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Reflections on Gaza: How should my people be?

By Pedro Tabensky

As the son of a Holocaust survivor and a refugee of mid-20th century turmoil, knowledge of the precariousness of existence has always been part of the fabric of my life, and has motivated me permanently to ask: How should I be in a way that pays respect to the suffering of my forbearers? Or, to put the point more generally, how should my people be?

A related question that has guided me is: What are the ethical burdens of the victims of past injustices, of people whose lives have been shaped by past horrors? This may seem like an odd question to ask, given the prevailing intuition that the burden of responsibility should fall on the shoulder of perpetrators. I certainly think that the burden of victims is different from that of perpetrators. One crucial difference is that victims are rarely responsible for what was done to them. But one should not forget victims often become perpetrators.

Perpetrators often cynically invoke victimhood in order to make it seem that they are doing the unspeakable in the name of the good, but I am less interested here in this category of individual than I am in the individual or collective that truthfully hold that they are victims of past injustices. Victimhood is far-too-often invoked — and perhaps even typically by those who honestly believe that they are victims — to justify murder. The self-righteous cruelty inflicted by the Israeli state on Gaza attests to this problem (as do cynical invocations).

Here I will focus on the burden of people who rightly and explicitly think of themselves as victims of past injustices and some of the sub-burdens that constitute it.

Firstly, there is the burden of understanding. This is, if nothing more, a therapeutic burden, a responsibility to the self. To understand is to weave the harm into the pattern of one’s life so as to diminish the damage or, relatedly, to turn the experience of harm into an occasion for personal (or collective) growth. This, typically, only happens after a period of growth following the traumatic event. Wisdom typically requires hindsight. It typically requires a level of healing and cannot be expected of those whose wounds are still raw or who are under attack, living in the now of terror.

Second, there is the burden of consistency. To think of myself genuinely as a victim is to think that what was done to me (or my people) is not merely bad to me (or my people), but is bad without qualification. It is to be committed to an ethic that embraces all ethically salient creatures, minimally, all human beings, unless, of course, one wishes to establish a hierarchy of humanity, where the suffering of some is taken to be more valuable than the suffering of others. These hierarchies are an outgrowth of prejudice. Prejudice undermines the force of one’s claims to victimhood. It cheapens them. I cheapen my claims to being a victim when in the name of past harms I crush others. I can only do this if my mind is polluted with prejudice, when, for instance, I grasp Palestinian suffering as subhuman suffering.

Leaving the unpalatable option of prejudice momentarily aside, to assert that I am the victim of past evils implies that I condemn evil, implies, more specifically, in the first instance, that everyone should condemn the evil that has befallen me, but it is also to be readied to censure all evil, typically after the murderous wave has done its deed and health has been regained, or after a period of mourning. If, in health and not consumed by suffering, one ceases to see the universal in the particularity of one’s trauma, chances are that one’s claims to victimhood flow from prejudice.

Lastly, there is the burden of compassion or, more broadly, love. To assert that evil has been perpetrated against me (or my people) is to claim that everyone ought to recognise that I am or we are the victims of evil. It is to demand that on these matters there is no space for double standards. It is to assert the universality of the ethical. Put differently, to assert that I am the victim and to demand that I be treated with due respect is to assert or demand that our common humanity be respected. But, assertions or demands could be the expression of hypocrisy or bad faith. Words must be attached to deeds. To honestly assert that I am a victim is to be in the world in a particular way. It is to affirm in word and deed the burden of being human.

To claim that I am or we are victims of past injustices — and genuinely to believe that this is so — involves recognising my or our own vulnerability. This is antithetical to the self-righteousness expressed in the indiscriminate murder of innocent lives in the name of victimhood. This variety of callous self-righteousness is held by those who do not in fact believe that they are victims (even though, as is the case of many denizens of the Knesset, they may manipulatively claim to be victims), or, more broadly, those whose lives are expressive of bad faith.

To genuinely claim that I am or we are victims of past injustices entails stretching out to others and demanding that I or we be counted as human beings whose suffering must be taken seriously, who are deserving of care and compassion, and who cannot be thought of as lesser beings. To claim that I am or we are victims is to claim that I or we need others, it is to assert the vulnerability of human living, and that I or we wish to be embraced as members of our kind; it is to demand that I or we not be excluded from the human mantle of protection. It is ultimately to demand that I or we not be left alone, to face problems that seem meaningless or unimportant to others.

