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Mind Games

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.

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Bernard-Henri Lévy, Alain Finkielkraut, Raymond Aron, and Alain Badiou. (Liana Finck)

Thirty years later, Benda worried that his fellow intellectuals, wittingly or not, had undermined their noble mandate with all too worldly ideological attachments to socialism or nationalism. One could not be both a true intellectual, argued Benda, and what Sartre would eventually identify as an engaged intellectual. The “clerics” of his day willingly “abased the values of knowledge before the values of action.” Of course one could be engaged—in fact, at times, as during the Dreyfus Affair, one had to be engaged. Yet, Benda claimed, such instances of political engagement had to follow rather than precede the disinterested and dispassionate analysis of a particular question or policy. The conflation of these approaches was catastrophic, shaping an age, Benda decried, distinguished by “the intellectual organization of political hatreds.”

Thus, the concept of the public intellectual—committed and engaged—was born. But Benda himself would not live up to his own principles for long: One war later, he was unable to resist the siren call of worldly ideologies, becoming a fellow traveler of the Communist Party and apologist for the crimes of Stalin’s Soviet Union. From the defender of Zola’s legacy, Benda had become a participant in Moscow’s show trials. This betrayal suggests the ease with which intellectuals blurred or simply ignored the line between Truth and truth. Too often, the historian Tony Judt observed, the French intelligentsia acted in history rather than in the light of history and acted out of a sense of conviction rather than a sense of responsibility. It’s a tradition that continues still.


During the early days of Vichy, the official in charge of Jewish Affairs, Xavier Vallat, lectured an SS officer who had questioned his anti-Semitic credentials. “I have been an anti-Semite longer than you,” he blurted. “What’s more, I am old enough to be your father!” Vallat, who oversaw the implementation of Vichy’s anti-Semitic legislation and aryanization of Jewish property, was right on both scores: He was already reading Maurras when his interlocutor was still in diapers.

Yet this dismal story points to a French paradox: The same country that gave us the likes of Vallat also gave us Léon Blum, the leader of the Socialist Party who became prime minister in 1936, leading Vallat to mourn that his “old Gallo-Roman country will be governed by a Jew.” And Blum was not alone; nearly a half-dozen Jewish prime ministers have governed France in modern times, from Blum to René Mayer, Pierre Mendès-France, Michel Debré, and Laurent Fabius.

But this Jewish prominence carried a high price: Their alliance with the Republic thrust the Jews, as the historian Pierre Birnbaum noted, “into the very heart of the guerres franco-françaises.” The more assimilated they became, the more prominent in the realms of politics and culture, the more central Jews became to the conspiratorial fantasies and rhetoric of anti-Semites.

Had it not been for France’s defeat by Nazi Germany in 1940 and the creation of the authoritarian French State—better known as Vichy and hailed by Maurras as a “divine surprise”—anti-Semitism may well have remained a respectable ideology in France. The anti-Semitic legislation imposed by Marshal Pétain’s regime in 1940 and 1941—without the slightest of nudges from the Nazis—raised few eyebrows in occupied France. Most of the nation, of course, was still reeling from defeat and occupation and scrambling to meet their material needs. Yet the “vivid French tradition of anti-Semitism,” in the words of historians Michael Marrus and Robert Paxton, had seeped into the political mainstream and greatly eased Vichy’s task. During the rafles, or round-ups, of the summer of 1942, French gendarmes, under the aegis of Vichy authorities, gathered more than 27,000 Jews, nearly all of whom were deported to Auschwitz. In August alone, 4,000 Jewish children, taken from their parents, were shipped east from Drancy, a grim suburb of Paris, on French trains run by French engineers and guarded by French gendarmes. By the time the Allies liberated France two years later, nearly 75,000 Jews, both foreign and native-born, had been delivered to Auschwitz; about 2,500 survived. What didn’t survive, though, was the understanding French Jews, in particular intellectuals, had of their place in the nation.


A quarter of a century ago, the French historian Henry Rousso hauled France into a therapist’s office, pulled out his notepad, and began to ask very personal questions. The result was The Vichy Syndrome, a book that, like Robert Paxton’s Vichy France, was not only a dazzling work of history but also a historical event in its own right. Both books grabbed France by its collective collar and demanded that it return to and reconsider its recent past.

