Israel and Western guilt

Wilfred McClay’s new essay ‘The Moral Economy of Guilt’ is helpful to understanding how and why so much energy has been invested in singling out the Jewish state, and by implication the Jewish people, as founts of contemporary evil.

Israeli flags 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Israeli flags 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The writer is a contributing editor at Jewish Ideas Daily ( where this article was first published.
‘Confront Your Privilege.” So reads a “subtly coercive” sign on display at American liberal-arts colleges. Why coercive? Because, as Wilfred McClay explains in his illuminating essay “The Moral Economy of Guilt” in First Things, what such signs are really telling the students is “Feel Guilty.” Feel guilty about the money that sent you here and the advantage conferred by the degree you will receive. Oh, and in the meantime, “pay us $50,000+ a year so that we can certify the very privilege for which you are apologizing.”
This absurd and self-congratulatory parading of shame is hardly limited to the halls of higher education. As McClay observes, modern men and women are regularly called upon to feel guilty about some tragedy or crime – “colonialism, slavery, structural poverty, water pollution, deforestation” – that often occurred before they were born and continues beyond the reach of their daily lives.
In exploring why guilt plays such a large role in contemporary Western culture, McClay cites French writer Pascal Bruckner, who identifies the “mechanical denunciation of the West” – an enterprise at the heart of much modern Western thought – as a masochistic holdover of “the old notion of Original Sin.”
That notion, in McClay’s summary, has morphed into a free-floating, unearned and insidious remorse.
McClay deepens Bruckner’s analysis by pointing out that moderns express guilt not only over their civilization’s alleged crimes but, significantly, over “the things of which we are most proud”– especially our technological mastery, “our knowledge of the world, of its causes and effects, and our power to shape and alter” them. This very power, he writes, leaves our hyperactive consciences exposed to an endless bombardment of ills (real or imagined) for which we are made to feel guilty.
What to do about this guilt? In a post-religious world, where traditional means of finding absolution and redemption no longer hold sway, “the powerful and inextinguishable need of human beings to feel morally justified” looks for other outlets, many of them problematic. One such outlet, writes McClay, is the sanctimonious cult of self-empowerment through “forgiveness” and “nonjudgmentalism.”
Another and related one is the conferral of prestige on certain designated classes of “victims”; by identifying with such victims, modern men and women can therapeutically participate in a kind of “stolen suffering,” thereby affirming their own innocence and discharging their moral burden.
BUT A perverse logic is at work here, and it plays itself out in corrosive ways. Since there are no victims without victimizers, a corollary of identifying oneself with the victim is the projection of one’s guilt onto a “designated oppressor” who “plays the role of the scapegoat.”
And it is by this logic that, step by inevitable step, the cult of non-judgmentalism and the pursuit of innocence have ended up hand-in-glove with the tyranny of political correctness, the vicious policing of discourse, and the ostracizing of designated villains that are the ugly hallmarks of so much contemporary intellectual and academic life.
McClay’s analysis is profound and highly intriguing.
Moreover, even as he laments the process by which fundamental religious “notions of sin and how one pays for it” have been replaced by pathological modern counterparts, he does not shrink from naming the infatuation with victimhood as in some sense a perverse product of Christianity.
In particular, McClay is helpful in understanding how and why so much energy has been invested in singling out Israel, and by implication the Jewish people, as founts of contemporary evil. To adopt McClay’s model of the modern morality play, just as Israel serves in the role of victimizer, the Palestinians serve as exemplary victims; by identifying with the blameless latter against the blameworthy former, one affirms one’s own moral stature and, projecting all guilt onto the designated scapegoat, casts it figuratively into the wilderness.
What accounts for the democratic West’s obsession with this specific issue? After all, if you’re looking for victims and oppressors, why not start in, say, the Congo, where, according to a new study, 48 women are raped every hour? To compare the fleeting attention paid to that horrific situation with the amount of anguished ink spilled over Israel’s decision to expand already existing neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem is to appreciate just how skewed are the moral criteria of the gatekeepers of Western consciousness.
Fruitful here is McClay’s tracing of guilt’s subterranean influence. Consider, for instance, the evolving influence of the Holocaust on public perceptions of Jews. Viewed through McClay’s lens, the legacy of the Holocaust initially conferred upon the Jews a kind of perverse prestige as a certified victim class. But for how long? In retrospect, it was no doubt predictable that, once they came to wield state power, Jews would begin to cede their dubious place of honor as kings of the victims’ hill. It then became necessary to find a replacement – and who better than those who could be identified as, allegedly, the victims of the Jews, now transmogrified in some circles into the new Nazis? The whole development is an especially grotesque demonstration of what McClay calls the “enormous problems” created by the cult of victimization.
Older currents are also at work.
As McClay notes, the “new sensibility” of guilt is a secularized descendant of Christian concepts.
In this light, it is hard not to see, lurking implicitly – and sometimes explicitly – in today’s depictions of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, how the Palestinians have been assigned the role of the suffering son of God, and the Israelis the role of the perfidious Jews, in a secularized replay of the crucifixion. A terrible irony here is that even as devout Christians have striven over the past half-century to dissociate themselves from and atone for the anti-Semitism so deeply embedded in Christian tradition, today’s “enlightened,” post- Christian society feels free to embrace some of its most sinister tropes.
FINALLY, FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE makes a passing appearance in McClay’s essay, and it’s more than possible that a potent dose of Nietzschean ressentiment is at work in the heaping of guilt on the Jews.
“Ressentiment” was the term Nietzsche gave to the hostility that the weak project upon the strong. It is also an instrument of psychic revenge, as the weak conjure up a moral universe that justifies them and their condition by “transvaluing” their masters’ codes of conduct. From this perspective, Israel’s “sin” in the eyes of its detractors lies precisely in its strength and success (not to mention its association with big bad America).
Of course, Nietzsche was of the view that Christianity, which elevated weakness and suffering over the classical Greek celebration of heroic vigor, was itself guilty of causing permanent damage to Western morale. McClay, by contrast, is firmly of the opinion that today’s uniquely debilitating notions of guilt are in fact a perversion of Christianity – as, he adds, of Judaism. The point would make an intriguing topic for philosophical and theological discussion. In the meantime, though, one can be grateful to Wilfred McClay for his urgently necessary contribution to a matter not only of intellectual but of truly existential moment.