Archive for March, 2011

The anti-cuts march & history

March 26, 2011

Though nothing is certain, it is hard to imagine that today’s march (26.3.2011) will be recorded by history as a turning point. This might be because though some of the questions are right, we are looking for answers in the wrong place. In particular, most of us know by now that national governments are largely powerless.

The anti-cuts March 26.03.2011

Whether the administration is Conservative, Labour or a coalition, we were facing savage cuts. Nor are we fooled by the way in which the ‘sides’, with less skill and maturity than football teams, blame one another for the horrific debts that the financial meltdown, caused by the global system, has brought upon us all.

This is the basis of the disillusionment with politics. MPs expenses scandals merely provided a moment in which we could reveal the strength of rage. Nor are we comforted by displays of self-righteous morality when north African despots turn the weapons that we have supplied against their own people.  The Falkland War may have saved Mrs Thatcher; David Cameron and William Hague clearly hope that the Libyan campaign will strengthen their status as players of world class.

From time to time, we vent our vexation on the media and the concentration of power by the Murdoch empire which provides so much of our news and entertainment (increasingly, the two become virtually interchangeable.) But we are insatiable for new stimuli, especially stories of devastation or imminent disaster: today our attention is directed to

Floods in Pakistan 2010

Libya and Syria, while concerns about Japan – an earthquake, a tsunami and a potential nuclear meltdown – recede; and we have already almost forgotten the earthquake in New Zealand, the fires and floods that swept Australia, the terrible scenes in Pakistan and Indonesia and Haiti, whilst those who were headlines two, three or four years ago still strive to rebuild their shattered lives.

Perhaps we need a stronger and more long-lasting historical perspective which enables us to deal with the present without being emotionally swept by one event after another in this chaotic fashion?

These ideas are confirmed by reading Heschel’s The Prophets, particularly the chapter on ‘history’, where Heschel, once again, overturns our normal mode of thinking. ‘By history’, he writes, we do not mean ‘the dead past but the present, in which past and future are interlocked.’ [174] Each of us, individually, is therefore not only present at and in history – we also create it. Nor is this only personal or family history but the history of our times. Our presence or absence at today’s march is a part of history. The choices we make are of importance and affect the future.

As he researches the writings of the prophets, particularly their refutation of the false prophets who speak in the name of God but without truly being inspired by Him, [429] Heschel asserts as central prophetic values the rights of the poor and needy against the rich; justice against power; truth against falsehood. But he goes much further. The key values, enunciated by the prophets in the name of God, such as pity, compassion, love and justice are built into the very being of creation.

Since the prophets spoke not just to Israel but to all peoples, and since the God who inspired them had ‘formed the world from its beginning,’ the teachings which they imparted were directed towards God’s hope for a new history for humanity. ‘History to us is the record of man’s experience; to the prophet, it is a record of God’s experience.’ [172]

This does not suggest that we can see in history, along with Hegel, the simple progressive unfolding of a path towards enlightenment and peace. As human beings, we are, most of us, too much in love with power, celebrity, material values and too scared of righteousness and justice to help achieve the necessary transformation. The forces of inertia around us and within us are so great and that is why many people are attracted to today’s march: something, anything is better than doing nothing.

Remembering the time when Heschel wrote, the horrors he had witnessed, the hope that he maintains through his reading of the prophets is extraordinary. Though there is suffering, though there are no straight historical paths, a promise of peace is given, ‘When nation shall speak peace unto nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.’ In magnificent poetic language, the prophets see through and beyond the present and lift our eyes into a future which is also here and now – but, most of the time, we are simply insufficiently aware.

Perhaps, for some, this is precisely the purpose and best possible outcome of the march. To walk through the streets of London, some in family groups, joyously, in hope, recognising that another way  is possible. Just for fun,  it’s good to watch The Young Conductor to uplift our spirits http://bit.ly/h8BknI Maybe it’s just necessary to realise that this has little to do with present day politics.

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Hannah Arendt: Respons-ability and Terror

March 3, 2011

Paper prepared for January 2003 but not given because of snow!

In speaking this evening I think first of Rabbi David Goldstein, whom I knew when I was a schoolboy member of South London at the time that he took over from my first Rabbi, John Rayner. I remember him, always smiling, and, it seemed to me, exceedingly shy.  His work as a scholar remains formidable and it is this work as rabbi, scholar and long-term member of Amnesty International that I hope to commemorate in what I say.

