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Capitalist Anti-Semitism

Oakland, CA

Jean-Paul Sartre tickles my mind. So, when I come across one of his books that I haven’t already read, I grab it and I  take it home. There it sits for a while, until the time is ripe (and my mind is free). This time I didn’t go for either a novel or a theatrical piece. I approached a libellum titled “Anti-Semite and Jew” written in France in 1944 (date and place are important in this respect). Knowing that Sartre is not Jewish and that he is politically a Marxist, I couldn’t answer the riddle that the title created until I read the first pages. In line with much existentialist literature of the time, JPS chose an issue of current socio-political relevance in order to abstract the fundamental question further up to a more general level. Just like Sartre in his narrative, here I would like to express my pleasure for reading the book and my take-home lesson with a very simple language.

Jean-Paul Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew (here I include free versions: html and pdf) was written in 1944, after the Nazi occupation was over in France, but well before the war ended and the crimes against the Jews were fully disclosed and accounted. The title in French is more elusive: Réflexions sur la question juive is less provocative and more to the point. In this book, JPS deconstructs anti-Semitism and portrays the customs of (French) society for what these really are. Jewness is harder to spot in a person than skin color. For this reason, the reading that I filtered through from the book is more far-reaching than what one can imagine at the beginning. At one point, especially if you’re just starting to understand race in a more systemic way like I am, you can read beyond the characters on the pages and play more with the crude words of the French philosopher.

Sartre, apparently using Instagram

Sartre starts by making everybody in France who carried the book – or read part of it in Les Temps Modernes – feel anti-Semite. There aren’t anti-Semite opinions. There are just anti-Semites. People who buy into stereotypes of street culture (and fascist propaganda),  people who turn a blind eye on the issue, people that cannot shake off from their mindset the prejudices against a race-less, nation-less (at the time) community. JPS also marks the distinction between the authentic and the inauthentic Jew. The latter being someone who denies himself, his roots, his personality, in order to appear less of a Jew to his fellow compatriots, who in addition advocate for the universal man, the Frenchman, devoid of any characterization besides his nationalism. [note: here I use the same gender courtesy that the translator used in the version that I read. Both the anti-Semite and the Jew are male types – French is a romance language and the masculine is commonly used as a neuter gender.] Crooked noses and curly hair are simply not enough to define a Jew, but are chatacteristics that can be singled out in a Jewish person. The path of the deconstruction of anti-Semitism is very long for JPS, who winds to all sides of human behavior and psychology.

He argues that anti-Semitism is driven by passion. One not justified by a direct provocation, causing anger not through logic. But, as he notes, one must “consent to anger before it can manifest itself.” So the anti-Semite has chosen to hate. In opposition to a concept, not something real. The anti-Semite’s Jewish friends are never a direct target of his anger. But when the crowd shouts: “I hate the Jews”, he joins. Sartre also discusses the reason for Jews’ attachment to money and possession, as the only legal, tangible means to emancipation that an outcast of society can seek for. Here’s the twist: JPS portrays the anti-Semite as member of the middle-class, angry at the Jew, member of the nonproducer, burgeois class. But “The Jew is free to do evil, not good” and therefore he is also a ruthless Bolshevik ready to destroy France in the name of Socialism. The anti-Semite’s arguments are very hard to sort out: he believes in Good and Evil and is certain of his position and of the position of the Jew in this configuration. JPS’s Marxist soul appears here to throw light on the essence of the class struggle is between two world orders, alternative in their administration of humanity and nature, both far from the perfection typically associated with the archetypal symbols of Good and Evil. Sartre pulls also the existentialist card by noting that the anti-Semite is afraid of himself, his consciousness, and his liberty, not of the Jew. The anti-Semite is a coward who would rather be a stone than a man.

One-third of the book is already gone and JPS has just acknowledged what the XXI century reader has already figured out: the anti-Semite only needs the Jew as a pretext; his counterpart elsewhere “will make use of the Negro or of the man of yellow skin”. The second chapter is dedicated to spiting the democrat, the universalist, the enlightened, etc. who only recognizes man, “man always the same in all times and places”. The democrat’s acceptance of the Jew as a man leads to the denial of the latter as a Jew. What follows is the creation of the inauthentic Jew as a way of mini-salvation for the Jew. Sartre aptly describes this condition in Part III as a conscious choice and dwells philosophically and pragmatically on it (the term is of course devoid of any moral blame, as the philosopher clearly states). There, he also rejects the definition of race as “that indefinable complex into which are tossed pell-mell both somatic characteristics, and intellectual and moral traits.” At the same time, JPS slashes those who “can’t see race,” but only individuals. Then he goes on against the defenders of the true France and the purity of the Frenchman. As usual, Sartre takes everybody to court. Interestingly, the theme of the judgement comes in the book with the assimilation of the condition of the Jew to that of the hero of Franz Kafka’s The Trial.

For JPS, however, there is a clear culprit: “It is our eyes that reflect to him [the Jew] the unacceptable image that he wishes to dissimulate. It is our words and our gestures – all of our words and all of our gestures – our anti-Semitism, but equally our condescending liberalism that have poisoned him. […] It is we who force him into the dilemma of Jewish authenticity or inauthenticity”. The choice of inauthenticity stands before the Jew who is “haunted by the spectre of violence”, and chooses to deny himself in order to be left alone.

One of the chief problems with Sartre’s argument is the treatment of Zionism just as a byproduct of all this hatred. It becomes harmful for the authentic Jew and an additional weapon in the anti-Semite arsenal. JPS only lightly touches upon the issue of the colonization of Palestine under Zionist principles. But our dear philosopher could not imagine that the course of the events would have taken such inflexible path.

The fourth, and last part sums up the argument and deals with solutions. The “regressive social force” of anti-Semitism is to be countered by propaganda and education, which alas will not prove effective enough. Let’s not forget that the anti-Semite is the champion of legality in France. Anti-Semitism is the product of the burgeois division of society in classes, communities, and sections. The Jew cannot accept assimilation in such a world – he must fight for a society without anti-Semitism. “What is there to say except that the socialist revolution is necessary to and sufficient for the suppression of anti-Semitism? It is for the Jew also that we shall make the revolution.”

The revolution indeed. What struck me the most about this book is the possibility to cross out and substitute the words anti-Semite and Jew with analogous oppressor-oppressed dynamics (white-all other colors/types; even rich-poor, although most of his reasonings remain relevant through racial arguments). Only a change in the type of society we live in may bring about the obliteration of such dynamic. White oppression is synonymous with capitalist oppression. It’s about time that we realize it.

In the words of Richard Wright: “There is no Negro problem in the United States, there is only a White problem”. There’s no poverty, racism, inequality, exploitation, pollution… there’s just their root-cause: capitalism – the Evil we should fight against.

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One response to “Capitalist Anti-Semitism

  1. Pingback: Anti-anti | bottleneck analysis

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