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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
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Europe’s Distortion of the Meaning of the Shoah’s Memory and Its Consequences for the Jews and Israel

Filed under: Anti-Semitism, Europe and Israel
Publication: Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism

  • The challenge the Shoah’s memory poses to the Jews, concerns the Jewish people’s legitimacy, that is, its right to exist in Europe and the Middle East. The European discourse on “the Shoah’s memory” is a delusion that conceals the nonrecognition of this right.
  • There are two fundamental explanations for Europe’s unwillingness to recognize the political dimension of the Jewish people and its suffering. The first has ancient Christian origins. The second is directly linked to the concept of modernity, which is incapable of accepting the identity of a collective such as the Jewish people.
  • On the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Europeans primarily remembered the Jews’ victimhood. The commemorations were held in an unhealthy, sacral fashion. They abruptly followed an ongoing period of violent verbal hostility of European public opinion toward Israel and the Jewish communities. This phenomenon is significant for the European relationship to the Jews.


The title of Shmuel Trigano’s most recent book (in French) is The Auschwitz Frontiers.1 It refers to Europe’s desire to have Israel return to its indefensible 1967 borders, understood as metaphysical borders of its sacrificial condition. In the book Trigano discusses “the New Jewish Question,” which he defines as the denial of the moral, historical, and political legitimacy of the Jewish existence as a people and therefore the negation of the state of Israel’s right to sovereignty.

Trigano teaches sociology at Paris Nanterre University. In 2002 he founded L’Observatoire du Monde Juif, a research center on Jewish political life. Its publications rapidly became a prime source for understanding the position of the Jews in French society.

Trigano explains the essence of his thoughts on the relationship to the Shoah. “The ‘Shoah’s memory’ and with it the expression ‘the duty of remembrance’ are European concepts that developed mainly since the mid-1980s. These are imprecise terms as the major issue at stake for the Jews is not to remember what happened in the Shoah or to construct monuments. Forgetting the Shoah, or denying it has happened, are far more European problems than Jewish ones.”

Trigano says that for decades the discourse on “the Shoah’s memory” has avoided confronting the main problem the Jewish people are facing in European society. His thesis is that “the real challenge the Shoah and its memory present for the Jews concerns the legitimacy of the Jewish people, i.e., its right to exist as a people.

“For the Jews the key question concerning the Shoah is not the subject of the study of the ‘absolute evil.’ This belongs to the metaphysical or religious spheres, and especially to a Gnostic wisdom that presents the good and the evil as two opposed, eternally contending forces. The religious and philosophical discussion on the Shoah is an ideological delusion. Far more important is the political condition of the Jews in modernity. The Shoah occurred in this world and in the political realm, not in the skies.”


The Problems Resulting from Emancipation

Trigano explains: “The way the Shoah’s memory is dealt with in European society reflects this current Jewish problem. This has deep historical roots and can be traced back to the emancipation of the Jews in 1791 in France. The aim was to give citizenship to the Jews as individuals while ending the Jewish existence as a people. The Jews in Europe subsequently obtained neither legitimacy nor an existential framework for their political and historical condition.

“It has not been possible, however, to abolish the Jewish people by an ideological diktat or the enactment of a law. The French Revolution’s program of the ‘regeneration of the Jews’ collided with a historical reality. This reality continued to exist even if many Jews were trying to escape it. After the emancipation, Jewish individuals had the possibility to enter the public sphere of the larger society. The Jewish people, however, remained in a no-man’s-land.

“The Shoah made it clear that the Jewish people was not recognized as such by Europe even 150 years after the emancipation’s beginning. Far worse, the Jewish people was destined to be destroyed. It did not matter whether a Jew felt attached to the Jewish community or tried to escape belonging to it. Even the most remotely connected Jews in Europe became victims of a collective Jewish destiny during the Shoah.

