Book Review by Ephraim Meir: On a New Age in Democracy as Part of the Holocaust Memory

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Book Review by  Ephraim Meir: On a New Age in Democracy as Part of the Holocaust Memory
Democratic Ideal and the Shoah, The: The Unthought in Political Modernity (Suny Series in Contemporary Jewish Thought). Shmuel Trigano. Published by State University of New York Press, 2010. $24.95 pp.340

Shmuel Trigano is a member of SPME.



In Germany, one may recognize distinct groups of new immigrants with their different life styles, but there is a reluctance to consider such groups, for instance the Turkish minority, as “new Germans.” In France, on the contrary, one speaks more about general citizenship but frequently does not recognize the different specific ethnic/religious communities, to which members of such groups belong. This problem of universality and particularity is at the center of Shmuel Trigano’s, The Democratic Ideal and the Shoah.[1] In Israel, there are two opposing forms of memory of the Shoah. One narrative is post-Zionist, the other, neo-Zionist. The first is the peace narrative that is told in a humanistic-universal perspective. The second fits a national perspective and highlights the Jewish character of the Holocaust. The Shoah is drawn into the dialogue by the Israeli right that wants security, as well as by the Israeli left that makes moral demands. In the eyes of the author of this review, both memories are compatible; they are not necessarily opposed. One must of course be sensitive to the misuse of the Shoah, as a means for furthering political goals. At the same time, one should not forget that first of all the Shoah targeted the Jewish people. In the formation of the memory of the Shoah, the dichotomy can be bridged. Holocaust memory in Israel may be particularistic and universal at the same time. Rightly, universalistic thinkers point to the danger of manipulation in certain political contexts, whereas proponents of a national memory rightly make us aware of the danger of universalizing the Shoah and forgetting its unique, Jewish character.[2]

It is in this perspective that Trigano’s book on democracy and the Shoah is important. Trigano analyses the Jewish singularity and the rejection of it in political modernity. With immediate relevance for the Israeli debate, he discusses the question, if the Shoah is a unique event or just one of the multiple genocides in the twentieth century. Does one have to talk about Shoah or about genocide? Is the event singular or universal? Whereas Steven Katz, Elie Wiesel and Claude Lanzmann maintain that it was specific, others negate its uniqueness, pointing to ideological manipulation of strategists in the State of Israel, who exploit the Shoah to advance the cause of national cohesion. New historians in Israel like Uri Ram and Baruch Kimmerling for instance denationalize the Shoah in order to denationalize also the State of Israel. Against people like Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, Boaz Evron, Ilan Pappe and Benny Morris, Trigano defends the singularity of the Shoah. Yet, he does not defend an absolute singularity, which lends to the Shoah an aura of mystery. He refuses to mythicize or theologize Auschwitz. He places the debate on the Shoah in the perspective of the future of modern politics. His focus is on the singularization, to which the Jews were subjected and which led to their extermination: they were deprived of their citizenship. Trigano examines the phenomenon of anti-Semitism from a sociological and psychoanalytical point of view and contributes to political philosophy in that he analyses the Jewish singularity and the rejection of it in political modernity. He tries to answer the question why the assassination of democracy had to involve the murder of Jews. (p. 55) His central question is how political modernity collapsed and how citizenship failed to take into account the concrete citizen in his singular identity. (p.57) The Shoah concerns the fate of the singular human being in the democracy of the Rights of Man. (p. 238) Towards the end of his book, Trigano defines the memory controversy as “a decoy” (p. 237): the focus on the uniqueness of the Shoah masks the real question about the fate of mankind, and those who criticize the Jewish aspect of the Shoah lose sight of the overall fate of singularity (p. 238).

Trigano discusses how the Shoah is interpreted by the fascist right-wing neo-Nazi groups, for whom the Holocaust is a Jewish plot. He also analyses leftist groups, which demonize Israel as the cause of Palestinian suffering. The Jewishness or singularity of the Holocaust is negated by the New Left, to which Tzvetan Todorov and Alain Brossat belong. In this view, Jews are allegorized in a Pauline manner. The main problem of Marxist theory is seen in its incapacity to deal with the concept of the nation and to appreciate peoplehood. (p. 61). Trigano, on the contrary, asks why the Shoah happened to the Jewish people, whom he conceives to be pioneers, who paved the way to political modernity. The Jewish people are for him the people of the covenant, which is one of the key sources of modern democracy (p. 72). The Jewish people did not find a place in the modern nation-states of Europe, where they remained abstract individuals. Unwilling to be absorbed in a universalism, they reaffirmed their particularity. Trigano refers to Levinas, who defined the Jewish destiny as universal, more specifically, as a “particularist universalism” (p.83). The Jewish singularity is inseparable from the European identity, “a necessity for Europe.” (p. 89)

