Holocaust Guilt and Holocaust Shame: Parsing Remorse for the Shoa.


[My thanks to Rabbi Mark Kujawsky who first helped me understand the difference.]

When I first heard about Catherine Nay – a prominent, mainstream, French journalist – stating on her Europe 1 news program that “with its symbolic charge of this picture, this death annuls, erases the picture of the little Jewish boy, hands up in front of the SS, in the Warsaw Ghetto,” I realized to what an extent Europeans had taken the story of the IDF killing 12-year old Muhammad al Durah in the arms of his father, as a “get-out-of-holocaust-guilt-free card“.

Picture from International ANSWER, Quote from Catherine Nay

At the time I marveled – and continue to marvel – at the astounding folly of the statement. How can a brief, blurry, chopped up video of a boy who, at best was caught in a cross fire started by his own people firing behind him, at worst an outright lethal fake, could eliminate – really replace – a picture that symbolizes the systematic murder of over a million children and their families? How morally disoriented can one get? Apparently escaping guilt made some people – too many people – do strange things… like adopt a supersessionist narrative: Israelis, the new Nazis, Palestinians, the new Jews.

But the profound distinction between guilt and shame suggests that the right formula is “get-out-of-holocaust-shame-free card.” (Doesn’t sound as good.) The difference: guilt is an internally generated sense of moral obligation not to repeat past transgressions, especially egregious ones like the unchecked attempt to exterminate of a helpless minority within one’s own society. Shame, on the other hand, is externally generated, driven by the “shaming look” of others (the “honor-group“). When Germans got caught carrying out a genocide, their nation was not only guilty of the deed, but shamed before the world… for doing it? …or getting caught?

There-in lies a key difference: for guilt, it’s the awareness of the deed and its meaning, for shame, it’s whether others know. In some countries in the world, it’s not a question of whether you’re corrupt or not (everyone is, everyone knows), but just if you get caught. How many teenagers apologize for getting caught? Some adulterers have no sense of wrongdoing, as long as no one else knows. On some level everyone is subject to these concerns.

While honor-shame cultures have moral codes, however, their vulnerability to the fear of shame can readily lead to a jettisoning of any moral concerns. After all, the limbic dread of shame – its disastrous psychological and practical impact on them – kicks in in times of humiliation and fear. Those afflicted with oneidophobia (overriding [limbic] fear of public blame/ humiliation), is that others not see, not know about, not talk about, what they have done, that one not bear the shame publicly, that one need not pay the steep price in social capital for one’s (mis)deeds. After two generations one can easily imagine German youth being fed up with this sense of moral indebtedness of having to bear this blame/shame publicly.

Guilt-integrity has moral codes that operate from within-out, rather than from without-in. Here the awareness of the transgression and the determination to not do it again operate inside the individual, as, for example, in the case of Judah, who refused to repeat his betrayal of his father (in the case of Joseph) with the betrayal of Tamar, the mother of his child (Genesis, 38). That process takes both genuine remorse (for which Joseph later tested), and an understanding of how it could have happened, so as to prevent it from happening again. It involves criticism and self-criticism. It involves a willingness, when absolutely necessary, (beware the public flagellant!), to make the painful sacrifice of public honor in order to maintain private integrity. In the case of Judah, this led to the first renunciation of an honor-killing/shame-murder in recorded history.

People driven by shame-honor dynamics avoid being subjected to criticism, especially public criticism. They consider both lying (to save face), and, where one can get away with it, violence (to regain respect), as normal recourse. Lancelot could publicly proclaim his innocence of adultery with the Queen because he killed everyone who accused him. The shame-driven, the oneidophobes, want the negative spotlight off at all costs. In cases of those already shamed, they want to have the shame lifted. Much violence is shame avoidance.

Honest searching, motivated by well-deserved guilt, could have led post-Shoa Germans to become the most serious academic critics of the Western grand narrative. After all, it wasn’t just the lunatics who disliked the Jews. How many great Western figures, when they bothered to mention the Jews, did so as the negative version of their great accomplishment? Instead of viewing this pattern of ancient, medieval and modern, and now post modern denigration of Jews, as “they must be doing something to make others hate them so,” the now penitent, self-critical German might have asked, “maybe this has something to do with me?” In other words, for example, German historians might have played a leading role in integrating the story of the Jews into Majority Western history, to a degree no earlier gentile historians had ever done.

After all, of all the post-modern multi-narrative projects, one might imagine that this one promised quite an academic bounty. The hebraic contribution could be used to challenge the self-absorbed narcissistic quality to the modern Western grand narrative that so offended the post-modern sensibility. Certainly, given the abundance of evidence and subjects to explore, it was a promising avenue for research. And how appropriate for Germans to engage in that exploration of a culture which, in their self-destructive madness, their fathers had tried to exterminate, and had, instead, brought another megadeath upon the world. That awareness might serve Europe well at this time when it needs to defend the best of what it has become.