Rabbi John Rayner

I am aware too of this place and of the honour not only of being ask to speak in David’s name but also at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue which has always been for me a place of honesty and free speech where unpopular opinions can be discussed.

Finally, I thank Frank for his introduction and for asking me to give the talk this evening. I value his support and hope his expectations will not be disappointed. I will return to him and his contribution to my thinking this topic later.

The topic hinges on the word ‘responsibility’, that is the ability and preparedness to respond appropriately in words or deeds to what is asked of us. I suppose that there are times that we all ask ourselves have we done enough, could we have done more, in terms of family, friends or the wider world. But what if we have not spoken or acted because of fear – what the other person, or people might do or say or think, or because the times themselves are inauspicious; and what has thinking to do with all of this?

I will be drawing this evening on material about the Shoah since the terror of those times is incomparable, well-known

Hannah Arendt

and recorded, and raises essential issues for us now. In her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt recounts the appearance in court of the only German non-Jewish witness for the prosecution, Propst (Reverend, since he was a Protestant minister) Heinrich Gruber, who had been put into Sachsenhausen and then Dachau for trying to reach Jews in the camp in Gurs in southern France. Arendt acknowledges the extraordinary aspect of this courageous action but is nevertheless highly critical. Dr. Seratius, Eichmann’s defence counsel, asked Gruber, ‘Did you try to influence him? Did you, as a clergyman, try to appeal to his feelings, preach to him, and tell him that his conduct was contrary to morality?’ ‘Of course,’ writes Arendt, in her irritatingly critical way, ‘the very courageous Propst has done nothing of the sort, and his answers now were highly embarrassing. He said that “deeds are more effective than words,” and that “words would have been useless”; he spoke in clichés that had nothing to do with the reality of the situation, where “mere words” would have been deeds, and where it had perhaps been the duty of a clergyman to test “the uselessness of words.”’[1] At this time, too, words and deeds, it seems to me, are called for.

There is little doubt that we live in times of terror. A friend of mine, a highly rational Professor of medicine told me recently that he discourages his daughter from travelling on London’s underground with her baby because of the risk of terrorist attack. New legislation is being passed to allow the police extra powers to move populations if there should be any hint of a possible outrage. War on Iraq may be imminent – or, by the time I present this paper, may already have been declared, and, in the weeks that I am writing this, teenage girls are killed in cross fire in Birmingham, and a colleague, a rabbi, is stabbed in his office in Paris.

Since Sept. 11th the increase in security measures at home, apparently random attacks in Bali, Christmas day bombings in churches in Pakistan, and government warnings of increased risk have led to a heightened sense of fear. This particularly affects travel and has led to the collapse of a number of airlines, though fortunately British Airways seems stable at present.  Films like Bowling for Columbine on the prevalence of guns and more than 11,000 shootings per year in the US, and The City of God on the heavily armed street gangs in Brazil, increase our sense of a world out of control.

It is true that for many of us in this country, the sense of terror may be somewhat remote. The same is not true for our relatives and friends, our fellow-Jews in Israel who live, in every part of the country, an abnormal existence where terror may strike at any moment in any place.

Terror is a strong word. Nothing we face at present approaches the horror as described for example in Leviticus 26 vv 27-33 and 36-38

If ye will not for all this hearken unto me, but walk contrary to me

Then I will walk contrary to you also in fury; and I, even I, will chastise you seven times for your sins.

And you shall eat the flesh of your sons, and the flesh of your daughters shall ye eat.

And I will destroy your high places and cut down your images and cast your carcases upon the carcases of your idols, and my soul shall abhor you.

And I will make your cities waste, and bring your sanctuaries unto desolation, and I will not smell the savour of your sweet odours.

And I will bring the land into desolations; and your enemies which dwell therein shall be astonished at it.

And I will scatter you among the heathen, and will draw out a sword after you: and your land shall be desolate, and your cities waste…

And upon them that are left alive of you I will send a faintness into their hearts in the lands of their enemies; and the sound of a shaken leaf shall chase them; and they shall flee, as fleeing from a sword; and they shall fall when none pursueth.

And they shall fall one upon another, as it were before a sword, when none pursueth: and ye shall have no power to stand before your enemies.

And ye shall perish among the heathen, and the land of your enemies shall eat you up.

