On Jewish Being: Notes on Jean Améry


  • Andrew Benjamin Monash University




Améry, Judaism, identity, Shoah, Holocaust


That the question of identity takes on a sense of urgency, one with its own possibilities and impossibilities, the moment that identity is bound up with death, is hardy surprising. What follows are a series of reflections on the question of identity, Jewish identity, raised by Jean Améry’s remarkable text On the Necessity and Impossibility of Being a Jew (Über Zwang und Unmöglichkeit, Jude zu sein). Améry’s text was of course published in the wake of his own experiences as an active member of the resistance, as having been imprisoned in Auschwitz and as the victim of torture. Philosophically, rather than biographically, if there were a point of comparison, then it is to Levinas’s 1947 text Etre juif. Both pose the problem of how the question of Jewish identity, Jewish being, is to be understood in the wake of the Shoah. The meaning of the formulations - Jude zu sein, Jude sein, Etre juif, Jewish being – delimits the question to be addressed. This will be the case even if its point of address, namely what the question stages, is itself far from straightforward. Moreover, while what is demanded within that question is itself philosophically important, it is equally the case that the question of Jewish being is at work within both communities and synagogues across the Jewish world. As a consequence it is as much a philosophical question as it is one that has a structuring effect on how Jewish survival is conceived (and thus equally on what that survival is taken to be). How survival is understood is an issue that continues to exert its force. Who is the subject of survival? What is the subject of survival? Who or what has been subjected to the issue of survival? Survival is both more nuanced and complex than the brute fact of an afterlife. Jewish being as a present question – a question of the present - continues therefore.