“In the Shoah it further became clear that the Jews were not even recognized as individual citizens like other individuals in European society. Their civil rights were abolished because they belonged to a specific group. The thus-defined individuals were assembled and destroyed as a Jewish people. Most Jews neither comprehended nor accepted the historical and political dimension of this disaster – that the Jewish people had no possibility to exist as such in European political modernity. Belonging to this did not depend on one’s will: it was an irreducible Jewish collective fate.”


Lefort and Arendt

“For Europe the Shoah meant the collapse of democracy, which had failed to protect the Jews and many others in adversity. In Europe’s democratic societies totalitarianism had successfully developed. The French philosopher Claude Lefort shows how totalitarianism is a permanent challenge to modernity and democratic societies.

“He wrote that democracy embodies two seemingly contradictory principles. First, it derives its power from the people, which is no more than a collection of individuals. Second, democratic power does not belong to anybody. This creates a void that is the condition of freedom. In turn, however, it may create both a desire and an opportunity for totalitarianism, when there is a need to fill this distressing void. 2

“Another important author on this subject is the philosopher Hannah Arendt. One can criticize her for many reasons, yet in her book on anti-Semitism she realized that the Jews’ condition as a people is at the core of their destruction. This simple truth is not understood by many. The first book of her trilogy on totalitarianism, On Anti-Semitism, is devoted to this subject.

“In it Arendt illustrates how the Jews were not emancipated on the basis of a ‘right’ but of a ‘privilege,’ how the European nation-state policy and economy needed the continuity of an excluded Jewish people to carry out (economic) functions that the national citizens were unwilling to undertake, and how the 1914-1918 war ended this system and doomed the Jewish people to destruction.”


Suppressing the Shoah’s Political Dimension

“European societies remember the Shoah nowadays in a way that suppresses both the political dimension of the Jews’ existence in Europe and the political lesson from the Jews’ destruction. The problems associated with the Jewish people’s inability to find its place in modern European society are thus resurfacing in a distorted and indirect fashion.

“Nowadays anti-Zionism questions the right of the Jews to constitute as a state. The Jews’ enemies accuse them of using the Shoah as a tool to establish their collective identity, as a political instrument, and for economic purposes, therefore betraying the victims’ memory. These ongoing attacks on the Jews may, again, have severe political consequences.

“When Europeans recall the Shoah they mainly stress aspects such as the Jews’ suffering and sacrifice. This emphasis on victimhood enables suppressing the Shoah’s political aspects. In France in particular, the prevailing culture does not permit such a political expression. Remembering the Shoah is the only mode French culture can accept if the Jews want to manifest their collective identity. The memory of the Shoah becomes the only way for Europe to recognize the Jews as a people – a dead and suffering people.

“Yet Jews still pay a heavy price, because their enemies now accuse them of promoting a collective identity by sacralizing the Shoah’s memory. The Jews, however, are left with no other means to express their distinctiveness in the environment in which they live. If they presented their collective identity in any other way, they would incur even greater condemnation. The European reality thus leads to the distortion that the Jewish collective identity can only express itself by referring to sacrifice and victimhood.”

Trigano calls this attitude perverse. “The compassion for the Jewish victims of the Shoah conceals in a sublimated way the nonrecognition of the Jews as a people, as a political subject.

“This manifests itself indirectly through anti-Zionism, which means attacking the strongest contemporary expression of the Jewish collectivity. This anti-Zionism directly concerns the European Jews. They are viewed through their relationship with Israel. The Jews’ connection with Zionism, along with the memory of the Shoah, expresses the Jewish collective identity. This bond, however, strongly contradicts the victimhood memory because it brings the suppressed political dimension of the Shoah to the surface.

“In the Shoah, the Jews’ purely individual status in Europe, since the emancipation, was jeopardized. The fatal destiny of the collective Jewish condition emerged. The identification with Israel made it possible to reestablish it. This explains why since the 1950s increasingly more Jews are Zionists and identify with Israel.