This  theme is developed still further in the section of curses in Deuteronomy, ending (Deut. 28:64-67) with the words:

And the Lord shall scatter thee among all the people, from the one end of the earth even unto the other; and there shalt thou serve other gods, which neither thou nor thy fathers have known, even wood and stone.

And among these nations shalt thou find no ease, neither shall the sole of thy foot have rest: but the Lord shall give thee there a trembling heart, and failing of eyes, and sorrow of mind:

And thy life shall hang in doubt before thee; and thou shalt fear day and night, and shalt have none assurance of thy life:

In the morning thou shalt say, Would God it were even! And at even thou shalt say, Would God it were morning! For the fear of thine heart wherewith thou shalt fear, and for the sight of thine eyes which thou shalt see.

These characterisations of a terrorised people do not, probably, at this time apply to most of us, or to our population, nor even, most of the time, to those in Israel. Ignoring for the moment theological issues of God’s justification for bringing about such terror, or questions of the existence of such a God, I want rather to pursue the issue of terror itself and yet I have never known true terror and fervently hope that I may never do so. The terror that I speak of is that experienced by those in the concentration camps, a fearful existence in the face of indescribable brutality and torture. Torture, the deliberate and merciless infliction of pain, is designed to induce terror. We can imagine, too, the terror experienced by those in situations of war, facing violence, bloodshed, pillage, rape or any one of the thousands of horrors inflicted under cover of darkness. I wonder, too, about the terror experienced by those, even now, in our society who cannot find a place to sleep – perhaps they become inured to it, but in the early days of their wandering, without a home, without shelter, may they not then be in terror? Or those who, having become addicted to drugs, long for the next needle which will allow them to return to oblivion, the place of forgetfulness: do they also experience a terror?  Or, might not each of us, perhaps, know terror, ultimate fear, primal anxiety when facing our own death or that of others? Maybe all other fears are, as some of subjected, only avoidance of the sense of horror, waste and futility we sense at our own mortality and ultimately this is the only true terror.

What is meant by ‘our responsibility in times of terror’? At such times, we respond instinctively, to protect ourselves, perhaps, maybe by striking out. We want to ‘get the bastards’ before they get us. There is a responsibility to defend ourselves, like the animals we are – and who can blame us.  But we are not only animals and questions of responsibility

Stefan Raczynski

appear be complex. Yet, they can also be simple as illustrated, perhaps by the story of Stefan Raczynski, whose family sheltered forty Jews during the war. He was born in 1921 on a farm near Vilna and these are his own words, spoken in about 1990:

I had a brother and two sisters and my parents were farmers. Our family was Catholic, and deeply religious.  You know, when six people live together they always help one another, and that’s what it was like in my family. It was considered natural. In a nearby town lived 800 Jews. My father loved his fellow-man; he would take me to meet the merchants, and he taught me to respect the Jews. Our farm was  seven kilometres from a forest where the Nazis took all the Jews from a nearby town and shot them. They dumped their bodies into a ditch and covered it with sand. I remember seeing them falling like matches. Now some of the people  at different stages managed to escape, and they knew about this farm and that the owners were good people and would take them in. Some who were shot but not killed managed to get out of the forest and make their way to the farm.  It  was a natural thing to do, like when you see a cat on the street, hungry, you give it food. When the Jews started coming from the forests, and they were hungry, we gave them food and we didn’t think anything of it…

Later, he speaks of the ‘terrible anxiety that cannot be described. We were scared that the Nazis would come and kill and burn us. In fact it was hard for us to believe that it would not happen. Everyone was scared in the same way that today Israelis are frightened of terrorists in certain areas.’

The extract comes from the book ‘Rescuers’, a chronicle of some of those who saved Jews in Nazi Europe, based upon research by Yad Vashem and the work of Samuel and Pearl Oliner, ‘The Altruistic Personality’, their study of what led ordinary men and women to risk their lives on behalf of others. I am proud that the inspiration for so much of this work, of bringing to the attention of so many of us the stories of those ordinary men and women, is that of an ordinary, or extraordinary, rabbi, Harold Schulweis of Temple Beth Shalom, Los Angeles – and it is only right, in this context, to mention also the work of our Chairman, Frank Dabba Smith who has been uncovering some similarly amazing stories in his investigations in Germany.

Why is this work so important? In the forward to her book, Rescuers, Malka Drucker poses a similar question:

Who were these people who did not say, “That’s not my problem”? Why were they different from others? Were they afraid? Why did they take such risks?