This is quite the opposite of what is happening in Gaza today, where those who share my history are, in the name of victimhood, exemplifying the bad faith Jean Paul Sartre attributed to the anti-Semite. Few things are more dangerous than self-righteous victimhood, and part of the reason this state of being is so dangerous is that it demands of those in that state that they renounce reason (consistency) for the sake of entitlement: “We are victims, hence we deserve more than you.” Note that this particular manifestation of victimhood flows from prejudice. The view could be expressed thus: There is a ranking of suffering and Jewish suffering is at the top. Palestinian suffering, on the other hand, is the suffering of lesser beings.

In addition to destroying lives, what is happening in Gaza today strongly suggests that Jews who support the Israeli incursion on Gaza and honestly endorse the fact that they are victims of past injustices — that the state of Israel was formed largely as a response long-term systematic European terror — are cheapening their claims to victimhood.

When victims become perpetrators, the demand to be recognised as deserving the compassion of others for being victims of the unspeakable is inconsistent, teaming with prejudice and deeply unloving.

Professor Pedro Tabensky is with the Allan Gray Centre for Leadership Ethics, department of philosophy, Rhodes University.

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    • Shuaib Manjra

      Thank you Professor Tabensky for this eloquent and enriching article. It would be interesting to deconstruction the notion of ‘my people’, which you repeatedly use, and what that really means. Is it a racial group, a religious group, an ethnic group, an ideological group or a national group. I guess in different contexts we have ‘my peoples’ rather than a singular defining identity that forces us to choose who ‘my people are’.

      On another point entirely, the two emotions that drive human beings and superceded cognitive ability and remain embedded in memory forever are those of fear and those of humiliation – both are the most potent emotions. The Israeli state uses the tactic of fear in much of its discourse, which resonates with the memory of the holocaust.

      On the other hand the daily humiliation of Palestinians also remains embedded and a memory that will not easily be erased. This also explains some of the radical actions which flow from this.

    • Richard

      On the one hand, we are emotional beings; on the other, rational, to greater or lesser degrees. It is as difficult to apply reason to emotion as it is to apply emotion to reason, they refer to different manifestations of human being. When Israel bombed Gaza, it was a decision motivated in emotion (fear) but effected by reason. When Gaza sent rockets into Israel, it was a purely emotional act. Is there a difference? I believe so. The appalling collateral damage was not the intention of the Israeli exercise, however dreadful the consequences might have been. In other words, I can share in the pain of the misery, but not take direct responsibility for it. But it is never quite that simple. We blame ourselves even for consequences that were never intended, and which occurred indirectly, as in, if only I hadn’t asked so-and-so to take me to the shops that day, their house wouldn’t have been burgled because they would have been home. Not all people are capable of that level of empathy, of course, as you intimate. But I think it is quite clear to see that deliberate actions to destroy people or groups (like the Rwanda genocide, or what is happening to the Yazidis in Iraq at the hands of ISIS) is different from what happened in Gaza. At least, on a rational level. A death is a death, and whether it was politically designed or not, should make no difference to how we feel about it. I think that is what you are getting at. Culpability is another matter entirely.

    • orwell


      You paint Israel as being innocent of ‘collateral damage’.

      Amnesty International begs to differ.

      Amnesty’s international researchers visited Gaza and report “evidence of war crimes” and “serious violations of international law”.

      Israel used non-precision weaponry, says Amnesty, which is known to be the opposite of ‘pinpoint’ and has wide collateral influence.

      Isrealis are intelligent and rational people – they knew exactly what weaponry they were using.

      “AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL Report on Gaza”:

      Apart from Amnesty and international doctors speaking out with alarm, lawyers also see big problems in the way Israel flouts international humanitarian law:

      This is well explained in an excellent article “Globalising Gaza”, in a top American publication:


      “Operation Protective Edge was not merely a military assault on a primarily civilian population.

      It was also part of an ongoing assault on international humanitarian law (IHL) by a highly coordinated team of Israeli lawyers, military officers, PR people and politicians, led by (no less) a philosopher of ethics.

      It is an effort not only to get Israel off the hook for massive violations of human rights and international law, but to help other governments overcome similar constraints ”


    • Head Light

      There is an unintended consequence or quandary to your laudable reasoning: if the Holocaust is indeed a unique event (“a Shoah”) it will not repeat itself & its surviving victims will be prone to an all too logical survivor’s prejudice; if the Holocaust is however universal in nature then its surviving victims will be unprejudiced & exposed to a collective empathy for all human suffering – but the likelihood of such a genocide repeating itself then becomes inevitable!