“In Europe it has become the main positive expression of one’s link to the Jewish people. But in the past five years European public opinion and governments have reemphasized the Jews’ status as victims, and simultaneously condemned Israel. In France, both ways of reconstructing Jewish life after the Shoah were condemned, with the community accused of tribalism. One was the Jewish communal structure in France, the other was Israel.”


Christianity’s Symbolic System

When asked why Europe is unwilling to recognize the political dimension of the Jewish people, Trigano says there are two major explanations. “The first one derives from Christianity. Its origins are thus ancient. In one of my books I explain how the Apostle Paul – a Jew himself – established a symbolic system whose political consequences for the Jews continued even in the modern era. 3

“Christianity aimed to replace the eternal Israel. In the supersession theology it had to reject Jewish peoplehood by – in Paul’s language – giving all nations the possibility to belong to the chosen Israel, in fact becoming the new Israel. Paul falsely stated that the Jews aimed to appropriate all salvation, leaving nothing for others. For the Jews, indeed, the people of Israel is the place where God reveals himself. For this Paul substituted Christ.

“Christianity’s major problem was that the Jews did not disappear. Their continuity as a people constituted a scandal for the new Israel that the church wanted to embody. This became the basis of two thousand years of persecution.

“Till the Reformation, the Jews were – under the Church’s auspices – socially ghettoized in the double-swords empire (the Papacy and the Holy Roman German Empire). In the medieval state, the Jews were outside the universal fraternity. They were the paradigm of the ‘other’ in Europe, the only ‘people’ in the Holy Roman German Empire.

“The Reformation ended this. The Holy Roman German Empire collapsed and so did the Pope’s central political position. The European nations emerged. Now the Jews were less and less perceived as the solitary people they were throughout the Middle Ages, but rather as individuals adhering to the Jewish religious denomination. When the Jews entered modernity, their peoplehood dimension was officially, rationally, and consciously eliminated as all Europe turned into nation-states. This laid the basis for the tragedy of Jewish existence in modernity.”


“The Jewish Conspiracy”

“In modernity, however, matters did not evolve as expected. After a few decades a new type of hatred against the Jews emerged: political anti-Semitism. Its specific target for attack became the Jewish people. The political anti-Semites did not aim at the Jewish people as it was, but first created a distorted version of it. They developed the concept of the Jewish conspiracy aiming to rule the world.

“It claimed that the Jews – citizens of various countries – forge secret, conspiratorial bonds between them. The Jewish people are viewed in this caricatured way in Europe. While, after the emancipation, the Jews reformed themselves to become individual citizens, their maltreatment continued. The appearance of anti-Semitism is linked to this reform of the Jews, to the abandonment of the condition of ‘people.’

“In France there were anti-Jewish outbursts every forty to fifty years after the Jews’ emancipation. The socialism that emerged after the 1848 revolution was accompanied by violent ideological attacks on the Jews. Charles Fourier and Alphonse Toussenel were two extreme examples. The latter’s The Jews, Kings of the Epoch appeared in 1844. In 1886, Edouard Drumont’s book Jewish France launched a major anti-Semitic struggle, with the 1894 Dreyfus affair as the apex. In the 1930s anti-Semitism again developed rapidly, further intensifying under the Vichy government.

“This persecution culminated in the Shoah. It made clear that while the emancipation had liberated the Jews to some extent individually, the subsequent process had led to the Jewish people’s exclusion from society followed by their partial destruction.

“In the 1970s in France and elsewhere, anti-Semitism emerged from Third Worldist anti-Zionism. This was the prelude to the UN’s 1975 ‘Zionism is racism’ resolution. In that period also de Gaulle’s earlier incendiary remarks about the Jews opened other avenues of suspecting the Jews’ double loyalty and stigmatizing Israel.”



