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.
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.
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