I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?...
In 1944, Jean-Paul Sartre did what true intellectuals do in dark times: He attacked the evil that had besieged his country, by trying to understand it. That evil had a name: anti-Semitism. The French government had collaborated with the pan-European massacre of the Jews, and with his typical courage, Sartre wrote a book that denounced the ordinary beliefs that had guided French policies. “Reflexions sur la Question Juive” was published in 1946 (the English version, “Anti-Semite and Jew,” was published in 1948), and its fearlessness and bravery deserve to be commemorated some 70 years later by a country born from the abjection of anti-Semitism.
Sartre’s monumental, philosophical masterpiece “Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology” had been published a short time earlier, in 1943, and “Anti-Semite and Jew” was a testing ground for trying out his abstract ideas on the phenomenology of freedom and responsibility. The book used traditional philosophical methodology to understand primitive beliefs and ordinary hatred.
“Anti-Semite and Jew” reads almost like one of Sartre’s plays. It has a small cast of characters – the Anti-Semite, the Democrat, the Inauthentic Jew and the Authentic Jew, each analyzed in its turn, as if they all were gazing at one another in a hall of mirrors. The Anti-Semite is the villain, the Authentic Jew is the hero, the Democrat and the Inauthentic Jew are semi-tragic characters – they are not bad, but they have misguided views. The Democrat thinks that through universalism he will solve the Jewish problem, whereas the Inauthentic Jew is the one who perceives and defines himself through the eyes of the anti-Semite.
The book was written shortly after the liberation of Paris from German occupation, in August 1944. But it was not about the concrete historical events Sartre had or had not witnessed. It was about the very structure of thought that made possible the Vichy regime, which had willingly collaborated with the Nazis, and sent 75,000 French Jews to concentration and death camps. Not only weapons and railroad cars send people to death camps, but also ways of thinking and feeling. However repulsive the racist may be, he has a logic which we must understand, because such a logic can ultimately wreak havoc.
Even before the German invasion, France had a rich intellectual and political anti-Semitic tradition, in the form of Monarchists, anti-Dreyfusards, Catholics and ultra-nationalists. The racist, it turns out, is a lofty theoretician: He speaks with fervor about God, the purity of the nation and the race, the sacredness of the land, the glory of his people’s history. That is why racism and anti-Semitism often pass for bon ton opinions heard in respectable houses over the dinner table.
To be an anti-Semite in the bourgeois salons of French society, Sartre claimed, was viewed by some as “having an opinion.” One could be Dreyfusard or anti-Dreyfusard, anti-Semite or democrat – all were viewed as symmetrical opinions, legitimate ways of disagreeing, as if, Sartre says, hatred itself was just an opinion. “This word – opinion – makes one dream It is the same word that a housewife would use to stop a discussion that risks turning badly” (Sartre translations by the author). (In Israel, the claim that Arabs or Mizrahim are undeveloped and primitive is viewed as an “opinion,” heard in many respectable homes).
Sartre’s point may have become banal, but recent events in Charlottesville show its tragic relevance. (In his response to those events, President Trump put Nazis and their opponents on an equal plane.) As Sartre claims, any idea that denies to others their humanity – that is, that denies the fundamental equality of all human beings – should not be granted the noble status of opinion. In fact, Sartre says further, anti-Semitism is not a way or mode of thinking. It is a passion. The anti-Semite may seem moderate because he can say with a quiet voice, “I do not detest the Jews. I simply think it is preferable, for this or that reason, that they should play a lesser part in the activity of the nation.” But, says Sartre, just wait long enough, and beneath the rational arguments, the irrational and passionate nature of that hatred will resurface.
Racist passion is structured by a specific form of logic: Jews (which you can replace with whatever you want – “Arabs,” “Russians,” “Moroccans”) make me uncomfortable; I don’t trust them; I despise them.
Racist passion is structured by a specific form of logic: Jews (which you can replace with whatever you want – “Arabs,” “Russians,” “Moroccans”) make me uncomfortable; I don’t trust them; I despise them. If I find them untrustworthy, then it must mean something is wrong with them. To highlight the absurdity of such reasoning, Sartre makes the following analogy: The anti-Semite is like someone who does not like tomatoes and says, “If I do not like tomatoes, there must be something seriously wrong with them.”