Trigano’s book is replete with interesting remarks. So, for instance, on the “passion” of Israel and the ugly light this expression casts on suffering as the way to salvation. (p.38) He further remarks that for a “good cause” people were put in work camps, in psychiatric hospitals and in extermination camps. (p. 177) This reminds me of Vasili Grossman’s Life and Fate, who in his anti-totalitarianism did not believe in abstract “good,” but only in good deeds. The totalitarian regime in which Grossman lived had institutions that “educated” the people “only for their own good.”[3] There are some passages in Trigano’s book, where I have a different view. For instance, Trigano distances himself from Hans Jonas, who talked about an impotent God instead of reminding his German audience of the lust of power. (p.41) I understand Trigano’s reservation, but I would like to ask the question if Jonas did not speak about Divine retreat, precisely in order to give the entire responsibility of history to the human beings themselves? Religious meditation may help to promote responsibility and prevent democracy from sliding into totalitarianism. Indeed, we need more “anthropodicies” than “theodicies” on the Shoah (p.40): in the dark light of the Shoa, we don’t have to justify God, but rather to ask were was man. I am even thinking, with Levinas, that there is bankruptcy of every theodicy in the post-Shoah area. [4] “Theologizing” the Shoah is bad, but a post-Shoah theology that allows for critical examination of the European way of thinking and that focuses on the Jewish singularity – which is Trigano’s main theme – remains a possibility for me and even a must in the correction of Europe’s self-image.[5] Another point, where I disagree is when Trigano writes on the “rhetorical” Jew after the Shoah. The author criticizes people like Blanchot, Jabès, Levinas or Lyotard, who write on the Jewish non-identity, which would be a Pauline move, since in their writings, “the conceptual machine of the signifier ‘Jew’ runs on its own power, independently of the real existence of Jews.” (p. 91) Trigano’s own accent upon the real Jewish people and his opposition to the rhetorical Jew slightly obscure in certain passages the forgotten element, which – as he knows well- Jews remind others: that one is obligated before the divine Law and that, consequently, existence is not to be reduced to existence in a State. One may always contest this or that other point -two Jews, three opinions-, but Trigano’s study undoubtedly represents a profound analysis of the tragedy of a universal, that excludes the singular, and puts “others” outside the confines of citizenship. This is Trigano’s great merit, as he teaches us not to forget the differences in the universal. The Shoah concerns political modernity itself, which replaces the concern for real man by the glorification of abstract man (p. 204) and still does not have room for “the given” (p. 194).

Time and again, Trigano reminds his readers that he is writing about the Jews as a nation, about the real Jews, that are forgotten in rhetorical figures. Napoleon wanted to put an end to the Jews as a nation. With the emancipation, they became more or less equal citizens and abstract individuals in the modern States, but this model was shaken by Auschwitz. After the Shoah, they returned to their citizenship. The collective impulse expressed itself in Diaspora communities, in the Jewish State and also in international communism. Trigano maintains that with the decline of Zionist political culture in contemporary Israel, Jewish singularity remains unthinkable. He also notes that the Shoah is frequently seen as a decisive factor in the collective identity and that one witnesses a religiousness that leads to ghettoized modes of identity. (p. 36) All this is true, and I understand Trigano’s aim to point to the repression of singularity, which remains un-thought from the psychological point of view. But an outdated religiosity or being obsessed or haunted by the Shoah are not the only ways of shaping identities in post-Zionist Israel. There is more than the ultra-orthodox anti-Zionist view that sees the Shoah as punishment and Zionists who instrumentalize the Shoah for the State. It is understandable why Trigano writes that the Shoah, also in Israel, is unthinkable in her quality as a flaw in democracy, as something that is repressed. Yet, more than imaginable is an existence in Israel that is neither a simple return to an archaic religion nor an obsession by the Shoah. In Israel there are also people, who combine a religiosity with a sensibility for plurality in the democracy. One may link universal problems to a particular, explicitly Jewish point of view. Is Jewish particularity not thinkable as a “particularist universalism” around the ineffable or the inexpressible, the always exterior, traditionally called God? Such a singularity is also lived in communities that remain open to universal questions, in continuity with a centuries-old past and in the challenging situation of the State of Israel. For a number of people in Israel, the Shoah is not “a religion” (pp. 36-37), unthinkable, but most thinkable, not something out of time and space, but an event that took place and asks for the formation of a counter-culture, in which the other is central, precisely in Israel. At all events, and Trigano would agree with this proposition, celebrating and promoting diversity in the democracy and accepting plurality in Israel, so that it becomes more and more part and parcel of people’s memory of the Shoah, is the great task of everyone who lives in Israel.

