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The Religion of Humanity and the Sin of the Jews

Europeans remake the Jews in their own image.


 
For we are no longer talking about democracy as a system of government.It is, rather, an express train, racing full tilt toward the recognition of man by his fellow and the global patchwork of identities. Getting off is not recommended—be it to stretch your legs or your mind. Case in point: The day of the baccalaureate philosophy exam, a French anchorwoman could not conceal her distaste for the fact that “there was not one question this year on such topical issues as religion, tolerance, or differences.” This is hardly surprising: With the democratic process as the sole horizon, there is no room for timelessness. The contemporary reigns supreme. In the era of human rights, all thinking that is not focused on human rights is itself seen as an intolerable infringement on human rights.
Presumably our defender of democracy would have been delighted if last year’s baccalaureate had asked students to analyze a page from Anne Frank’s diary or a text by Primo Levi. The stronger the feeling of humanity becomes, the more the denial of humanity to which the Jews were subjected occupies the public consciousness. But the Jews are not simply human beings whose basic human rights were denied. They are also Jews. And that’s where the shoe pinches, even before any discussion of their alleged wrongdoing begins. After all, doesn’t this very appellation, “Jews,” bespeak exclusion and intolerance? Doesn’t it introduce a caesura—that is to say, a discrimination between some types of humans and others? The same religion of humanity that views Jews who are singled out and attacked because they are Jewish as symbols of innocence pronounces the Jewish state guilty—for being Jewish.
According to Balibar, “the definition of Israel as a Jewish state” is precisely what undermines Israel’s legitimacy in the eyes of much of the world. And deservedly so, because the state thus defined “is not only expanding by expelling Palestinians but, within its own borders, it grants them only second-class citizenship, depriving them of many basic rights and excluding them from symbolic equal rights on their common land, which are reserved for ‘real Israelis’—Jews.” We hear the same melody, the same indictment of Israel as a Jewish state, from the jurist Monique Chemillier-Gendreau. “Sticking to the idea of a Jewish state…,” she writes, “means building an apartheid society and accepting in return the construction throughout the world of ‘pure’ states. Such follies are always in close contact with extermination and sometimes put it into practice.”
These two left-wing intellectuals share with the liberal historian Tony Judt a triumphant historicism and an enthusiasm for the democratic march of humanity toward intermingling and fluidity. “In a world where nations and peoples increasingly intermingle and intermarry at will; where cultural and national impediments to communication have all but collapsed; where more and more of us have multiple elective identities and would feel falsely constrained if we had to answer to just one of them; in such a world,” Judt proclaims, “Israel is truly an anachronism.” According to the author of Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944-1956, this anachronism is not just a folkloric or even moving testimony to days gone by. Rather, it is the formidable relic of a state that uses “ethno-religious criteria” to “denominate and rank its citizens.”
It is the awareness of such criteria, combined with the belief that all men have an equal right to manage their own communal affairs, that has led a growing number of Israelis to decide that the boundaries of their state must not coincide with those delineated in the Bible. To them, the word “Jewish” is not a rallying cry for segregation and conquest. On the contrary, drawing on the twofold Zionist requirement that Israel be a state in which there exists a majority of Jews as well as non-Jewish citizens, they call for a territorial compromise with the Palestinians despite terrorist attacks.
Yet the renunciation of parts of the biblical land of Israel by these Jews, who place equality alongside identity at the foundation of living together, does not sway Judt, Chemillier-Gendreau, and Balibar in the least. You cannot be both Jewish and democratic, they conclude; you must choose between these two loyalties. These lovers of the human race will not be satisfied with a peace that separates peoples. They pin their hopes on a bi-, multi-, or post-national state that would cleanse the stain, remedy the injustice, and redress the offense to the universal brought about by Israel’s Jewishness, and by Jewishness, period. In much the same way as Christianity used to pit Jews of the spirit against Jews of the flesh, our secular clerics contrast the persecuted Jew—an ethical being—with the ethnic Jew, who is intolerable. And thus do the Jews, in their perfidious obstinacy, once again find themselves at odds with the course of history.
 