The racist explains his discomfort or hatred through a property of the person and group he hates. In her analysis of the oppression of women, in “The Second Sex,” Simone de Beauvoir helps us further highlight the absurd logic of the racist (or sexist). Referring to George Bernard Shaw, de Beauvoir claims, “The White American forces the black man to be a shoeshine boy. He [the white man] concludes that he can only be a shoeshine boy.”
To use another example, closer to us, Mizrahim, in Israel’s early years, were deemed intellectually inferior. For that reason, these Jews who had emigrated from North Africa and the Middle East, were directed primarily to vocational schools, which deepened their exclusion from Western forms of higher education, which was in turn interpreted as a proof of their innate intellectual ineptitude. The racist thus hierarchizes humanity – designating one group as superior to others – excludes the inferior group, makes that group acquire and produce visible signs of difference, and later transforms these signs into a natural property of the group, thereby making the exclusion look inevitable, justified.
When you ask the anti-Semite why he hates Jews, he will give you plenty of good reasons: They are self-interested, intriguers, sticky, viscous, dangerous, unreliable, etc. The racist, Sartre says with supreme irony, is a metaphysician. He knows what others are. But racism is nothing but hatred disguised as belief and opinion.
The racist proudly considers himself a reasonable man, a man of the middle ground, the representative of a widespread and reasonable opinion. The racist hates Jews’ universalism, cosmopolitanism and rationality, and feels – like the far-right monarchist Charles Maurras – that the Jew can never penetrate, let alone belong to, the genius of French culture. That the Jew is universalist and cosmopolitan only increases the racist’s feeling that he, the racist, belongs to a chosen, select, unique people and that the Jew is a foreigner. (How tragic that hatred for the universalist and cosmopolitan Jew is most palpable today in Israel, where such Jews are viewed as traitors to the nation, much as they were viewed as traitors to France in Sartre’s time).
In existentialist philosophy, to turn oneself into an object is to attribute to oneself an essence. It is to adopt the gaze of others
A tight embrace
One of Sartre’s greatest insights was that the racist needs the Jew to give a sense and mission to his own mediocrity. A mediocre person is one whose self-worth crucially depends on feeling superior to others. Sartre’s says, somewhat mysteriously, “If the Jew did not exist, the anti-Semite would invent him.” By treating the Jew as an inferior and dangerous human being, the anti-Semite affirms himself as a member of an elite. In his need for an enemy, the anti-Semite restores his own place in a primary community of “we.”
The racist is never alone. Hatred keeps him warm with the coziness of the solidarity it creates. “I hate Jews” is the phrase of proud groups. On the surface, the racist seems to like social order. In reality, he provokes deep political disorder. The anti-Semite has the same lack of responsibility as a soldier who obeys his commanders, only he has no commander. He takes his authority from the sense that his place in the world was waiting for him, and that by tradition, history and by God’s decree, he has the right to occupy a space and to dominate others.
For Sartre then, the Jew is a creation of the anti-Semite. Without the theological hatred of the Church, Jews, according to Sartre, would have slowly dissolved within Christianity. Anti-Semites thus involuntarily protected Jewish identity by bestowing on it an essence. Hatred and exclusion are thus the handmaids of fixed identities.
It is not by chance Sartre wrote about Jews, blacks and homosexuals, and that to those categories Simone de Beauvoir also added women, the four groups whose members are most subjected to the violent power of the hostile gaze. This in turn leads to feelings of abjection, which can be defined as an attitude by which one regards oneself with the same disgust and shame that powerful others subject us to. As Didier Eribon, a French philosopher and gay activist, put it in self-consciously Sartrian terms in his autobiographical memoir “Returning to Reims” (translated by Michael Lucey): “It was in fact the whole of the cultural universe around me that was calling me a ‘faggot,’ or else a ‘fairy,’ or a ‘fruit,’ or a ‘queer,’ or other ugly words that, when I hear them again today, reawaken in me the memory I have never been able to shake of the fear they provoked in me, the wounds they inflicted, the feelings of shame they drummed into my mind. I was produced by insult; I am the son of shame.”
My subjectivity is never really mine; it is determined and defined by the set of appropriations, restrictions, definitions that others bestow on me. This is especially true and powerful when I belong to an excluded, minority group. What makes Jews – or women, or gays, or Arabs – a category apart is that they are subjected to the constant gaze of others who dominate them, and who thereby appropriate the definition of who they are, which, Sartre tells us, turns them into an object to themselves. What Sartre means by “object” is not what Marxians intend when they speak of objectification (that is, the idea that the worker becomes alienated from his own self, and is an appendage to the machine).
