The Religion of Humanity and the Sin of the Jews

Europeans remake the Jews in their own image.

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am a man,” the old-time humanist used to say, “and nothing that is human is foreign to me.” By bringing what was once remote within reach, mass media has made this timeless maxim seem like a cliché. Yet today’s humanist nonetheless seems foreign or indifferent to everything human save for the suffering of the Palestinians. Palestine torments him, obsesses him, preys on his mind. And if his attention should stray, it is only to focus instead on conflicts or calamities that can be related, through correlation or causality, to this basic drama. As the French philosopher Étienne Balibar has put it, Palestine is now a “Universal Cause.”
To what does Palestine owe this extraordinary privilege? What is the source of this unequaled, unprecedented fixation? Why has the keffiyeh become a universal symbol of rebellion? And finally, why the Palestinians, and not the Chechens, the Tibetans, the Bosnians, the Tutsis, or the Sudanese?
A letter I received recently helped explain things. “How can a sensitive, intelligent people that has suffered and that knows what it means to be decimated,” my correspondent asked, referring to the Jews in a tone more afflicted than vindictive, “inflict upon another people, in no way responsible for its condition, fifty years of brutality, murder, and despoliation?” Both the accusation and the dating of it are telling: A persecuted nation that has been persecuting in turn for half a century. It is the Holocaust, then, that makes the territories occupied by Israel the locus of crime; it is the trauma of the destruction of European Jews that inexhaustibly fuels international sympathy for the suffering of the Palestinians. I would even say that for my correspondent to have so readily dated the scandal of the “occupation” not from the Six Day War, but from the creation of the Jewish state, the post-Hitlerian impulse to ignore all that came after Auschwitz must be deeply ingrained indeed. “Fifty years of brutality,” the correspondent declared. So did an angry caller to the French radio program Là-bas Si J’y Suis in June 2001:
What kind of murderous state is this, that gets its kicks out of mutilating and assassinating children, that justifies the unacceptable with criminal impudence, and then has the despicable arrogance to accuse us of racism when we gingerly protest against such disgraceful conduct? What kind of hypocrites are these people, who wield the shield of anti-Semitism when all we’re trying to do is remind them that for fifty years now they’ve been reproducing in small doses the horrible injustice that they themselves suffered?
Fifty years: Between the terror-stricken face of the boy in the Warsaw Ghetto and the death of little Mohammed al-Dura, there is nothing. History has vanished. In one broad stroke, the duty to remember has swept everything else away. “An excruciating memorial highway,” writes Alain Brossat, “leads directly from Auschwitz to Jerusalem via Deir Yassin, Hebron, Beirut, and Shatila.” Nothing demonstrates the relationship between the universality of the Palestinian cause and the genocide of the Jews more clearly than the directness of this highway, and the correlative definition of state Zionism as that which converts the “capitalof victimhood” into the “capital of power and violence.”
To today’s humanists, this definition is gratifying. For if the extermination of the Jews is perpetuated through the Jewish oppression of Palestinians, then the inveterate blamers turn out to be blameworthy themselves. And if those toward whom we behaved shamefully are now behaving shamefully themselves, then there is no more need to feel ashamed. Put differently, if the eye watching Cain is also the eye of Cain, then Cain has no more need of a bad conscience. He can rest easy. In short, the Palestinian cause has provided a humanity weary of apologizing for having abandoned six million Jews to their deaths the unhoped-for opportunity to relieve itself of the burden of repentance. The malicious indignation, the enthusiastic contempt, and the hardly surprising use of economic terminology certainly lend credence to this explanation.
But it seems to me that we cannot leave it at that. After all, the most zealous advocates of the Palestinian cause are on Abel’s side, not Cain’s. As such, they have nothing to atone for; they have always maintained innocence. Indeed, it is on the strength of their disgust for colonial, collaborationist, and fascist Europe that they now defend those whom they call “the victims of victims.” Their indictment of the Jewish state goes hand in hand with their denunciation of Europe’s old demons. Convinced that a civilization that forgets its past is doomed to repeat it, these vigilant humanists speak of nothing but the Holocaust. “Remember Auschwitz,” they say, “so that it will never happen again.” They say this sententiously; they say it everywhere—they even teach it to children in school.
And suddenly the Jews, lulled into a false security by the seeming impeccability of this formula, are stunned and terrified by an unexpected turn of events: Not the returnof intolerance on account of forgetting, but rather on account of the reversal of memory. Those two magic words, “Never again,” have ceased to sanctify their initial beneficiaries; now, they work to accuse them. As in all tragedies, fate strikes through the very course of action intended to ward it off. In the end, nothing contributes more implacably to making the dreaded thing happen than all the efforts invested in averting it.

Alain Finkielkraut is a lecturer in the social sciences at the École Polytechnique in Paris, and the author of some fifteen books, including In the Name of Humanity: Reflections on the Twentieth Century (Columbia University Press, 2000). A version of this essay originally appeared in the French journal Le Débat.

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