A racist attack
French-Jewish philosopher Alain Finkielkraut does not want to disclose for whom he will vote in the upcoming French elections. But what he says in favor of right-wing candidate Nicolas Sarkozy leaves no room for doubt: "Sarkozy is succeeding because he gives no sense of political correctness when he speaks. He speaks his truth, and people listen. But he is being described by the left, and now by the center, as a fascist. He may be elected, but perhaps he will be beaten because of his fascist image. Someone, for example, condemned him on television because he cannot be accepted in the suburbs. As though that were his fault, not that of the violent demonstrators."
Finkielkraut is a media star in France. A year ago, the weekly Nouvelle Observateur described him as one of the five outstanding intellectuals representing "the new right" (three of them are Jews: Finkielkraut, Bernard-Henri Levy and Andre Glucksmann), the French parallel to the American neo-conservatives. They started their public life with the "new left" of the May 1968 student revolt, and 40 years later are finding themselves very worried by the left and its prevailing tendencies, as Finkielkraut describes them: the crumbling of French nationalism and the legitimization of minorities (mainly Muslims and Blacks) that oppose it.
Last week he came to Israel for a Tel Aviv University conference on his philosophy, and to present the Hebrew translation of his book "The Future of Denial" (Rubin Mass Ltd.). When the book was published in France in 1982, it noted anti-Semitic elements - among them Holocaust denial - among the European left.
Finkielkraut held a closed conversation with local public figures and intellectuals, convened by the Jewish people Planning Policy Institute in Jerusalem. What he said may sound familiar to Israelis: "In the 20th century, they did not like the Jews because they didn't belong. Now, especially in Europe, post-nationalism is popular, whereby modern democracy must rise above national differences. The paradox is that this ideology was born in Auschwitz, but now it is the Jews who are becoming its victim (because of the demand that Israel divest itself of its national identity - Y.S.)
"Some French Jews think divesting themselves of national identity is good for them, because then, ostensibly, the status of every group rises. Indeed, CRIF (the French Jewish umbrella organization - Y.S.) holds an annual dinner attended by all the government ministers, and there they tell the government what it has done well and not well over the past year. But post-nationalism is a very dangerous approach, because it breaks a society down into factors, and for Jews this is certainly not good. There is a future for Jews in France only if France is a nation, but there is no future for Jews in a multi-cultural society, because then the power of anti-Jewish groups is liable to be greater."
Although he is a republican zealously devoted to the French national identity, Finkielkraut has been broadcasting a weekly program on the "sectarian" Jewish radio station "because it is hard to share concern for Israel with non-Jews. Israel, after all, is considered a regional power, and people don't understand this concern."
Another Finkielkraut diagnosis concerned "the simplistic reduction of politics to two polar forces."
"In France it is the bourgeoisie versus the immigrants, and anyone who says anything against immigrants is considered a racist," he said. "In this way, Christianity can be constantly attacked, but it is forbidden to say a single bad word about Islam, because it is the religion of the oppressed and if you say anything against it, you are a racist. People also don't see the complexity of national conflicts, but rather interpret them as racist. There are many just reasons for Palestinian complaints against Israel; the problem is when people stop talking about this as a national conflict and address it as racism and apartheid."
He also spoke about the danger of political correctness, which he described simply as "a refusal to accept the facts. For example, that there is a 'refugee problem' in France." He has been severely burned during the past year and a half "because I tried to prevent the denial," he said.
Finkielkraut raised a storm after a November 2005 interview with Haaretz, at the height of the Muslim riots in the French suburbs. He harshly attacked the forgiveness of some leftist circles and their attempt to "understand" the riots as an outburst of social anger, instead of seeing them as a clear expression of hatred for France and the West.
During his visit this week, Finkielkraut missed no opportunity to attack alleged misrepresentations, especially in that interview - including his implied comparison to Jean-Marie Le Pen and harsh words he claims not to have used, such as "barbarians" in describing the rioters. Dror Mishani, who edited the interview, says the word was "savage" and not "barbarian," and he insists Finkielkraut indeed used it. Mishani, incidentally, wonders why this particular interview, in which Finkielkraut repeated things he had often said and expressed opinions common in France, stirred up such a storm.
After the interview's summarized publication in France, Finkielkraut was repeatedly attacked as a "racist." "Even a week ago, when I came to give a lecture on the collapse of the French education system, a group of demonstrators was waiting to demand 'the racist's lecture' be blocked," he says. "After the publication of the interview, I had a difficult conversation with the director of the Ecole Polytechnique, where I have been teaching for 20 years, and he said to me: 'You have apologized, and we will accept your apology.' The truth is that I did not apologize, but I felt everything I had done there, including a book of my lectures I recently published - all that didn't count, and they just wanted to get rid of the racist professor."
Those present at the closed conversation were not upset by the interview. On the contrary, nearly everyone agreed with his positions. Two of those present, Emmanuel Sivan and Israel Harel, expressed surprise at his distress over the criticism; after all, these things are definitely worth standing behind. Sivan compared this to the 1950s, when philosopher Raymond Aron did not hesitate to defend the problematic position of support for an Algerian withdrawal - though not for moral reasons, but rather economic ones.
Finkielkraut understood the comparison as a reference to the McCarthy era and replied: "In the Communist era, even when you were attacked, someone defended you. But when you are called a racist, there is no refuge. No one is going to support you."
Entering the Pantheon
A few days after Passover, on the night after Holocaust Memorial Day, the first international conference of Jewish writers will open in Jerusalem: About 25 Israeli writers, among them Dov Elboim, Shimon Adaf and A.B. Yehoshua and about 30 writers from abroad, including Albert Memmi from France and Jonathan Rosen from the United States, will be attending. Incidentally, Israeli writers who do not write in Hebrew will also be participating, such as Maya Kaganskaya, who writes in Russian, and Eliezer Papo, who writes in Judeo-Spanish.
The initiator of the conference, Kisufim, is Hava Pinchas-Cohen, a poet and the editor of the journal Dimui. She finds that despite the variety of languages and cultures in which Jewish writers are working, they have a number of common denominators: "First of all, it doesn't matter whether it is Jewish literature from Sweden or from South America, the subject of the Holocaust is there in a big way, explicitly or implicitly. I also feel that because of the Holocaust, there is an almost desperate urge to tell a biographical story, a familial-personal story, as though to say: Though I have been deported and I have not been given a place in this world, I do have a past, I do have roots.
"Another thing - and this of course is a gross generalization - I feel that in Jewish literature abroad, a setting is absent. Perhaps it is a backdrop, but it is not central, and the characters are more significant. This is certainly obvious when compared to Hebrew literature, which is very much engaged with place."
Pinchas-Cohen also talks about the distress Jewish authors feel when they are not translated into Hebrew and are not known in Israel: "They can be very well-known writers in their own countries, yet getting into the Hebrew pantheon is very important to them. I remember I once asked Henri Meshonic, an important French-Jewish poet who could not attend the conference, whether he had been translated into Hebrew, and I saw a very insulted silence on his face - he had not been translated, and he had never been invited to a festival in Israel."
The conference will open with session on Holocaust rememberance in Jewish literature. In addition, the writers will discuss S.Y. Agnon's influence on their writing and the relationship between literature and Jewish identity around the world. The final session may perhaps be the most important: What next? Pinchas-Cohen hopes the answer will be "a reciprocal outburst of translations; lots of translations into Hebrew of Jewish writers from abroad, and also translation of Hebrew literature into other languages, and not only the best sellers."