as Identity, by Esther Benbassa
by 7 March 2007)
This book shows brilliantly how in the Jewish world, since its Biblical foundations, suffering, its representation and its ritualization has shaped the history of a people and of a religion over the centuries, and even more how it has shaped the perception that this people and religion have had of their history. In the Ancient times and during the Middle Ages, suffering and its memory were at the same time accepted and neutralized through their liturgization. One suffered through and for God. And liturgization finally opened up to hope, a hope borne by a messianic expectation. The nineteenth century, a century of secularization and acculturation, gave birth to what has been called a Jewish "lachrymose" historiography, a development that has become more and more evident and dominant after the Holocaust. The construction of such a historiography could compensate for the move away from Judaism and its traditions as a consequence of the social integration and of the legal emancipation of the Jews. It offered a substitute of identity to those who had no longer religion. Hence, the whole history of the Jews became a "valley of tears".
Following this historical course up to its latest metamorphoses, Esther Benbassa examines the theological, historical and political discourses produced about the Holocaust in the twentieth century. Her work analyses the indissoluble bond tied between the Holocaust and the creation and the existence of the State of Israel and its recent transformation into a civil religion, within the reach of everyone. The "duty of memory" and the proclamation of the uniqueness of the genocide have mitigated for many Jews the loss of tradition. All over the world, a Judaism of the "Holocaust and Redemption" has established its own rites, ceremonies, practices, and those temples that are the museums of the Holocaust. Redemption is embodied by the State of Israel, and every time the existence of this State seems to be threatened, the memory of the genocide re-appears.
The paradigm of Jewish suffering has become the reference in our societies of many other claims of identity and memory, implicitly or explicitly. Beyond the Jewish case, Esther Benbassa's book offers a new understanding of these recent developments. Descendants of slaves and/or colonized people, sons or grandsons of immigrants facing social, racial or cultural discriminations, stigmatized or marginalized minorities, many are the groups that construct their present identity on the past of suffering of their ancestors, expressing in their turn a strong demand for a "duty of memory".
For the first time, the crucial issue of suffering as the cornerstone of identity is treated by the author in historical and comparative perspectives with Christianity and Islam. Esther Benbassa argues for a right to oblivion that would not be amnesia but would commit to a plural and shared history the legacy of our multiple pasts of suffering. Does this choice, however, remain possible in societies that make well-being and happiness their supreme values, and where suffering makes the difference and usually grants some kind of recognition, even if it is generally essentially symbolic and does not open to a constructive future?
Praise for Suffering as Identity
Uniqueness, universality… This daring research, both philosophical and historical, about the ritualization of human suffering begins at this generally ignored intersection… Can one recover from the past? Do the duties of memory inevitably lead to the terminus of tears? The cycles of repentance - to the confusion of a competition of victims? […] Esther Benbassa tells us that the triumph of mourning hinders the breath of life. How could one disagree? In here probably lies the most precious part of her argument. (Régis Debray, Le Nouvel Observateur)
[This book] has the outstanding merit of engaging with a burning question of our time openly. It enhances the historical approach against the abuses of particular and particularistic memories. (L'Histoire)
How, when at last freed from our past of victims, will we finally be able to approach our identity in a different way, and to rebuild it so as to become the actors of our own history? Esther Benbassa does not give ready-made answers to this question, but she opens the debate magnificently. (Pierre Tanguy, Ouest-France)
Esther Benbassa asks for the right to life, for the right to hope and for the right to forgetting without amnesia, which is probably not the least message of a book written by a warm-hearted woman. (Emmanuelle Rives, L'Humanité).
Esther Benbassa is Professor of Modern Jewish History at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes (Sorbonne, Paris) and a public intellectual. She is the author of many books translated into a dozen languages. She received in 2007 the Françoise Seligmann Award against Racism, Injustice and Intolerance.