According to Rousso’s diagnosis, this particular syndrome surged into French culture and politics in the early 1970s. Until then, France had known a kind of collective amnesia concerning the four years under Vichy and the Germans—a forgetfulness encouraged by Charles de Gaulle, who had, for reasons of postwar unity, peddled the image of a France with 40 million résistants. This portrayal was as fictitious as the earlier image of a France with 40 million pétainists, but never mind: It was precisely what the French, emerging from the shock of the occupation, needed.

The student rebellion of 1968 first breached the wall of silence that had been built around Vichy. It also launched the careers of the so-called “nouveaux philosophes.” Many of these young firebrands, ranging from Finkielkraut and Bernard-Henri Lévy to André Glucksmann and Pascal Bruckner, were Jewish. They eagerly pummeled figures of paternal authority—Sartre was no more spared than de Gaulle—and ridiculed the myths they had inherited, be it the “singing tomorrows” of communism or the glowing yesterdays of Gaullism. Ultimately, the only thing truly new about these philosophers was their use of the electronic media: The shine of Lévy’s mane of hair became better known in France than the substance of his thought.

This was hardly surprising, as the contents of Lévy’s shampoo were far richer than the contents of his writing. In particular, his book The French Ideology, which spied a specifically French brand of totalitarianism under every nook and cranny in French history, was especially silly. Yet all of this was irrelevant. What did count, in Rousso’s phrase, was the shattering of the mirror in which France had looked at itself for more than 20 years. Walking gingerly among the shards, French Jewry, in particular, began to piece together a new self-image. This work of reassessment had, in fact, already begun in 1967, with the Six-Day War. The existential threat posed to Israel in that war, followed by its stunning victory, galvanized a community that had always insisted on its thorough Frenchness. There then followed the one-two blow delivered by Charles de Gaulle: his decision to impose a military embargo on the entire Middle East, followed by his public reflection that the Jews were an “elite people, sure of themselves and domineering.” In retrospect, the general’s remark seems less a provocation than an observation many Jews have themselves made. Moreover, de Gaulle’s warning to David Ben Gurion on the eve of the Six-Day War—“You will create a Palestinian nationalism, and you will never get rid of it”—proved tragically prescient.

But this is now, while then was then. Even Raymond Aron, the era’s most perceptive and least impulsive thinker, was shocked by de Gaulle’s observation. Among the first Frenchmen to rally to de Gaulle’s call to join him in London in 1940, Aron knew anti-Semitism was utterly alien to the general’s worldview. Nevertheless, as Aron recalled in his memoirs, when he heard de Gaulle’s remark, “a burst of Jewishness exploded within my French consciousness.” Until his death in 1983, Aron wrestled with this tension; for a time he considered naming his memoirs Souvenirs d’un Juif Français. Ultimately, Aron fell back on Mémoires, a simple title that barely disguised his complex and unresolved inner conflict.

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Peace Advocate says:

Multiculturalism doesn’t work. Never has. Never will.

This wild and radical experiment in multiculturalism going on EXCLUSIVELY in France, Northern/Western Europe and North America is doomed.

Hey – if multiculturalism is such a good idea why do you think the rest of the world violently rejects it? (the “anti-globalization”, i.e. anti-multiculturalism, caucus in the U.N. makes up the vast majority of member states.

Mind you the Muslim enemy understands that multiculturalism is a failure. That’s why when the leftist “Palestinian” government-in-waiting describes their future KKKalphate, which Obama is working so hard to establish, they are quite explicit that they will exterminate the indigenous Jewish population. Just like the Muslims did in the historically Jewish cities of Mecca and Medinah. Just as the Muslim imperialists are trying to do in France.

Saudi Arabia is quite proudly an explicitly Apartheid Kingdom. As is the rest of the Muslim world. Because they accurately understand that Muslims cannot live a conflict-free co-existence with kufr. Good for them. We need to stop this racism (“but we’re better than them”) and learn from the Muslims how to treat minorities.

By inviting in Muslims, France (and Norway, and all the other European countries) have signed the death warrant of their own tolerance. Either the Muslim colonists will be successful, or a rejuvenated Nazi-like spirit will prevail. In either event tolerance loses.