In existentialist philosophy, to turn oneself into an object is to attribute to oneself an essence. It is to adopt the gaze of others, who ascribe to me a “you are this” or “you are that”: You are a faggot, you are a Yid, you are a nigger, you are an Arab – all of these are not only insults, but also ways of assigning me a fixed identity, with fixed attributes.
Whatever the Jew does, Sartre says, whether he is a competent doctor or a dedicated soldier in the French army, he still thinks of himself as a Jew. “He knows that others think of him that he is Jewish, maybe a good Jew, but a Jew nonetheless. He has been told repeatedly that he thinks, sleeps, drinks, eats like a Jew, is honest or dishonest like a Jew. The Jew perpetually feels Jewish.”
In a striking sentence, Sartre writes: “The root of the Jewish worry is the necessity he is engaged in, to interrogate himself ceaselessly and to take a stand on this ghost, unknown and familiar, ungraspable and close, which haunts him and which is none other than himself, himself as he is for others.” The inauthentic Jew for Sartre cannot stop feeling his Jewishness because his inner self has been colonized by the gaze of the anti-Semite.
The bumpy road to freedom
The greatest originality of the book was and remains that it helps us understand the nature of hatred from the standpoints of both the one doing the hating and the one who is hated. For Sartre, the anti-Semite and the Jew are locked together, in a tight embrace. But it is also probably this original idea that is responsible for having led to this remarkable book falling into oblivion, at least among “professional” members of the Jewish community. Respected philosopher Michael Walzer, for example, complains in his 1995 preface to the English translation of “Anti-Semite and Jew” not only about the general and abstract character of the book, but also about the fact that Sartre reduced Jewish identity to the gaze of the anti-Semite, disregarding its many faceted and independent expressions. The large cohort of communitarians (believers in the primacy and value of communities over individuals) – a group to which Walzer belongs – view cultures as sui generis entities that create qualitative distinctions between human beings, distinctions that must be preserved for the sake of the diversity and plurality of human existence.
The ultra-Orthodox would equally take offense because, for them, Jewishness is an essence, at both the group and the individual levels. At the former, Jewishness is the result of God’s election of the Jews and his alliance with them. At an individual level, matrilineal blood is the chief transmitter of identity and essence. Orthodox Judaism protects the purity of such essence through a variety of laws, for example by prohibiting mixed marriages, consumption of wine touched by a non-Jew, and the like. Here we may indeed say that Sartre missed altogether the fiercely separatist and essentialist tendency of rabbinical Judaism, which persists in the face of the brave efforts of many to turn Judaism into a universalist and humanist religion. Indeed, Jews did not need anti-Semites to establish their own separate essence through massive religious codification and regulation.
If “Anti-Semitism and Jew” was a courageous denunciation of anti-Semitism, it was a politically useless book for contemporary Jewish communities. Sartre would not have danced in the happy circle of those who celebrated identity, even that of persecuted minorities. In fact, although he never said so explicitly, we may take Sartre’s book to be a warning against minority identities developed under the gaze of the powerful others who hate us.
Sartre would later write a preface to Frantz Fanon’s “The Wretched of the Earth,” in 1961, an analysis of the effects of colonization on black people. Like anti-Semitism, “negrification” (Fanon’s term) promotes self-hate, a negative attitude toward other blacks and Africa; like anti-Semitism, it normalizes and naturalizes desire for and self-debasement toward Europe, white people and white European culture in general. But that is not the only reason Sartre suspected minority identities of inauthenticity. Sartre’s existentialism warns us very wisely against identities that are reactions to existing hatred and discrimination, and become their mere inverse image: These identities will tend to become “proud,” but proud identities are haunted by the obsessive reversal of and opposition to the image others have shaped for us. They remain dependent on the other’s gaze and become the affirmation of (inverse) fixed essences, which, for Sartre, obstruct our freedom as individuals.
Jews (or blacks or gays or Mizrahim) have responded to racism (or homophobia or Orientalism) in roughly similar ways. In “Returning to Reims,” Didier Eribon describes Sartre’s own description of this strategy in the latter’s book “Saint Genet,” published in 1952 (not very long after “Anti-Semite and Jew”): “I might put it this way, taking my inspiration from the metaphoric floral prose of [Jean] Genet: there comes a moment when, being spat upon, you turn the spit into roses; you turn the verbal attacks into a garland of flowers, into rays of light. There is, in short, a moment when shame turns into pride.”
