Are the French Anti-Semitic?

Reviewed by Emile Perreau-Saussine

Preachers of Hate: Traversing Planetary Judeophobia
by Pierre-Andre Taguieff
Mille et une nuits, 2004, 967 pages, French.

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For the last five years, there has been a widely shared concern about the rise of anti-Semitism in France. Three main interpretations have been offered to explain the phenomenon. The first, put forward more than twenty-five years ago, argues that the French nation is inherently, permanently anti-Semitic. That is to say, Petain’s Vichy regime is not an accident in the history of the country, as Gaullists would have it, but rather a witness to France’s essential character. Bernard-Henry Lévy, an intellectual-turned-journalist, articulated this point in his book The French Ideology (1981): Put simply, France smells, and its history smells. From his point of view, the current manifestation of French anti-Semitism is not new, but simply the latest iteration of an old habit. This anti-French thesis is widely shared in certain French quarters, as well as by various American neo-conservatives. Ultimately, however, it cannot be taken seriously. Lévy tends to be eloquent yet superficial, a seeker of publicity rather than of truth. The widely respected French political theorist Raymond Aron, for example, thought Lévy’s book poorly documented and somewhat disingenuous. It made, he said, too much of some aspects of French history, and too little of others, and lacked a proper sense of balance and political judgment throughout. Nonetheless, Lévy’s book does remain important for its telling crudeness.

The second interpretation is both more kind to the French and more worthy of our attention. It was articulated recently by Elie Barnavi, a former Israeli ambassador to Paris, in his Open Letter to the Jews of France (2002). Barnavi’s thesis is that the present anti-Semitism is not a reflection of some permanent aspect of the French character, but is rather a passing disease, linked to the problem of mass immigration from North African countries to France. Thus, while the current French anti-Semitism is certainly cause for concern, he does not expect it to last. Unlike Lévy, then, he maintains that it has no real roots in the “French ideology.” This anti-anti-French explanation is shared by several well-known personalities in French Jewry, such as Jean Daniel, Pierre Nora, and Théo Klein, among others.

The third interpretation is equally interesting, but far more disquieting for the French than the second. Its primary spokesman is Alain Finkielkraut, whose defining work on the subject is the essay “In the Name of the Other: Reflections on the Coming Anti-Semitism” (2003), first published in English in these pages. Culturally conservative, as well as Republican (in the French sense of the word, which connotes a kind of left-wing fondness for the Revolution), Finkielkraut is often described as a neo-conservative. Against Lévy, and alongside Barnavi, Finkielkraut suggests that the present anti-Semitism in France is a new one. Unlike Barnavi, however, he argues that its roots lie fairly deep in the contemporary French and European culture. According to Finkielkraut, the “old” anti-Semitism, or the anti-Semitism that flourished from the last third of the nineteenth century and culminated with Nazism, was a product of the nineteenth-century idea of the nation state: The Jews were hated because they refused to be just like everyone else, refused to accept the homogenizing tendencies of the nation state to the extent of abandoning their Jewish identity. Thus Finkielkraut argues that contemporary anti-Semitism attacks not the cosmopolitanism of the Jews, but rather their very rootedness in the (literal and figurative) land of Israel. This anti-Semitism, then, is fundamentally an opposition to Israel, an anti-Zionism that stems not from nationalism, but from anti-nationalism.

Indeed, Finkielkraut explains, the Europeans are trying to rid the world of the nation state altogether, which they hold responsible for racism generally and most of the political catastrophes of the last century. (Lévy’s French Ideology is symptomatic of that line of thought.) In this context, the Zionist project, a project that owes its energy to the nationalism of the nineteenth century, appears something of an anachronism. Israel, a nation state keen to defend its identity and its boundaries, and keen to assert its existence in the face of its implacable enemies, seems both out of place and out of date: It is, so the Europeans believe, the very thing one must do away with, if one wants to do away with racism. Hence the bizarre and paradoxical equation of Zionism with racism: The Jews were once accused of being invisible; they are now accused of being too visible. They were accused of being, as a people, too deracinated; now, they are now accused of being too autochthonous.