Perhaps it’s time for some French intellectuals to wake up to the realization that the modern meaning of anti-Semitism “includes” persistently targeting Israel and persistently applying to Israel a more exigent standard than regularly applied to other countries in the same or similar circumstances. This is a requirement of both natural justice and sound social science. Too bad that so few French thinkers are up to this intellectual challenge.

” 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.”

Why do you take their claim at face value? Have you been to the West Bank? Devastated cities? You should see the mansions the Arabs have been building there for the past forty years!

jacob arnon says:

Robert Zaretzky is a prolific writer, I recently had occasion to look at his on Camus which was quite enlightening.

While I found parts of his article on French intellectuals interesting (I especially appreciated his comments on Raymond Aron. I hadn’t known the circumstances of his death and his final remarks in the courtroom very touching.)

On the whole, though, his article on French intellectuals is very confusing. He begins with the questionable claim that: “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.”

That Jews were central to the creation of the class of thinkers we call intellectuals in France is asserted but left unproved in the body of his essay.

Nor does he show how I (or even whether) intellectual life has come to an end in France. He names Julian Benda, an early Jewish French intellectual, but hardly anyone else from the same period.

ON the contemporary scene he reports on the book by “Eric Hazan and Alain Badiou”

Now, Hazan wrote among other books, “The Invention of Paris: A History Told in Footsteps.” This is a book that blames “modernization” for the sorry state of his beloved city.

Badiou, on the other hand is a well-known philosophical sociologist who has been accused of antisemitism for his analysis of the word “Jew.”

jacob arnon says:

Part 2

Here is how Wikipedia describes this work:

“Lately Badiou got into a fierce controversy within the confines of Parisian intellectual life. It started in 2005 with the publication of his “Circonstances 3: Portées du mot ‘juif’” – The Uses of the Word “Jew”.[8] This book generated a strong response with calls of Badiou being labelled Anti-Semitic. The wrangling became a cause célèbre with articles going back and forth in the French newspaper Le Monde and in the cultural journal “Les temps modernes.” Another philosopher, Jean-Claude Milner, has accused Badiou of Anti-Semitism.[9]”

You can look it up under the label Badiou. (His accuser, btw, Milner is only half Jewish on his father’s side.)

Badiou also wrote a book with someone who has also been accused of being an antisemite: Slavoj Zizek.

Zizek was accused in an article titled “Zizek Strikes Again” by Adam Kirsch Look up TNR July 26, 2010 Zizek replied and denied the accusation in what amounted to a tirade aimed at Adam Kirsch.
As you can see this can get quite complicated and I wish Zaretzky had taken the time to unravel the complexities of his subject.

jacob arnon says:

Part 3

There is currently on the continent an undercurrent of Jew hatred among many intellectuals and writing about it piece meal does not get at the nature of the problem which has to do with way they view not just Israel but Jewish culture in general. Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, most intellectuals have lost their Raison d’être: being an intellectual wasn’t just an occupation (as being a professor or being a doctor is) it was mode of being from which issued their identity as it were. Besides, since most intellectual were on the left they had in one way or another made the Soviet Union the center of thinking. Some (very few), like Eric Hobsbawm, were for the Soviet Union, most though saw themselves as man of the left who opposed the Soviet State.

After its collapsed a crisis occurred in their thought and being since they could no longer make the Soviet State the center of their identity. Many especially in France decided to become anti-American (there was a lot of that before, but now it became more routine—intellectuals are nothing if not part of a tribal.

Later on, slowly at first they began to identify “Jews” as the problem. You can see this foreshadowed in “Sophie’s World” by Jostein Gaarder (1991) Later on the author wrote an attack on Israel that used classic antisemitic tropes and when challenged the intellectuals of Norway came to his defense claiming that “Jews” were trying to forbid any criticism of Israel. (This claim itself has become a contemporary antisemitic trope.)

In France it became commonplace by intellectuals to write antisemitic articles and books under the guise of merely criticizing Israel. (See the Zizek affair, above)
This is where we are at, right now: I call this “the intellectual problem.”

jacob arnon says:

Part 4

Finally, while some have argued as Zaretzky does here that the “intellectual was born” in the aftermath of the Dreyfus affair others, like Isaiah Berlin argued that the modern intellectual had his beginnings in Tsarist Russia. Writers like Alexander Herzen and Vissarion Belinsky were already in the 1880’considered intellectuals. The word itself, according to Berlin was invented in the 1860’ and 70’s in Russia. (See I. Berlin: “The Power of Ideas.”)