But they are not alone. This point was driven home at the commemoration of the sixtieth anniversary of D-Day last June. At the close of a moving ceremony during which gratitude to British and American veterans, many of whom will not be around for the seventieth anniversary, was expressed with solemnity and sensitivity, Patricia Kaas sang Edith Piaf’s “Hymn to Love”:
If the sun should tumble from the sky
If the sea should suddenly run dry
If you love me, really love me
Let it happen, I won’t care
If it seems that everything is lost
I will smile and never count the cost
If you love me, really love me
Let it happen, darling, I won’t care….
You can set me any task
I’ll do anything you ask
If you’ll only love me still…. 
If you love me, really love me
Let whatever happens
I won’t care
There is something enchanting about this passionate readiness to sacrifice everything for love. After all, what characterizes us as modern individuals is not just a concern for our own preservation or a bourgeois aspiration to security and well-being. It is also love, and the love of love. The homo sentimentalis in us rebels against the dreary industry of homo economicus. We are not just one, then; we are two, even three: Ever since rock ’n’ roll surprised the world with its own hymn to lust, homo sexualis has come out in the open, as well. No longer afraid of the light of day, he shamelessly campaigns for the satisfaction of his needs and the respect for his rights.
But Patricia Kaas’ song was supposed to pay homage to an enterprise in which none of these three protagonists had a part. It was not an enterprise of bourgeois, bohemian, or desperate men. People from far away, isolationists like all the rest, ran the risk of dying for something that did not concern them personally. The world simply mattered enough to them that they silenced their personal interests and impulses. Countering the propensity to focus exclusively on their own affections and cravings, they responded to the appeal of occupied Europe because their country asked them to. It is as simple and inscrutable as that.
To throw the “Hymn to Love” in the face of these veterans was thus a huge blunder, if not an affront. Yet the blunder went unnoticed, and while all the media were there, no one objected. The incongruity was blatant, but not a single person was shocked.
What this means is that oblivion now holds memory’s reins. We no longer know how to commemorate what we are commemorating. By “we,” I mean the independent, volatile, democratic individual who owes nothing to the past, cares nothing for the future, and has no ties to the present besides the ones he himself establishes; the individual who has been released, by human rights, from the grips of origins, legacies, and that which is not freely chosen, who has been relieved of obligations to anything that might transcend him. He is free, like Edith Piaf or the Rolling Stones, to abandon himself to his own inclinations, passions, interests, follies, and infatuations; the individual who looks at history and sees only the obstacle-ridden, corpse-strewn road leading up to him. The pathetic farewell to the veterans was thus also a mindless farewell to the humanity they embodied.
 
Has the die been cast? Is the duty to remember doomed to absurdity and ridicule? With the destruction or dissimulation of that part of us that resists the antithesis between discrimination and human rights, has humanism had its final word? Perhaps not. But the only way to salvage something—and to rescue the Jews in the process—is to be as bold and determined in divesting the democratic ideology of its sacred aura as we were in dissipating the charms of the communist ideology in the past. It will not be easy. The prevailing ideology has replaced the uncertainty of the democratic debate with the peremptory monism of a struggle between the anachronistic and the pleasant. It denounces as the sworn enemies of democracy anyone unprepared to join the march of history that invincibly sweeps us along. Whereas the communist ideology lied and could thus be confronted with its failures, the democratic ideology moves in real time with society, and has been scoring victory upon victory.
To be sure, hope is necessary if we are to persevere. But it is difficult to persevere when every effort is made to convince us that nothing will ever stop the bulldozer of penitent democracy.

Alain Finkielkraut is a lecturer in the social sciences at the École Polytechnique in Paris, and the author of some fifteen books, including In the Name of Humanity: Reflections on the Twentieth Century (Columbia University Press, 2000). A version of this essay originally appeared in the French journal Le Débat.
 
 


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