Trigano says the second reason that Europe refuses to recognize the Jews’ political dimension is much more complex and directly linked to modernity. “I have tried to demonstrate that in my book The Democratic Ideal Tested by the Shoah.4 A key factor is that the human rights theory is incapable of founding the identity of a collective.”

Trigano explains: “The idea of the social contract from which the modern state originates supposes that the latter’s authority derives from individuals’ agreement about constitutional principles. It is based on the assumption that the collectivity is the rational result of the individuals’ convergence of ideas. Philosophically this sounds beautiful but in reality matters did not evolve that way.

“The ideal of a human collective being based entirely on rationalism and individualism doesn’t function in the real world. Rousseau already understood that bonds, based solely on democratic individualism, cannot keep societies together. The legislators themselves would not uphold these. Therefore Rousseau reintroduced a new religion, a civil religion – because only a religion can teach how to obey. The French sociologist Emile Durkheim said society is more than the sum total of its individual members. The human rights philosophy has been unable to take this into account.

“After the Jews’ emancipation, simultaneously with anti-Semitism also nationalism emerged. This also was not foreseen by modernity. These developments had nothing to do with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. It turned out this declaration failed to administrate a people or even a society.”


Sociology versus Philosophy

Trigano stresses that sociologists can contribute much more to understanding this than philosophers. “The sociological approach of political philosophy tells us that all societies and human collectivities have a not entirely rational identity. The latter derives from heritage, history, and the resulting sediments over the years.

“In France this irrational identity can be demonstrated in terms of the relationship between democracy and the nation. Does democracy mean that the country must receive everybody, including immigrants from all over the world as the Declaration of Human Rights supposed? It is indeed directed to all humanity but gave rise to a specific national state that, with Napoleon, became a conquering empire.”


The Gap between Nationality and Citizenship

“All the above illustrates that in political modernity a gap exists between nationality and citizenship. During the Shoah the Jews lived this reality in a dramatic way. They thought that because they were German or French citizens they also belonged to these nations.

“They wanted to be more German than the Germans, more French than the French. They discovered, however, that the nationalists didn’t accept them as part of their nation. Political anti-Semitism illustrated the gap between citizenship and nationality. The recent rejection of contemporary Europe by even the immigrants, if they are already citizens, is yet another illustration.”

Trigano sums up: “These two causes, the Christian heritage and the failure of modernity, led inevitably to the Shoah. The catastrophe was underpinned by the widespread suspicion that the Jews, while living as individuals, were a people united by a conspiracy. The Vichy regime on its own initiative – without being asked to do so by the Germans – decided that the Jews would lose their citizenship rights. Vichy’s minister Xavier Vallat, the first commissary for the Jews, said Jews were ‘a foreign people among us.’

“The Shoah is in many ways related to the crisis in which Europe finds itself. One facet is the consistent effort to misinterpret the Shoah’s meaning. It was presented as a Jewish problem rather than a Western one. Another aspect is the emphasis placed on remembering what had happened rather than on its political and permanent aspects. A third one is the accusation that the Jews abuse the Shoah’s memory while the true issue is the repression of the democratic conscience.”


Europe’s Distorted Matrix of Identity

Trigano concludes that when Europe was founded, the matrix of its identity included a distorted vision of the Jews that has manifested itself over the centuries in many ways. “By now Europe has a soul that is so heavily historically loaded that it cannot change.

“I believe that the major identity crisis in Europe concerns America’s overtaking it. A new ’empire,’ the European Union, aspires to establish itself today in Europe. It may or may not emerge, but leads Europe into rivalry with the United States. In this process the Jews fulfill a symbolic role because they are intimately linked to European identity’s own rationale while being identified with the Americans.

“Even if there will be no Jews left in Europe, there will be a Jewish question. In Poland where once millions of Jews lived and now hardly any do, this was very evident in the 1960s. There is much anti-Semitism there with almost no Jews in the country.”