Sartre’s and Arendt’s reflections on the Shoah are highly appreciated by Trigano, who bases his work upon their findings, but wants to go further. Sartre’s 1947 essay on anti-Semitism is valued by Trigano because it seeks the causes of anti-Semitism within political modernity itself, through the analysis of the bourgeois and of the democrat. The democrat searches the universal by rejecting the singular and, in this way, democratic rationality repressed peoplehood. Also Arendt’s perspicacious analysis in the first part of The Origins of Totalitarianism is highly esteemed because it examines the process of the emancipation of the Jews themselves and criticizes modern politics that produced totalitarianism. Arendt’s much discussed position that the Jewish people took an active part in the global game is well known. So are her notions of the “pariah,” who stays out of society and of the “parvenu,” who conforms to society. With Arendt, Trigano sharply criticizes the nation-state, in which equality obscures dissimilation and singularity. The individual Jew was politically recognized, but the Jewish people itself was socially excluded. From Arendt’s complex arguments Trigano derives the view that the Jewish question is a political one: modernity did not cope with the Jewish peoplehood.

Whereas Trigano in Part I analyses the Jew-of-the-Citizen, in part II he examines the Man-of the-Citizen. Part II tackles the problem of modernity, in which Man became the source of the law, but men in their singularity disappeared in the polity. Pointing at this flaw in democracy, Trigano contributes to what Tocqueville called the “democratic process,” which still continues. Indeed, men were removed from their singularity and historicity, eventually “regenerated,” in order to become a citizen, a Man. Here lies the great originality of Trigano’s work: the point at issue is for him the citizen, much more so than the Jew. Trigano thus recognizes the failure of democratic citizenship itself (p. 156). In multicultural societies, abstract citizenship was not sufficient to guarantee human rights to nationals who did not belong to the dominant people (p. 158). Hegel universalized the people and the singular identity in the state, instead of safeguarding the universal “while recognizing the singular in its place” (p. 168). Marx criticized the state and thought of historicity by writing on the “class,” the proletariat, but for him Jews were not a people, they followed a religion that was “the opium of the masses.” Marx came close to the idea of an absolute state with an abstract “universal” humanity, which according to Trigano contains the seeds of the later communist totalitarianism (pp. 168-171). The philosophy of human rights had not foreseen the violent return of the national phenomenon, of what Jacob Talmon called “totalitarian democracy” (p. 173). Trigano does not think that respect alone for difference and otherness solves the question. It only scratches the surface of the question, that concerns political modernity as such (p. 185). What is at stake in the relationship between the singularity of the Shoah and the universal is for him the question of “origin.” Leaning upon Pierre Legendre, Trigano argues in a psychoanalytical way that the “origin” was refused and foreclosed. The Nazis attacked the notion of filiation as such, the very idea of law (p. 200). The Nazi madness related to the modern state, which wants control over the body, and even to human rights, since Hitler saw his racist legislation as one holiest human right (p. 201). Trigano quotes Durkheim, who thought that the human being is “the sacred thing par excellence,” but what Durkheim had in mind was the abstract idea of man, man in which there is nothing particular (pp. 205-207). Trigano himself tries to think and anteriority i.e. history in democracy by writing about singularity. He defines the lack of differentiation in society, the total absolute sharing, as problematic: one has to think exteriority in order to allow for differentiation. The lack of differentiation led to a sacrificial crisis. Trigano writes about “the hidden religion” of modernity and democracy, in which one creates an undivided whole through exclusion: “all totalities are sacrificial” (p. 232), he writes, it is a unanimity minus the excluded.

