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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or 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.

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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