She writes:

Rescuers do not easily yield the answer to why they had the strength to act righteously in a time of savagery. It remains a mystery, perhaps a miracle. Many helped strangers, some saved friends and lovers. Some had humane upbringings, others did not. Some were educated, others were barely literate. They weren’t all religious, they weren’t all brave. What they did share, however, was compassion, empathy, an intolerance of injustice, and an ability to risk beyond what one wants to imagine.

Nehama Tec, an Israeli professor of sociology who has researched compassion and altruism, states that rescuers ‘come

Nehamah Tec

from all walks of life, all religious and political affiliations and all family configurations.’ But she tentatively offers a set of six interdependent characteristics and conditions which she has found that the rescuers share:

  1. They don’t blend into their communities. This makes them less controlled by their environments and more inclined to act on their own principles.
  2. They are independent people and they know it. They do what they feel they must do, what is right, and the right thing is to help others.
  3. They [or sometimes their families] have a long history of doing good deeds.
  4. Because they have done the right thing for a long time [or been brought up in this way], it doesn’t seem extraordinary to them. If you consider something your duty, you do it automatically.
  5. They choose to help without rational considerations.
  6. They have universalistic perceptions that transcend race and ethnicity. They can respond to the needy and helpless because they identify with victims of injustice.[2]

These may be uncomfortable findings for us. These people, the rescuers, who act altruistically in times of great danger, don’t ‘blend into their communities’. Maybe they would not even be here this evening. They act on their own principles. How far are we prepared to be unpopular, to be ‘out of step’ with our community? And although, in a liberal setting we may pride ourselves that we do not necessarily court the popularity of the Jewish community as a whole, are we prepared to move beyond the narrow confines of historically conditioned Liberal principles and traditions which may be  constrictive and socially rather than ethically determined? Are we, in other words, quoting Nehama Tec’s second finding, prepared to be ‘independent people’? Is it in fact a Jewish possibility to be ‘an independent person’ or does being Jewish necessarily bring with it community constrains and concerns, so that the individual voice is almost logically inadmissible?

However, this second point of Nehama Tec’s is limited: the thing that the rescuers do is ‘to help others’. However challenging and problematic it might be to stand up for Israel in a period of increasing anti-semitism, it is not clear that this is necessarily the mark of an altruistic personality, though it might be. The long tradition of doing good deeds, automatically, such as Tec describes in her fourth and fifth points, seems somewhat more personal than making political statements – perhaps closer to the tradition of mitzvoth, such as tsedakah and gemilut chasidim (deeds of justice and loving kindness) which ought to characterise every Jewish family. We know the quotes only too well – ‘is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? When thou seest the naked that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?’ (Isaiah 58:7-8) This is not to deny that courageous words can, as Arendt noted, be deeds.

A group of children saved in Chambon-sur-lignon

Over and over again the research findings of the rescuers demonstrate that they grew up in such households, even, occasionally, in such communities. One of the most extraordinary stories, of course, is of Chambon-sur-lignon in the Ardeche in France, an old Protestant area high in the mountain region of mainly Catholic France, with a history of independent thought, where the Pastor told his parishioners that they must shelter Jewish children and they did, and about three thousand were rescued, under the noses of the Gestapo.

Such actions, Tec points out, must be so familiar, so much part of everyday life, acting for others must be so obvious that it must be considered a duty, to be fulfilled automatically. What, however, if the automatic response in times of terror is to run, to look the other way, to ‘hide ourself from our own flesh’? What then?

I have to ask myself, at this point, to what extent have I brought up my own children in this way and shown such examples? Further, although I do recognise one or two families in my community for whom these principles are almost automatic and who can always be relied upon in times of need, Christian charity sometimes does appear to reach further than Jewish tsedakah, though perhaps this may not be true of the Chassidic or perhaps the Liberal communities.  I know how much I have admired the Quakers (who number no more that a quarter of a million members throughout the world), and the evidence every now and then of simple Christians who will take in emotionally troubled souls, or those in poverty, in ways that I have seldom seen in our  Jewish community.  And, Tec says, this choice is ‘without rational considerations’, that is, it has nothing to do weighing up possible consequences but is automatic, just as a good musician’s phrasing and technique, evident in the tension of  performance, flows unselfconsciously from repeated practice sessions.

