Commentary. The Holocaust and of the justified sense of Western guilt blocks any discussion of the historical development of the Jewish and Palestinian question. Guilt doesn’t have to be an arrival, but can be a point of departure.

The sense of guilt, Gaza and the Shoah

In the current historical moment, the wall that seems to lie between official opinion in Western countries – that of governments, cultural and media actors – and support for the Palestinians is built of deeply rooted histories. But when power speaks only and always to power, seeking to monopolize the political lexicon and claiming to provide an all-encompassing explanation, it becomes imperative to break this stranglehold.

This wall is, in effect, the Shoah and of the justified sense of Western guilt, which nevertheless blocks any discussion of the historical development of the Jewish and Palestinian question. In this newspaper, I have often stressed the colonial constitution of our languages, our policies and even our capacity for understanding.

And I have suggested that listening to the voices of Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon and Edward Said, or Assia Djebar, Sylvia Wynter and Denise Ferreira da Silva, or the numerous indigenous voices coming from all parts of the world, means more than simply registering the existence of the other – who, moreover, refuses to condition their speaking out on our approval. It also implies recognizing their right to have rights, and the need to work starting from this assumption. To insist on our privileged access to the truth and the means to understand it is to implicitly authorize a political and cultural regime of apartheid. It is the same as racism.

The industrialized organization of genocide that took place on European soil against an ethnically identified part of the native population, in addition to revealing to us the banal continuity of our murderous streak – notoriously evoked by Hannah Arendt, then by Zygmunt Bauman, and most recently put on display in Jonathan Glazer’s shocking film The Zone of Interest – must also send us back to the depths of history, to reckon with the strategies through which, over the centuries and in every part of the world, Europe systematically slaughtered those it considered inferior, establishing what was the measure of Western “civilization” and “progress,” a bar below which people could be legitimately exploited to death, or abandoned to the end implicit in the capitalization of control over territory and national identity.

This is not to relativize the Shoah; quite the opposite, it means insisting on critical reflection starting from it, applied to the restless depths of deeper and longer histories. The possibility of the Shoah’s occurrence was neither the result of some spontaneous twist of History, nor a consequence of the unraveling of German culture: it had been smoldering for centuries in European anti-Semitism, sown by Christian fundamentalism, and then “secularized” and made modern during the 19th century by nationalism, the more “scientific” version of racism, and imperialism; which, in turn – not as paradoxically as it might seem – provided the tools and language for the colonial project of Zionism.

It is a dark, intricate and profoundly European story; however, yet another colonialist upsurge has meant that it is the Arabs, and the Palestinians in particular, who have to live with its murderous consequences.

It is at this point that it becomes necessary to revisit Western guilt about the Holocaust, as indeed some historians and critical thinkers, Jewish and non-Jewish, have already begun to do for decades on the basis of the analytical documentation of history, now readily available.

Confirming how central the contribution of a number of Jewish critics has been to the formation of Western thought, I would like to recall Sigmund Freud’s insistence on how much repression there is in the act of avoiding the possibility of using the Shoah (and Israel as its consequence) to become aware of the colonial dominance of the present.

If our narcissism makes us unable to do anything but point out the loss of millions of murdered people – whether in European death camps or colonial genocides – thus ratifying their mourning but not processing it, we will remain trapped within our melancholy and nothing else.

The need to insist, instead, on historical connections that seem to be unnamable in common discourse, in order not to be swallowed up in the repression of a past that is intended to be emptied of all meaning except that ratified by our sovereignty over the present (and the future), suggests that guilt doesn’t have to be an arrival, but can be a point of departure.

Thus, taking on this critical and political burden will involve returning direct responsibility to the West for the ongoing genocide in Gaza and the reign of terror in the West Bank. Otherwise, defending Israel will result in giving new legitimacy to the very mechanism – the colonial constitution of Western modernity – that made the Holocaust possible.

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