French Jews, confronting anti-Semitism in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair, created the figure of the intellectual. And now, arguing about Israel and Islam, they’re killing it.
When L’Antisémitisme Partout, a purple-covered pamphlet, fell kicking and screaming from the printing press earlier this year, the French media took notice. The book’s authors, Eric Hazan and Alain Badiou, are prominent intellectuals. Hazan is an influential publisher, while Badiou, a philosopher, has become, since the deaths of Pierre Bourdieu and Claude Lévi-Strauss, an elder statesman among French intellectuals, a staid and gray-haired gentleman whose muted cardigan sweaters hardly reflect his fiery Marxist politics and penchant for outrageous formulations.
One of those provocations was in the title he and Hazan chose for their small book. In 60 pages, they argued that the only place anti-Semitism is partout, everywhere, in France is in the feverish imaginations of a coterie of mostly Jewish intellectuals ranging from Bernard-Henri Lévy to Alain Finkielkraut. The traditional anti-Semitism that pulsed through French politics and literature prior to World War II, they noted, was now little more than a “ghostly residue.”
As for the much-discussed rise in anti-Semitic activity among French Arab youths, Badiou and Hazan were equally dismissive. They allowed that since 2001 hate crimes aimed at French Jews have increased. Moreover, they acknowledged that the criminals were frequently beurs—the slang term for French youths of North African origin. But, the writers warned, the media, influenced by a loose association of Jewish intellectuals, have dramatically distorted the numbers and nature of these acts. This “opération de stigmatisation” aimed at young French Muslims, the authors argued, was at the heart of a massive public relations campaign led by these intellectuals. Whether the Arabs live in the decaying suburbs of Paris or the devastated villages of the West Bank, Badiou and Hazan claimed, they have all been transformed by these Jewish intellectuals into a single barbarian horde, against which the West is pitted.
The small book lit up the blogosphere and led to a widely watched televised debate in March among Badiou, Hazan, and Finkielkraut on the popular television show Ce Soir ou Jamais (Tonight or Never). Within minutes, however, it became clear that a calm and candid conversation was not to be. The participants quickly fell to finger-jabbing accusations and insults—all of it in impeccable French sprinkled with literary and philosophical references. It was as if Jerry Springer had choreographed a session of the Académie Française. While the guests did not leap for one another’s throats, the evening nevertheless ended as it started: with each side persuaded that the other simply refused to listen to reason.
It was a watershed moment. More than a century after French Jews, in the crucible of the Dreyfus Affair, had forged the concept of the public intellectual, which had inspired intellectuals all over the world and helped shape some of the 20th century’s most sweeping ideas, French Jewish thinkers, through their quibbling about Islam and Israel, were now destroying that very cultural tradition. If the intellectual, as a cultural figure, becomes an artifact of the past, intellectuals, many of them Jewish, will have only themselves to blame.
Providing the kindling that helped inflame the battle raging over L’Antisemitisme Partout are several slow but dramatic changes in the French political climate. Once a nation whose language was the lingua franca of diplomats and artists, whose cultural heritage and revolutionary history belonged to the world, France is now besieged by the economic and demographic forces of globalization. Particularly dramatic has been the growth of its Muslim population. While estimates of size vary from 5 to 6 million, France’s Muslim population is by far the largest within the European Union.
The sheer size of its Muslim population coupled with the erosion of its borders has made France’s national identity the subject of much debate. Oddly, it’s a debate in which Jews figure prominently. Speaking in 1789, Count Stanislas de Clermont-Tonnerre famously declared the after the French Revolution, “Jews should be granted everything as individuals and denied everything as a nation.” This led to an understanding of French republicanism as a tradition that safeguarded individual rights so long as citizens uphold its values and endorse its emblems. But where does the recent legislation prohibiting Muslim immigrants from wearing traditional religious garbs that cover the face, for example, fall under this logic? Should the republic punish those who refuse to adhere to its symbols? Or tolerate those who, in the name of freedom, reject some of the republic’s central tenets? These are huge questions; the answers may mold not only France but Europe as well, as every nation on the continent is currently struggling with similar conundrums.
These are not new questions. They’ve been asked, mainly by intellectuals, for a very long time, shaping what scholars call les guerres franco-françaises, the series of internecine political and ideological battles in France that first burst into flames in the late 18th century and whose embers glow even today. The war has pitted two ideological camps against one another: the forces of the Enlightenment, committed to the rational, secular and universal ideals of the French Revolution, versus those of the Counter-Enlightenment, wedded to an instinctual, religious, and particularist conception of France.
The Revolution made an offer to French Jews that they could hardly refuse: liberty, equality, and fraternity. In the eyes of many, it was as if God, in collaboration with the French Republic, had slipped them a world-historical trifecta. From scorned and shamed scapegoats, the Jews were transformed, literally overnight, into patriots blessed with all the rights and duties of citizenship. With the passage into law of Jewish emancipation in 1791, how could one not conclude that the coming of the Messiah and the coming of the Revolution were one and the same? France had become our Palestine, declared one Jewish witness, and France’s mountains now our Mount Zion.
But it was no less a defining moment for enemies of the Revolution, who emphasized an organic and historical conception of the nation against the prevailing rational and universal claims on the nation’s behalf. Perhaps inevitably, Jews found themselves in the middle of these furious claims and counterclaims over France’s true vocation. For the conservative thinker Maurice Barrès, the Jew and the intellectual, given their rationalist and cosmopolitan character, were equally alien—indeed, they were, in his phrase, “uprooted” and foreign to the “soil and dead” that constitute the true France. When other reactionary thinkers, like Charles Maurras, Louis Ferdinand Céline, and Robert Brasillach, attacked the Republic, they also attacked the place French Jewry had within it. While these intellectuals did not share the same political or aesthetic ideals, they all agreed that the Jew would always remain a Jew—the embodiment, in Maurras’ notorious phrase, of “l’anti-France”—and thus serve as the foil against which the true France could be defined.
These anti-Republican—and anti-Jewish—voices were gaining ground, but in 1927 republican intellectuals struck back. That year the French (and Jewish) intellectual Julien Benda published La Trahison des Clercs. The pamphlet, usually translated as The Betrayal of the Intellectuals, was a rappel à l’ordre for the band of intellectuals. A veteran of the Dreyfus Affair, Benda reminded his peers that truth is the one and only ideal of their vocation. Not the sloppy and sentimental truths of tenderhearted souls, but the austere and universal truths of scientists.
Benda insisted he was not a moralist but instead a rationalist for whom the accusations leveled against Dreyfus were toxic not because they endangered a Jew but because they endangered truth. Zola had already trumpeted this credo in J’Accuse, the article that turned une affaire into l’Affaire. The anti-Semitism that helped send Dreyfus to Devil’s Island scarcely crops up in Zola’s accusation; at most it is a sideshow to the sorry affair. What is at center stage, instead, is the assault on truth. But with the confidence of a rationalist rather than the fervor of a moralist, Zola declares that “truth is on the march, and nothing will stop it.”
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