And, there is the last finding that Tec has drawn from her research, which might trouble us still further. These altruistic personalities, these heroes who were prepared at great risk to themselves to give shelter to Jews fleeing from Nazi persecution ‘have universalistic perceptions that transcend race and ethnicity. They can,’ she writes, respond to the needy and helpless because they identify with victims of injustice.’  This may be a final stumbling block to any idea we may have that we Jews might be found strongly represented in the ranks of the altruistic in times of terror and this should give us pause as we condemn others who may not stand up for us when we feel that we need support.

Of course, there are myriads of Jews to be found in the helping professions, amongst those working in developing countries, many who sacrifice their own interests in countless ways for others. Though this is also characteristic of the community as a whole and its numerous welfare organisations, those individual Jews are frequently identified by the stand they take to be consciously outside the borders of the community – so identifying themselves with Tec’s first two criteria: that they do not blend with their communities and are independent. In defence of our community, its synagogues and organisations, it might be suggested that it might be these rebellious Jews, who represent nevertheless our highest values which they have received through the passing on of tradition.

There remain some other issues in regard to the conclusions of Nehama Tec, in her investigation of the testimony of those who were prepared to risk their lives to save others. Some questions, in particular, emerge in conjunction with the title of this lecture, which contains the words ‘responsibility in times of terror’: is responsibility the same as duty, performed automatically? What is the relationship between responsibility and duty? And with whose terror are we concerned: our own, or that of the other?

Rather than attempting to answer these questions at this point, I want to refer back to  another word in the title of the lecture: ‘Thinking.’ In noticing the questions we are thinking. Where do the questions come from? Thinking is an activity that emerges from feeling and emotion. Something troubles me and pausing to observe and examine this troubling, disturbing feeling, this ‘knot in the soul’, I may find myself associating – that is bringing up images and ideas, or, reflecting and thinking – attempting to allow thoughts, words, notions, concepts – to follow through. It is even suggested by the original title of the lecture, which Frank and I somehow worked out and on together, that the responsibility in times of terror may be Thinking (without banisters – which we shall come to later) or, as Hannah Arendt phrases it, ‘Could the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining whatever happens to come to pass or to attract attention, could this activity be among the conditions that make men abstain from evil-doing or even actually “condition” them against it?’[3]

The ‘habit of thinking’ is a noteworthy phrase. Remember what Tec wrote: If you consider something your duty, you do it automatically and without rational considerations. Yet Arendt also contrasts the habit of thinking with the ‘absence of thinking’ – ‘which’, she writes, ‘is so ordinary an experience in our everyday life, where we have hardly the time, let alone the inclination, to stop and think.’

We need to consider what we mean by this activity which is called ‘thinking’, and about which Arendt wrote a whole book, brought about by her controversial observation that what most distinguished Eichmann apart from the monstrous nature of his deeds was not his stupidity but his thoughtlessness: that he spoke only in clichés and stock phrases and appeared to recognise not at all any demand that he should think.

We usually consider ‘thinking’ to be a solitary activity, something that we do alone and it is true that no-one can think for us. But this is not the whole story – ‘company is indispensable for the thinker,’ wrote Kant,[4] and the whole issue about the normality of Eichmann, Arendt writes, was that this new type of criminal, commits crimes against humanity in circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong. ‘Eichmann and the world he lived in had once been in perfect harmony… German society of eighty million people had been shielded against reality and factuality by exactly the same means, the same self-deception, lies and stupidity that had now become ingrained in Eichmann’s mentality.’[5] In a totalitarian society, freedom of speech, which is the basis for freedom of thought, does not exist.

Arendt’s work on thinking goes further, however. She investigates the meaning of common sense as that which is shared between us, and develops from this fact of the communicability of our understanding a key teaching which she

Immanuel Kant

calls ‘training our imagination to go visiting’. This builds upon Kant’s concept of ‘enlarged thought’ but  makes the public testing of our notions the basis for their strength. ‘the more people’s standpoints I have present in my mind while I am pondering a given issue, and the better I can imagine how I would feel and think if I were in their place, the stronger will be my capacity for representative thinking and the more valid my final conclusions, my opinion.’[6] ‘To think with an enlarged mentality,’ she writes elsewhere, ‘means that one trains one’s imagination to go visiting, ’[7] and she makes reference to Kant’s pamphlet on Perceptual Peace where he states that a prerequisite must be that people are allowed to visit as tourists.

