Several weeks ago, the renowned sociologist Zygmunt Bauman gave a stunning interview to the Polish journal, Polityka, on Zionism, the Holocaust, and Israel’s cult of war. In it he charges Israel’s leaders with actively discouraging peace, with seeking war instead of peace, and accuses them of manipulating the Holocaust’s lessons to justify repression. In one of his most charged claims, he says the wall surrounding the Occupied Palestinian Territory is little different than the walls surrounding the Warsaw Ghetto.
Bauman is one of the foremost social theorists in Europe, an alchemist of post-Marxist, post-modernist thought whose work has tackled everything from the Holocaust to globalization to “liquid modernity.” He is also a member of the Holocaust generation, a Polish-born Jew who survived Hitler by escaping to the Soviet Union only to be forced out of Eastern Europe for good during Poland’s 1968 anti-Semitic purges. As such, his words carry enormous influence, and his interview has stirred up a small frenzy.
Bauman’s interview is, at the moment, only available in Polish. Eva Smagacz has been gracious enough to provide to this site with an English translation of some of the highlights of the interview, which you can read below.
I don’t know how people will interpret what is happening today when they will look back at it in 25 years. But the fact of it being an unknown does not mean that we shouldn’t judge what is happening in front of our eyes.
I would use the point made by [Tony] Judt in his memorable article published in the New York Review of Books in 2003, that Israel is becoming a “belligerently intolerant, faith-driven ethno-state”, that the middle eastern “peace process” is finished – “it did not die – it was killed.”
I was expressing similar sentiments nearly 40 years earlier in “Haaretz” as I was leaving Israel in 1979. My concerns were related to the toxic and corrosive characteristics of the Occupation, its putrefying effect on ethics and the moral scruples of the occupiers. I was concerned at that time that the younger [Israeli] generation was growing in the belief that state of war and military readiness – in 1971 still treated as “state of emergency” – was normal, natural, and probably unavoidable.
I was concerned with a country that was learning to hide its numerous and inevitably growing internal social problems, washing its hands of those problems by inciting and inflaming the sense of external threat, [thus] losing the skill to deal with these problems in the process.
Inside that besieged fortress, arguing – no, even expressing a simple difference of opinion – is [becoming] both criminal and treason.
I was also disconcerted with the inversion of the Clausewitzian doctrine of war, where war is a continuation of policy, and transmogrifying policy into . . . military ventures, the consequence of which has been the remorseless erosion of democratic habits.
I was concerned with the deepening inability of Israel to live in a state of peace and with people’s growing disbelief in the possibility of life without war, and with the political elite’s fear of peace when they would no longer know how to govern [without war].
I also share the fear expressed by Judt as to the use of Holocaust by Israel’s rulers as a get-out-of-jail card for their own depravity and absolution of their sins, both those that they have already committed and those they are going to commit.
I also wrote about it in “Modernity and the Holocaust” (1989), citing Menachem Begin when he calls Palestinians Nazis, and paints having them as neighbors of Israel, of seeking another Auschwitz. Begin was answered – very mildly and in an oblique way – by Abba Eban, who was a minister in the Labor Party, that it was time for Israel to stand on its own feet, rather than standing on the feet of six million murdered victims.
The way of “commemorating” the Holocaust in Israeli politics is one of the main obstacles in realizing the potential of the Shoah as a moral purging [for Jews] – and in a way is a post-mortem triumph for Hitler, who dreamed of creating conflict between Jews and the whole world, and between the whole world and the Jews, in preventing Jews from ever having peaceful coexistence with others.
[My] radically opposite way of “commemorating” the Holocaust can be summarized as follows: It is forbidden to stay silent in the face of Israeli crimes and their persecution of Palestinians exactly because the fate of Jews in Europe had similar beginnings – discrimination, pogroms, ghettoes, concluding with the Shoah.
And there you have it. It is a mission of the survivors of the Shoah to bring salvation to the world and protect it from repeated catastrophe: to expose those hidden from the world, but still suffering – to prevent another disgracing of civilization.
The greatest of historians of the Holocaust, Raul Hilberg, understood that mission when he used to stubbornly repeat that the Shoah machine did not differ in its structure from the “normal” organization of German society. To put it another way: the Shoah was one of the expressions of that society. And again, theologian Richard Rubinstein remembered that just as personal hygiene, subtle philosophical concepts, superb works of art, or sublime music are expressions of civilization, so too is imprisonment, war, exploitation, and the concentration camp. The Shoah – he said in conclusion – “was not an expression of a collapse in civilization but of its progress.”
Unfortunately, this is not the only lesson of the Shoah. Another one is that the one who hits first becomes the top dog, and the more iron the fist, the better chance of getting away with it.
The rulers of Israel are not the only ones that draw on and amplify this sinister lesson, they are not the only ones that should be blamed for the post-mortem triumph of Hitler. Yet when Israel, whose founders took up the mantle of being the custodians of Jewish fate, does these things, then the shock is much greater than in other cases – because this fact also destroys a myth, a myth accepted by us, that is important to us:
That suffering ennobles, that victims come out cleansed, exalted and altogether saintly. And here it turns out how things turn out in reality: As soon as their suffering is over, victims stand waiting for the first opportunity to pay back their persecutors; and if taking revenge on yesterday’s persecutors is somehow unattainable or inconvenient, they rush to erase the dishonor of yesterday’s weakness . . . and show that they also know how to wave the baseball bat and crack the whip – and that they will use whatever is at hand to achieve victory.
What is the wall built around the Occupied Territories if not an attempt to surpass the creators of the wall surrounding the Warsaw Ghetto?
Hurting people debases and morally destroys those who are doing the hurting . . . [Hurting others] does, however, initiate the process that the great anthropologist Gregory Bateson named “schizmogenesis” – a sequence of action and reaction where each consecutive behavior may exaggerate one another, leading to an ever more deepening schism.