Condensing Our Victimhood (Tisha Be’Av 5779)
By Andrés Spokoiny
Tisha Be’Av is not only the saddest Jewish holiday, it’s also the ultimate Jewish jinx. According to the Mishna (Ta’anit 4:6), five calamities happened to the Jewish People on that fateful day: Moses’ Spies slandered the land of Israel; during the Bar Kochba revolt, the city of Beitar was destoyed and the Romans plowed the Temple Mount; and, most importantly, both Temples were destroyed, and Jewish sovereignty lost, on the same day in both 586 BCE and 70 CE.
Many other tragedies also tarnished the 9th day of this summer month throughout our history, from the launch of the First Crusade and the expulsion of Jews from England to the beginning of the mass deportation of the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka. To this day, observant Jews, besides fasting and lamenting, will avoid taking fateful decisions on that date and endeavor to be extra careful.
In a closer read of the text, however, something appears to be slightly amiss with the dating of Tisha B’Av’s flagship tragic coincidence: the destruction of both Temples, six centuries apart, on the same day. The Second Temple was indeed destroyed on the 9th of Av. But it takes a little bit of a pirouette to say that First Temple fell on the same day. The First Temple’s destruction actually began on the 7th of Av and lasted well into the 10th.
With the other tragedies named by the Mishna, too, tying the events to the day seems effortful. The Torah (Numbers 13-14) doesn’t explicitly say that the spies returned on the 9th of Av. The Bar Kochba revolt and its war lasted years; only a few events fell on the 9th of Av, and their importance may be inflated simply because of that coincidence. In the case of later tragedies, too, rabbinic tradition plays the same game, cherry-picking times that oppression of Jews has fallen on, or even just near, Tisha Be’Av. It is as if the rabbis were making a serious effort to push all these events onto the same day.
Often, Jewish communities have used Tisha Be’Av to commemorate Jewish tragedies with no particular tie to that day whatsoever. In fact, when Yom HaShoah was established, there was bitter opposition by many traditionalists, especially Haredim, who believe that the Holocaust should be commemorated also on Tisha Be’Av.
One feels as if there has been a conscious attempt to minimize the days of mourning and sadness in the calendar, packing as much grief into Tisha Be’Av as possible.
That may have a deeper message than just avoiding gloom and fasting. What if our sages wanted to minimize the sense of victimhood of the Jews? What if they were trying to say, “Feel like a wretched victim once a year, but just once a year”?
And that would make total sense, because, as surprising as it may sound to us, the rejection of victimhood is one of the cornerstones of Jewish thought. Judaism is based around the idea of human free choice, and, therefore, responsibility for our choices and actions. Victimhood, however, is the opposite of responsibility. Things “happen” to the victim; she has no agency or control and whoever has no agency has no accountability. A victim has moral impunity because if I’m not in control of my life, I can’t be subject to any moral judgment. To a victim everything is permitted and nothing can be reproached; his suffering is a never-expiring promissory note to exact some future revenge, a get-out-of-jail-free card that prevents him from taking responsibility for his own actions. Victimhood is addictive, because a life of license and irresponsibility is a life without pangs of consciences, without introspection, without hard moral choices – a life in which my basest instincts can be covered by an unassailable coat of righteousness.
The worst atrocities in human history were justified by victimhood. Soviet Russia justified its millions of murders by referring to the victimization of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie; in Nazi mythology, Germany was, above all, a victim – of the Jews, of international capital, of the Versailles treaty, etc. Mussolini presented Italy as having been unfairly robbed of its glorious imperial past and, therefore, slaughtering the Ethiopians in his senseless African war was justified. Osama Bin Laden’s ideology is one in which Muslims are the perennial victims of the West and therefore what Al Qaeda does is not cold-blooded murder, but self-defense.
Despite our long history of suffering, Judaism never developed the self-consciousness of the victim. In our liturgy and prayers there’s no self-pity. Rather the opposite: we are the people loved by God and the recipients of incommensurable blessings. Our tribulations are not a license to hate others, but a reason for introspection. We don’t respond to the churban (destruction of the Temple) with self-pity but with a call for self-examination. We say “mipnei chataeinu galinu meartzenu,” because of our errors we were exiled from our land, and not “the wicked Babylonians did this to us.” Jews are over and over instructed to respond to hardship with an affirmation of positive values. After the Exodus from Egypt, the response to the real victimization of slavery consists of building a society that would represent the opposite of what Egypt was; where Egypt was cruel, Israel should be compassionate; where Egypt was based on power, Israel should be based on right; where Egypt was based on oppression, Israel should be based on equality under the law. If anything, Jewish victimhood adds responsibility rather than releasing us from it. Our tradition understands that no healthy society can be built on victimhood.
