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Time to stop wallowing in self-pity

What Jews and Afrikaners have in common, a son of a leading anti-apartheid activist once said to me, is that they will never let you forget about their past suffering. He could say this, being himself part Jewish and part Afrikaans. In reality, though, it is true of virtually everyone. Whereas contrition and self-criticism do not come easily, nursing grievances and feeling outraged generally do.

Perhaps more than any other modern-day upheaval, the Middle East conflict has epitomised the tendency of nations to focus exclusively on their own grievances while shovelling great dollops of blame on others. How crucial it is to achieve some kind of balanced understanding of what took place in the past, and how elusive this has proven to be amid all the fevered finger-pointing and mutual howls of outrage (coming primarily from the Palestinian camp, although Jews have hardly been blameless).

The title of Benny Morris’s latest book on the conflict, Righteous Victims, well encapsulates how suffering is equated with moral rectitude. If you lose a war, then the other side must have done something wrong. The inability of the Palestinians to look beyond their historic grievances — both real and perceived — is perhaps the single-most greatest hindrance in their failure to date to establish a functional society.

Even when a nation has clearly inflicted more harm on others than it has received, the tendency has been to retreat into resentful self-pity. To date, the Japanese have yet to properly face up to their many appalling deeds in World War II. For them, Hiroshima is the image that still dominates. The sheer magnitude of Nazi war crimes largely robbed the Germans of the cold comfort of taking refuge in a collective sense of victimhood, at least publicly. Despite this, post-war attitudes even there have been split, with public expressions of contrition over Auschwitz having to co-exist uneasily with feelings of outrage over what was done to Germans — the firebombing of Dresden is most frequently invoked.

Most nations have had periods where they have come off second best in their conflicts with their neighbours, which provide plenty of opportunities for retreating into a “righteous victim” comfort zone. Indeed, so deep-seated is the need to feel victimised once in a while that even those who don’t have any real grievances to brood about sometimes find it necessary to invent them.

Australians are a case in point. The closest they (aside, obviously, from the Aborigines) have come to being a persecuted race was when a few over-zealous English bowlers gave their star batsmen some unsportsmanlike bruises during the controversial “Bodyline” series of 1933. Incredibly, as late as the 1980s the Aussies were still seething about this. It is also still widely believed by Australians that their soldiers were wantonly sacrificed en masse during the disastrous Gallipoli venture in World War I by an arrogant and unfeeling British supreme command; in reality, two-thirds of the casualties during the campaign were sustained by home-country troops.

Even the British, who were last successfully invaded as far back as 1066 and have come out on top in nearly all their wars since then, evidently need their martyrs. The vehement attacks one sees on Robert Mugabe in the more conservative UK journals like the Spectator seem primarily to have been motivated by the fact that Mugabe is oppressing white farmers of British origin. Without playing down what Mugabe is doing, there is something a little disproportionate about the outrage it is generating in these quarters.

The constant itemising of the misdeeds of the other is itself wearisome, and what is worse, within the Western democracies there has been a disastrous over-correction of this phenomenon whereby all that disproportionate outrage has become inner-directed. Whites and their civilisation have come to epitomise rapacious evil, while the non-white cultures that have fallen under their sway are imbued with an aura of pristine martyrdom. The latter frequently invoke images of an imaginary “golden age” that purportedly existed prior to the European arrival, but for which there is little, if any, real evidence.

Writing in the Boston Globe, Andrew Klavan lashed out against this hijacking of history for ideological purposes. “It is not enough for some minorities and feminist theorists to seek a fair deal in a changing world. They must build themselves hallucinations of ancient glories that simply never were and condemn the civilisation that has nurtured even their complaints as a centuries-long conspiracy against their poor victimised hides. The past has become a thing to be won, or divvied among them” he writes.

The enormous popularity of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels suggests that many people are fed up with unbalanced finger-pointing. Flashman, for those who have not read the books, is a Victorian anti-hero who becomes an unwilling participant in some of the most tumultuous events of the 19th century, particularly concerning Britain’s imperialist ventures. By his own admission, he is cowardly, cynical, selfish and amoral, epitomising political non-correctness. He is, however, no hypocrite. Through him, Fraser is able to make many trenchant observations about human nature and how unsound playing the blame game is when analysing fraught historical events.

