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Survival: A Theological-Political Genealogy

Adam Y. Stern
Published by University of Pennsyvania Press in 2021

Perhaps the first thing to say about Adam Stern’s book is that it demonstrates deep erudition and analytical capability in the author’s quest to interrogate the concept of survival in a theological and political sense. Stern carries out his exercise primarily through interaction with texts by the Jewish scholars Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Franz Rosenzweig, and Sigmund Freud.

Why Jewish scholars? Stern identifies the modern fixation on the figure of the survivor with the post-WWII emergence of the Holocaust survivor. While the identity of the Holocaust survivor was at one time perhaps a more contested one—for example, was the survivor an object of suspicion for having survived, and what compromises or stratagems were required?—a process of valorization occurred in which such persons (deservedly in my view) became symbols and carriers of the “never again” message aimed at blocking all such dehumanizing campaigns of the future.

In the modern mind, then, the Holocaust survivor is a kind of model for survivors generally. While we have one image of something like the survivalist (with food stores, bunkers, and weapons), it lags significantly behind the more common focus on survivors as those who continue to live after some experience of trauma such as sex abuse, domestic violence, ethnic cleansing, or abuse of authority. To be a survivor, on this reading, is to be admired, to merit support, to possess a platform from which to pursue reform, etc.

It is of particular importance to this book that the status of the Holocaust survivor translates into political capital for the modern nation-state of Israel. In other words, Israel has (or claims to have, which some, maybe including the author would contest) a moral authority derived from Holocaust survival. Israel is the guarantor that the Jews will never again be victimized in such a way because of their lack of the kind of power a nation-state has. There will be a place to go. And there will be an army to protect them. While the author’s method is subtle and involves a great deal of unraveling various threads, it is this connection between survival, Holocaust survival, and the state of Israel that is the primary subject of the book. In asking questions about the politico-theological nature of survival, he hopes to create doubt about the confidence Israel has in its own moral status as a survivor.

There are multiple strands of the argument. One of the most important has to do with Derrida’s idea of globalization as globalatinization. In other words (and I write encountering the concept through this book and not directly through Derrida), it is important to realize that globalization is a sort of victory of the Christian West and its globalatin project. Even as this Christian project may appear to recede into secularization, the general form of the thing is highly informed by Christian sensibilities. Now, while some scholars (like myself) would point to the continuing validity of fundamental Christian ideas in the secularized, global world with some sense of vindication or pride, Stern is thinking about the issue in a different way. If one sees the Christian civilization project as negative, then its perseverance in the modern, secular world is reason to engage in much unmasking and deconstruction as Stern seeks to do here.

Stern’s interaction with Hannah Arendt is illustrative. Arendt makes the argument that modern, secular totalitarianism (and racist antisemitism) is of a different species than the antisemitism of the medieval church. Indeed, the classical Christian tradition always insisted upon the survival of the Jews as a kind of witness to the truth of Christianity. They live where so many ancient peoples have vanished. And they continue to have a biblical identity. It is an identity that has been surpassed and superseded in the Christian view, but one that should be preserved until the Jews reach fulfillment in Christ. The secular, modern totalitarians had no such sentiments, as was obviously demonstrated by the Nazi’s “final solution” of genocide. So, while Arendt may not be a Christian, she has sympathy for Christian ideals (the universalization of human beings as children of God’s kingdom) as an antidote to some of the cancerous political thought of the twentieth century.

Stern also considers Arendt’s description of Africa as a kind of dark continent where various Europeans simultaneously were horrified by the lack of civilization—the Africans appeared to be either pre-civilized or the survivors of some long-lost collapse of civilization—and felt free to kill and subjugate them without incurring the guilt of murder. For Stern, I think, the European heedlessness in Africa and the Christian tendency to retain the Jews as a showpiece of some sort are both indications that the Christian legacy is not one that should influence the Jews or the globalized world without being under constant suspicion. For him, the Christian legacy is basically one of racist triumphalism and dehumanization.

What does all of this have to do with survival? Over the course of the book, the answer emerges that the survivor can also be seen as the person who ends up with the power to tell the story of the world. Survivors are not only marginalized figures bravely facing the world. Sometimes (in fact much of the time) survivors are victors. The Christians are the victors, the supersessors over the Jews, and in essence, over the rest of the world in the sense that the Christian sensibilities became the global sensibilities. And with that sense of victory that comes from serving the king of kings, there comes a confidence and paternalism to exert authority over peoples. To the extent Christians have talked about a Judeo-Christian ethic, they have done so to conceal their domination of Jews and the mascot status of the Jewish people.

The nation of Israel, I would conclude from reading Stern, is guilty of having used the tragedy of the Holocaust to adopt a “if you can’t beat them, join them” sort of attitude in which it will seek power in order to dominate its enemies and therefore survive. For Stern, this is the morally deficient choice and not the correct lesson to be drawn from the Jewish experience.

By way of concluding an analysis I think the author would say is exploratory and provocative rather than final, he discusses the difference between two uses of survival in the Israeli context. One is the survival of a military victor as one who employs powerful weapons. The other is the survival of one who stands outside of and against the imperial domination of history’s winners. Better to escape the cycle of domination on this view instead of aspiring to be some kind of final survivor.

There is a sense in which the constant interrogation, suspicion, critique, and judgment in a book like this one can be almost maddening. In significant part, that is the method. It is designed to provoke, to jar, to put a pebble in the shoe that practically refuses to be ejected. The powerful should experience this discomfort and allow it to result in reflection.

And while the Christian reading Survival will likely come away thinking the author is no friend of Christianity, the reality of something that faces us as a community continues to push itself forward. We are aware of the Christian civilization project that has been both boon and trial for humanity in different ways. The community of devout Christians, which certainly includes the devout in higher education, has ever been at pains to separate Christianity the community cult from the vital, living reality of Christ’s kingdom. To the extent that the Christian church seems to succumb to the temptations of secular empire, we do well to develop a finer sensitivity and to ascertain the pitfalls so that they may be avoided or removed. A book like this one expands the power of the mind to detect them.

Hunter Baker

Union University
Hunter Baker, Department of Political Science, Union University