Recently I have been reflecting on a particular chapter in the last book Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks published just before his death. The book is titled Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times and the chapter that I have in mind is titled “Victimhood.”
Rabbi Sacks opens the chapter with a discussion of Yisrael Kristal, a Holocaust survivor who lived to be 113.
During the Holocaust, Yisrael’s wife and children were murdered. And, after years in ghettos and concentration camps, he weighed just 82 pounds.
We learn that Yisrael remained a religious Jew throughout his life. He married another survivor with whom he had children and they settled in Haifa and opened a business selling sweets and chocolates as he had done in Poland.
Rabbi Sacks goes on to compare Yisrael Kristal to Abraham insofar as Yisrael was able to integrate into his life completely the transformative idea: “To survive tragedy and a trauma, first build the future. Only then, remember the past.”
“There are real victims,” Rabbi Sacks affirms. “And they deserve our empathy, sympathy, and compassion. But there is a difference between being a victim and defining yourself as one. The first is about what happened to you. The second is about how you define who and what you are. The most powerful lesson I learned from these people I have come to know, people who are victims by any measure, is that, with colossal willpower, they refused to define themselves as such.”
He goes on to discuss the extent to which he grappled with how it is possible to be a victim and yet not to see yourself as such “without being guilty of denial, or deliberate forgetfulness, or wishful thinking.”
The conclusion to which he came is that, in only looking back, a victim will only see him or herself as an object of victimization. However, if this same victim chooses to look forward, then this person can see him or herself “as a subject, a choosing moral agent.”
This is my favourite paragraph of the whole chapter:
A decent society is one in which people work to redress disadvantage and deprivation. There are marginalized groups that have suffered greatly in the past. There is everything to be said for a politics that strives for equal opportunity and human dignity. But there is a great difference between a future-oriented politics and one that focuses on grievances of the past; between a culture that emphasizes responsibility and one constructed around an ever-expanding notion of rights; between one that defines people as victims and one that helps genuine victims to recover their capacity for action and self-determination.
The chapter ends with a brief consideration of another Holocaust survivor, Edith Eger’s, reflections on the difference between victimhood and victimization.
Victimhood, she says, is a mindset, “a way of thinking and being that is rigid, blaming, pessimistic, stuck in the past, unforgiving, punitive, without healthy limits of boundaries.”
Holocaust survivor Edith Eger was certainly victimized but she was determined to avoid the mindset of victimhood through which, she says, we can become “our own jailors.”
Put another way, to be a victim is to die once but to embrace a mindset of victimhood is like dying twice.
Rabbi Sacks teaches us that victims who recover their capacity for action and self-determination are the ones who transcend victimhood and so avoid ‘dying’ again and again.