Let's Forgive Ourselves

It is not only the Israeli national camp that was traumatized by the Holocaust and thus views the world with apprehension. The Israeli peace camp also has a distorted view of the world due to that very same trauma.

Yair Sheleg
Yair Sheleg
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Yair Sheleg
Yair Sheleg

In the early decades of statehood, the Israeli reaction to the Holocaust found expression mainly in determination to gain military, economic and emotional strength, to guarantee "never again." In recent decades, however, a reaction has developed in the form of self-accusation about the "Holocaust complex" we have developed.

This complex is supposedly expressed by excessive suspicion of "gentiles," in self-righteousness and in the inability to accept criticism, all adding up to too much readiness to hurt others severely just so that we ourselves should not be hurt. Hundreds of articles, books, plays and films have tried to convey this message. The criticism over linking the Holocaust with the determination to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons has also focused largely on this "Holocaust complex."

There are few expressions more annoying than the term "Holocaust complex," even though there is some substance to the phenomenon it describes. In the wake of the Holocaust, there indeed developed in Israel a deep suspicion of the outside world and talk of "international guarantees of security." (There is no need to learn the lessons of the Holocaust to appreciate this suspicion; it suffices to look at the world's equanimity in the face of the massacre in Syria. )

What also developed in Israel was a tendency to reject criticism even when it was justified, and to identify criticism (even though it was not always wrong ) too hastily with anti-Semitism. Above all, there is a genuine danger that the great sensitivity to threats against Israel will lead to an overreaction such as an attack on Iran, even if it is not essential and is likely to lead to an even greater disaster than the one it is meant to prevent.

But none of this justifies the phrase "Holocaust complex." The word "complex" carries the connotation of mental illness. It hints at a person, or nation, that has a screw loose and constantly feels a senseless anxiety about annihilation. Mainly, the term broadcasts arrogance and lack of understanding and thus is even more irritating when used by Jews and Israelis.

If a private individual had lost one-third of his family members in a massacre and if he had, as a result, developed a deep suspicion of foreigners and their intentions or a violent reaction to all those who merely hint at an attempt to harm him, no one would lecture him arrogantly about having a "massacre complex," certainly not his family members who had survived. If any of them had done so, anyone else with the slightest sensitivity would denounce the lack of basic human feeling, perhaps even the emotional deviance involved in such remarks. Not a "complex," one would say, but a justified trauma which leads necessarily to post-traumatic symptoms, and anyone who wishes to deal with conditions like this must do so with the utmost sensitivity.

This is not a question of empathy because that word, too, is tainted with the arrogance of someone who has a perfect self-image, who in his flawless standing can "feel empathy" with the flawed.

Instead it is a question of sensitivity and forgiveness - the sensitivity we must require from foreigners and the forgiveness we must extend to ourselves.

The forgiveness we need is not the kind that exempts us from responsibility but rather the kind that understands responsibility to contain tolerance and concern.

This kind of forgiveness, apparently, is also required in dealing with Jewish and Israeli attempts to call for a boycott of Israel or some of its institutions. In the long run, these pathetic attempts, for which no examples can be found in other nations, are apparently another type of reaction to the trauma of the Holocaust and the history of anti-Semitism that preceded it. This is a reaction that seeks to placate the world just as the hawkish reaction seeks to attack it.

It is not only the Israeli national camp that was traumatized by the Holocaust and thus views the world with apprehension. The Israeli peace camp also has a distorted view of the world due to that very same trauma.



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