Some German theologian-scholars did explore the problematic nature of supersessionism. Indeed, the 1980s and 90s saw a good deal of philo-Judaism in Europe and Germany in particular. And certainly, in comparison with Japan, Germany went far in its acknowledgment of its guilt. The real issue, then, is how much of the public regret and debasement was an acceptance of shame (itself better than the Japanese oneidophobic refusal to even acknowledge its deeds), and how much the acceptance of guilt?

And yet, in 2000, when the Western public sphere – now a global public sphere, itself an astounding creation – was fended in two (right vs left) by a civilizational crisis, both the public and the thought-leaders, whether they despised or admired Western history, showed astonishing incomprehension about the role of Jews – and Israel – in the creation and maintenance of a global civil society, past and present.

If anything, the post-grand-narrativists, for whom the Western narrative is an ugly succession of oppression and injustice, see the national (autonomous) Jews (Israel) as the last remnant the Western racist, imperial/colonial past. Israel ist unser Unglück. For most major modern “thinkers” about “Western Civilization,” the Jews were a marginal part of the tale, victims of lamentable Western intolerance (read: aggressive supersessionism), benefactors from, but not actual contributors to that great Western civilizing venture that brought us the modern world’s bounty of rights and freedoms and material abundance.

I was astonished, when I finally got introduced to “Western Political Thought” as a post-doc fellow at Columbia (1984), to find that virtually everyone began this story with Socrates/Plato (5th-4th century BCE) and paid no attention to the Bible (12-6th century) as a political document with remarkably modern resonance. Instead, far too many of the great thinkers adopted the supersessionist tendency to define Jews and Judaism as the negative shadow of their great light.

Thus, only a handful of (mostly Jewish) scholars have tilled these exceptionally rich fields of the Jewish/biblical origins of Western freedom and democracy. Were these attitudes and awarenesses more mainstream today, were they part of the overall narrative, supporters of the Western Grand Narrative might not have to bemoan their own inexplicable impotence in the face of feral assaults.

Supersessionism, like all triumphalist religiosity, is shame-honor driven, hence its need to visibly dominate others as a sign, a proof one is right… in the Western monotheistic/atheistic case, the belittling provides proof that one is at the moral cutting edge of humanity, with no rivals. “We” are the true leaders with the true teaching. Do not listen to the chatterings of others. Their speaking roils the (shame-driven) consensus; inviting them to speak would create “controversial and fraught” affairs, and no sound scholar could “see value in” the talks themselves.

Supersessionism worsens as it gets deliberately zero-sum: in order to prove my superiority over my parent, I will strive to degrade the remnant of those I (should) have surpassed and replaced. My self-identity as the moral leader of mankind demands the public humiliation of my rival, the more publicly, the better. What better way to resolve the anxiety of influence, than “killing” one’s begetter through systematic degradation?

This is my understanding of why the global progressive left has turned on Israel so savagely in the 21st century: in adopting the Israeli-Nazi/Palestinian-Jew replacement narrative, they manage to place themselves high above everyone else, not only the Arab Muslims, whom they see as far beneath them, worthy of pity, but more importantly the Jews, who have now, “lost the moral high ground.” The insatiable appetite of allegedly progressive people like Jostein Gaarder, for stories of autonomous Jews (Israelis) behaving badly, is nothing short of breathtaking. Indeed, an entire school of lethal journalists has emerged (and dominated coverage) in the 21st century Middle East, precisely to feed that appetite.

When Europeans (or Christians) adopt the Palestinian replacement narrative, when the universalization of the Holocaust leads to silence about its prime victim, the driver of the megadeath industry, when academics and politicians engage in “holocaust abuse” by replacing the (old) Jewish victim, with the (new) Palestinian one, and denouncing Israel’s genocide against the Palestinians, they reveal that they are driven not by Holocaust guilt, but Holocaust shame, and the result is the exact opposite of what one might/should expect. Instead of making sure they don’t participate in another genocide against the same people their foreathers had so grievously treated only a couple of generations ago – Nie Weider! – they adopt the narrative of those who would “finish the job.”

There are hard, obsessional versions of this, to be found both at the extremes of the right and even more widely spread among the “left,” especially the intersectional left. But there are others forms of the shame-driven depreciation of Jews, less obvious, but not without their impact. The same Western Civ guys who consider Jews free-riders, benefiting from but not an agent in Western civilization, tend to also consider the creation of Israel a result of the Holocaust, rather than Jewish agency. (Somehow those Jews manage to benefit both from our generosity and our hostility!) At a time when the West does not know how to react to the assault of Caliphaters, would Europeans/Westerners not benefit from looking at Israel as an autonomous agent on the same side in the same struggle, rather than project upon her their own past sins and join their joint enemies, the Jihadis, in ganging up on her?

In the mid-aughts (00’s), I spoke to a joint Jewish-German dialogue in Boston. I had been told by one of the organizers that the Germans were depressed, had no sense of purpose or identity about which they could be proud. I spoke to them about how their generation is best placed to tell the Arabs and the rest of the Muslim world to beware apocalyptic conspiracy theories like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Every German embassy and consulate, especially in the Arab and Muslim world, should, I argued, have a display, filled with the wisdom of German penitential awareness of how poisonous the impact of that forgery on the self-destructive German madness of their parents. Their past sins, I argued, had placed today’s Germans in the unique position in the global community to stand in the gap against the rising tide of Jihadi anti-Semitism. The response: “We didn’t come here to be fed Islamophobic nonsense.”

