When Jews Become anti-Semites: Why Reading Sartre in 2020 Is More Relevant Than Ever

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French philosopher and author Jean-Paul Sartre, in Milan, Italy, 1961.
French philosopher and author Jean-Paul Sartre, in Milan, Italy, 1961.Credit: Archivi Farabola/Leemage / AFP
Itamar Ben-Ami

It’s hard to find a conversation topic more capable of firing the imagination of Jews than anti-Semitism. “It is a well-known fact that Esau hates Jacob,” it says in the Midrash, almost joyfully – and lachrymose Jewish history finished the rest.

Many people believe that anti-Semitism is such a basic force that there is no point in opposing it. The saying that an anti-Semite is someone who hates Jews more than absolutely necessary – attributed to British Jewish philosopher Isaiah Berlin – reflects the idea that a neutral attitude toward Jews belies common sense.

Anti-Semitism remains a vital force in Jewish identity even after the establishment of the Jewish state. Its importance is proved by the enthusiasm with which Israel, even today, searches for hidden cells of anti-Semitism; for example, in student groups in godforsaken towns in the United States.

The new translation of “Anti-Semite and Jew” by Jean-Paul Sartre, the great 20th-century French intellectual, raises the question of why we even need such a work. Sartre’s book includes iconic assertions such as “If the Jew had not existed, the anti-Semite would have invented him” and “the anti-Semite creates the Jew.”

The cover of 'Réflexions sur la question juive' (called in English 'Anti-Semite and Jew') in French.

The question of the necessity of publishing the book is all the more relevant given that nobody in the Jewish state makes light of anti-Semitism. In general, classics such as those by German Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt have influenced the study of anti-Semitism far more than Sartre’s forgotten treatise. Nor is his philosophy popular in the Holy Land; in the Jewish state people are far more interested in the philosophy of Sartre’s anti-Semitic German rival Martin Heidegger than in the philo-Semitic Frenchman.

Moreover, the book will stir considerable opposition in Jewish hearts. Many will ask why this non-Jew not only told the Jews what anti-Semitism is and how they should respond to it, but also explained them nature of Jewish identity. After all, nobody bothers to ask about a Jew’s opinion of the French. Also many of Sartre’s descriptions aren’t exactly complimentary to Jews.

'Hooked nose'

A “hooked nose, protruding ears, and thick lips” is how Sartre describes Jews, and in a very cruel passage he analyzes the alleged Jewish propensity for talking with quick and nervous hand gestures, not to mention Jews’ notorious “tactlessness.” The main question that should be asked about this essay is what exactly it’s supposed to contribute to the contemporary Israeli reader.

The previous Hebrew version of the essay, which was translated by the late literary scholar Menachem Brinker, translated as “Thoughts About the Jewish Question.” The new and very clear translation by Muli Meltzer is also a kind of monument to Brinker, whose work still provides the main access in Hebrew to Sartre’s writings.

But clearly the essay’s appearance now is an attempt to find relevance to the current Israeli experience. In an enlightening afterword, Yehuda Meltzer warns that new forms of xenophobia have become common particularly among the grandchildren of victims of anti-Semitism. Meltzer mentions Sartre’s discussion on bans against Jews using swimming pools and suggests that we should think about discrimination against the Israeli Arab community.

But in what sense can Jews be anti-Semites? Is that an oxymoron? To understand it we should focus on the essay’s two arguments. First, Sartre says the pathology of anti-Semitism is not at all related to Judaism, it’s related to modernity. This opinion is likely to disappoint many Jews who masochistically bask in non-Jews’ eternal hatred of them.

Jean-Paul Sartre, in Paris, 1964. Chose to present the ignoring of the Jews as the most urgent question for the future of France – just as the republic regained its freedom.Credit: Levy / ASSOCIATED PRESS

Second, Sartre says Jewish identity is devoid of any independent significance. Even if Judaism had some religious content in the past, it has long since stopped being relevant to most Jews. This is the reason for Sartre’s famous saying that the anti-Semite invents the Jew – and without him the Jew would disappear. Such harsh statements angered many Jews who didn’t sit idly by; they claimed that Sartre himself was an anti-Semite.

The question, naturally, is what is anti-Semitism. Immediately after World War II, anti-Semitism became a pressing global question. The newsreel footage of emaciated concentration camp survivors and the piles of bodies shocked the West’s self-image. This got several philosophers claiming that anti-Semitism is not just another of the many ills of Western civilization, but its biggest problem.