But this is not quite ‘thinking without banisters’ which is the need to be able to proceed in those situations, totalitarianism, times of terror, when the fixed, habitual categories no longer meet the demands so when ‘critical categories are not imposed on but inspired by ones engagement with a phenomenon.’[8] Totalitiarianism is a problem of understanding theat must be understood without reference to conventional moral truthg (like the reliability and atuhentiicty of even the best leaders and politicians) because those truths have been shattered and the situation now ‘calls for a new kind of thinking thjat needs no pillars and props, no standard and traditions to move freely without crutches over unfamiliar terrain’.[9] This is the challenge we meet when, as committed Jews, we attempt to form our views on Israel and Palestine. Is our tradition sufficiently reliable, firm and flexible to  sustain us in such times of terror, or must we learn to ‘think without banisters’. What does this really mean?

In a letter of outstanding importance of March 1951 to her close friend the philosopher Karl Jaspers, Arendt gives a good example:

Evil has proved to be more radical than expected. In objective terms, modern crimes are not provided for in the Ten Commandmentrs. Or: the Western tradition is suffering from the preconception that the most evil things human beings can do arise from the vice of selfishness. Yet we know that the greatest evils or radical evil has nothing to do anymore with such humanly understandable, sinful motives. What radical evil really is I don’t know, but it seems to me it somehow has to do with the following phenomenon: making human beings as human beings superfluous(not using them as means to an end, which leaves their essence as humans untouched and impinges only on their human dignity; rather, making them superfluous as human beings).

Giorgio Agamben

With the help of Georgio Agamben, an Italian writer, whose book, the Remnants of Auschwitz, interrogates with enormous sensitivity and reverence the meaning of life in the camps, we must however investigate further this concept of ‘the superfluous human being.’  I want to dwell here on material about which I have never spoken and yet here and now it seems necessary to voice what is both unspeakable and unimaginable and I do so in order to begin to help us to think.

Agamben quotes Hannah Arendt. In 1964, Hannah Arendt in a television interview with Gunther Gaus, spoke of her reaction on learning the truth about the camps, in all its details. I quote:

Before that we said: Well, one has enemies. That is entirely natural. Why shouldn’t a people have enemies? But this was different. It was really as if an abyss had opened. This ought not to have happened. And I don’t just mean the number of victims. I mean the method, the fabrication of corpses and so on – I don’t need to go into that. This should not have happened. Something happened there to which we cannot reconcile ourselves. None of us ever can.[10]

What struck me most forcibly, with horror and terror while reading Agamben, however, was the central emphasis he places upon the Muselman, the living corpses, those who had lost all will to live. Agamben writes:

There is little agreement on the origin of the term Muselmann. As is often the case with jargon, the term is not lacking in synonyms. “The expression was in common use especially in Auschwitz, from where it spread to other camps as well…In Majdanek, the word was unknown. The living dead there were termed ‘donkeys’; in Dacha they were ‘cretins,’ in Stutthof ‘cripples,’ in Mathuasen ‘swimmers,’ in Neuengamme ‘camels,’ in Buchenwald ‘tired sheikhs,’ and in the women’s camp known as Ravensbruck, Muselweiber (female Muslims) or ‘trinkets.’”[11]

Aldo Carpi, was an artist who managed to survive. The SS commissioned drawings and paintings from him but he wrote in his diary, ‘No one wants to see camp scenes and figures; no one wants to see the Muselmann,[12] and Agamben continues:

Other witnesses confirm the impossibility of gazing upon the Muselmann. One account is particularly eloquent, even if it is indirect. A few years ago, the English film shot in Bergen-Belsen immediately after the camp’s liberation in 1946 was made available to the public. It is difficult to bear the sight of the thousands of naked corpses piled in common graves or carried on the shoulders of former camp guards, of those tortured bodies…And yet since the Allies intended to use this footage as proof of Nazi atrocities and make it public in Germany, we are spared no details of the terrible spectacle. At one point, however, the camera lingers, almost by accident on what seem to be living people, a group of prisoners crouched on the ground or wandering on foot like ghosts. It last only a few seconds, but it is long enough for the spectator to realize that they are either Muselmanner who have survived by some miracle, or, at least, prisoners very close to the state of Muselmanner.[13]

Agamben goes on  to deal with the question of what makes it so impossible for us to face these Muselmanner, these wretched lost souls whom Primo Levi designates in one place as those who have ‘seen the Gorgon.’[14]

But first we are confronted by a different question. Why Muselmanner, literally Muslims?  When this question first struck me, I pushed it away – it was too terrible to think about. Agamben writes:

