Between His Enemy and Defender

It has bothered me for quite long since I first read Jean-Paul Sartre, Anti-Semitism and Jew. The great French left thinker wrote this critical essay on the relationship of Jews and Gentiles prior to the establishment of Israel and following escalation of Arab-Israeli conflict. There was something really prominent in his exposure of the friendship between the ‘Democrat’ and the Jew – that striking misconception held by the former on Jewish identity, arrested in the language of universal values:


While the anti-Semite wants to destroy the man in Jew, the Democrat, who “recognize neither Jew, nor Arab, nor Negro, nor bourgeois, nor worker, but only man – man always the same in all times and all places” is willing to destroy the Jew and leave nothing in him but the man (55-57 146).


In this paradigm, the ethical-political evaluation of the Jewish question by the Democrat may be two folded. The Democrat sincerely recognizes the atrocities committed against the European Jewry in WWII. He zealously sets down the trials to persecute the perpetrators of the crimes against humanity. And, on the other hand, “he is hostile to the Jew to the extent that the latter thinks of himself as a Jew”, passionately condemning his political affirmation of a Jewish difference (57).  Those critical examples of condemnations of Jewish self-assertion may be found evident in the Democrat’s critique of Zionism. On November 10, 1975, the United Nations ratified the UN General Resolution 3379, which concluded, “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination”.


Apparently, the Democrat’s intent here is not harming but more likely curing the Jew who is in his view has not yet set himself free from his own destructive drives. In a good Christian spirit he loves him as a man but hates his sin to live up his life according to his Jewish affirmations. Unlike the anti-Semite, whose willingness to exterminate the man in Jew is based on his concrete images of Jewish evilness, the Democrat is more sceptical about existence of any Jewish character and treats him as a man who merely considers himself as a Jew (58). However, for the Democrat, who is a firm believer of the universal justice and equality of all men, those Jewish self-reflections are quite hostile manifestations of identity, which eventually lead to outburst of violence and oppression of the other. In his view, if the Jew indeed wanted to become a free member of the world community, he would have first to emancipate himself from his chauvinistic self-awareness and historical exclusiveness in favour of assimilation with the other.


The one-state solution of Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, for instance, one of those visionary examples of the solution of the Jewish problem recently outlined by the Democrat. He believes that assimilation is an inevitable outcome of a conflict resolution based on such a complicated land dispute. More importantly, it fits his doctrine of universal peace. Like, once the state of Israel is replaced by Palestine, anti-Semitism would suddenly seize to exist. 


The only problem with this Peace-making formula neglected in the Democrat’s thinking is the opinion of the anti-Semite, who will zealously deny the Jew of the freedom to assimilation with the other in Palestine. The anti-Semite may indeed support the whole idea of one-state solution as long as the Israelites part is excluded from the equation. Unlike the Democrat, the anti-Semite’s assurances of the evils of the Jewish character are fixed realities of everyday life. Unlike the Democrat, he does recognize the evils of Jewish individuality and therefore would continuously want to destroy him for once and forever.


In this sense, this even forces us to tentatively conclude that the anti-Semite compared to the Democrat is even more realistic in understanding of the Jewish problem because he, at list, does not isolate the Jew from a man but treats him as a whole “biological, physical, and social phenomena in a spirit of synthesis” (59). The kind of social synthesis of Jewish evilness that, according to his apocalyptic views, has recently actualized in the state of Israel, the state of apartheid one may say which has no right to exist. There is no coincidence that the exposure of Jewish otherness through establishing of the state of Israel has been playing a huge factor in the reinforcement of  ‘old days’ anti-Semitic rhetoric just recently displayed in the Ahmadinezhad threats to annihilate Israel and wipe it off the map. Here, however, according to Sartre, the Anti-Semite’s ‘superiority’ over the Democrat in understanding and application of solutions to the Jewish question has come to its own irrational end – pogroms.


When it comes to applying the solution to the Jewish problem, should be there any difference between the extermination of all the Israelites and their total assimilation? I highly doubt it since spiritual holocaust may be no less harmful than physical. Moreover, the Jew is condemned by the Democrat for that same exposure of Jewish otherness that Nazis would recognize as the basis of denying the Jew the place in humanity. And French philosopher indeed finds these two forms of political oppression to be equally threatening to the existence of Jewish humanity in the eyes of the Jew himself who is scarcely looking one’s place in the world.


By negating Humanité and Judéité, the Democrat temptation to cure the Jew is prone to step into the path of mystification of the problem of anti-Semitism. Merely treating the Jewish problem as an old prejudice issue, which could be easily overcome by assimilation, does not help much in answering existential questions of what makes the Jew being a Jew. This part of discourse is neglected in the vocabulary of the Democrat’s universal reasoning, which makes him incapable of not only understanding the specific situation of the Jew who is becoming a Zionist but also adequately responding to anti-Semitism. As a result, his treatment of the Jew becomes symptomatic. In his categorical thinking, there is no place for the Jewish humanity; the Jew is a man who is either a Holocaust survivor or colonizer of Palestine. He is the oppressed or the oppressor; right or wrong but never a Jew.


This theme of a man being in a situation has been echoed in several Sartre’s writings on humanism, where he identifies human Being with social existence. This proposition is central to Sartre’s existentialist humanism, being in opposition to a rationale that the human nature is more fundamental than its existence. Sartre suggests that by recognizing the uniqueness of the Jewish situation, one reveals the Jew’s humanity, proposing that it is only on these terms one can effectively undermine the position of the anti-Semite (in Judaken 2006 59). In this sense, as Emanuil Levinas correctly observed, Sartre’s theory in linking Jewish destiny to anti-Semitism can be indeed very disappointing. The Jew has certainly not created Zionism solely by himself but rather the anti-Semite has made him so. It suddenly becomes the product of racial and cultural oppression of a Jew who is scarcely searching for a refuge in the world. And it also sets alarming signal to those, who by mystifying the issues of anti-Semitism, may unexpectedly  find themselves one day in the camp of those who deny the Jew the place in humanity.




Jonathan Judaken, Jean-Paul Sartre and The Jewish Question: Anti-antisemitism and the Politcs of The French Intellectual (Texts and Contexts). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006.


Sartre Jean-Paul. Anti-Semite and Jew. New York : Schocken Books, 1948.


The UN General Resolution 33. 3379 (XXX). Elimination of all forms of racial discrimination.







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