If Things Are So Good, Why Are They So Bad?

Some critical comments on the essay `In the Name of the Other,' by philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, who argues that Europe has indeed shown remorse for the Holocaust and attacks the `anti-racist' rhetoric of universal fraternity.

Robert S. Wistrich
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Robert S. Wistrich

At the heart of the contemporary eruption of anti-Jewish violence in Western Europe lies a stunning paradox. Never has there been such a general European consensus at the official level regarding anti-Semitism - namely, that it is socially unacceptable and politically damaging. Never has there seemed to be such a united front against racism, fascism and xenophobia - widely repudiated as evils from a dark past that present-day European elites are determined to transcend. Never has the memory of the Holocaust been so frequently evoked by European politicians, intellectuals, academics, journalists, churchmen and shapers of public opinion - as the antithesis of that fraternal multicultural and post-national European Union of tolerance and pluralism, which they are seeking to create.

The recent conference in Berlin of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Berlin offered a further illustration of this apparent consensus - if such proof were necessary. On the surface then, this should therefore be the best of all times for Europe's Jews on a continent that has truly learned the lessons of the Holocaust and exorcised its genocidal past! So if things are so good, why then are they so bad? How can one explain that since 1945, the Jews of Western Europe have never felt such a level of malaise, insecurity and anxiety in this idyllic new anti-fascist world that beckons to them? How can it be that in France, for example, anti-Semitic acts of violence have increased sixfold since the turn of the millennium, according to a recent European Union report?

The facts are no longer in dispute. There have been many ugly examples of harassment of Jewish pupils and teachers in French educational institutions. Synagogues have been torched; schools and communal centers have been burned to the ground. Virtually all major Jewish communal institutions in the EU need constant surveillance and police protection. Jews who wear skullcaps in public can often expect to be insulted, spat upon and sometimes beaten up in the streets of Paris, Marseilles, Brussels, Antwerp, London, Berlin, Amsterdam and other large European cities.

A challenging answer

This new atmosphere of fear, despite Europe's repudiation of the Nazi legacy, is what the French Jewish philosopher Alain Finkielkraut sets out to illuminate in his short but intriguing essay, "In the Name of the Other." His answer is challenging, controversial, and guaranteed to upset some of the conventional wisdoms about Europe's current crisis of anti-Semitism. This is primarily because he offers a scathing critique of the "anti-racist" rhetoric of universal fraternity in which much of the contemporary hostility to Israel and the Jews clothes itself.

The EU's liberal and leftist elites, in invoking the Holocaust, have in effect substituted the Muslim Arab and Palestinian "other" for the murdered Jews of Europe. They have established a cult of the colonized "other" as the "absolute victim," who - whatever horrors he may perpetrate - can never be wrong. The vehement antipathy toward Israel (and the consequent slippage into a leftist, neo-anti-Semitic discourse) is linked, therefore, to an unconditional embrace of the Arab "other" - which in France is also linked to a wholesale rejection of its own colonial history. Contemporary politics have been polarized into a Manichean dialectic of colonizers and colonized, exploiters and oppressed, masters and slaves - in which Zionism has come to embody all the "racist" evils of European history. Israel evokes the specter of tribal nationalism, power politics, exclusion of the "other," ethno-religious particularism, apartheid, settlement expansion and, worst of all, the nightmare of "ethnic cleansing."

In this culturally dominant anti- fascist discourse of the left, it becomes almost axiomatic to identify Ariel Sharon with Adolf Hitler, while at the same time insisting on the memory of the Holocaust and the virginal purity of one's own "anti-anti-Semitism." Thus we arrive at the paradox of a new anti-Jewishness dressed up in the radiant glow of human rights, evoking the brotherhood of man and a world without frontiers. This is a kind of New Age, feel-good Third-Worldist Marxism based on boundless compassion for the "wretched of the earth." It has more than a few echoes of Pauline Christian universalism and its ancient bi-millennial reproach against the stubborn particularism of the Jews, who insist on maintaining their separate earthly existence, territorial integrity and ethnic solidarity.

But there is also a more contemporary dimension to this repudiation of any moral legitimacy for the existence of Israel and any distinctive Jewish identity. I mean the perverse alliance of "Islamo-progressivism," in which secular liberals and Trotskyists strongly defend militant Muslims - including their rights to the Islamic veil (which Finkielkraut views as a provocation and rejection of the French Republic) - notwithstanding the chasm in their views on a broad range of sociocultural issues. What binds these strange bedfellows is something more than their deep hostility to America, Israel, capitalist democracy and individual freedom.

According to Finkielkraut, they share a common loathing for France - its national heritage, traditions and republican values. Thus he interprets the anti-Jewish orientation of the "Islamo-progressive" alliance as profoundly anti-France, and all the more vocal as France's own national identity and collective memory continues to disintegrate. This was indeed the central thesis that Finkielkraut eloquently defended at a lecture he gave in January 2004 to the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism in Jerusalem - a public meeting which I chaired. On that occasion, he expanded on a theme he briefly evokes in this essay, that those Francais de souche (meaning, people who are French by birth) who have become so pro-Palestinian today, are fundamentally detribalized, Europeanized and "globalized." To use a good old-fashioned French word (much favored in the traditional nationalist vocabulary of the radical right) they are in fact "dracines" (people who have left their roots). This is the heart of the matter for Finkielkraut. The new anti-Semites are not only "anti-racist," but themselves rootless cosmopolitans who seek to eradicate the French national memory in favor of an amorphous multicultural entity that idealizes the new immigrants as the quintessential "other." These same "progressives" regard the Jewish community with suspicion as insiders in the old republican order, which has to be dissolved, just as they condemn the effrontery of Israel's very existence as a transgression against "the religion of humanity."