Arendt declared that it was “radical evil” – an opinion she later changed to “banal evil” – and asserted that anti-Semitism is one of three “origins of totalitarianism” – a term in the title of her 1951 book. German philosophers Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno believed that anti-Semitism represents the condition of the modern man, who suffers from growing paranoia and suppressed homosexual urges.

Thundering silence

Sartre’s book was written by October 1944, before the liberation of the extermination camps and when there was only partial information on the horrors. During the war the French Resistance did not mention the Jews’ suffering – despite the rumors about the French Jews being sent in trains to Eastern Europe and the testimonies on the organized extermination. French opposition to the Nazis addressed French popular and ultranationalist sentiment that itself was often anti-Semitic. “The Jewish problem,” the uncomplimentary term used to discuss the status of Jews in France, focused mainly on the problem created by the Jews, rather than on anti-Semitism.

Sartre was the first to notice the thundering silence regarding the Jews. He chose to present the ignoring of the Jews as the most urgent question for the future of France – just as the republic had regained its freedom. The protest against the silence is already reflected in the fact that Sartre defines the subject as “the Jewish question” rather than “the Jewish problem,” and in his final sentence: “Not one Frenchman will be secure so long as a single Jew – in France or in the world at large – can fear for his life.”

His audience remained skeptical. The essay was published only in 1946 by a small publishing house, after Gallimard – the prestigious house where Sartre usually published his writings – saw no point in doing so.

Sartre’s early definition of anti-Semitism as a global problem may be daring, but it’s not unprecedented. In general, to Sartre, anti-Semitism isn’t at all about Jews or Judaism but presents a harsh version of the existential problems of modern humankind.

Café de Flore in Paris, a popular meeting place for French intellectuals including Jean-Paul Sartre, in 1949.Credit: PIGISTE / AFP

For him, anti-Semitism is a product of the rise of the “mass-man,” whose existence is determined by forces stronger than he but indifferent to him; they allow him to decide on his beliefs as he wishes. The abandoned and trapped man, for whom religion no longer provides answers, must deal with the mediocrity and total ordinariness of his existence. Forced to find “authenticity” in his life but incapable of doing so, the “mass-man” finds a solution to his problems in the hatred of Jews.

To Sartre, the anti-Semite isn’t someone with specific opinions regarding the Jews, but a kind of walking example of inauthenticity and mediocrity. The obsessive focus on the Jews lets the anti-Semite revel in his theoretical greatness; in effect, had the Jew not stolen the country from him, all of France would belong to him. Jew hatred makes the “mass-man” important; it provides him with an entry ticket to a disinherited aristocratic class, and belonging to it doesn’t require any show of greatness.

Erotic excitement

Hatred also provides erotic excitement in the insignificant life of the anti-Semite. Sartre offers a good description of the mixture of sexual attraction and revulsion stirred by the Jew among anti-Semitic women, and discusses the sadomasochist elements of relationships between Jewish men and non-Jewish women.

Sartre sums up the figure of the anti-Semite: The anti-Semite is afraid, not of Jews, of course. He’s afraid “of himself, of his own consciousness, of his own liberty, of his instincts, of his responsibilities, of solitariness, of change, of society, and the world – of everything except the Jews … in espousing anti-Semitism, he does not simply adopt an opinion, he chooses himself as a person.”

That’s the first reason it’s important that the essay has reappeared in Hebrew: Sartre’s analysis of anti-Semitism is relevant for all forms of xenophobia. No “Jewish” moral can be derived from anti-Semitism, which means that Jews can also be afflicted by anti-Semitism if, as a refuge for their problems, they victimize other minority groups.

But the real reason the book is important is its conclusions about Judaism. To Sartre, Jews, just like non-Jews, are confused when confronting the question of authenticity in the society of the mass society. They have two paths to choose from: the inauthentic option and the authentic one. The difference depends on the acceptance of Judaism.

Sartre's 'Anti-Semite and Jew' in English.

Since the gaze of the anti-Semite once again reminds the Jew of his Judaism, in order to become a free person, the Jew must accept the Jewish fate. Cutting off one’s side curls is a useless effort, Sartre says. The Jew can of course pretend that everything about him is normal, and the people alongside him can do so as well, but just like someone who tries to “behave normally” when walking by a police officer, that would just be a pretense.

