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The Shame Is On Us

Recent actions in Hebron by the right-wing Jewish settlers have brought great disgrace to the nation of Israel and the Jewish people. Simply put, this week showed us the dark side of the union between religion and nationalism. Our religion … Read More

By / December 10, 2008

Recent actions in Hebron by the right-wing Jewish settlers have brought great disgrace to the nation of Israel and the Jewish people. Simply put, this week showed us the dark side of the union between religion and nationalism. Our religion and our nationalism.

The settlers call it a "price tag":  Every time Israeli authorities act against the interest of the settlers, the latter will respond by exacting revenge on nearby Palestinian residence and their property.  Much like Japanese Macaques monkeys who when attacked by a powerful and high-ranking aggressor exact revenge on one of his less powerful family members, the settlers are displacing their frustrations on the Palestinians with the hopes of deterring the Israeli government from taking future actions against them.

But judging by the Bulworthesque response of Prime Minister Olmert, the settlers monkey-like actions have backfired:   

"As a Jew, I’m ashamed of the sights of Jews firing at Arabs in Hebron. I have no other definition for what we saw but a pogrom. We are the sons of a nation which knows what a pogrom is, and I’m saying this after much thought. I have no other way to put it.”

This is not the first time that Olmert has described the actions of settlers in the territories as pogroms. By using the word ‘pogrom’ Olmert joins those who at times see a moral and historical equivalence between violence committed against Jews in the Diaspora, and violence committed by Jews against non-Jews in Israel and the occupied territories. This may seem like a non-issue, but in reality it is an unusual and potent choice of words for a prime minister to use. 

The other interesting disclosure in Olmert’s statement is his admission of shame. Shame is an appropriate response. Shame is an outward directed emotion, it is social and ethical, it means that we feel bad because others see our improper behavior (or those who represent us). But shame needs to be adjoined with another emotion: Guilt. Guilt is internal, it is moral and individualistic, it is our conscience bitchslapping us for actions we know to be wrong. 

We are not guilty and shameful because we pulled the trigger, burned down and smashed people’s property, or cursed and spit in their faces.  No, our guilt is the guilt of the enabler. Our shame is the shame of the idle witness. The hill-top youths may be the out of control monster that Dr. Frankenstein of the Yesha counsel created, yet it is we, everyday Israelis, that supported (directly or indirectly) their experiments and operations. 

Of course shame and guilt have their up side. Aristotle understood shame to be a “quasi virtue”, because there is still a great deal of qualitative difference between the person who acts wrongly and feels shame and one who does not. Likewise, an Ethiopian proverb states: “A man without shame is a man without honor.” To the point that he is sincere, the fact that our Prime Minister is expressing shame is a good thing. It shows that he, and to the extent that Olmert speaks for Israel as a collective, we, care about how we behave and how we are perceived.

One can hope that these feelings don’t just function to make us feel superior to the thugs that perpetuated and supported these crimes, but also wake us from our moral complacency regarding the occupation as a whole.

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