This message is more important today than ever. We seem to be living in a golden era of victimhood, a relentless race to the bottom of a bottomless pit of moral impunity. What is “identity politics” but a competition of victimhood, a disquisition about who was wronged more; who deserves more sympathy?
It’s objectively true that some sectors of the population suffer more than others. Injustices need to be repaired and wrongs righted, but creating an aristocracy of victimhood is not a solid foundation for social cohesion. While certain elements of what today is called “privilege” are objectively true, it’s never useful or constructive to divide the world cleanly between “privileged” and “victims.” Many leaders in developing countries use victimhood as a blanket excuse. Many in Algeria, for example, still blame France for all the country’s woes, even though Algeria has been independent for more than 50 years.
But in today’s world, even the most powerful among us think of themselves as (or understand the benefits of portraying themselves as) victims. What is more ludicrous than the American president, who has the power to convert the Earth into interstellar dust by simply pushing a button, portraying himself a victim (of the media, of sordid conspiracies, of Congress, of the FBI, of his own appointees)? America, the strongest and most powerful polity in the history of the world, is now portrayed by its government itself as a victim of Guatemala. In Britain, the Brexit debate reeks of victimhood, and one asks by what intellectual alchemy the country that once had the biggest empire the world ever knew can claim victim status. Palestinian hardship is real, but it has been made much worse by a permanent attitude of victimhood in which, to listen to Palestinian leaders, nothing that happens to Palestinian society is ever its own responsibility. This attitude has been used to try to legitimize unspeakable crimes, like suicide bombings or rocket fire at civilians, but it has also gotten Palestinian society stuck in a cycle of despair. Wouldn’t peace be more achievable today if Palestinian leaders had invested in social and economic development the same energy they have put into fighting Israel?
By contrast, the origins of Zionism actually attest to the anti-victimhood mentality of Judaism. One of the key messages of Zionism is that Jews were not going to cry over the persecution they suffered, but take their destiny into their own hands. To the despair of the victim, they’d offer the hope that comes from taking responsibility and recovering agency. Not in vain were two of the first Zionist colonies called “Mikve Israel” (the hope of Israel) and “Petach Tikvah” (the gates of hope); and, of course, the Zionist anthem is called Hatikvah, the hope. Even after the Holocaust, when Jews would have been justified in cowering in the gloomy comfort of victimhood, they didn’t do it; rather, they put their energies into building a modern and democratic state of which they would be proud.
Lately, however, we Jews are also being swept up in the dark appeal of victimhood. The Israeli PM, like many of his counterparts around the world, presents himself as a victim of the “elites” (regardless of the fact that he has dominated Israeli politics for the best part of the last 30 years). And he’s not alone. Some voices on the Israeli left are more interested in complaining about right-wing power-grabs than they are in presenting a positive alternative. Too many Israeli and Zionist voices have also entered the pointless victimhood competition with our Palestinian neighbors in which both sides try to prove to some metaphysical referee that we are more victimized than the other.
In America, meanwhile, left-wing and right-wing Jews alike are facing rising antisemitism with less unity and resolve than in the past; instead, each political side within the Jewish community eagerly trumpets Jewish victimization at every opportunity – as long as the antisemitism in that opportunity comes from the opposite political side. Liberal Jews are victims of the Orthodox establishment that doesn’t fully recognize them; Orthodox Jews are victims of secular people who don’t respect their sensitivities. Every one of us seems caught in an existential fight in which victimhood gives us license to hate our fellow Jews.
It is true that we have enemies bent on our destruction, and it’s true that antisemitism has again raised its ugly head. Clearly, rejecting victimhood doesn’t mean being naïve to these dangers or not defending ourselves. Victimhood is an attitude and a mindset, a narrative that we build around facts, not the facts themselves. And it’s incredibly ironic that precisely now, when the Jewish People has more power than ever before in its 4,000 years of history, we succumb to the feeling of victimhood. The feeling that “the Cossacks are coming” that accompanied our ancestors, and that Zionism worked so hard to eradicate, is now back with a vengeance. The truth is that the Cossacks are not coming, and if they do, we are ready for them. Paradoxically, some of the most ardent defenders of Zionism espouse a victim mindset that is antithetical to Zionism’s foundational idea.
In this context, it’s easy to see how prophetic the message of the Talmudic rabbis was – how wise it was to concentrate so much self-pity into 24 hours instead of letting it contaminate more of our year, how prescient they were in warning us about the dangers of the victim mentality. They knew that a world of victims is a sad and dangerous place.
So let’s follow their lead and squeeze all our victimhood into this gloomy day. And let’s save the rest of the year for responsibility, hope and transformation.
Andrés Spokoiny is President & CEO, Jewish Funders Network.