It is therefore doubtful that Jews invented the intellectual and I doubt they are or will be responsible for destroying it.

Sorry about the length of this comment.

MonkFish says:

Mr ZARETSKY, have you read Alain Badiou’s incoherent invective against the “Talmudic” Jew in “Circonstances 3: Portées du mot ‘juif’”? I you haven’t I strongly suggest you do before taking sides against Finkielkraut in the ongoing debate over who is the most guilty of conflating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. Otherwise you will appear to be a mere tourist in a French intellectual world whose complexities and subtleties elude you. Oh and who is mostly likely to detract from the tradition of the French public intellectual, Finkielkraut who has been a consistent and eloquent champion of the writings of such staunch Republicans as Charles Peguy and the values of the 3rd Republic or a man who continues to wax lyrical about Mao’s little red book in spite of occupying a cushy chair at ENS for decades? Try publishing this highly misleading and tendentious article in a French magazine – I dare you.

Gabi says:

I am sorry but it is difficult to take this guy Zaretsky seriously.

As MonkFish said his article would never appear in a per reviewed scholarly journal. Anyone who thinks that Finkelkraut is like Philip Roth hasn’t read or didn’t understand him.

this dude seems to be letting the french really take him for a ride. you stink of francophilia, and i stink of cholent.

Badiou is a guy who openly calls for mass killings, support totalitarism,thinks that Stalin was ok, and yes he is antisemitic, even if he would sur me for saying it – it has nothing against Jews, as long as they are not Jewish.
Anf this guy is “the greatest French intellectual” today. That says a lot.

jacob arnon says:

I was just reading Finkielkraut’s The Wisdom of Love and was wondering if Professor Zaretsky had read it or had read any Levinas.

Here is how Google Books describes Wisdom of Love:

“The Wisdom of Love examines the seemingly contradictory claims of universalism and partisanship for the ethnic or racial Other. In discussions of topics ranging from the work of the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas to the Dreyfus Affair of the 1890s to the contending positions of Right and Left in the recent culture wars in Europe and the Americas, Finkielkraut cautions against both an unreflective universalism and an equally inflexible advocacy of the Other. He argues instead that genuine respect for the Other is inseparable from calls for universal justice and equality. Rather than being opposites, otherness and universalism are, for Finkielkraut, inextricably bound to one another.”

Herb says:

It seems to me that intellectuals have been discredited for quite some time. Their record is less than admirable, to say the least. The historian Paul Johnson has written extensively on their history and their politics. In recent years, intellectuals on the left have been forming alliances with Islamists, something that should be no surprise. They have enemies in common. Therefore, it is to be expected that Finkielkraut should come into conflict with a Marxist defender of Muslims accused of anti-Semitism. Many have noted that anti-Semitism outside the Arab and Muslim communities, is now found primarily on the left, sometimes disguised as being “merely” anti-Israel. Anti-Israeli sentiment is almost always a cover for anti-Semitism.

JoyAnn says:

The problem with these French Jewish ‘intellectuals’ is the same as it always has been: they are more concerned about keeping their identity as being French than considering what it really does mean to be Jewish outside of the (extremely narrow and stifling) academic clique.

French nationalism is very strong; a Jew in France is a Frenchman first.

Let’s join our brother Jews in the commemoration of the Tisha b’Av. Let’s observe this day, and make this as a remembrance of the lasting desire of our brother Jews for peace. precisely during this season, when Jews in synagogue read in the Torah about the great promise of the Israelites building a homeland, Jewish tradition recalls the unraveling of that promise and the shattering of the dream.

JoyAnn – I think you are speaking about American Jews. French Jews used to be like that – 80 years ago. Nowadays French Jews are Jews first and rabid Zionists.

“French nationalism is very strong; a Jew in France is a Frenchman first.”

This is a modern Jewish tenet. Modern in the sense of ever since the majority of Jews (all but about 200,000) were expelled from Roman colony of Eretz Yisrael after the Jewish Bar Kochba Rebellion in 120 C.E. The tenet is this: Whatever land a Jew finds himself living in, he (or she) shall act as a citizen of that land (or nation). He shall be loyal to its land and its people as well as its government. To my knowledge, Muslims (Islam) do (does) not have a similar universal tenet or exhortation to or of its people. This is the difference between the “Jewish Question” of old, and the “Muslim Problem” of contemporary nations such as Europe, North America, etc.