Trigano adds: “Europe is again dangerous for the Jews. The first years of the new century have amply demonstrated what she harbors. The Jews have become a symbolical tool for Europeans to avoid confronting as long as possible the problems posed to them by the Arab and Muslim immigration. The Middle East conflict has become a tool to mediate the complex of relationships between Europe and this immigrant population. Condemning Israel is a way for her to keep civil peace at home”.


Denying Aggressors Were Muslims

“In 2001 the French Jews published a list of the numerous aggressions against them. They stated that many aggressors were Muslims. The government, instead of helping the Jews, initially accused them of being racists and tribalists.

“These accusations should have been addressed univocally against the criminal aggressors, but the Jews are the weak link in European society, which can most easily be turned into scapegoats. The French Jews were entirely powerless in confronting this. They thus become again a tool in a discourse that they have to accept passively.

“The second danger is the way in which Europe, feeling guilty, has a need to cultivate the image of the suffering Jewish victim. On the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz an entire continent came to celebrate the Jews’ victimhood. This was done in an excessively sacral way, the more unhealthy because it came so abruptly after an ongoing period of violent hostility of European opinion toward Israel and the Jewish communities. It is evident that Europe adores Jews provided they are deceased. Only the dead Jewish peoplehood can be recognized. The living one is a problem.”


The Passion Play of the Jews

Trigano explains that this is the recycling of a profound Christian motif. “Only if one identifies with the suffering of Jesus can one find salvation. Now this theme resurfaces in a contemporary attire. If a Westerner identifies with the suffering of the Shoah he can redeem himself of the Nazis’ culpability. The memory of the Shoah becomes a modern version of the Passion of Christ. The victims are being reduced to dead bodies – a great similarity with Christ’s corpse on the cross.

“Contemporary Jews do not have to accept the imposed role of (sacral) corpses. Unfortunately, all the Jewish institutions and much of the Jewish public are willing to play today this dangerous – both for their political condition and mental health – part. Here we face a conflict between two strategies: the memory of the Shoah as a basis for legitimizing the Jewish right to exist, and the Zionist position that founds this right on a positive, historical, and political (democratic!) basis.

“The creation of the Jewish state has shown the Europeans that the old Israel has not definitively died in the Shoah, and that the Diaspora is not eternal as a punishment for deicide. This is difficult to accept for old Europe. That makes the Israeli soldier a monster in the new Passion Play, in which the dead Jewish people takes the place of the Christ. They ask, how can the victim carry a gun?

“To fulfill Europe’s moral needs and enable it to virginize itself anew through identification with Jewish victims, Europeans need to represent Israel as a refugee camp.

“When one identifies with the victim one is no longer an executioner. But if the victim no longer wants to play this role in today’s society, then he must be presented as an executioner. Many Europeans consider Israelis as persecutors only because they are fed up with being victims. It has little to do with the Europeans’ attitude toward the Palestinians, about whom they do not really care at all. They became the new victims to be exalted so as to cleanse European culpability. The Zionist Jews, however, do not want to fulfill the role destined for the Jewish people in the European mythology.”

Interviewed by Manfred Gerstenfeld

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1. Shmuel Trigano, Les Frontières d’Auschwitz (Paris : Librairie Générale Française, 2005) [French].

2. Claude Lefort, L’Invention démocratique (Paris : Fayard, 1981) [French].

3. Shmuel Trigano, L’E(xc)lu, Entre Juifs et Chrétiens (Paris : Denoël, 2003) [French].

4. Shmuel Trigano, L’Idéal démocratique à l’épreuve de la Shoa (Paris : ÉÉditions Odile Jacob, 1999) [French].

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Prof. Shmuel Trigano is a fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and professor of sociology at the University of Paris-Nanterre. He is director of the College of Jewish Studies at the Alliance Israélite Universelle, editor of Pardes, a journal of Jewish studies, and author of numerous books, especially on Jewish philosophy and Jewish political thought. Trigano is also the founder of L’Observatoire du Monde Juif, a research center on Jewish political life.