gentiles? Ladies and gentleman, the Gentiles are the human family, thus I would deduce that to be a Jew is to believe that the human family behaves irrationally at least when it comes to Jews.
But then, what is so appealing in being a ‘victim’, I assume that most people would be embarrassed when being blamed for victimising themselves or even suspected to be paranoid. Somehow, this wouldn’t happen with most Jews. A Jew would be offended when being suggested that he is victimising himself. Moreover, an accusation as such would be perceived by him as a clear anti Semitic assault not to say a form of a ‘holocaust denial’. When it comes to Jewish common self-perception, victim is not an act, it is rather a state of being. Within the contemporary Jewish world view, the Jews are the only real ultimate genuine sufferers. If this is not enough, the fact that they are ‘the true real and only genuine sufferers’ is now legally imposed. To suspect this very fact may result in a court case. For instance, in case you happen to be a new historian and you may doubt some facts to do with the latest Nazi Judeocide, you probably find yourself behind bars or just removed from your academic post.
When it comes to the unique case of the Jewish family, the Jewish mother strategies are found to be very effective. Sitting in the dark ‘pays off’. The Jewish mother maintains her absolute hegemony within the family cell. Consequently, the guilt ridden Jewish child (no doubt the real victim) will attend medical or law school just to keep his mother happy. He will bring home the highest possible marks just to ease her sitting in dark. By the time he finally realises that he himself had been the real victim, he his ready to join his father's business and in any case, he is too old to rebel. By now he himself becomes a victim and the rest of the world should feel guilty for him. But then, he is far from being happy, rather than being out there amongst others, he is now pushed back to the ghetto, tied for the rest of his life with a clannish knot. Funny enough, this is enough to make him a neurotic character as well an astonishingly good accountant or psycho-analyst.
Looking at the Jewish family cell we see a successful operating machine, the parents volunteer to take on some insignificant suffering, in return the guilt ridden young generation bring home excellent academic results. But then, this very mechanism goes far beyond the Jewish family cell or even the segregated Jewish community. In fact, post WW2 Jewish western affairs are based on the very same philosophy. This may as well be the hidden layer behind the current misleading contemporary presentation of the complementary Judeo Christian bond: The Judeo subject insists to be the ultimate victim and the Christian world is enthusiastically endorsing the opportunity to celebrate guilt. As bizarre as it may sound, in 1948, while the Israelis ethnically cleansed the Palestinian population, the ‘guilty’ West was sitting and praising ‘Jewish heroism’. Very much the same happened following the miraculous Israeli victory in 1967. For many years, ‘guilt’ became the core of the European parliamentary left’s blind support of Israel. As revolting as it may sound, the modern Jewish identity is copying the role of the Jewish elder mother and the European parliamentary left is taking the role of the Jewish guilt ridden toddler. Take a look at British contemporary politics: On the right end we find the Christian prime minister, Mr Tony Blair, the guilty Gentile, being the leader of once a socialist institute, he is now publicly supporting a bourgeoisie racist, nationalist, colonialist state, Michael Howard, on the very same end, being a secular Jew, wouldn’t bother to share with us some deep spiritual Jewish insights, instead, he is telling us about his Jewish grandmother, the Holocaust victim.
Today I am talking about Jewish Identity. In practice, I am talking about Jewish identification, I leave out Judaism, or any reference to Jewish cultural heritage. I don’t even talk about the Jewish people. Instead, I ask what does it mean to be a secular Jew. I try to find out what Jewish secular people identify with when they call themselves Jews. I would argue that as far as contemporary Jewish identity is concerned, two major ideological schools are offering a clear answer. One is Zionism and the other is Jewish leftism.
Let’s start with the Zionist school.