In the Jewish context, to be indeterminate means not to define oneself through what was written down a few thousand years ago, but rather through renewed acts of choice, the very historical gesture Zionism marked.
Eribon drives home the point: “What is important is not what people make of us but what we ourselves make of what they have made of us. It soon became the principle of my existence, the principle of an ascesis, the project of remaking my self.”
This strategy can be labeled – as a shortcut – the strategy of pride. Once Jews, gays, blacks or Mizrahim become aware of the ways in which the racist or homophobic gaze has crippled their interiority, they are determined to regain equal footing with the racist or homophobe through pride. Pride is an important psychological resource and political strategy, but it can only be a temporary one and must not become the only flag a group brandishes to the world to mark and define itself.
In Amos Gitai’s important, 2017 documentary film “West of the Jordan River,” Israel’s Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Tzipi Hotovely says of herself she is a proud Jew, as she walks through occupied Hebron – a city in which hundreds of Arab-owned shops and businesses have been closed down, where Arabs live in fear of settlers’ insults and aggression, where soldiers have built a panopticon-like system of surveillance of Palestinians’ daily movements.
In a speech he gave to the Chabad Lubavitch of Greenwich organization, in England, in April 2015, the well-known and respected former British chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks addressed the topic of Jewish pride. In a way similar to many other Jewish leaders, in both the Diaspora and Israel, Sacks appealed to audience members’ ethnic pride, calling on Jews to wear skullcaps, to resist the embarrassment of difference in a non-Jewish environment, to embrace the beauty of Shabbat. From there, Rabbi Sacks went on to recite a list of distinguished Jewish scientists, thinkers and Nobel Prize winners – praising their intellect, conveniently ignoring the fact that most of them had left traditional Jewish practice, that most or all of them were products of secular-Christian education and training. Even if over the past two centuries, Jews have constituted a disproportionate number of talented intellectuals, it remains that the overwhelming majority of world-class breakthroughs in any domain were achieved and continue to be achieved by non-Jews.
Sacks asked in jest: “Why wasn’t Charles Darwin Jewish? I don’t know. Probably a random genetic mutation.” To be a Jew, continued the rabbi, is, by definition to be an asker of questions (because of the children’s “Four Questions” chant on seder night), and it is because asking questions makes you smart that we Jews have so many great minds. Ergo, only a genetic mistake could have produced a great non-Jewish mind.
In Sartrian mode, we may thus ask: Is the pride of Tzipi Hotovely and of Rabbi Lord Sacks the pride of an “authentic” Jew? Both turn spit not only into a garland but into glitter. Is glittery pride the antidote to the inauthenticity of identity forged under the gaze of others? This question is all the more acute in that pride has become a useful and important strategy for oppressed minorities, especially among the Jewish community in the Diaspora, where counting Jewish Nobel Prizes and geniuses is a favorite pastime. Pride derived from a fixed, well-determined identity is an important strategy in the reconstruction of a despised identity, but we owe it to Sartre’s moral courage to ask ourselves, in a Sartrian mode, if this kind of pride can constitute authenticity.
Sarah Bakewell, author of the beautiful “At the Existentialist Café,” a lucid and accessible account of that 20th-century movement, captures Sartre’s thought crisply. To explain what it means to exist fully, to overcome the power of another’s gaze to determine who we are and thus what it means to be free, Sartre employs two anecdotes that have become famous.
The first is the example of a waiter in a café. The waiter, Bakewell writes, skillfully moving between the tables, showcases his skill in carrying a full tray. He moves as if enacting a predefined role or game. He is playing at being a waiter in a café. The waiter forgets that as a human being he is not defined by this role, but that he is an indeterminate being, that we all are indeterminate. The waiter plays at having an essence, but in fact ignores the indeterminacy of being that freedom entails. I do not know who I am because it is only in concrete situations that I can choose myself, by way of my freedom, which makes me unknown and undetermined in advance.
The second anecdote provided by Bakewell to explain Sartre’s thought is this one: Imagine I made an appointment to meet Pierre at 4 o’clock. But I arrive late, and I enter anxiously the café and look for Pierre. At that moment, I perceive the customers, the walls, the mirrors on the walls, the light, the noise, the coffee cups on the table, but the only thing I am really paying attention to is Pierre’s absence. Pierre is not here. I do not grasp the world as such, but only as the background that marks Pierre’s absence, his not-being-there.
