Friday, February 27, 2009

Having watched Shoah, Sophie's Choice, The Counterfeiters

My goal was to have some contact with the experience of the holocaust, since my family was not in Europe during the Nazi era, although going back a couple of generations, my ancestors undoubtedly had experience of pogroms in Russian and Eastern Europe. I worried that it was too easy for me to attribute the cycle of violence in the Middle East to a vicious circle, to which Israelis contribute at least as much as Palestinians. I worried that I was dismissively psychologizing Israeli actions, attributing Israeli violence against Palestinians to “post traumatic” reactions in the wake of the holocaust, perhaps missing aspects of the experience of those with roots in the holocaust that might make them more, rather than less, attuned to current realities. I did not expect to stop feeling critical of Israeli government violence, but I hoped to earn my opposition with a respectful recognition of the experiences people have had that form a backdrop to violence. I felt that I accorded that kind of recognition to Palestinian experiences leading to Palestinian violence against Israelis, while somehow failing to accord that recognition to Jewish and Israeli experiences. I had thought that this imbalance reflected my sense of shame as a Jew about Israeli government violence against innocent people, and about what seemed to me to be disproportionate violence considering the nature of the provocation in some cases---shame that I did not feel, as a non-Palestinian, about Palestinian actions. I also seemed to be expecting more of Jews than of Palestinians, perhaps in a way that is denigrating of Palestinians. I had always of thought of the Jewish people as especially committed to ethical action, to sympathy with the oppressed, I thought that an understandable commitment to “never again” be helplessly victimized had led to a rigid and misguided equation of violence with power. I did not expect to change these understandings in a fundamental way, and I will not give up being horrified by violence and its justification, but I did want to take seriously the possibility that I had defensively avoided an awareness of Jewish suffering that might make me more understanding of how Israelis, and many of my fellow American Jews, see the world. My strategy seemed to be to take equal account of experiences of victimization suffered by those who perpetrate violence on both sides. The choice of this strategy now seems perhaps revealing in itself:
Perpetrator-victim-perpetrator-victim-------victim?- Perpetrator?- Victim?-----victim! -Perpetrator! -Victim!
Each moment in the cycle seems sufficient unto itself, yet each seems inexorably (but for Gandhi, who really struggled with this problem) to lead into the other. (Gandhi’s struggle seems the prerogative of the “powerless”).
Trying to get out of being trapped by each term of the cycle, in terms of a cycle, is an effort to escape the confine of each term as sufficient unto itself, yet ultimately the cycle itself seems confining.
So what would it be like not to be confined by this cycle, at least in thought?
So here is one reaction to watching these three movies: some people who lived through the holocaust, having witnessed an unthinkable human capacity (unfeelingly to destroy feeling beings) sometimes can’t stop seeing that side of humanity somewhere, out there. While those of us who have not suffered this fate can’t stop hoping that side of humanity can be avoided, if not mastered.
I’ll stop, for the moment.