Thursday, January 12, 2012

Pious victimhood

I've my regular ABC column up today, 'The symbolism and rage of victimhood'.  I'm discussing the recent protests by ultra-Orthodox Israeli Jews, which featured children in concentration camp uniforms, wearing yellow stars.

I also spoke about the issue on ABC1's 'The Drum', which runs 6pm-7pm weeknights - you can watch the video above. (The final line, "I'm not buying it," has been cut out. You'll get the idea.)

The ultra-Orthodox see themselves as persecuted, yet they are deeply discriminatory. Their cries of victimhood actually intensify and justify their own need for control over others.  A sample:
this is not simply about protection against secular persecution; not about self-defence and self-definition. The militant faithful want control. They have, they believe, a divine mandate, which gives them the right to rule. In moments of candour, they are honest about this. "We didn't come to demonstrate," one haredi woman told the Jerusalem Post, "we came to show our power, and that our power is forever." 
This is why the Haredim can call Doron Matalon a 'slut'. It is why they can spit on eight-year-old girl Naama Margolese, for her 'immodest' dress as she walks to school. In their eyes, they are right, good and true, and their god loves them for their pious violence. And false victimhood plays a powerful role in this. Ideas of persecution might feel real, but they are also useful political tools, as the Nazi propagandists well knew: paranoia inspires and justifies force. 
As Leslie Cannold rightly noted in The Age recently, this is more than a theological debate, and more than a Jewish problem, however holy spirits are used to justify rule in Israel. It is an international conflict over political control, which features an "unavoidable clash between the sexist edicts of religious extremists and the state's guarantee of full human rights to all its female citizens." 
For secular liberals, the question is not simply whether any of the many gods are true; whether their perfect morals and laws really are written in perfect circular planetary orbits. It is whether the state's citizens may be given equal opportunities for human flourishing, without undermining the opportunities of others. This is the modern, democratic promise, however vague and conflicted. 
Fanatics of all stripes – religion has no monopoly on fundamentalism – are antithetical to this promise. They want to purchase their own freedom at the cost of others', and this trade often begins with shrill claims of persecution.
(Photo: The Star/Baz Ratner/Reuters)

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