Klavan, a Flashman fan, calls Fraser’s books a “much-deserved slap in the kisser to both the patriotic white-wash of the jingoist and the ethnocentric lie of evil imperialists tromping lovable natives under heel”. There were no “noble savages” in Flashman’s survey of the 19th century, he says, no “idealised ancient cultures mercilessly overrun by the cynical warlords of the West”. However, neither were there any “GA Henty public school heroes using luck and pluck to lift the inferior races toward godly civilisation”.

Post-colonial resentment is understandable, but it should not be allowed to obscure the fact that whereas, without exception, every single former West European colonial power is today a liberal democracy, most formerly colonised African states are repressive dictatorships, and have been for most of their history.

If you have opportunity, it is worthwhile checking out the annual Freedom in the World reports issued by Freedom House, a respected and genuinely non-partisan human rights NGO. Freedom House bases its conclusions on the state of political rights and civil liberties (including freedom of expression, judicial independence and religious equality) in 192 countries, grading each country accordingly.

What the latest report shows is that of Africa’s 52 countries, only 10 achieved a “free” ranking. Twenty-three were considered “partly free” and 18 “not free” (with the worst offenders being Sudan, Libya and Somalia, closely followed by Zimbabwe).

The lesson, surely, is that the experience of past oppression should not be allowed to paralyse a nation’s collective will. The past, naturally, must be remembered, but its influence can be a baleful one if it gives people the impression that the world somehow owes them a living and that they don’t have to engage in any soul-searching and effort of their own. It is something many South Africans would do well to think about.


  • David Saks has worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) since April 1997, and is currently its associate director. Over the years, he has written extensively on aspects of South African history, Judaism and the Middle East for local and international newspapers and journals. David has an MA in history from Rhodes University. Prior to joining the SAJBD, he was curator -- history at MuseumAfrica in Johannesburg. He is editor of the journal Jewish Affairs, appears regularly on local radio discussing Jewish and Middle East subjects and is a contributor to various Jewish publications.


  1. Nqina Dlamini Nqina Dlamini 19 May 2008

    Thank you, I need to read some of the books you referred to.
    It is easy to romanticise the past, for me the quickest reference is with previous relationships. Suddenly all the ugly parts disappear suddenly the previous relationship was made in heaven, but after a quick memory jog things become clearer and it become apparent that you might actually be better off. I hope I am making sense.
    This also translate to current political/economic situations, in the past there were really bad/evil kings that oppressed their own people, but then again the foreigner (whites/Europeans in this case) is easy to identify and people don’t like talking badly about their ancestors.

  2. Charlene Smith Charlene Smith 19 May 2008

    David, your blog regrettably shows all the disadvantages of sitting on a couch and reading and never travelling. I have lived in Japan and what characterises that society more than any I have ever been is monumental shame about their actions on many levels during the Second World War.
    Would that Israel showed such introspection.
    Secondly, you have clearly not visited Zimbabwe and seen the terrible suffering there and if you have it has left you unmoved. The rage of Britons and anyone else who is angered by the despotism of Mugabe and the suffering imposed on his people is well founded.
    Thirdly, Freedom House is a well-known right wing think tank long suspected of having CIA links.
    What a disappointment to read such ill founded views in your blog.

  3. Jon Jon 19 May 2008

    And do black South Africans ever grind their barrel-organ of apartheid grievances ad nauseum? Even though millions of their foreign black African counterparts flocked to get INTO the apartheid state rather than remain at home in their own, black-ruled, apartheid-free nations.

  4. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 20 May 2008


    This is one of the most balanced articles I have read for a long time. I have always respected the Jewish respect for Justice.

    When I was a liquidator, a fellow liquidator, a member of the Jewish Board of Deputies, contacted me. He was assessing Temple taxes for a fellow Jewish liquidator, a rival liqudator to both our companies. He was worried that this man was over-estimating his income and should be assessed DOWN and pay LESS tax. He was right – and I confirmed it.

    You are wrong on Zim though. Mugabe invited in new money and investment from 1980 – most of the new owners of farms were British. Also Britain did pay to purchase 30% of the agricultural land for the poor – which Mugabe gave to his pals. They have a real reason to be upset.

