Vicarious victimhood has become all too accepted as the “organizing category” of 21st-century Jewish identity. There are more problems with that than I can list on this page, but here are a few.
First, the victimhood thing reflects a refusal to see the transformation of the Jewish condition. The vast majority of Jews today live either in North America, a diaspora home qualitatively different from any other in Jewish history, or in a sovereign Jewish state capable of defending itself. Some appreciation, some joy, is in order. Our mood should be borrowed from Pesach, not from Tisha B’Av.
Moreover, to see the situation of Jews in Israel as somehow similar to that of Jews in Europe in 1938 is fundamentally anti- Zionist: It ignores the revolution that Israel has wrought, taking us from powerlessness to the responsibilities of sovereignty.
Lest I be misunderstood, I’m not objecting to the memory of oppression. The Torah itself constantly tells us to remember being slaves in Egypt—but as the prelude to the Exodus and reaching Sinai. Having been oppressed in the past is important because it sharpens our responsibilities in the present.
Admittedly, it’s hard to avoid laying claim to victim status today. In a political atmosphere that treats victimhood as righteousness, it’s easy to be swept into the victimhood Olympics. Thus, the response of politically conservative Jews to any criticism of Israel often comes down to “But, the Holocaust.” At the other end of the spectrum are Jews whose anti- Zionism stems from a basic resentment of Israel for denying them the status of being oppressed.
A very good answer to seeing victimhood as moral superiority was given by the Jewish radical Saul Alinsky. He spent his life organizing the poor. Yet he told an interviewer, “I do not glorify the poor. I do not think that people are specially just or charitable or noble because they’re unemployed and live in crummy housing and. . . feel the weight of every indignity that society can throw at them.” He believed that people should have power over their own lives because they were human beings, not because they were saints.
To be more precise: Being a victim doesn’t make you good or evil; it makes you the object of someone else’s evil. To change that, you need to be empowered, and once you have power, what makes you morally better or worse is what you do with it.
Gershom Gorenberg, “The Victimhood Olympics”, Moment (January/February 2016), 12.