For Sartre, this not-being-there is how we should view consciousness: My consciousness is mine, and yet it has no real being. Inside my consciousness, there is a form of nothingness that defines the fact I cannot be defined, that I have no essence. I am a Pierre who is not there. As Bakewell explains it: “If I look into myself and seem to see a mass of solidified qualities, of personality traits, tendencies, limitations, relics of past hurts and so on, all pinning me down to an identity, I am forgetting that none of these can define me at all. In a reversal of Descartes’ ‘I think, therefore I am,’ Sartre argues, in effect, ‘I am nothing, therefore I am free.’”
For Sartre, I am nothing, and because I am nothing I can choose my being. To be is not to be an essence. To be is to choose who I am in concrete historical moments. Authenticity is to realize the vertiginous freedom of existence, and thus can be plunged into in anxiety. Because of the pervasive anxiety inherent to both freedom and authenticity, we try to find escape routes from freedom – by playing roles, by relying on the authority of others, by having a rigid and proud identity. We use all of these as escape routes from indeterminateness.
Zionism as existentialism?
An “authentic” Jew for Sartre is not one who has recovered a fixed identity and role; not one whose memory of a certain history gives him rights and roles; not one who regards God’s covenant with Abraham as evidence of chosen-ness; not one who brags about the number of Jewish Nobel Prize winners or Israeli start-ups. An authentic Jew is, rather, one who is thrown into existence, who is aware of the indeterminacy of his own being, of the necessity to choose each day anew his ethical position in the world, to make moral choices rather than presume he is in possession of a intrinsic and fixed moral superiority, by virtue of having been born a Jew. The existentialist God requires Jews to achieve their freedom each day in concrete situations and does not define Jewishness through blood line or genetics or a fixed definition according to halakha (traditional religious law). To exist is to be indeterminate.
At its inception, the State of Israel offered an example of Sartrian indeterminateness: It took Jewish identity and history on a new, unknown path. It reinvented the boundaries of the Jewish people. Israeli citizenship could have been a powerful tool for creating a new “Jewish tribe,” which would have moved away from genetics and blood as ways to define Jewishness, and which would have enabled newcomers to join in.
But this was not the path that Israel took, especially over the past 20 years, when institutional Jewry in both Israel and the U.S. have again placed the anti-Semitic gaze at the center of Jewish identity, and frozen it around a few signposts: memory of the Holocaust and anticipation of future enemies; unconditional support of Israeli policies; denigration of alternative forms of Judaism (at least in Israel); self-pride. All of these became defining features of fixed Jewish identities and essence, mystical and genetic at once.
In this type of Judaism, pride is a synonym for authenticity. But I wonder if, like Sartre’s waiter, those who embrace this definition are not simply playing the role of authentic Jews, if they have not become authentic fakes, refusing what Sartre viewed as the mark of authenticity – that is, indeterminateness.
“Indeterminateness” may sound abstract, but it is not. The young generation of LGBTQ people offer an example of indeterminateness in their rejection of rigid definitions and distinctions between straight and gay, men and women, distinctions and definitions that had seemed natural to their predecessors. In the Jewish context, to be indeterminate means not to define oneself through what was written down a few thousand years ago, but rather through renewed acts of choice, the very historical gesture Zionism marked. If the Zionist movement was to mean anything, it had to call on us to create new and unknown paths for our Jewishness, to throw Jews into Sartrian existence, to move away from the concept of essence, make the Jews become moral subjects and not simply objects of persecution and anti-Semitism. If Zionism was to mean anything to Diasporic Judaism, if it was to draw a new path to freedom, it was to refuse all essences and fixed identities that the tight embrace of Jews and anti-Semites had created for themselves throughout history.
Zionism meant the possibility of forging new and unknown identities for the Jews, fostering creative encounters with non-Jews, creating a covenant between God and women, engaging in a sustained dialogue with the nations of the world, not as a light to them but as their equal, not as their eternal victim but as their partner. Short of that, Jewish fixed identity and pride will forever pin the Jewish people down to the coffin of essences with the long nails of ultra-nationalism, religious Orthodoxy, and ethnicity.
This essay is a modified version of a keynote lecture given last December at a symposium on “Anti-Semite and Jew,” sponsored by the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.