The other issue is, “that the modern meaning of anti-Semitism of includes persistently targeting Israel and persistently applying to Israel a more exigent standard than regularly applied to other countries in the same or similar circumstances.”

Most other countries are not facing extinction or annihilation as a group at the hands of another. Israel exists, was in fact created so that Jews would have a homeland where they would be judged by those who understand what it is to be Jewish. It is difficult for other nations and other peoples to understand what it means to be Jewish today (or any day for that matter) when we so often do not (we debate it constantly), which is a good thing. One should be self-reflective. We needed and deserve a land where we can live without approbation and without singling out. Israel is our homeland since before the Ancient Greeks and Romans. We purchased the land starting in 1885, and we put our land together in 1948 after the catastrophe and near annihilation of the Shoah. What the world cannot stand is Jews that are victims instead of lambs going peacefully and meekly to slaughter. Jews have been witnesses to over 5,000 years of history. We intend to keep going in Israel and abroad.

I leave the arguments about France and French Jews to others — I found among my French relatives and friends who are Jewish a mixed attitude toward recent antisemitic incidents and the ultra-left Trotskyist and
Stalinist critics of Israel. It made them uneasy and, in some cases, fearful, while concerned about media exploitation of incidents.

But I have to note that Tablet, like the US Postal Service in its 1989
stamp honoring the French Revolution, doesn’t know that France’s tricolor
flag is BLUE, White and Red, not Red, White and Blue!! That’s why they are called Les Bleus (The Blues).

Republican France never had adults. Rather, it has had a series of histrionic leaders who have sought to criminalize the oppositions and rewrite history.This has been true for the monarchists, Jacobins, Bonapartistes…. Truth has always been secondary to show trials and partisan media.

After study a few of the weblog posts on your website now, and I actually like your way of blogging. I bookmarked it to my bookmark website list and will be checking again soon. Pls try my website as nicely and let me know what you think.

Jack N. Porter says:

That is why we love the French intellectuals of all stripes–they are fearless and they are knowlegable unlike the trologdytes that pass themselves off as “public intellectuals” in the Jewish community, people like Alan Dershowitz to Charles Jacobs to Noam Neusner, who really know nothing.No one takes them seriously except right-wing Zionists.

Alan Kaufman says:

Zaretsky’s piece lead me to Leo
Pinsker’s ‘Auto-Emancipation”: “We probably lack a leader
of the genuis of Moses–history does not grant a people such guides
repeatedly. But a clear recognition of what we need most, a
recognition of the absolute necessity of a home of our own, would
arouse among us a number of energetic, honorable, and distinguished
friends of the people, who would undertake the leadership, and would,
perhaps, be no less able than that one man to deliver us from
disgrace and persecution.” Written in 1882 the article
underscores, for me, that France currently lacks such “friends”
of the people –if, indeed, she ever had them–but also that we Jews
here in the U.S., among whom our own best intellectuals are
mercilessly set against “the people”, also, sadly–perhaps
even alarmingly– lack such “friends”. In the meantime, the
Jews of France continue to leave in large numbers. My own relatives
in Paris fear going out too often for fear of attack. Also, it
amaazes me that Zaretsky makes no reference in discussion of Hazan
and Badiou’s glossing over of Islamic extremist violence with the
term “politique mal politisée” to that watershed in French
Jewry’s fortunes: the organized murders in Toulouse of Miriam
Monsone and others at a Jewish day school by

local French Arabs. The entire nation
of France –and most especially its Jewish citizenry—were brought
to a virtual halt by the slaughter and yet not a mention of it
anywhere in Zaretsky’s assessment. Such an omission explains to me
nnot only the public suiciding of France’s current crop of Jewish
intellectuals but why in America too there is a singular lack of
effective public intellectuals –Dershowitz included–to contend
with the dire challenges facing Jewry today.

Alan Kaufman, author, DRUNKEN ANGEL,a memoir; JEW BOY, a memoir; MATCHES, a novel


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Mind Games

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.