Holocaust Guilt vs. Holocaust Shame:
On the Crisis of Western Civilization
Richard Landes, Jerusalem
[My thanks to Rabbi Marc Kujawsky who first helped me understand the difference.]
When I first heard about Catherine Nay – a prominent, mainstream, French journalist – stating on her Europe 1 news program that “with its symbolic charge of this picture, this death annuls, erases the picture of the little Jewish boy, hands up in front of the SS, in the Warsaw Ghetto,” I realized to what an extent Europeans had taken the story of the IDF killing 12-year old Muhammad al Durah in the arms of his father, as a “get-out-of-holocaust-guilt-free card“.
Picture from International ANSWER, Quote from Catherine Nay
At the time I marveled – and continue to marvel – at the astounding folly of the statement. How can a brief, blurry, chopped up video of a boy who, at best was caught in a cross fire started by his own people firing behind him, at worst an outright lethal fake, could eliminate – really replace – a picture that symbolizes the systematic murder of over a million children and their families? How morally disoriented can one get? Apparently escaping guilt made some people – too many people – do strange things… like adopt a supersessionist narrative: Israelis, the new Nazis, Palestinians, the new Jews.
But the profound distinction between guilt and shame suggests that the right formula is “get-out-of-holocaust-shame-free card.” (I know, it doesn’t sound as good.) The difference: guilt is an internally generated sense of moral obligation not to repeat past transgressions, especially egregious ones like the unchecked attempt to exterminate of a helpless minority within one’s own society. Shame, on the other hand, is externally generated, driven by the “shaming look” of others (the “honor-group“). When Germans got caught carrying out a genocide, their nation was not only guilty of the deed, but shamed before the world… The operative question for each and every German ever since is: does he or she feel bad for Germans doing it? …or Germans getting caught in defeat? (Many a Nazi and their willing executioners believed that if Germany had won, they’d have gotten away with it.)
There-in lies a key difference: for guilt, it’s the awareness of the deed and its meaning, for shame, it’s whether others know and look down on you. In some countries in the world, it’s not a question of whether you’re corrupt or not (everyone is, everyone knows), but just if you get caught. How many teenagers apologize to parents who think they’re sorry for doing it, when they’re apologizing for getting caught? How many consider adultery legitimate as long as no one else knows. On some level we are all subject to these concerns. We are all concerned with how others see us.
It’s not that honor-shame cultures don’t have moral codes in which sleeping with another man’s wife, or cheating your neighbors, or mistreating your people is legitimate. It’s that their vulnerability to the fear of shame can readily lead to a jettisoning of any moral concerns. After all, the limbic dread of shame – its disastrous psychological and practical impact on them – kicks in in times of humiliation and fear. Those afflicted with oneidophobia (overriding [limbic] fear of public blame/ humiliation), desire above all that others not see, not know, not talk about, what they have done, that one not bear the shame of transgressions and failures publicly, that one need not pay the steep price in social capital for one’s (mis)deeds.
[After two generations one can easily imagine German youth being fed up with this sense of moral indebtedness of having to bear this blame/shame of their grandparents publicly.]
Guilt-integrity, however, has moral codes that operate from within-out, rather than from without-in. Here the awareness of the transgression and the determination to not do it again operate inside the individual. That process takes both genuine remorse, and an understanding of how it could have happened, so as to prevent it from happening again. It involves criticism and self-criticism. It involves a willingness, when absolutely necessary, (beware the public flagellant!), to make the painful sacrifice of public honor in order to maintain private integrity, rather than preserve public honor at the expense of private guilt. In the case of Judah, this led to the first renunciation of an honor-killing/ shame-murder in recorded history.
Oneidophobes, people driven by shame-honor dynamics, avoid being subjected to criticism, especially public criticism. David Pryce-Jones points out that reforms are particularly difficult when no one wants to undertake an endeavor lest they fail publicly. Such people consider both lying (to save face), and, where one can get away with it, violence (to regain respect), as normal recourse. Lancelot could publicly proclaim his innocence of adultery with the Queen because he killed everyone who accused him. The shame-driven, the oneidophobes, want the negative spotlight off at all costs. In cases of those already shamed, they want to have the shame lifted. Much violence is shame avoidance, much scapegoating is transferring shame.
