An Obsession Called Israel

A conference at Tel Aviv University this week explored the attitudes of French intellectuals toward Israel.

To the sound of the audience's applause, Francois Heilbronn, the president of French Friends of Tel Aviv University, stood up and read off the names of dozens of French intellectuals. The list included poets, writers, playwrights and philosophers, Catholics and communists, past and present, who all shared one common denominator: their enthusiastic attitude toward Zionism and the State of Israel. "A wonderful list; it is such a pleasure for me to recite these names," said Heilbronn and read: Malraux, Camus, Blanchard, Barthes, Aragon, and many other names that were swallowed up by the applause. "Here, in Tel Aviv, we salute you," he declared, and concluded with a pro-Israeli quote from Jean-Paul Sartre, the leading French intellectual of the twentieth century.

It was one of the highlights of a unique conference held at the university this week on the attitudes of French intellectuals toward Israel, from its establishment to today. In contrast to Heilbronn's speech, which was devoted to the pro-Israel intellectuals, the lectures of most of the speakers radiated flagrant offense at the positions that French thinkers, especially from the left, have taken toward Israel. One after another, the speakers described a similar pattern: Excitement over the establishment of the Jewish state, which swept across the French intelligentsia after 1948, was replaced after 1967 by increasing criticism, which in some cases reached the point of completely denying Israel's right to exist.

It is sometimes surprising to see the intensity with which intellectuals on the banks of the Seine deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in dozens of articles and essays, most of which are totally unknown to the Israeli public. "The topic of Israel was always important in France, but in the last ten years, it has become the number-one subject for intellectual debate," said Dr. Denis Charbit of the Open University, a researcher of French culture, who organized the conference.

Eric Marty, an essayist and lecturer on contemporary literature at the University of Paris, argued that Israel is a unique obsession in French intellectual discourse - to the point that the Israeli-Palestinian question has created conflict among several leading French thinkers. The close ties between Sartre and the writer Jean Genet, for instance, were ruptured after Sartre moved closer to Israel and Genet moved closer to Fatah. The relationship between philosophers Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze also cooled due to Deleuze's support for Palestinian terror attacks. Today, Marty said, the debate over Israel is so heated that intense hostility and hatred prevails among disputants on both sides of the argument.

As an example, he cited the philosopher Alain Badiou, whom many consider the leading French philosopher of the current generation. In a series of recent essays, Badiou (whose book "Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil" was published in Hebrew by Resling) argues that Israel must disappear completely, just like French Algeria. According to Badiou, as quoted by Marty, the Jew by definition must be foreign to any land, and therefore Israel is the state with the least number of Jews in the world today, and its very existence is perceived by him as a crime.

"Badiou is considered the leading intellectual in France," Marty said. "Derrida bequeathed his place to Badiou. It is necessary to fight to make him beyond the pale."

Unsurprisingly, the word "anti-Semitism" recurred in several lectures. Yet some of Israel's harshest critics happen to be Jews. Moreover, said sociologist Pierre Birnbaum of the Sorbonne, ever since Theodor Herzl's day, many pro-Zionist intellectuals have actually been anti-Semites. For example, Edouard Drumont, author of the anti-Semitic book "Jewish France," congratulated Herzl, saying that France is for the French, while Palestine is for the Jews. Louis-Ferdinand Celine, the anti-Semitic pro-Nazi writer, praised the rebirth of the Jewish people in Israel and said a new person had been created there: He builds, he farms, he fights.

Charbit noted that several thinkers actually present the denial of Israel's right to exist as a conclusion drawn from the memory of the Holocaust. "The Holocaust has never been as present in French discourse as it has been in recent decades," he said. "But because of the connection between colonialism and the Holocaust, the victims have become the main subject of the historical discussion. In such a situation, there is a split: Either the contemporary Jews are [viewed as] the heirs of the victims, and then there is support for Israel, or the approach is to consider all victims in general, and then the Palestinians are portrayed as the victims of today."

Historian Prof. Elie Barnavi, a former Israeli ambassador to France, noted at the conference that there is a large gap between the Parisian intellectuals' position and that of the public at large. When he visited rural areas of France, he said, he received an almost royal welcome and Israeli flags were hung in his honor. "We focus on the Parisian microcosm, which is indeed important, but it isn't representative," said Barnavi. Many of the speakers noted that Nicolas Sarkozy, the man sitting in the Elysee Palace, is actually an ardent supporter of Israel.

And indeed, while discussing Israel and the Palestinians is indeed important to the intellectuals, it is unclear how important the intellectuals are to France today. Their status does not even come to close to what it was several decades ago, Marty said, and the field of French intellectualism is in a truly terminal condition.