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Should I Go Easy on the Man Who Assaulted Me Because He's a Holocaust Survivor?

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Auschwitz.Credit: REUTERS

Recently I’ve been harking back to something that happened to me in my childhood. I was 6 or 7, and I slept over at a girlfriend’s house. Her parents weren’t home; the grandparents looked after us. I remember that I fell asleep on the sofa and when I woke up I found the grandfather leaning over me with his tongue in my mouth. Ten steps separated my friend’s house from mine (construction is dense on kibbutzim), but they were enough for me to repress the event and recall it only 13 years later. Since then I’ve gone through a lot of self-examination and many layers of revelation in therapy, and today, in my 40s, I can say with full confidence that the event is behind me.

Still, there is one aspect of it that bothers me. Does the fact that the man had a number tattooed on his arm – meaning his life in Auschwitz was filled with suffering – is that fact supposed to make me more lenient toward him? I want to emphasize that the emotional element involved in forgiving is not the focal point here (although everything is interconnected), but rather the moral, philosophical question: Should we be lenient regarding a person’s terrible acts if he, too experienced profound suffering?



Dear Rehabilitated,

I was sorry to hear about the experience you underwent, and it’s good that you have managed to put it behind you. At your request, I will focus first on the more general question concerning the victim who became a perpetrator. Such narratives are very common in legal, cultural and political discourse, at both the individual level (the kid who was a victim of bullying and goes on a killing spree in a school) and the collective level (the persecuted nation that becomes the oppressor of another nation).

In contrast to the easily digestible image of the purely innocent victim, the image of the violent victim raises an intolerable tangle of moral questions, which most people prefer simply not to confront. It’s easy to assume, mistakenly, that this reluctance is typical of the present era, which finds gray areas unbearable and celebrates the position of the victim. But in fact this is a much older sentiment – one that stems from the human need for a clear distinction between good and bad.

Thus, for example, one of the main reasons for the anger directed at Hannah Arendt over her reports from the Eichmann trial was the criticism she voiced of the collaboration of the Jewish councils with the Nazis. In 1964, she wrote about those hostile responses: “There exists in our society a widespread fear of judging… For behind the unwillingness to judge lurks the suspicion that no one is a free agent, and hence the doubt that anyone is responsible or could be expected to answer for what he has done.”

But even if this difficulty is not new, it has certainly intensified in our time. The philosopher Diane Enns wrote in her 2012 book “The Violence of Victimhood” that in a course she taught in 2008 at a Canadian university, only two of more than a hundred students were capable of adopting a critical approach toward a “victim-turned-perpetrator.” In her view, “the extent to which this ambivalence is exerting itself in the realm of politics and ethics, encouraging moral relativism and a reluctance to judge, is something new, and troubling.”

According to Enns, the pain inflicted upon the victim-turned-perpetrator should be a mitigating factor in relating to him, but empathy for his suffering cannot eliminate the need for moral judgment. Otherwise we deprive him of his autonomy, his responsibility, his agency as a human being. In this, Enns follows in the path of Arendt, who focused in her writing on the importance of critical thought and moral judgment, particularly under totalitarian regimes. According to Arendt, these are the factors that make it possible for certain people to resist force instead of internalizing it – and thus “there were individuals in Germany who from the very beginning of the regime and without ever wavering were opposed to Hitler,” as she emphasized in contrast to Eichmann. For this reason, we are obliged to judge the actions of those who were victims if we wish to uphold the moral values of our society and minimize the number of future victims.

Despite the responsibility that accrues to each person for his or her deeds, Enns does not suggest that we ignore the historical context of those actions. First, because it’s important to identify different degrees of responsibility and to distinguish between personal loss and political oppression. In her view, “Mourning a death perpetrated by a Palestinian suicide bomber is no different from mourning a death perpetrated by an Israeli soldier, but the historical circumstances surrounding these deaths are not the same. Personally, all victims are equal in the sense that they are equally reduced to suffering or grieving bodies; politically, historically, they are not, and it is here, on the collective level, that we could argue the greater responsibility belongs to the Israelis, as it does to all those of us whose governments support the Israeli occupation of Palestine.”

Second, and more relevant to your question, because the context is crucial in order to distinguish between the period of time in which the individual’s freedom of choice was limited or nonexistent, and other periods in his life. In this way victimhood can be treated as a specific moment, “rather than defining it as an absolute identity that both precedes and follows the act of victimization, signifying pure, timeless innocence and thus procuring a great deal of moral capital.”

Enns therefore argues that empathy for the victim and moral judgment should not be viewed as mutually exclusive, but rather should be integrated in order to produce a compassionate judgment – both toward the victim-perpetrator and toward his or her victims. In her view, the past suffering experienced by the wrongdoer definitely needs to be a mitigating factor in legal, moral and political decisions; but it must not become blind sanctification of victims which places them beyond moral judgment and critical thought.

Arendt and Enns address the complex cases of victims who were compelled to choose whether to perpetrate wrongs in fear of their lives, and of victims who perpetrated wrongs against those who victimized them. In the case you described, however, the attacker hurt another person not because of a threat to his life nor as an act of resistance. Perhaps he himself suffered sexual abuse in the course of the atrocities of the Holocaust, but that hurt did not force him to hurt his granddaughter’s friend years later.

If we maintain that the horrors he endured deprived him of any future capacity to choose between right and wrong, we sentence him (and every other survivor) to an existence that is robbed of moral autonomy and agency, thereby stripping him of his very humanity. It was in this way that Hegel, in his “Philosophy of Right,” described punishment as the offender’s right, because the punishment respects him as a rational being.

Another important distinction is between criminal law, public discussion and private forgiveness. In the era of social networks, the boundary between these realms seems almost to have disappeared – both from the perspective of those who are convinced that posts on the web should meet standards of criminal law, and from the viewpoint of those who believe that such posts are sufficient to prove the guilt or innocence of a particular person.

In criminal law there is certainly an obligation to weigh all the mitigating circumstances of the accused, including any trauma and hardship that may have contributed to his actions or are relevant to his sentencing. In a public discussion, it’s important to examine the historical, social and psychological circumstances of every injustice and to judge it accordingly. However, private forgiveness is not obliged to consider mitigating circumstances. Many victims, especially of sexual assault, become angry at themselves if they find it difficult to forgive their attacker and they see this as a failure – but forgiveness is not a mandatory stage in the process that the victim undergoes. The important question is what is right for him or her and what advances them on the road to healing. The answer to this is different for each person and for each case, and the decision is up to you alone.

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