Following the 19th century European national awakening some Jews decided that Jewishness is actually a manifestation of nationalistic aspiration. Although European nationalism was intrinsically associated the patriotic subject with the land he dwelled on, Jewish nationalism was based on a mere fantasy. It associated the Jew with the land he was supposed to dwell on. The early Zionists' popular slogan at the time was: ‘land with no people for people with no land’. While many historians justly ridicule the above statement proving beyond doubt that the land of Palestine was in fact overwhelmingly occupied with indigenous Palestinians, the main problem with the slogan has to do with the fact that People with no land can never establish a genuine nationalistic movement. Zionism was and still is, as groundless as, let’s say, an Italian claim for ownership of the land of England just because England was once a part of the Roman empire. Jewish nationalism was always an ideologically baseless utopian belief. It is an invalid nationalistic movement simply because the Jews are not a nation. More over even in their alleged ‘home land’, they are just about to become a minority. And yet, Zionism was a sign of a change, the Jews decided willingly to change their doomed fate, to become ‘normal’ people, people who love their land, people who engage with nature and live in nature. The Zionist Jew desired to redeem himself from the state of victimhood. The Zionist Jew desired to take his own fate in his hands. This reformed perception held till 1967, until then the Zionist Jew regarded himself as a proud self sufficient colonialist. Till 1967 the holocaust had merely an instrumental role, it was something to capitalise on rather than a major tragic event. If anything, for my parents' generation, the holocaust was something to be ashamed of. The image of ‘cattle led to the slaughter’ filled them and even my generation with contempt towards anything that smelled like Diaspora. Tom Segev was very articulate in conveying the story of Israelis' disdain towards the ‘Seventh Million’ (those who managed to survive the war). Needless to say that the current state of Israel clearly reveals how unsuccessful Zionism proved to be. The transformation of the Jewish people into a modern western civilised society failed completely. The Israelis are far from being attached to the land which they apparently shred with apartheid walls. Not only that Israelis didn’t manage to erect a civilised society, it is hard to think of any current modern state as morally corrupted and racially motivated as the Jewish state. And yet, Zionism was an attempt to transform the Jew into a dignified being, A strong, blond athletic productive subject rather than one who prefers voluntarily to sit in the dark.
The alternative Jewish ideological answer to Zionism is provided by the Jewish left thinkers. On the surface it sounds poetic and peaceful but in practice it is at least as devastating as Zionism. The left Jew would roll his eyes up and state with sheer defeat that “it was Hitler rather than Moses who made him into a Jew”. Basically, it is the Other, the Gentile, who makes the Jew into a Jew. As funny as it may sound, most of those righteous Jews would argue in the same breath that the Palestinians should enjoy the right of ‘self determination’. I do ask myself how is it that when it comes to themselves, those left Jews are far from being generous. Somehow, so it appears, the left Jew is reluctant to self determine himself. Apparently, for the left Jew, WW2 has never ended, day by day, they are all defeated by Hitler or more generally speaking, by the Gentile world. But isn’t this an absurd proposition? In fact, there is no Gentile world. Gentile world is in itself a Jewish invention. Gentile people do not identify themselves as ‘non Jews’, there are far more interesting predicates to embrace. Hence, we can clearly see that Jewish leftism is in itself a form of ‘sitting in the dark’ it is an exercise in victim practice. In short, like the Jewish mother they are sitting in the dark (probably not too far from their mothers). They are self appointed victims. Thus, we must admit then that it is not Hitler who turned them into Jews. They are Jews because enthusiastically, they endorse the Jewish identity. They prefer to be victims. It is their own preference not to change the light bulb.
But then why is it necessary? Surely the Jewish leftist knows that these days he can express his calling without presenting any ethnic traces, we are supposed to live in a multi cultural society. Your voice is supposed to be heard regardless of your ethnic origin, your religious background, your sexual preferences or any other social grouping. I would argue that the voluntarily tendency to sit in the dark is the new Jewish religion. It is a sophisticated ideological mechanism that makes the Other, the Western Gentile, feel unwelcome or inferior in any political discourse to do with Palestine. In practice it locates the humanist Jews in the centre of Palestinian affairs. But then, in practice it serves Israel with an ideological and moral body armour. As soon as those humanist Jews become recognised as a genuine voice for Palestine we learn from them that one state solution is utterly impractical. Somehow, for them, the Jewish cause is slightly more important than the Palestinian one. In the end of the day the Jews really suffered.
The victim strategy is the latest and most sophisticated form of Jewish supremacist segregation. Not only that I surround myself with walls, I even make the other feel guilty for me building those walls around myself (by the way, I don’t know whether you are aware of the bizarre fact that within the Israeli discourse it is the Palestinians that are blamed for the Jews building the apartheid wall). You can take from the Jew his religion, you can take away the chicken soup you can even put ‘sea fruit’ on his plate but once you take away the victim tendency, the Jew isn’t a Jew anymore. Once you lift the colossal threat of Hitler then the Jew becomes an ordinary boring being. Let me tell you, this is not going to happen.