    • Richard

      @Orwell, I shall be interested to see what the outcome is of any investigations by Amnesty. Some of my concerns are a complete lack of reportage in the media of launchings of rockets from Gaza, and whether Amnesty has taken this into consideration. If Hamas were not launching under nefarious circumstances (in other words, in violation of the principle of not using civilians as military cover) I cannot understand why there is no film extant of this. In other words, is the relative open-ness of Israel leading to its being more widely criticised, and the very closed nature of Gaza and Hamas leading to its being less criticised? If this is the case, and skewing is taking place as a consequence of intimidation, it would lead to inaccurate analysis. In mathematical analysis of, say, fraud (which is obviously hidden), one is able to come up with statistical methods (through boot-strapping) of creating coefficients that offset data skewing; in other words, discounting with the proverbial pinch of salt. I do hope that is not necessary here, and that some clarity might be forthcoming.

    • Richard

      @Orwell, PS: I note that report is from 2009. Presumably weaponry has improved since then in accuracy?

    • bernpm

      I have seen many Jews deported and also many coming back with joy to pick up their regained freedom and life’s in the period after May 1944.
      I cannot understand the continuous violence between the two neighboring nations. The leaders of both have simply nothing learned from their past and are not wiling to do so. Plain stupidity! For now…They seem to deserve and enjoy each other.

    • I Say

      @ Orwell

      Alan Dershowitz asks this question of those who condemn Israel for their actions in

      “The key question – both legally and morally – in evaluating Israel’s recent military actions is whether the Israeli government was justified in ordering ground troops into
      Gaza to destroy the Hamas tunnels. This question is important because most of the deaths – among Palestinian civilians, Hamas terrorists and Israeli soldiers – came about after Israeli ground troops attacked the tunnels.

      … These tunnels went deep underground from Gaza to Israel and were designed to allow Hamas death squads to cross into Israel and to kill and kidnap Israeli citizens. No reasonable person can dispute that these terrorist tunnels were legitimate military targets.

      .. If Israel had the right to try to destroy the tunnels, then the resulting deaths of Palestinians must be deemed proportional to the military value of Israel’s actions, since it is unlikely that the tunnels could have been destroyed without considerable loss of life, because their entrances had been deliberately placed by Hamas in densely populated areas.

      .. Hamas thus made a calculated decision to put the Israeli government to a difficult choice: either allow the tunnels to remain, thus risking the lives of thousands of Israeli citizens, or send ground troops into densely populated areas to destroy the tunnels, thus risking the lives of Palestinian civilians and Israeli soldiers.

      Cont .. 2

    • I Say

      @ Orwell

      cont.. 2

      Every democracy in the world would choose the latter option if faced with this tragic and cruel choice.”

      Dershowitz concludes his article: “Those who condemn Israel’s recent military actions have an obligation to answer the following questions: did Israel have the right to try to prevent those tunnels of death from being used to murder and kidnap its citizens? If so, how could Israel have accomplished that with substantially fewer casualties?”

      One could accuse Alan Dershowitz of bias, therefore it would be helpful for those to hold Israel entirely to blame for the deaths of Palestinian civilians to read the words of
      Bassem Eid, Exec. Director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group:

      ‘Hamas needs the Palestinians deaths in order to claim victory’

    • Syd Kaye

      The Professor’s opinion is no more valid than any other. It is not elevated above any of the many Israel critics by his status as the son of a holocaust survivor.
      If he brought his head out of the clouds and rationally considered the situation of the Israelis, he would probably concede that they were more concerned with defending their citizens and destroying a dangerous threat, than whether they were victims turned perpetrators or what the Professor was dreaming up.
      His arrogant philosophical musings ignore the questions: did Israel have to do something about ticket and tunnel attacks ( to which the answer had to be YES) and if so, what, or what else?
      All unbiased reports show Israel reluctantly invaded, offered multiple rejected cease fires, and tried to avoid civilian deaths notwithstanding the enemy secreting itself amongst civilians.
      The Professor’s thesis is flawed because he talks about a shared history and the myth that all Jews are one ,msuffering the same psychosis. Israelis have their own history not subject to his delusions: they have been surrounded by a hateful manipulative enemy for 60 years and been under continuous attack over that period. It is that history that informs them not wooly philosophical tracts.