The most likely explanation of the term can be found in the literal meaning of the Arabic word muslim: the one who submits unconditionally to the will of God. It is this meaning that lies at the origin of the legends concerning Islam’s supposed fatalism, legends which are found in European culture starting with the Middle Ages (this deprecatory sense of the term is present in European languages, particularly in Italian).  But while the muslim’s resignation consists in the conviction that the will of Allah is at work every moment and in even the smallest events, the Musselmann of Auschwitz is instead defined by a loss of all will and consciousness.[15]

Now that we are forced to realise that this very term, the Moslem, was used by us Jews, at the moment of our greatest terror, of those who had ‘passed beyond,’ – what are we to do with this fact? We can ignore it or suggest that it is quite meaningless and coincidental. But with fanatics crashing planes into Twin Towers, and suicide bombers terrorising the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, with a widely read book suggesting that we are facing a ‘Clash of Civilizations,’[16] any such dismissal seems blind. Could it be that there exists a vestigial Jewish prejudice against Islam? In the same way, for example, that Poles were able to relish the fact that however ill-treated they might be, they could still kick a Jew, was there some sense in the camps that however humiliated Jews might be, Moslems remained a lower breed? Do we, perhaps, find threatening the Moslem preparedness to suppress all individuality in collective prayer? Or is the sight of the Muselmann, the walking corpse or living dead, too much like a robot or automaton for us to face, and is this what we fear in the Moslem?

There is only one ethical response which we can take: we must turn towards and learn about, in all humility, Islam and Moslems. Yet is this truly possible? Why was it so difficult to face the Muselmanner?

Agamben connects this question with a feeling that precedes even that of the acknowledged sense of guilt of the survivor. It is not the feeling of joy but of shame that  Primo Levi expresses, when writing about his liberation:

They were four young soldiers on horseback, who advanced along the road that marked the limits of the camp,

Primo Levi

cautiously holding their sten-guns. When they reached the barbed wire, they stopped to look, exchanging a few timid words, and throwing strangely embarrassed glances at the sprawling bodies, at the battered huts and at us few still alive…They did not greet us, nor did they smile; they seemed oppressed not only by compassion but by a confused restraint, which sealed their lips and bound their eyes to the funereal scene. It was that shame we knew so well, the shame that drowned us after the selections, and every time we had to watch, or submit to, some outrage: the shame the Germans did not know, that the just man experiences at another man’s crime, at the fact that such a crime should exist, that it should have been introduced irrevocably into the world of things that exist, and that his will for good should have proved too weak or null, and should not have availed in defence.[17]

‘In fear and trembling have [we] finally realized of what man is capable – and this is indeed the precondition of any modern political thinking.’[18] A recent book states some disturbing facts about globalization:

The average North American consumes five times more than a Mexican, ten times more than a Chinese, 30 times more than an Indian. There are 1.3 billion people – 22 per cent of the world’s population – living below the poverty line; 841 million are malnourished; 88o million are without access to medical care. One billion lack adequate shelter; 1.3 billion have no access to safe drinking water; 2.6 billion go without sanitation.[19] Among the children of the world 113 million – two-thirds of them girls – go without schooling; 150 million are malnourished; 30,00 die each day from preventable diseases.[20] Meanwhile, in the United States in the past 20 years 97 per cent of the increase in income has gone to the top 20 per cent of families, while the bottom fifth have seen a 44 per cent reduction in earnings and Britain in 1996 had the highest proportion in Europe of children living in poverty with 300,000 of them worse off in absolute terms than they had been 20 years before.[21]

These are not the ravings of some radical revolutionary, but the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. We cannot plead ignorance; are we not all bystanders now? Georgio Agamben has written another book: Homo Sacer, subtitled Sovereign Power and Bare Life, the implications of which are ominous, even terrifying. They have been brought to our attention by Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian philosopher, writing in a recent edition of the London Review of Books (23.5.02):

When Donald Rumsfeld, writes Zizek, designated the imprisoned Taliban fighters ‘unlawful combatants’ (as opposed to ‘regular’ prisoners of war), he did not simply mean that their criminal terrorist activity placed them outside the law: when an American citizen commits a crime, even one as serious as murder, he remains a ‘lawful criminal’. The distinction between criminals and non-criminals has no relation to that between ‘lawful’ citizens and the people referred to in France as the ‘Sans Papiers’. Perhaps the category of homo sacer [identified by Agamben] is moiré useful here. It designated, in ancient Roman law, someone who could be killed with impunity…Today, as a term denoting exclusion, it can be seen to apply not only to terrorists but also to those who are on the receiving end of humanitarian aid (Rwandans, Bosnians, Afghans), as well as to the Sans Papiers in France and the inhabitants of the favelas in Brazil or the African American ghettoes in the US’…and, now, we might add, the illegal ‘asylum seekers’ in the UK whom it is forbidden to the ordinary population to help (see the notices newly posted in Heathrow airport).