A denial of one’s Judaism cannot escape the gaze of the anti-Semite, who continues to determine the Jew’s neurotic psychology. Like the hero of Kafka’s novel “The Trial,” “The Jew is engaged in a long trial. He does not know his judges, scarcely even his lawyers; he does not know what he is charged with, yet he knows that he is considered guilty; judgment is continually put off – for a week, two weeks. He takes advantage of these delays to improve his position in a thousand ways, but every precaution taken at random pushes him a little deeper into guilt …. And sometimes, as in the novel, it happens that men seize him, carry him off on the pretense that he has lost his case, and murder him in some vacant lot of the suburbs.”

The better, “authentic” option is to accept the verdict and fully adopt the Jewish identity – in the face of the slanderers and denigrators. Authenticity means “to live to the fullest his existential situation as a Jew.” In any case, if it’s impossible to flee from Judaism, at least you don’t have to let the anti-Semite determine its meaning.

Sartre and fellow French philosopher, and lover, Simone de Beauvoir, left, with lawyer Gisele Halimi in Paris, in 1970.Credit: AFP

Coming out of the closet

Sartre emphasizes that freedom is always based on the person’s “situation” (a central concept in his thought). To accept the challenge of freedom doesn’t mean to be free of the constraints imposed by the anti-Semite; freedom from constraints is an impossible fantasy. But it’s definitely possible to be freed from the meaning that others attribute to the constraints imposed on us, and to decide by ourselves what to do with them. Sartre’s philosophical musings marked a revolution in the understanding of Judaism.

Sartre in effect claims that Judaism has no independent content; its entire meaning lies in its defiance of the anti-Semitic gaze. This idea of Sartre’s greatly influenced West Indian postcolonial thinker Frantz Fanon, whose writings inspired LGBT and black identity politics, and indirectly, the Mizrahi discourse in Israel.

The new Hebrew translation of “Anti-Semite and Jew,” by Jean-Paul Sartre.Credit: Anat Kaminsky

It’s hard to know whether the Chief Rabbinate would like it, but Sartre’s descriptions of accepting the yoke of Judaism are very reminiscent of the process of coming out of the closet. For example: “The authentic Jew abandons the myth of the universal man: He knows himself and wills himself into history as a historically damned creature; he ceases to run away from himself and to be ashamed of his own kind …. He knows that he is the one who stands apart, untouchable, scorned, proscribed – and it is as such that he asserts his being.”

In fact, perhaps most Jews would reject the Judaism proposed to them by Sartre the Christian, but clearly the identity politics that he wrote about influence them more than they would admit. Sartre was the first to write about turning Judaism into an identity. In that spirit, we can compare the Zionist pursuers of anti-Semites to the feminist pursuers of sexual harassers.

It’s even possible to think of the clashes today on U.S. campuses between the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and supporters of Israel as two movements that draw directly from Sartre; they need each other to derive meaning for their existence. In his essay on “the Jewish question,” Sartre invented not only Judaism as a distinct identity but also a series of more or less radical identities that persecute Judaism while it persecutes them in a vicious cycle.

The question that remains is whether Sartre offers the best way to think about Judaism today. Philosopher Elad Lapidot of the University of Bern, in his new English-language book “Jews Out of the Question,” considers Sartre a clear instance of “anti-anti-Semitic Judaism.” By asserting that Judaism is only a counterreaction to anti-Semitism, Sartre grants the anti-Semites decisive priority in formulating Judaism.

In doing so, Sartre evades “the Jewish question” that he himself formulated and turns it into a non-Jewish question that instead of dealing with Judaism or Jews flees into a universal discussion on authenticity. But denying the Jewish question doesn’t solve it, it only removes it from the boundaries of thought. Lapidot calls for the establishment of a Jewish countermovement, “anti-anti-anti-Semitism,” which would restore the Jewish question to philosophical thought.

Along with its shortcomings, Sartre’s approach actually offers an important perspective on anti-Semitism in today’s populist climate in which hatred of foreigners and minorities has become the norm. Many Jews would be happy to hear that Sartre presents anti-Semitism as the most pressing global problem, but would be disappointed to discover that there is nothing special linking Jews to anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitism relates to modern people who forget themselves and find refuge from helplessness via xenophobia. If the Jews’ confrontation with the problem of their persecution is channeled to xenophobia, they too are likely to be afflicted by anti-Semitism. Sartre’s book reminds us that it isn’t the Jew but rather the human being who is the victim of anti-Semitism. The question remains whether Judaism has an additional dimension aside from its confrontation with this universal problem.

“Anti-Semite and Jew,” by Jean-Paul Sartre; new translation and annotation by Muli Meltzer; Aliyat Hagag and Yedioth Books; 217 pages, 98 shekels ($28)

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