The Competition of Victims
By Bernard-Henri Lévy
The following excerpt is from Bernard-Henri Lévy’s recently released book, The Genius of Judaism.
The new and very strange idea that there may not be enough room for all of the world’s victims under the dark sun of mourning and remembrance.
The new and imbecilic assumption that a single head may not be spacious enough to accommodate two separate afflictions.
And the inevitable and pernicious conclusion that a good soul might have to choose between the Jews and the non-Jews; between the Holocaust and the transatlantic slave trade, the massacre of the American Indians, Timor, the forgotten wars of Africa or Asia; be-tween the exceptional and over-memorialized suffering of yesterday and the less cataclysmic but, alas, more pressing sufferings that are the live, horrifying reality of today; or even between the dead from a synagogue or a kosher market and the “innocent French people” gunned down “indiscriminately” because they liked sports, sidewalk cafés, or music.
One could fight this prejudice philosophically by citing Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, which posits the universality and non-conditionality of human compassion.
One could, against this hazy theory that is fodder for modern anti-Semitism, put the doctrine of the “solidarity of the shaken,” as did the Czech philosopher Jan Patocka, drawing his inspiration from Edmund Husserl. Patocka believed in the fellowship throughout history of all segments of humanity that have been abandoned, subjected to nihilistic violence, and devastated by nonsense.
One could — we must — wonder whether at the root of this paradigm of a victim-centered vision of the world might not lie the worst of history in general and of religion in particular: competing Adams, infinitesimal differences that have generated infinite rivalry among Edom, Jacob, and Ishmael. From Edom to Adam, says the Talmud, what is there but an additional letter, a vav — the red, bloody vav that is the matrix of a war set to become eternal?
Not to mention the thorough indecency of the quest for victim status, an indecency that is the unacknowledged correlate of the competition — its perversity, born in the mud of Auschwitz and repackaged, banalized, metered out in small doses to allow everyone a little slice of the cake of victimhood, just enough to affirm their identity and to clear away, if possible, any singularity that might mar the purity of their martyr status. How pathetic and grotesque this reduction of human essence to a bare suffering that becomes humanity’s sole definition, its sole glory, while simultaneously purging it of anything resembling intellectualism, culture, literature, philosophy, concepts, reason, truth, remembrance, and, especially, religion and prophecy: all of these useless adornments, these now-secondary qualities that appear to have been there only to obscure deprivation and to prevent people from relishing their status as victims.
Remember, too, that underpinning the competition, at its origin and at its apex, is hatred — yes, hatred once again, a pure and unadulterated hatred: Once you give in to it, you never get out. Hatred for the victim whom one intends to unseat, of course, but also for the victim whom one is endeavoring to hoist onto the pedestal to be covered in the bird droppings of the competitor’s sad passion. Oh, how the iron indifference of the “pro-Palestinians” to the Palestinians of flesh and blood recalls Genet’s contempt for the fedayeen whose eulogist he strove to be and for the other dispossessed, Arab and black alike, who were no more than cards in his deck!
Bernard-Henri Lévy is a philosopher, journalist, activist, and filmmaker. His books include New York Times Bestseller American Vertigo, Barbarism with a Human Face, and Who Killed Daniel Pearl? His new book The Genius of Judaism, was published in January 2017. His writing has appeared in a wide range of publications throughout Europe and the United States. His films include the documentaries Bosna!, A Day in the Death of Sarajevo, and Peshmerga. He’s now at work on a new film, The Battle of Mosul. Lévy is co-founder of the antiracist group SOS Racisme and has served on diplomatic missions for the French government.