How are we to decide between Barnavi’s and Finkielkraut’s interpretations? Both have their weaknesses: Finkielkraut underplays the Muslim-Arabic dimension of the problem and focuses too heavily on issues of French identity and Republicanism; Barnavi, in turn, underplays the ideological vigor of the new anti-Semitism and its appeal to the extreme Left. The reason behind these weaknesses is clear: As a political historian, Barnavi does not want to grant undue importance to the popular, perhaps artificial theories of the day. Finkielkraut, on the other hand, is a philosopher, an “intellectual” in the French tradition, and a Republican; as such, he tends to give more weight to ideology than to history. Nevertheless, the two thinkers’ theses are not incompatible. Both agree that the present anti-Semitism takes the form of a radical anti-Zionism, and that it owes fairly little to the extreme Right.

In fact, the combined strength of Barnavi’s and Finkielkraut’s explanations is confirmed indirectly by the change in attitude of those Jews who once expressed discomfort with French Jacobinism, Republicanism, and assimilationism. In particular, these Jews were critical of assimilationism for two related reasons: First, and most obviously, it threatened Jewish identity. Jews were asked to feel more “French” than “Jewish”—that is, not very “Jewish” at all. Second, Jews were often suspected of not being assimilated enough, and a widespread anxiety about their “foreign” character became central to the modern form of anti-Semitism. But now, many Jews who used to be critical of French Republicanism welcome it as a precious tool for the assimilation of a politically unstable Muslim population.

Shmuel Trigano is one of these Jews. A sociologist born in Algeria, Trigano now teaches in Paris. As his recent article, “The End of French Jewry?” in these pages suggests, he remains fairly pessimistic about the future of French Jewry. In The Resignation of the Republic, published two years ago, he showed himself to be a convert to Jacobinism and centralism, arguing that French Muslims should be asked the same tough questions that Napoleon, two centuries ago, put to representatives of the Jewish community: Do they really accept French laws? Are they prepared to play by French rules? Muslims who are attracted by various irresponsible ideologies, Trigano believes, would gain from identifying with France rather than with the wider Arab world—not to mention with the Palestinian cause. It would be good, no doubt, to hear them say nos ancêtres les gaulois. Furthermore, it is no longer clear that old-fashioned Republican assimilationism is still a threat to the Jews. Of course, in the sense that it undermines Jewish identity, it does remain a threat of sorts. But at least it is no longer associated with anti-Semitism. For the moment, the old, right-wing nationalist anti-Semitism is more or less dead. Backers of the Front National, the extreme right-wing French party, are turning their attention to Muslims. Once upon a time a threat to the integrity of the Jewish community, Trigano writes, Jacobinism and its legacy might just turn out to be a safeguard for today’s Jews, against the wishes of some Muslims to import the Intifada to France.

Trigano’s book confirms that Barnavi’s and Finkielkraut’s interpretations of the present predicament would best be combined, although it does so only indirectly. In contrast, Pierre-André Taguieff’s new book, Preachers of Hate, confirms it directly. By combining their theses, it remedies the limitations of each. It offers nearly one thousand pages of documentation to illustrate the point that the present predicament is deeply rooted in a vicious ideology that enjoys a wide appeal among young Muslims of North African origin. This is Islamo-progressivism, an anti-Republican and anti-Zionist ideology that brings together old-fashioned secular “Tiers-Mondistes,” or Arabs who identify with the Palestinian cause, and Islamists, who reject Western civilization.

Taguieff opens Preachers of Hate with the following lines:

This book belongs to a mixed genre: It constitutes at the same time an exercise in political thought, a contribution to the history of modern political myths (focusing on the myth of the “Jewish conspiracy” or the “Zionist plot”), an in-depth inquiry into the global manifestations of the contemporary Judeophobia, and an intervention in the public debate, attacking explicitly a set of received ideas with the immodest purpose of contributing to a change of the politico-intellectual landscape. At the center of this critical examination: The present convergences between the war against Israel and/or “Zionism,” the global dynamism of Islamic fundamentalism (radical Islamism), the radicalization of anti-Americanism, and some unfortunate tendencies of the anti-globalization movement.