They were not about to challenge the consensus, to defy the group mind, or maybe, to give up the thrilling moral titillation of having the Jews, the Israelis, take their place in the global hot-seat of shame and degradation. Years later, when I spent a year in Germany, I was surprised to hear them say, “We’re more afraid of our own fascism, than that of our Muslims.” How much stronger they’d be, had they worked on redeeming their guilt rather than escaping their shame. Maybe they would, today, be strong enough to refuse the blandishments of proleptic dhimmitude.

And that gets us to the core difference between guilt and shame: the shamed want nothing so much as to divest themselves of their shame, especially if it is global, if an “entire people” are shamed. If that means putting someone else in the spotlight of global shame, so be it. And if they are also responsible for one’s shaming (as in “Europe will never forgive the Jews for the Holocaust“), then so much the better. Hence the Europeans with their global shame for the Holocaust, and the Arabs with their global shame for failing to strangle infant Israel in its cradle, both share a special supersessionist, shame-driven, eagerness to degrade Israel in order that the “Jewish State’s” shame will erase, replace their own.

If Europe is to survive, to fight back, to defend the remarkable freedoms and citizens’ rights it has already achieved, then it should sooner turn away from Holocaust shame and dive into Holocaust guilt. In the end, it would be a win-win-win – for Europeans/democracies, for Jews/Israelis, and for that vast majority of peaceful Muslims who want to join the 21st century community of nations, ready to live at peace and in equality with those who do not share their faith.

Around 2010, a French publisher told me that a journalist had just asked him on what calendar date to choose to commemorate EU-Day. Holocaust Day, he responded, an answer I found quite compelling, since it was only in repentance for its treatment of Jews that Europeans were able to set behind them millennia of war and violence, and join together in a consensual, positive-sum union.

Perhaps if he had been taken seriously, the EU would not be in such bad shape today. Perhaps it could understand that the Jews and Israel are their best allies in the struggle for social justice, and, more to the point, in this battle with triumphalist Islam. Perhaps then it could begin to reverse an own-goal approach to the war between Israel and her neighbors, that strengthens its enemies and weakens its friends.


7 Responses to Holocaust Guilt and Holocaust Shame: Parsing Remorse for the Shoa.

  1. Nancy Hartevelt Kobrin says:

    This is an excellent post, Richard. There is little too it that I would add save for reminding the reader that guilt means someone can apologize. It is a higher cognitive function. Here I am preaching to the choir but shame ridden people and their groups have not individuated and separated, they find the world terrifying. As you rightly note “violence is shame avoidance”.

    The image of the Israel as infant is right on. The German shame ridden mentality is at the level of envying and hence attempting to strangle an infant with whom they identify but could not recognize in themselves.

    I am glad you raised the issue of the difference between the Germans and the Japanese. You note correctly that even though the Germans for ex. could pay reparations, vast segments of the population still are bound in by shame. I am very troubled by German leftist organizations coming to Israel when they have not yet dealt with their own sh*t. Pardon my language. The anality of it fits with were they are developmentally stuck. The material we are dealing with is toxic — from the projection of their shame. Perhaps it is time to retire the cliche – “Germany’s special relationship with Israel” as they are no longer bonded to us in a productive, positive manner only accusatory and attacking, i.e. riddled with shame. Who needs such a relationship?

  2. The beauty of this analysis is that it explains how it can be that Germany very publicly supports Israel — reparations, votes in UN, votes in Eurovision, etc. — while privately, as Tuvia Tenenbom has documented, it is supporting organizations and projects whose objective is to destroy the Jewish state.

  3. […] operative concepts are usually morality and guilt, which are independent of what others think. Landes explains the difference: …for guilt, it’s the awareness of the deed and its meaning, for […]

  4. […] the operative concepts are usually morality and guilt, which are independent of what others think. Landes explains the […]

  5. […] the operative concepts are usually morality and guilt, which are independent of what others think. Landes explains the […]

  6. Learn the meaning of “genocide” before you use it again irresponsibly. Israel defends itself from attacks in the form of Palestinian bombings, rockets, snipers, suicide bombers and vehicle attacks. This is SELF DEFENSE, not genocide.

    Only when Israel murders millions of Palestinians in cold blood can you say it is a genocide. Has that happened? Not even remotely close. Palestinians via Hamas, Hezbollah and Fatah all call in their charters for the destruction of Israel and the murder of Jews. Israel accepts all people as citizens regardless of race, ethnic origin and religion.

    Your web site reflects bigotry, racism and anti-Semitism. It’s a shame that some people have such low self-esteem that they must publicly disparage innocent people in order to feel better about themselves. Ironically, this act of juvenile blind hatred against all members of one religion reflects the authors as hate-filled fools, attempting to inflate their own failed egos by repeating lies about innocent Jews.

    • Richard Landes says:

      i’m confused by this comment. i agree entirely with you. what did i write that gave you the opposite impression?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *