In ‘The Drowned and the Saved,’ a reflection on life in a concentration camp, Italian Jew Primo Levi discussed the sense of shame survivors felt after being liberated. ‘When all was over,’ Levi wrote, ‘the awareness emerged that we had not done anything, or not enough, against the system into which we had been absorbed.’ Certainly, others, namely the Nazis and their collaborators, bore infinitely more responsibility for the horrors that transpired than those imprisoned did. Acknowledging this, Levi still spoke of ‘having failed in terms of human solidarity’ with fellow inmates. Regret haunted him years after his release.
Of course, there was nothing that those who emerged from the hell of the concentration camps could do afterward to help their former companions who had been murdered. Shame after the fact is unproductive and sometimes dangerous. Guilty feelings drove some Holocaust survivors to suicide. Guilt over not having done more and acted sooner to end the Holocaust led President Truman to support the creation of Israel in 1948, when 200,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes by Jewish colonists.
On the other hand, shame that arises during an act of wrongdoing can be beneficial if it leads to action to stop that wrongdoing. Unfortunately, both shame and action seem to be in short supply these days, especially regarding the ongoing occupation of Palestine by Israel.
Where is the shame of the Israeli settlers at Migron who have refused to leave their illegal outpost, built on stolen Palestinian land east of Ramallah? Where is the shame of the members of the Likud Party who jeered Prime Minister Ariel Sharon when he spoke of getting rid of settlements and allowing the creation of a long-awaited Palestinian state? Likewise, where is Sharon’s shame as he calls for the dismantling of mostly empty, less-threatening settlements, continues to build an Apartheid Wall around the West Bank and oversees a military that invades Palestinian villages and kills civilians, including children? Where is the shame of the enlisted people and officers in the Israeli military who commit these bloody incursions and otherwise support state-sponsored terrorism?
Where is the shame of Israeli citizens whose so-called security comes at the expense of Palestinian lives? And where is the shame of Zionists the world over who believe in a supposed holy decree that means the displacement, slaughter and oppression of an indigenous population?
Where is the shame of U.S. taxpayers who fund Israeli terror to the tune of $3 billion in military aid annually? Where is the mainstream media’s shame when it emphasizes the deaths of Israelis and ignores Palestinian deaths or refers to ‘a period of relative calm’ even as the Israeli military violently attacks Palestinian children, women and the elderly?
Where is our collective shame over these atrocities being carried out in our name?
Like the Holocaust survivors Levi wrote about who were ashamed at not having acted more humanely toward their fellow inmates, we may later be overcome with guilt for our role in quietly permitting injustice to continue in Palestine. At that point, it may be too late. The Wall will be completed, the settlements will remain and grow, and Palestinian cities, towns and villages will be turned into disconnected enclaves with little possibility of sustaining themselves. These situations are already fast being realized as we stay silent.
Instead, we can direct our rightful shame and outrage toward a goal: ending the 36-year Israeli occupation and supporting Palestinian self-determination. We can join with other concerned people — including embattled Muslims and Arabs and principled Jews and Israelis — dedicated to bringing true peace to the Middle East. We can speak out. Not to do so would be shameful.