Honest searching, motivated by well-deserved guilt, could have led post-Shoa Germans to become the most substantive academic critics of the Western grand narrative. After all, it wasn’t just the lunatics who disliked the Jews. How many great Western figures, when they bothered to mention the Jews, did so disparagingly, as the negative version of their great accomplishment? Instead of viewing this pattern of ancient, medieval and modern, and now post modern denigration of Jews, as “they must be doing something to make others hate them so,” the now penitent, self-critical German might have asked, “maybe this has something to do with us and our problems? Maybe anti-semitism is a gentile disease.” In other words, for example, German historians might have played a leading role in reinterpreting and integrating the story of the Jews into Majority Western history, to a degree no earlier gentile historians had ever done.
After all, of all the post-modern multi-narrative projects, one might imagine that this one promised quite an academic bounty. The Hebraic contribution could be used to challenge the self-absorbed narcissistic quality to the modern Western grand narrative, that so grated on the post-modern sensibilities. Certainly, given the abundance of evidence and subjects to explore, it was a promising avenue for research. And how appropriate for Germans to engage in that exploration of a culture which, in their self-destructive madness, their fathers had tried to exterminate, and had, instead, brought another mega-death upon the world. That awareness might serve Europe well at this time when it needs to defend the best of what it has become.
Some German theologian-scholars did explore the problematic nature of supersessionism; playwrights and novelists explored the complicity of the German people. Indeed, the 1980s and 90s saw a good deal of philo-Judaism in Europe and Germany in particular. And certainly, in comparison with Japan, Germany went far in its acknowledgment of its crime. The real issue, then, was and is, how much of the public regret reflected an acceptance of shame (itself better than the oneidophobic Japanese refusal to even acknowledge wrongdoing), and how much reflected an also inner acceptance of guilt. Gunther Gräss put his finger on the issue in the famous scene where the good bourgeois German couple are walking past a jewelry shop at night, and Oskar shatters the vitrine with his shriek. They look up and down, realize they are alone, and grab the jewels. If no one sees, it doesn’t really count, there’s nothing to hold you back.
Translated into our understanding of Western civilization, if no one sees you cheating by giving outsized credit to your own favorite (Greece/Rome), and belittling another contributor (Israel/Jews), then what’s to stop you? Intellectual integrity? I was astonished, when I finally got introduced systematically to “Western Political Thought” as a post-doc fellow at Columbia (1984), to find that virtually everyone began this story with Socrates/Plato (5th-4th century BCE) and paid no attention to the Bible (12-6th century) as a political document with remarkably modern resonance. Instead, with a remarkable perduring consistency, far too many of the great Western thinkers, right up to the present, have adopted the supersessionist tendency to define Jews and Judaism as the negative shadow of their great light.
Thus, only a handful of (mostly Jewish) scholars have tilled these exceptionally rich fields of the Jewish/biblical origins of Western freedom and democracy. Were these attitudes and awarenesses more mainstream today, were they part of the overall narrative of self understanding, supporters of the Western Grand Narrative might not have to bemoan their own inexplicable impotence in the face of feral assaults.
Supersessionism, like all triumphalist religiosity, is shame-honor driven, hence its need to visibly dominate others as a sign, a proof one is right… in the Western monotheistic/atheistic case, the belittling provides proof that one is at the moral cutting edge of humanity, with no rivals. “We” are the true leaders with the true teaching. Do not listen to the chatterings of others. Their speaking roils the (shame-driven) consensus; inviting them to speak would create “controversial and fraught” affairs, and no sound scholar could “see value in” the talks themselves.
Supersessionism worsens as it gets deliberately zero-sum: in order to prove my superiority over my parent, I will strive to degrade the remnant of those I (should) have surpassed and replaced. My self-identity as the moral leader of mankind demands the public humiliation of my rival, the more publicly, the better. What better way to resolve the anxiety of influence, than “killing” one’s begetter through systematic degradation?
