Americans were horrified at the atrocities perpetrated by Hamas against Israeli villagers on October 7 this year. The brutality and futility of the attack rocked the imagination. Yet within days, we witnessed huge protest marches in U.S. and world capitals and universities in favor of Hamas. Their favored chant, “from the river to the sea,” means only one thing, and that is the annihilation of Israel and all its Jewish inhabitants.
Such support for terrorism exploded in the 1970s as well in European cities and universities, and people wondered then about this same gleeful valorization of revolution by comfortable, privileged youth. One might expect campus teach-ins or op-eds on either side of a political conflict today too in elite educated spaces like Harvard and Columbia, but why do we again see such unchecked street rage there? Why do we hear absurdly hyperbolic accusations like “genocide” and “apartheid,” and why do news outlets accept unvetted news reports and ludicrous casualty counts from Hamas itself?
The Germans had a word for it: Leidensneid, or an envy of suffering, first described by authors such as Jillian Becker, the chronicler of the Baader Meinhof group. The youth of this formerly Nazi nation thought of their old country as irredeemably evil, and they were not entirely wrong. They came to envy the romanticized and righteous suffering of oppressed peoples, whose plight seemed authentic and meaningful. As they lived a soft life under the new democracies, their hatred of the old order grew. Eventually, they demanded nothing short of a utopian standard of justice for the new. They developed an ideology of hypersensitivity to wrongdoing, including any they saw in their new nations. And so, bereft of a nation to identify with, they identified with the victims of the post-war world, vowed destruction of “the system,” and embarked on urban guerrilla terrorism.
Similarly, today, protesters believe that Gazans live in an “open air prison” and thus suffer nobly. Therefore, they deserve our pity and support. Their struggle is heroic; their lives are significant and noble, unlike the Western student’s comfortable middle-class, or even upper-class, existence, purchased with the wrongdoing of their country.
The Leidensneid of the ’70s repeats in today’s popular oppressor/oppressed theory, the simplistic reduction that any successful nation or people must have achieved its success by oppressing less successful peoples. They valorize this suffering and therefore believe that Hamas, in the present instance, has no choice but to resort to terrorism for “liberation” against giants like Israel and the U.S.
Read it all here:
I gave the word Leidensneid to the German language. It is my invention.