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.