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November 2, 2003 by AK

Group identity and group responsibility

Suppose you’re a member of a racial, ethnic or religious group, and this fact is obvious to a stranger. You could put a high priority on your membership and make it a factor in your decision-making. Or you could view yourself as an individual whose allegiances, if you have any, are to your country, your family, etc. — not to your ethnic group. Either way, it is most likely that strangers who know nothing about you but your race (ethnicity) — something they may be able to infer from the color of your skin, the shape of your nose, the sound of your name, or your accent — will base their initial assessment of you on that fact. (Other cues could also be considered, of course, as in the Russian saying, “People meet you by your clothes, and see you off by your wit.”) That is, racial profiling works in people’s minds — which, of course, is not a valid argument for making it an official policy.

Similarly, if you are proud of your group, you should also feel ashamed of whatever misdeeds it has committed. If you feel neither pride nor shame, fine. I prefer individual, not group responsibility. But some of the people who profile you would also try to impute to you the collective guilt or merit of your ethnic group, as it exists in their mental world. In some cases, this imputation may come to redefine your group, even in a way that makes your membership in it impossible to cancel.

It is with these simple thoughts in mind that I read reports of a certain German MP denouncing the Jews involved in the Bolshevik revolution (Lilli Marleen comments; the Commissar agitates). It is the umpteenth time the Jewish Bolshevik “meme” has been resuscitated, but one does not expect to hear that from a German lawmaker. Martin Hohmann’s stance can be safely attacked from many angles, but I would like to quote hans ze beeman (see comments to Lilli Marleen’s post): “HE [Hohmann] has a massive guilt complex and is striving to equalise with “the Jews” by all means, be it to deny paying holocaust retributions, by handing out copies of the “Deutschland Lied” with all lines in 1997 (including “Deutschland ueber alles”) etc.” How can we get over collective guilt complexes? Either by looking at ourselves as individuals who simply happened to be born and raised in a certain country and culture, or by honestly admitting the bright and dark sides of our collective histories. As pride without shame borders on dishonesty, shame without pride bears bitter fruit. So Holocaust did not cancel out Goethe, and the beauty of German-designed old Riga cannot cancel out the German oppression of the Baltic tribes.

Before this entry get prohibitively long, I must switch to an excellent entry by Nelson Ascher at Europundits, Zionism as a Reluctant Nationalism. Here is a rewording of my comments.

I recall an essay by Isaiah Berlin on Moses Hess, who was one of the first Jewish thinkers to recognize that European anti-Semitism had evolved into a form of racism, making Jewishness an inescapable condition. Therefore, Hess argued in Rome and Jerusalem (1862), there was a need for a Jewish state whose new citizens would be admitted on the basis of race (broadly understood) regardless of the degree of their assimilation. In other words, he propounded an apophatic definition of Jewishness; a negative Jewishness, so to say: whoever is seen (unfavorably) as a Jew is a Jew.

Hess was a socialist of sorts, and intended the new Israel to be founded on socialist principles — which it was, to a large degree. Socialism, it seems, has been long evaporating from Israeli society. But, apart from the ubiquitous socialist spirit of their time, early Zionists borrowed from the same ideology as European anti-Semites: the nation-state notion created by German nationalist romantics. Is this concept still viable? I have my doubts about it.


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