This is my understanding of why the global progressive left has turned on Israel so savagely in the 21st century: in adopting the Israeli-Nazi/Palestinian-Jew replacement narrative, they manage to place themselves high above everyone else, not only the Arab Muslims, whom they see as far beneath them, worthy of pity, but more importantly the Jews, who have now, “lost the moral high ground.” The insatiable appetite of allegedly progressive people like Jostein Gaarder, for stories of autonomous Jews (Israelis) behaving badly, is nothing short of breathtaking. Indeed, an entire school of lethal journalists has emerged (and dominated coverage) in the 21st century Middle East, precisely to feed that appetite.
When Europeans (or Christians) adopt the Palestinian replacement narrative, when the universalization of the Holocaust leads to silence about its prime victim, the driver of the megadeath industry, when academics and politicians engage in “holocaust abuse” by replacing the (old) Jewish victim, with the (new) Palestinian one, and denouncing Israel’s genocide against the Palestinians, they reveal that they are driven not by Holocaust guilt, but Holocaust shame, and the result is the exact opposite of what one might/should expect. Instead of making sure they don’t participate in another genocide against the same people their foreathers had so grievously treated only a couple of generations ago – Nie Weider! – they adopt the narrative of those who would “finish the job.”
There are hard, obsessional versions of this, to be found both at the extremes of the right and even more widely spread among the “left,” especially the intersectional left. But there are others forms of the shame-driven depreciation of Jews, less obvious, but not without their impact. The same Western Civ guys who consider Jews free-riders, benefiting from but not agents in Western civilization, tend to also consider the creation of Israel a result of the Holocaust, rather than Jewish agency. (Somehow those Jews manage to benefit both from our generosity and our hostility!) At a time when the West does not know how to react to the assault of Caliphaters, would Europeans/Westerners not benefit from looking at Israel as an autonomous agent on the same side in the same struggle, rather than project upon her their own past sins and join their joint enemies, the Jihadis, in ganging up on her?
The rubber hit the road at the turn of the millennium, when the Western public sphere – an internet globalized public sphere, itself an astounding creation – found itself under assault by a civilizational enemy, one who hated both the liberal West and the still more revolutionary (and gender-equal, transgressive) post-moderns. Rather than democratic forces uniting against theocratic imperialism, it became open, liberal, good people on the left against tribal, Islamophobic, bad people on the right.
At this moment of civilizational crisis, the “good people” in particular, showed almost no recognition of the many roles Jews – and Israel – had played in the creation of a global civil society and continue to play in its maintenance. In radical contrast with those who love the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, like the Nazis, or the Jihadis, who think democracy is entirely the product of Jews (Darwin and Nietzsche are the dupes of malevolent Jewish genius), most liberals would be at a loss to speak more than vaguely of the Jewish contribution to the creation of modern democracy. Far from considering Jews a resource and valuable ally in a battle of civilizational values, the “progressive left,” at the very least, more broadly the liberal left, considered autonomous Jews inconvenient (gênant) at the very least. As a result, in the opening years of the new century, they did not hesitate to treat Israel with violent contempt (Sharansky’s 3-DSs) and force diaspora Jews to either denounce Israel or go into another diaspora, this time exiled from the leftist world of modern power (information professionals). Whether they knew it or not, they were siding against the Jews and with the barbarians.
In particular, the German Left illustrates a remarkably supersessionist attitude towards Israel, which not only led them to devour the poisonous lethal narratives from the second intifada (Al Durah, Jenin), but also, in the case of the Linke Partie in 2006, for example, to march in gender-separated, pro-Hizbullah demonstrations. Whatever his earlier contributions to German introspection, Gunther Grass’ 2012 Poem “What Must be Said,” shows neither trace of self-awareness in his motivation – in his mind he occupies the high moral ground – nor understanding of the difference between Israel and an Iranian regime driven by an apocalyptic theology. Eldad Beck argues that by externalizing Germany’s responsibility (grand monuments in city centers, commemorative plaques, speeches, public debts to Israel), it actually avoids any real sense of guilt and serious self-reflection. Like the grand opening and practical problems surrounding Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof, it’s more how things look, than what they are (how they really work). Hans Kundnani highlights the moral narcissism of Germany’s ’68 generation.