In other words, Taguieff is a mythographer of the West’s dark identity: Collecting, collating, and relaying the murderous fantasies that have plagued the modern West’s unconscious and continue to erupt today.

A political scientist working in Paris, Taguieff is not Jewish. In response to the rise of the National Front in the 1980s, however, he has spent the last twenty years studying racism and anti-Semitism. He began by analyzing the transformation of racism, showing that contemporary forms of racism differ from the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century versions. The new racism, he insisted, is based not on a biology of race, but rather on the claim that some groups cannot be assimilated, that their cultural differences run so deep as to always and forever preclude political and social integration. Taguieff argued further that the end of racialism did not mean the end of racism: The absence of any theory of race in the discourse of the Front National, for instance, hardly proves that it had left racism behind. Moreover, Taguieff denounced the most fashionable forms of anti-racism, which were multi-culturalist. He showed that this sort of multi-culturalism was politically ambiguous, a mirror image of the racism it fought. Since the 1990s he has called for a more Republican form of anti-racism, or an anti-racism based on integration.

Like Barnavi, Taguieff is sensitive to the Arab-Muslim dimension of the new anti-Semitism; like Finkielkraut, he is a committed Republican. It is thus that he came to write Preachers of Hate. Here Taguieff distinguishes between three types of anti-Semitism: The pre-modern Christian one; the modern, right-wing anti-Semitism that culminates with Nazism; and the present one, located at the center of the Islamo-progressivist creed. Taguieff traces the history of this latter creed, and reveals the continuity between the anti-Zionism of the USSR (when Zionism was associated with imperialism) and the present Judeophobia. This Judeophobia does not so much denounce Jewish pride as it does Zionist imperialism. It no longer sees the Jew as the foreigner from the East invading the West, but rather as the foreigner from the West invading the East.

The weight of the evidence Taguieff offers is such that one cannot deny the reality of the gathering threats. And yet this strength is also a weakness: The book does not read like the work of a gifted rhetorician, but instead like the files of a competent judge. The argument under discussion is not always clear, buried as it often is under the piles of documentation he provides. In the end, Taguieff succeeds in being little more than a helpful mythographer, who draws our attention to some of the crucial political transformations of our time and their uglier undersides, but never manages to draw it all together.

Yet, there is a profound lesson to be learned from Taguieff’s work. If, at its core, the new anti-Semitism stems from anti-Zionism, a hatred of the nation state, more nationalism in France would not mean more anti-Semitism, but rather more readiness to understand Israel’s national predicament. It would mean, in other words, less anti-political humanitarianism, more political thinking, and therefore more sympathy for the Jewish state as state. The Jews were criticized for being a stateless people at a time when peoples were supposed to establish a state for themselves. Now, the Jews are criticized for being a people all too pleased to have its own state at a time when such people are deemed selfish and immoral. In a modern world of nation states, the Jewish nation (the nation par excellence) has always been and may always remain a topic of endless attention and obsession: Without a state, the Jews will be disliked by the friends of (nation) states; with a state, the Jews will be disliked by the enemies of the (nation) state. In that sense, there exists a continuity between the anti-Semitism of 1900 and the anti-Semitism of 2000. The Jewish nation is stubborn: Stateless, yet refusing to assimilate into the nation states of Europe; newly sovereign, yet refusing to assimilate into the European project of the World State.


Sadly, this does not bode well for the future of Europe’s relations with Israel. Europe was created to constrain the very nationalism that gave birth to anti-Semitism, and European friends of “progress” see themselves as the ultimate anti-racists. These Europeans are opposed to the nation state, and therefore opposed to the Israeli state that European anti-Semitism made necessary. Many “good” Europeans would like to think of themselves as anti-racist and anti-Zionists. This would be possible if Israel had not become central to the Jewish self-consciousness, but it has. We are likely to see more bad faith in the near future, and the new Islamo-progressivist constellation is going to be at its very heart. Let us hope that this will not lead Israelis to forget that many of their roots are in the best of European civilization.

Emile Perreau-Saussine is a member of the Faculty of Social and Political Science at Cambridge University. He recently published Alasdair MacIntyre, an Intellectual Biography: Introduction to Contemporary Critiques of Liberalism (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2005).


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