Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

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.

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

Nevertheless, in 1967, Aron sensed that French anti-Semitism, dormant since 1944, had been reawakened. De Gaulle’s remarks, Aron declared, “open a new chapter in Jewish history and perhaps anti-Semitism. Everything is now possible. … Of course there is no question of persecution or scorn, but instead of distrust and careful observation.” A long rumba line of historical and cultural events then began to jiggle across France, swaying in time to Aron’s words. In 1969, there appeared Marcel Ophüls’ documentary film The Sorrow and the Pity, which chronicled the ambient anti-Semitism of France under the Germans and Vichy; in 1971, President Georges Pompidou pardoned Paul Touvier, a member of the notorious Milice, the fascist militia created by Vichy, who had been found guilty of murdering resistance fighters and French Jews; in 1973, Paxton’s seminal history Vichy France appeared in France, revealing that it was not the Nazis but French authorities who willed into existence the regime’s anti-Semitic policies. Distrust and careful observation were the orders of the day.


By the 1980s France was frantically bailing out the ship of state as the bilge from its recent past kept leaking into its present. French Jews, in particular, watched with growing unease as one leak after another burst through the straining hull. The arrests and trials of the Vichy officials René Bousquet and Maurice Papon, the extradition and trial of Klaus Barbie, the notoriety of negationist writers like Robert Faurisson and rise of the anti-Semitic demagogue Jean-Marie Le Pen all formed a vortex from which issued, in Rousso’s phrase, “the rebirth of Jewish memory.”

But whose Jewish memory would that be? It was with the publication of his essay Le Juif Imaginaire in 1980 that Alain Finkielkraut captured the dilemma of Jewish identity in postwar France with the same acuity, if not the same feverishness, that Philip Roth did for American Jewry with Portnoy’s Complaint. Finkielkraut’s discovery was as simple as it was sobering: French Jews could no more be Jewish by going through the rituals of traditional Judaism, much less identifying with the appalling fate of their parents’ generation, than an American tourist could become truly French by sitting at the Café Flore, smoking a Gauloise and listening to Juliette Greco. The Final Solution, Finkielkraut seemed to suggest, had created an unbridgeable chasm between the Yiddishkeit that flourished in Europe prior to Hitler and the ashes that were left for Finkielkraut’s own postwar generation. Put simply, it was impossible for French Jews to really be Jewish.

Yet, Finkielkraut confessed, none of this had stopped him from pretending to be a Jew. Born into a secular Jewish family in 1949, Finkielkraut received “the most beautiful gift a post-genocide child could be given”—namely, a prêt-à-porter tragedy, Auschwitz, he had never experienced, but in which he could claim the starring role. This entirely unearned role not only gave him enormous social capital, but it also kept him “away from Jewish culture more than social pressure or any obligation to assimilate.” What need did he and his peers have to study or practice Judaism, or indeed know the first thing about it? History had given them a free ride, but one that transformed them into Luftmenschen, or impractical intellectuals, subjected to a kind of cultural weightlessness.

If history comes the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce, the third time is as a reality show. The young Finkielkraut, with his great mass of hair tumbling over arched and bushy eyebrows, launched himself onto the stage of self-dramatization. First came the revolt of 1968, when he acted out the traditional rites of revolution with his fellow students on the streets of Paris. When Danny “the Red” Cohn-Bendit was prevented from re-entering France in May of that year, Finkielkraut was among the thousands shouting in unison, “We are all German Jews,” a reference to the authorities’ refusal to admit Cohn-Bendit claiming he was a German national and a rabble-rouser. Finkielkraut felt uneasy, but not over the outrageous comparison; instead, he was annoyed that the goyim were trespassing on his personal territory. Who was the real Jew here, anyway, he wondered? Were we all truly German Jews? The answer then hit him: None of us was. “Get out of here,” he told himself: “We were all imaginary Jews.”


That Finkielkraut has been the most vocal and eloquent critic of Badiou and Hazan’s book is as predictable as it is ironic. In the three decades that separate the success of Le Juif Imaginaire from the debate over L’Antisémitisme Partout, Finkielkraut has, in a series of combative and perceptive books, viewed politics and culture through the prism of Jewish concerns. In The Future of a Negation to Remembering in Vain, The Defeat of the Mind, and In the Name of Humanity, he has weighed in on the historical confusion created by Holocaust denial and revisionism, the moral confusion engendered by the trials of Maurice Papon and Klaus Barbie for crimes against humanity, and the cultural and political fog created by the Western world’s policies of multiculturalism.