If anything, the post-grand-narrativists, for whom the Western narrative is an ugly succession of oppression and injustice, see the national (autonomous) Jews (Israel) as the last remnant the Western racist, imperial/colonial past. Israel ist unser Unglück. For most major modern “thinkers” about “Western Civilization,” the Jews were a marginal part of the tale, victims of lamentable Western intolerance (read: aggressive supersessionism), benefactors from, but not actual contributors to, that great Western civilizing venture that brought us the modern world’s bounty of rights and freedoms and material abundance.
In the mid-aughts (00’s), I spoke to a joint Jewish-German dialogue in Boston. I had been told by one of the organizers that the Germans were depressed, had no sense of purpose or identity about which they could be proud. I spoke to them about how their generation is best placed to tell the Arabs and the rest of the Muslim world to beware apocalyptic conspiracy theories like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
Every German embassy and consulate, especially in the Arab and Muslim world, should, I argued, have a display, filled with the wisdom of German penitential awareness of how poisonous the impact of that forgery on the self-destructive German madness of their parents. Their past sins, I argued, had placed today’s Germans in the unique position in the global community to stand in the gap against the rising tide of Jihadi anti-Semitism. The response: “We didn’t come here to be fed Islamophobic nonsense.”
They were not about to challenge the consensus, to defy the group mind, or maybe, to give up the thrilling moral titillation of having the Jews, the Israelis, take their place in the global hot-seat of shame and degradation. On the contrary, they much preferred the taste of the European mantra: “Jews/Israelis of all people should know better than to mistreat Palestinians…” and not so much the thought that “German/ Europeans, of all people, should understand the need to stand up against the genocidal anti-semitism prevalent within the Palestinian/Arab/Islamic world.”
Years later, in 2011, when I spent a year in Germany, I was surprised to hear them say, “We’re more afraid of our own fascism, than that of our Muslims.” How much stronger they’d be, had they worked on redeeming their guilt by understanding Jews better, rather than on escaping their shame by, in a fit of moral pretension, despising Israelis. Maybe they would, today, be strong enough to refuse the blandishments of proleptic dhimmitude. In a world driven by honest guilt, I’d much prefer to deal with post-Holocaust Germans than pre-Holocaust triumphalist Muslims.
And that gets us to the core difference between guilt and shame: the shamed want nothing so much as to divest themselves of their shame, especially if it is global, if an “entire people” are shamed. If that means putting someone else in the spotlight of global shame, so be it. And if those upon whom one wishes to transfer the shame are also responsible for one’s shaming (as in “Europe will never forgive the Jews for the Holocaust“), then so much the better. Hence the Europeans with their global shame for the Holocaust, and the Arabs with their global shame for failing to strangle infant Israel in its cradle, both share a special supersessionist, shame-driven, eagerness to degrade Israel in order that the “Jewish State’s” shame will erase, replace their own.
If Europe is to survive, to fight back, to defend the remarkable freedoms and citizens’ rights it has already achieved, then it should sooner turn away from Holocaust shame and dive into Holocaust guilt. In the end, it would be a win-win-win – for Europeans/democracies, for Jews/Israelis, and for that vast majority of peaceful Muslims who want to join the 21st century community of nations, ready to live at peace and in equality with those who do not share their faith.
Around 2010, a French publisher told me that a journalist had just asked him on what calendar date to choose to commemorate EU-Day. Holocaust Day, he responded, an answer I, as a medievalist, familiar with the longue-durée of European history, found quite compelling. Only in repentance for its treatment of Jews, in its embrace of a peaceful global community (UN and Geneva Conventions) were Europeans able to set behind them millennia of war and violence, and join together in a consensual, positive-sum union.
Perhaps if he had been taken seriously, the EU would not be in such bad shape today. Perhaps it could understand that the Jews and Israel are their best allies in the struggle for social justice, and, more to the point, in this battle with triumphalist Islam. Perhaps then European thought leaders could begin to reverse an own-goal approach to the war between Israel and her neighbors, that strengthens their enemies and weakens their friends.