In the last part, Part III, which is unfortunately relatively short in comparison with the first two parts, Trigano discusses the Jew-of-the-Man. The singularity of the Jews in citizenship met a catastrophic fate. Stating that mythicizing or denying this singularity opens the way of covering up the abyss that the Shoah opened, Trigano offers his own conception of the Jewish singularity as paradigmatic in democracy. He distances himself from theorists, who approach the Jews as representing the Law,[6] but does not think that the figure of the Law is altogether misleading. He himself talks about the Jewish “people” as the people of the Book. (p. 251) Jews were the living testimony that they did not draw their identity solely from the state, they had a “narrative of origin,” that could not be replaced by the discourse of reason. They spoke about the Covenant, the union of the one and the many. (p. 253) In his critical reflection on Jewishness, Trigano then concludes that there is a life for peoples outside the confines of the nation-sate. As a consequence, he criticizes Jews, who see themselves more as Israelis than as Jews and form more a Jewish nation than a Jewish people. (p. 256) Focusing upon the French situation, he writes that Askenazi and Neher, who emigrated to Israel, found themselves in ideological-political impasses, whereas Levinas in his eyes did not help to perceive the limit that separates the singular from the universal, by universalizing the concept of chosenness. (p. 259) Trigano avoids the Scylla of mere universalism and the Charybdis of mere singularity. Although I have different views about Levinas, who in my eyes had a keen eye for the particular contribution of Jews to universal narrative,[7] I agree with Trigano that one does not have to chose between universalism or particularism and that this is finally a false dilemma.

For Trigano, there is a disparity between peoples and nation-states. The reality of people is much greater than the nation and humanity exists only through singular peoples. The people carries the political, that represses it and puts the citizen over and above Man. For Trigano, singularity is “the apotheosis of hominization” (p. 279). Singularity or “identity” is beyond computation and outside the political, but it founds the political; it vanquishes the non-differentiation of nature. Against the trend of belittling the concept of identity, Trigano puts it in the center of his thought. At the same time, he makes it clear that identity presupposes the relation to the other. He so comes close to Rosenzweig, who attached a tremendous importance to being called by the personal name [8] as well as to Levinas, who interpreted difference as non-in-difference and placed proximity, hospitality and the rights of the other man above politics. Referring to the medieval Jewish thinker Joseph Albo, who puts the conventional law of a real political community above the universal, natural law, because it gives justice its practical conditions of application, Trigano thinks about the singular as superior to the universal and as opposing totalization. In a further important move, he refers to the superior, “divine law,” about which Albo writes and which disappeared in political modernity. Trigano gives much weight to a withdrawal or separation, to transcendence, also called “reality principle,” (p. 284) that state universalism tried to seize. He thereby takes up themes which he developed in another of his books, Philosophie de la loi. L’origine de la politique dans la Tora [Philosophy of the Law. The Origin of Politics in the Torah],[9] where he states that the political cannot seek its origin in itself. Transcendence was surreptitiously reintroduced in political immanence and one forgot the limitation of politics, its status as a secondary reality.

Trigano succeeded in making a point that is rather neglected in the current debate on the Shoah. He sheds sociological and psychological light upon a central problem in democratic societies which is not sufficiently perceived in the debate on the memory of the Shoah. I therefore consider his book on the democracy and its flaw as a most important and original contribution to the shaping of what I call “an active memory” of the Shoah.


[1] S.Trigano, The Democratic Ideal and the Shoah. The Unthought in Poitical Modernity, trans. Gila Walker, Albany NY: SUNY Press, 2009, 329 pp.

[2] See Galia Glasner Heled, “Responsive Holocaust Memory – Integrating the Particular and the Universal,” Jewish Educational Leadership, The Lookstein Center 8:1 (2009), pp. 4-9.

[3] V. Grossman, Life and Fate. A Novel, transl. Robert Chandler, New York: Harper and Row, 1985.

[4] E.Levinas, “Useless Suffering,” in R. Bernasconi and D. Wood, The Provocation of Levinas. Rethinking the Other (Warwick Studies in Philosophy and Literature), London and New York: Routledge, 1988, pp. 156-167.

[5] See E. Meir, Towards an Active Memory. Society, Man and God after Auschwitz (Hebrew), Tel-Aviv: Resling, 2006.

[6] An eminent representative of this view is, for instance, Jean-Gérard Bursztein, Hitler, la tyrannie et la psychanalyse – Essai sur la destruction de la civilization, Paris: Nouvelles Etudes Freudiennes, 1996.

[7] See e.g. E. Levinas, “Antihumanism and Education,” in Difficult Freedom. Essays on Judaism, transl. Seán Hand, London: Athlone, 1990, pp. 277-288.

[8] F. Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption, trans. Barbara E. Galli, Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin, 2005, pp.201-202.

[9] S. Trigano, Philosophie de la loi. L’origine de la politique dans la Tora, Paris: Cerf, 1991.

Book Review by Ephraim Meir: On a New Age in Democracy as Part of the Holocaust Memory

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