Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Memmi on the "Mistaken" Belief of Jewish Suffering

I'm trying to return to Albert Memmi this summer, and so I've been reading his book Portrait of a Jew.. I've pulled quotes on this blog from Memmi before -- his discussion on the meaning of Zionism (from Jews and Arabs) and why the nation-state is part of Jewish liberation (from The Liberation of the Jew). This passage deals with how other people react to Jews when we try to claim that we are marginalized, that we do suffer.

Earlier in the chapter (pp. 22-23), Memmi discusses an interesting phenomenon where Jews claimed to not have been truly "aware" of themselves as Jewish, of their marginalized Jewish status, until a particularly robust event of anti-Semitism revealed it to them. Einstein encountering German anti-Semites, Herzl facing down the mobs clamoring for Dreyfuss. As Memmi observes, there is something odd about this -- as if any Jew of that era could really be unaware of the broader currents of anti-Semitism -- and furthermore, the celerity with which these persons are able to describe their situation following the triggering event belies the idea that they really lacked any awareness of its contours prior to that date. What's really going on is a sort of self-deception, where Jews try to tell ourselves that we're fine, happy, assimilated people. And because we tell it so insistently to ourselves, it maybe isn't too surprising that non-Jews are also sometimes incredulous when we do finally feel compelled to express it out loud.

In any event, after noting the default incredulity -- he analogizes it to Europeans who can't fathom that natives suffer under colonialism and accuse them of being "too sensitive" or just "out of [their] mind[s]" -- Memmi writes the following:
"Very well,"" I, too, have often been told, "you suffer because you are a Jew. I believe you because you say so. But you are wrong to feel that way."
[*29] After denying that the situation exists, they say it is a "mistake," after refusing to believe in the Jew's anxiety, they declare it is unfounded. In the end they even lose their temper and retort sharply: "You think of yourself too much! Come now! You enjoy pitying yourselves! Have a little pity for others!"
One of the best arguments I have heard accused me of selfish complacency.
"You are not the only victim--if there are any victims at all!" they told me. "Look at the Negroes, at the Spanish Republicans, at all the displaced persons. And what about the gypsies! What social outcasts they are!"
 A fine argument indeed! They are going to chip off your leg (and sometimes your head) but just look at that poor man in the bed next to you, they say. They cut on both his legs and he was so brave. Aren't you ashamed! A little more and they would blame you for not singing while they dismember you!
Far from thinking I am the only one in this situation, I believe, on the contrary, that racial discrimination is more widespread than anything else in the world. I note, with horror, that most individuals, most peoples, are basically inclined to xenophobia. Far from believing I am the sole victim in a world of peace and justice, I think, unfortunately, that the statement should be reversed: the Jewish tragedy is part of a much broader human category--the category of oppression and misfortune.
 But, I repeat, I do not understand how the misfortune of others can be reassuring and comforting. All the misfortune in the world gives me no consolation at all for my own. It does not console me for anything. All the injustice in the world cannot make me accept the injustice I suffer. On the contrary, it feeds my anger, it whips up my fury against the shame and the outrage. Because I am a Jew, am I to console myself with the [*30] thought of anti-Negro racism or racial difficulties in the colonies? What my would-be comforters suggest to me is that since, after all, xenophobia does exist, it is up to me to suffer patiently the insults to the Jews! I understand perfectly. There are, in short, two attitudes: either one accepts all the sufferings or one rejects it all. Well, I reject it in totum as I reject in detail each face of oppression.
Albert Memmi, Portrait of a Jew (Elisabeth Abbott, trans., New Yor: Viking 1971) (1962), pp. 28-30.

1 comment:

Binyamin Arazi said...

For non-Jews (white people/Europeans and Arabs in particular), it is internalized guilt/denial with a layer of confusion on top. The latter can be ascribed to the Jewish power myth, in my opinion, since it causes them to ask "how can they possibly be oppressed?".