Flaws and omissions

While much of this provocative analysis rings true, there are also some serious problems, flaws and omissions in this essay, which need to be taken into account. In the first place, I believe that Finkielkraut overstates the case when he argues that France and Europe are so penitent and remorseful about the Holocaust that they have truly internalized the Jewish slogan "Never Again!" While this may be true at the level of establishment rhetoric (especially in Germany), it is hardly representative of the vox populi. Otherwise, it would be impossible to understand the widespread resentment against Holocaust restitution and public evocations of the memory of Nazi crimes in Germany, Austria and Switzerland - not to mention parts of Eastern Europe. Nor have racism and xenophobia vanished from the European (let alone the French) political landscape as the strength of populist, right-wing parties such as Le Pen's National Front, the Vlams Blok in Belgium, Haider's Freedom Party, Tudor's "Greater Romania" party and similar movements indicate. True, their racism is directed more against new immigrants, Arabs, Africans and Gypsies rather than Jews, but the older anti-Semitic tradition is by no means dead.

Nor can Europe as a whole be characterized as "post-nationalist." Eastern Europe after the fall of communism has been increasingly sensitive to issues involving territorial boundaries, state sovereignty, national independence and patriotism - factors which arguably make it more sympathetic to Israel's predicament. The instinctive pro-Americanism of these traditionally anti-Semitic countries, which recently entered the EU, and their attachment to ethnic nationalism, reinforces these trends. Had Finkielkraut mentioned these points, it might conceivably have strengthened his argument.

As so often happens with Parisian intellectuals, France is taken to be Europe. This is manifestly no longer the case. Moreover, a glance at the graph of contemporary European anti-Semitism would have shown that it has risen spectacularly in those societies like France, Britain, Germany, Holland, Belgium and Sweden, where Muslim communities have grown most rapidly in recent years. Yet, surprisingly, there is little discussion of this new sociological phenomenon, which is surely critical to the prospects of the "coming anti- Semitism." True, there are some references to the leftist/Muslim antiglobalist convergence, but not to the impact of fundamentalist preaching in thmosques of Europe, the anti-Semitic baggage that North African and other Muslims bring with them from their homelands; their receptivity to global conspiracy theories, the influence of Arab media incitement, the bitterness provoked by Palestine, Iraq and other conflicts where Muslims feel themselves to be under attack; and there is no reference to the envy and resentment that many Arabs in France - already alienated by the racism of the white majority - feel toward the success of Jews in having integrated so fully into French society. Radical young Muslims are often enraged by this success - as much as by hatred of the French republic as such. This is an obvious but important factor that Finkielkraut passes over in evoking the physical assaults on the Jews of France.

The author is highly critical of those commentators (including many Jews) who fail to see that anti-Semitism in Europe today is no longer comparable to the racist, ethnic nationalism of the 1930s. There is no "return of the repressed" - he emphasizes - no revival of Vichy. It is equally absurd, he rightly suggests, to identify anti-Semitism today with the Judeophobe tradition of Drumont's "France for the French" or the integral nationalism of Charles Maurras. This would be as simplistic as the attempt to equate Jew-hatred with Nazi jackboots, brownshirts and skinheads screaming "Sieg Heil!" I fully agree but believe that he also tends to underestimate the neo-fascist potential represented by "Le Penism" and above all the extremist bigotry of Islamo- fascism. Nor does this essay come to grips with the conspiracy theory of society and history at the heart of so much of modern anti-Semitism - a paranoid worldview that has survived the Holocaust and achieved its "second coming" with the emergence of Israel.

Utopian ring

Finkielkraut's solution to the impasse facing French and European Jewry seems to be a return to republican values rooted in secularism , the assimilatory virtues of French culture and a firm reassertion of the French national identity threatened by the "new barbarians." But this has a curiously utopian ring in the light of his own pessimistic cultural diagnosis that France is in the process of destroying itself. On the other hand, it has always been the traditional posture of French Jews in the modern era (especially in times of crisis) to suggest that a threat to the Jews is also an attack on the Republic. This strategy seemed to work at the time of the Dreyfus affair and on a number of occasions since then. The present firm line of the French government toward anti- Semitism might suggest that this standard formula still has some life left in it. However, the continued growth of the Muslim Arab population in France, the unresolved tensions in the Middle East and their repercussions in Europe - not to mention the "anti-Jewish" logic of the multicultural society analyzed by the author - suggests a rather darker picture. This is confirmed by the fact that many French Jews are currently thinking about an alternative future for themselves and their children.

Despite some evident flaws and the lack of any comparative or historical perspective, Finkielkraut's best-selling essay offers a thought-provoking contribution to the ongoing debate about the "new anti-Semitism" - one of the most sensitive issues in contemporary European and Jewish consciousness.

Robert Wistrich is Neuberger Professor of Modern European and Jewish History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.