Zizek directs us also to the reappearance of discussion on torture as he writes:

This concept of homo sacer allows us to understand the numerous calls to rethink the basic elements of contemporary notions of human dignity and freedom that have been put out since September 11th. Exemplary here is Jonathan Alter’s Newsweek article ‘time to Think about Torture’ (5.11.2001) with the ominous subheading: “It’s a new world and survival may well require old techniques that seemed out of the question.”’   Zizek comments: ‘the mere introduction of torture as a legitimate topic allows us to court the idea while retaining a clear conscience’. Further, not only are we now engaged in an unwinnable war on terror but one in which, since in John Ashcroft’s memorable phrase ‘terrorists use America’s freedom as a weapon against America itself,’ the obvious implication is that we shall necessarily limit our

Slavoj Zizek

freedom in order to defend ourselves. ‘In short,’ states Zizek, every authentic liberal should see these debates, these calls to “keep an open mind” [about the possible necessity for one  measure or another] as a sign that the terrorists are winning.

Perhaps we are living now at that point of confusion, between us and other, subject and object, Primo Levi’s  ‘gray zone’, the astonishing sense, apparently shared by all survivors that: ‘No group was more human than any other.’ Or, as Levi is quoted as saying ‘Victim and executioner are equally ignoble; the lesson of the camps is brotherhood in abjection.’[22] After the Shoah, after the revelation of man’s capacity for evil, quite apart from any terrorist threat, or the possibility of nuclear or ecological disaster, mankind must for ever live in the shadow of terror.[23]


[1] Arendt, H. Eichmann in Jerusalem (NY revised ed. Penguin 1994)p. 131

[2] The Conference on the Hidden Child New York 1991. Quoted in Drucker op. cit. p. 6

[3] Arendt, H. Life of the Mind Intro p.5

[4] Kant, I. Reflexionen zur Anthropologie no 763, quoted in Arendt, Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy ed Beiner, R. (Chicago UP 1992) p. 10

[5] Arendt H, Eichamnn in Jerusalem p. 52

[6] Arendt H. Between Past and Future p. 241 quoted in Disch

[7] Arendt, H. Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy p.43

[8] Disch p. 144

[9] Arendt MDT p. 10 quoted in Disch p. 144

[10] Arendt 1993: 13-14 quoted in Agamben 2.18 p. 7–71

[11] Sofsky 1197: 329 n.5 quoted Agamben 2.2 p. 44

[12] Carpi 1993 p. 33 quoted in Agamben 2.5 p. 50

[13] Agamben 2:5 p. 50-51

[14] Agamben 2:7 p. 53

[15] Agamben 2.2 p. 44

[16] Samuel Huntington

[17] Levi 1986: 181-2 quoted in Agamben 3:1 p. 88

[18] Arendt, H. Organized Guilt and universal Responsibility quoted in Rethinking Evil ed Lara, M.P. (publ. California Univ. 2001) p.1

[19] Held 2000 p. 175 quoted Sacks, J. p. 29

[20] Gordon Brown, Address to UN General Assembly, Special Session on Children 10.5.02 quoted Sacks J. p. 29

[21] Hertz 2001 pp 38-61 quoted in Sacks J. p. 29

[22] Levi 1997 op. cit. p. 216 quoted Agamben 1:3

[23] Shoah, incidentally, seems now a better euphemism  for us to use for the extermination than Wiesel’s term ‘holocaust’ (which he later regretted) with its reference to ‘sacrifice’. Shoah is derived from the verb meaning to ‘make a din’ or ‘a crash’, though even thus word is reserved for devastation brought about by God. Isaiah, for example,  when he is sent to deliver his message after his vision of God in the gates of the Temple asks ‘How long?’ and is told he must prophesy until the cities have crashed into ruins and become desolate (6v11). (There are hints in the derivation, too, of the word for ‘vanity’ and of ‘gaze’.)]