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.
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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