Collective victimization and trauma

Posted 6/5/24

It’s an understatement to say that people around the world, and Jews everywhere, remain deeply divided by the slaughter in Gaza. One “side” continually points to Hamas’s …

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Collective victimization and trauma


It’s an understatement to say that people around the world, and Jews everywhere, remain deeply divided by the slaughter in Gaza. One “side” continually points to Hamas’s murder of 1,139 people and the taking of 252 hostages on October 7 as justification for Israel’s ongoing path of death and destruction. The other “side” underscores the ever-increasing death toll due to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s militaristic intransigence.

Positions may shift, but the reality remains. Over 38,000 Palestinians and Israelis have died, including an increasing number of original hostages. Life in Gaza, marked by famine, starvation, mass displacement, and the ever-increasing deaths of aid workers, grows increasingly dire.

From national legislatures and college campuses to city halls and social media, debates rage over who is at fault and who must do what before a ceasefire can begin. Beneath endless finger pointing lies the sense of victimhood. One side claims that Palestinians are the victims of decades-long territorial encroachment and rights abuse by Israel; the other side points to Israel’s survival as crucial to survival of Jews worldwide, and justifies Netanyahu’s actions in that context. Every time Palestinian supporters decry the imperialistic acts that helped create the state of Israel, others point to the anti-semitism they sense inherent in that critique. As the gap between facts and fear widens, victimhood and its antithesis, persecution, play out in a conflict defined by black and white absolutes.

As a Jew born in New York City almost six months after the liberation of the Auschwitz-Buchenwald concentration camp and less than seven weeks before the end of World War II, my DNA was imprinted with over 5,700 years of Jewish displacement and slaughter. I was still in my mother’s womb when my parents viewed horrifying images of emaciated concentration camp survivors and mounds of rotting bodies bulldozed into mass graves.

The message was incontrovertible: Jews have always been and will always be the victims of antisemitism. Without a land of our own where we are assured of our safety, annihilation remains a constant threat. I soon took to heart the message repeated during annual Passover celebrations of Jews’ liberation from Egypt: “Next Year in Jerusalem.”

To escape anti-Jewish pogroms in the late 19th century, my grandparents emigrated to New York City from the area near the present-day borders of Poland and Russia. Once, when my father was young, he stopped at a street fair in Little Italy where they gave pocket knives to kids. When he brought one home and showed it to his father, my grandfather grabbed it from him, slammed him across the face, and yelled, “You fool! Don’t you know they give these to the goyim to kill the Jews!”

Victimhood is as deeply embedded in the consciousness of Jews worldwide as the reality of racist abuse is imprinted in the minds of Black Americans and the threat of rape in the minds of women. Once anyone sees themselves as a potential victim, they often transition into fight or flight / “me or them” mode. Victims easily become persecutors as almost any action, no matter how heinous, is justified as necessary for survival.

Because I grew up surrounded by Jews, I did not live in constant fear of antisemitic persecution. Instead, the awareness that I could be bullied, beaten to a pulp, or killed for being a “faggot” predominated. Nonetheless, the double whammy of being a Jewish homosexual was a definite prescription for a life of victimhood.

Once in the victim mindset, it can be extremely difficult to step outside our programming— to step beyond resistance—and view those with opposing views objectively and with compassion. It takes a lot of hard inner work to begin to see the “other” as a fellow human being rather than “the enemy.” (Gay liberation pioneer Harry Hay referred to this as “subject-subject consciousness.)

It can be supremely challenging to initiate dialogue, break bread together, and find common ground. But unless we explore the extent to which our reaction to the “other” can serve as a gateway to understanding, we are doomed to endlessly repeat the cycle of death and destruction as we shift from victim to persecutor without ever finding middle ground.

May a new understanding arise out of the ongoing tragedy in the Middle East. May each of us find ways to transcend centuries of victimhood and trauma and forge a common path forward. And before I begin to sound like Saint Serinus, may we all find ways to celebrate the conviction of he who, as he incubates new ways to persecute his opposition, continues to pose as the greatest victim of all.

Jason Victor Serinus is a critic of culture, music, and audio. A longtime advocate for rights, equality, and freedom, he is also a professional whistler. Column tips: