Pierre Bayle, the great 17th-century French philosopher, had a bleak view of history: "Properly speaking, history is nothing but the crimes and misfortunes of the human race," he wrote, presaging a similar remark a century later by Edward Gibbon. Steven Pinker, in his recent book "The Better Angels of our Nature," reminds us that it took a long time for the victims of those crimes to be collectively noticed, mourned and remembered. Even if religions always cared for and honored the dead, it is only in recent history that we collectively commemorate the victims of the past. In modern social democracies, history has become, largely, the memory of the memory of "crimes and misfortunes" of the human race because remembering has become a moral duty, even a moral imperative. It is a moral imperative not only in the sense that it expresses our solidarity with the dead, but also in the sense that it reminds us what it means to deviate from basic, universal norms of humanity.
While compassion for the suffering of others can and should extend beyond the boundaries of our country, the "duty of memory" is, interestingly enough, still often a national affair - a practice that usually concerns only the members of the national group. The only exception to this is, perhaps, the Shoah, which has become the universal benchmark of collective solidarity and memory, the sign that Jews are inextricably linked to the moral horizon of many nations.
So preoccupied are modern nations with the memory of victims that their media have become an extension of the moral imperative of memory. The media are overcrowded with victims because they fundamentally reflect our moral concerns. The banalization of victimhood by the media is thus, paradoxically, a consequence of the extent to which the media give voice to and deal with moral concerns. There is, however, one form of banalization that cannot be attributed to the media, and this one should worry us.
When the Shoah is invoked by Benjamin Netanyahu to make the claim that "It's 1938 and Iran is Germany," the victims of the Shoah are forgotten, not remembered.
Peter Beinart, the American left-leaning Jewish and Zionist journalist, recently lambasted Netanyahu - and other elements of the Israeli right - for instrumentalizing the Shoah for blatant political purposes. This is a familiar accusation. What exposes its cynicism is its inherent contradiction: One cannot claim at one and the same time that the Shoah occupies a singular place in the history of the "crimes and horrors of humanity," and yet use it as a one-size-fits-all analogy, whenever politically convenient (Ahmadinejad, however dangerous and appalling, is not Hitler ). The same tendency to use the Shoah as a political analogy to scare and condemn can be found in many political persuasions, not all of them on the right. But there is more: In incessantly invoking the Shoah for political purposes of the moment, as is often done in Israel, we are stirring the victims of the Shoah from the quiet of their death, turning them into phantoms and specters, and in effect ordering them to haunt the living, with no rest.
What is a phantom? A phantom is a dead person who haunts us because she did not get proper burial, and has been conjured from the dead to serve the needs of the living. Its spectral presence, caught between the realms of the dead and the living, makes it scary. Phantoms are very good instruments of fear because they are the dead who never go away.
This is the reason why all great religions employ funerary rituals to bury their dead properly, in order to create a precise boundary between "them" and "us" - the dead and the living. These religions understood that the living would be tempted to create ghosts, to keep the dead forever among us. In evoking the Shoah in so many inappropriate and political contexts, we indeed turn the victims into ghostly, restless souls that wander among us, denied the burial rites they deserve.
We must put an end to this distorted commemoration of the victims that turns them into the hollow, spooky phantoms that haunt Israeli politics. To mourn is to feel the pain of absence, not the fear of ghostly presence.
Prof. Eva Illouz is a member of the Center for the Study of Rationality and holds the Rose Isaacs Chair in Sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
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