    My husband loves the Flashman books.

  5. Consulting Engineer Consulting Engineer 20 May 2008


    Regarding wallowing in self pity, Have you read Arun Ghandi’s Jewish identity can’t depend on Violence?

    “It is a very good example of a community can overplay a historic experience to the point that it begins to repulse friends”

    “We have created a culture of violence (Israel and the Jews are the biggest players) and that Culture of Violence is eventually going to destroy humanity”

    Damn, Ghandi let rip didnt he? Tough break for the Jews isnt it, having to take on Ghandi? Of course he had all the anti-semite accusations and had to issue an aplogy and resign etc etc. But even then the ADL didnt accept his apology:

    which only goes to prove Ghandi’s point doesnt it? Hard to make this usual tactic stick on someone with Ghandi’s reputation.

    Of course you would be familiar with what his grandfather Mohatma wrote:

    The cry for the national home for the Jews does not make much appeal to me. The sanction for it is sought in the Bible and the tenacity with which the Jews have hankered after return to Palestine. Why should they not, like other peoples of the earth, make that country their home where they are born and where they earn their livelihood? Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French. It is wrong and inhuman to impose the Jews on the Arabs. What is going on in Palestine today cannot be justified by any moral code of conduct. Harijan on 26 October 1938

  6. Consulting Engineer Consulting Engineer 20 May 2008

    Hmm, When the ADL has to list the likes of Ghandi on their list of internet and media hate, it must tell you something. It smells of desperation to keep a lid on things and shows no ability to tolerate discussion. What next? Charge Mother Teresa?

    The ultra PC ‘smear with allegations’ game is up. People are begininning to see through it and speak up, expecting a discussion or rebuttal.

  7. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 22 May 2008

    Consulting Engineer

    There are over 80 Christian countries in the world; over 50 Muslim countries; and only one Jewish state, the size of the Kruger National Park.

    Your hatred of the Jews and your quoting of every Muslim Fundamentalist or Christian Fundamentalist anti-Jewish racist propaganda website nauseate me. Now I know why Oranje rejected you. The Afrikaner has always got on well with the Jews, from the time of the first Jewish “smouse”

    The story you told about your wife having non white children to your kids birthday parties but NOT IN YOUR HOUSE, make me suspect you are not much fun for your family, as either husband or father.

  8. Consulting Engineer Consulting Engineer 23 May 2008


    Since when are the ADL (a jewish site) and the Washington Post muslim or christian undementalist sites? They are reputable sites.

    If I am wrong then try and prove it without resort to cheap personal insults.

    What makes you think I applied to Orania? It is only your fantasy to want to believe this. Fact is I woudl nto apply since I have a business here.

    What makes you think my family is unhappy? Anyone that knows me will tell you different, including some that post here.

    So please, if you have no facts then save the insults. I neither care nor am interested.

    In the meantime I will write facts about jews or anyone else with or without your approval. It is the TL mods that decide, not you. Whether it meets your approval or not has no bearing on me.


    You write:
    “The vehement attacks one sees on Robert Mugabe in the more conservative UK journals like the Spectator seem primarily to have been motivated by the fact that Mugabe is oppressing white farmers of British origin. Without playing down what Mugabe is doing, there is something a little disproportionate about the outrage it is generating in these quarters.”
    There is nothing disproportionate about the outrage. Seems to me that Mbeki and his lackeys have pulled the wool over your eyes.
    In the circumstances, you should immediately correct your woefully misguided analysis.

  10. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 26 May 2008

    good idea. Then please stop sending me direct e-mails.

  11. Bernard Bernard 7 June 2008

    At Gallipoli it matters not the quantity of casualties suffered by the ANZACS and the British, the generals who fought the war for the British still thought they were still fighting at Modderrivier.Monty Python would have acquitted him self better there. When that the statemate on on the Somme was broken by Australian troops at Villers-Bretonneux the attack was conducted by the new thinking of an innovative Australian general Monash and it was then that the folly of allowing Australian troops to serve under British command became apparent. Lest we forget the two dissimilar defences of Tobruk

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