But Finkielkraut, L’Antisémitisme Partout argued, was guilty of doing to the Muslims what has once been done to the Jews, transforming the mostly Muslim youths of France’s blighted and blasted suburbs into an irreducibly foreign element in France, portraying them as a violent rabble who, when not whistling derisively during renditions of the Marseillaise, spend their time terrorizing French Jews. Hazan and Badiou argued that to call 2002, a year that saw a spike in hate crimes, “the year of crystal,” as Finkielkraut bluntly put it, alluding to Kristallnacht, is much more than bad history: It is a form of hate crime directed at an entire people.

Badiou and Hazan did not for a minute deny the existence of hate crimes—“we do not take any such act lightly,” they wrote—but they observed nonetheless that certain cases were exaggerated by the media. They insisted that anti-Semites—the sort who were commonplace in France from the Dreyfus Affair to Vichy—are a nearly extinct species, “a mere handful of fanatics.” The phenomenon now rising from the decaying tenements that ring France’s cities, they argued, had less to do with anti-Semitism and more to do with suspicion and hostility aimed at Israel. Seeing their own predicament in that of their fellow Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza, France’s beurs, Hazan and Badiou wrote, “conflate Israel’s anti-Palestinian repression and a misleading impression of French Jews.” This sentiment, they claimed, represents a “politique mal politisée”—in other words, using awkward or violent gestures to give voice to legitimate grievances and expressing a justified impatience with the Republic’s failure to live up to its values. Those who, like Finkielkraut, criticized the beurs, Hazan and Badiou stated, were the “new inquisitors” who used the memory of anti-Semitism in France to deflect any and all legitimate criticism of Israel’s policies in the occupied territories.

Finkielkraut is hardly new to such attacks. Since 2002, he has been engaged in a series of verbal clashes on the subject of the entwined destinies of the Republic and its Jewish and Muslim communities. The tension between the two communities has led Finkielkraut to make some unequivocal statements, such as calling wearing the Islamic veil a “terrorist act.” In 2007, two of Finkielkraut’s most reasonable interlocutors, the historian Michel Winock and the philosopher Paul Thibaud (who also happens to be a former president of Amitié Judéo-Chrétienne de France, a prominent interfaith association of Christians and Jews), went on Finkielkraut’s radio show to try and save their host from himself. It was for naught: When Winock observed that Finkielkraut’s remarks left him with the “impression that all of France was submerged by anti-Semitic sentiment,” Finkielkraut had no better reply than, “It’s in the air.” In turn, Thibaud insisted the question of anti-Semitism “must be placed between parentheses so as to distinguish it from the question of Israel’s policies.” It was a well-meaning but hollow wish: Parentheses clearly make for a weak levee against the great swells of emotion that have marked this affair. Just as they had once fought against the ways they themselves were perceived, many Jewish French intellectuals are now self-appointed defenders of the Republic against what they perceive as a dangerous foreign element, Islam and its adherents.


Just three years after the publication of Finkielkraut’s Le Juif Imaginaire, that most conflicted of French Jews, Raymond Aron, testified in court on behalf of Bertrand de Jouvenel. The elderly political theorist was suing the Israeli historian Ze’ev Sternhell for libel: In his book Ni droite, ni gauche, Sternhell had accused Jouvenel of “fascist” sympathies during the 1930s and the Occupation. In his testimony, Aron emphasized Jouvenel’s “bonne volonté,” or good will. But he also warned against simplifying the events of 1940 to 1944. He reminded the court that in the wake of France’s defeat, even men of good will were mistaken about Vichy. His own decision to go to London, he observed, was largely due to the accident of being born Jewish. As Aron stepped out the courthouse, he collapsed on the stairs and died, the victim of a heart attack.

With Aron’s death, France lost one of its few remaining adults in the rumpus room of intellectuals. It is precisely his kind of voice that is missing from the current debate over the place of Muslims and Jews in republican France. This is a pity: Despite their frequent moments of solipsism and silliness, fecklessness and flimflam, French intellectuals nevertheless represent an extraordinary tradition in French history. Twenty years ago, Tony Judt announced that the intellectual as hero was a “dying genre.” If the intellectual, as a breed, isn’t dead already, it may well be that this latest ruckus will finish him. It remains to be seen what this means for the future of the entity with which the intellectual has so closely been associated: the Republic.

Robert Zaretsky is professor of history in the Honors College at the University of Houston and the author, most recently, of Albert Camus: Elements of a Life.

1 2 3View as single page
Print Email
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


Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

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.

More on Tablet:

Love Syndrome: Israel Story, Episode 2

By Israel Story — Chaya Ben Baruch’s sixth child was born with Down syndrome. Then she did what every good mother does—set out to find him a mate.