Arnon Grunberg



On Sartre and anti-Semitism - Itamar Ben-Ami in Haaretz:

'But clearly the essay’s appearance now is an attempt to find relevance to the current Israeli experience. In an enlightening afterword, Yehuda Meltzer warns that new forms of xenophobia have become common particularly among the grandchildren of victims of anti-Semitism. Meltzer mentions Sartre’s discussion on bans against Jews using swimming pools and suggests that we should think about discrimination against the Israeli Arab community.

But in what sense can Jews be anti-Semites? Is that an oxymoron? To understand it we should focus on the essay’s two arguments. First, Sartre says the pathology of anti-Semitism is not at all related to Judaism, it’s related to modernity. This opinion is likely to disappoint many Jews who masochistically bask in non-Jews’ eternal hatred of them.

Second, Sartre says Jewish identity is devoid of any independent significance. Even if Judaism had some religious content in the past, it has long since stopped being relevant to most Jews. This is the reason for Sartre’s famous saying that the anti-Semite invents the Jew – and without him the Jew would disappear. Such harsh statements angered many Jews who didn’t sit idly by; they claimed that Sartre himself was an anti-Semite.

The question, naturally, is what is anti-Semitism. Immediately after World War II, anti-Semitism became a pressing global question. The newsreel footage of emaciated concentration camp survivors and the piles of bodies shocked the West’s self-image. This got several philosophers claiming that anti-Semitism is not just another of the many ills of Western civilization, but its biggest problem.

Arendt declared that it was “radical evil” – an opinion she later changed to “banal evil” – and asserted that anti-Semitism is one of three “origins of totalitarianism” – a term in the title of her 1951 book. German philosophers Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno believed that anti-Semitism represents the condition of the modern man, who suffers from growing paranoia and suppressed homosexual urges.'


To Sartre, the anti-Semite isn’t someone with specific opinions regarding the Jews, but a kind of walking example of inauthenticity and mediocrity. The obsessive focus on the Jews lets the anti-Semite revel in his theoretical greatness; in effect, had the Jew not stolen the country from him, all of France would belong to him. Jew hatred makes the “mass-man” important; it provides him with an entry ticket to a disinherited aristocratic class, and belonging to it doesn’t require any show of greatness.

Hatred also provides erotic excitement in the insignificant life of the anti-Semite. Sartre offers a good description of the mixture of sexual attraction and revulsion stirred by the Jew among anti-Semitic women, and discusses the sadomasochist elements of relationships between Jewish men and non-Jewish women.

Sartre sums up the figure of the anti-Semite: The anti-Semite is afraid, not of Jews, of course. He’s afraid “of himself, of his own consciousness, of his own liberty, of his instincts, of his responsibilities, of solitariness, of change, of society, and the world – of everything except the Jews … in espousing anti-Semitism, he does not simply adopt an opinion, he chooses himself as a person.”

That’s the first reason it’s important that the essay has reappeared in Hebrew: Sartre’s analysis of anti-Semitism is relevant for all forms of xenophobia. No “Jewish” moral can be derived from anti-Semitism, which means that Jews can also be afflicted by anti-Semitism if, as a refuge for their problems, they victimize other minority groups.

But the real reason the book is important is its conclusions about Judaism. To Sartre, Jews, just like non-Jews, are confused when confronting the question of authenticity in the society of the mass society. They have two paths to choose from: the inauthentic option and the authentic one. The difference depends on the acceptance of Judaism.'


' A denial of one’s Judaism cannot escape the gaze of the anti-Semite, who continues to determine the Jew’s neurotic psychology. Like the hero of Kafka’s novel “The Trial,” “The Jew is engaged in a long trial. He does not know his judges, scarcely even his lawyers; he does not know what he is charged with, yet he knows that he is considered guilty; judgment is continually put off – for a week, two weeks. He takes advantage of these delays to improve his position in a thousand ways, but every precaution taken at random pushes him a little deeper into guilt …. And sometimes, as in the novel, it happens that men seize him, carry him off on the pretense that he has lost his case, and murder him in some vacant lot of the suburbs.”

The better, “authentic” option is to accept the verdict and fully adopt the Jewish identity – in the face of the slanderers and denigrators. Authenticity means “to live to the fullest his existential situation as a Jew.” In any case, if it’s impossible to flee from Judaism, at least you don’t have to let the anti-Semite determine its meaning.'


'Anti-Semitism relates to modern people who forget themselves and find refuge from helplessness via xenophobia. If the Jews’ confrontation with the problem of their persecution is channeled to xenophobia, they too are likely to be afflicted by anti-Semitism. Sartre’s book reminds us that it isn’t the Jew but rather the human being who is the victim of anti-Semitism. The question remains whether Judaism has an additional dimension aside from its confrontation with this universal problem.."

Read the review here.

This much is clear, identity is a struggle between the definition forced upon you by others and your own definition, as far as it's possible to define your identity truly independently. A 'pure' Frenchman will of course have less problems with other people's definitions than a Jewish Frenchman or a Muslim Frenchman.

The word 'authenticity' might be misleading, you can hide authentically, the whole concept of assimilation is based on this notion.

The hatred of the other is an attempt at obtaining greatness effortlessly. Contemporary racism and anti-Semitism are rooted in the resentment of people who believe that greatness is a birthright. Of course this tendency can be found among minorities as well. The concept of identity politics is based on the notion that the hatred against the group to whom you belong should be used as a weapon and as a distinctive feature of your own being. The fight against this hatred becomes the purpose of your life.
I'm not sure if we can accuse Sartre of identity politics. After all he declared that anti-Semitism was first and foremost the problem of anti-Semites.

Identity remains a mess. If you don't know who you are you invent an enemy.
The next step is: you need the enemy.
If fighting the enemy is your purpose in life you cannot afford to win the fight. This is what Sartre saw sharply, the anti-Semite will invent the Jew because he cannot live without him.

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