Jonathan Judaken. Jean-Paul Sartre and The Jewish Question: Anti-antisemitism and the Politics of the French Intellectual. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006. xi + 390 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8032-2612-8.
Reviewed by Richard F. Crane (Greensboro College)
Published on H-Judaic (January, 2010)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman
Sartre's Jewish Mirror
On June 3, 1947, Emmanuel Levinas attended a lecture given by his fellow philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, at the Salle de la Chimie in Paris, dealing with the so-called Jewish Question, and sponsored by the Alliance Israélite Universelle. Levinas, like many other Jews before and since, shrugged at Sartre’s simple and direct identification of Jewish identity with antisemitism, as if the latter served to define and circumscribe the former. But he saw in this lecture--based on Sartre’s recent book Réflexions sur la question juive--a welcome work of philosophical freshness and practical import: “The most striking feature of Sartre’s fight resides less in his victory than in the new weapons he deploys ... an attempt to think mankind in its spiritual being, its historical, economic, and social situation, without treating it as a mere object for thought ... an existential humanism ... this is Sartre’s essential contribution to our cause, the cause of humanity.” It was even more significant that Sartre made the fight against antisemitism his own in the name of the “cause of humanity” at a time when the author of Being and Nothingness (1943), and companion of Simone de Beauvoir, was fast becoming France’s preeminent public intellectual. His ethos of engagement would lend his persona an enduring authority, particularly on the left, until his death in 1980.
Sartre’s 1946 book, published in English in 1948 as Anti-Semite and Jew, has since become a classic among modern studies seeking to explain the causes and manifestations of antisemitic prejudice and contemplating the question of Jewish assimilation in the twentieth century. But it bases itself less on a familiarity with Jews and Judaism than on an application of Sartrean concepts of alterity (or otherness), authenticity, and bad faith, to form a convincing portrait of the antisemite as a fearful, petty-bourgeois mediocrity seeking to assert control over his doubtful modern world. Jonathan Judaken’s book on Jean-Paul Sartre and the Jewish Question does not neglect aspects of superficiality in Sartre’s work, and his use of the cumbersome term “anti-antisemitism” instead of "philosemitism" gains credibility when one sees how little the existentialist knew about the Jewish people whose rights and dignity he championed.
But Judaken also rightly emphasizes how Sartre’s penetrating work helped invigorate the discussion of antisemitism in postwar France, at a time when Jews and Gentiles alike arguably wanted to downplay both the singularity of Jewish suffering and the pervasiveness of anti-Jewish hatred in favor of a comforting--and mythical--résistancialiste memory of a France almost unanimously opposed to Nazism. Judaken’s commitment to what he terms a "cultural history of ideas" (p. 19, emphasis in original) that pursues intellectual history in the wake of the “linguistic turn,” gives his study not only an impressive methodological basis comprising equal parts historical research and critical theory, it also instills in his book an ambitious argumentative agenda. As the author puts it, “the scandal of my study is to claim that ... every time he fundamentally rethought the underlying principles that defined his politics and his role as a public intellectual, Sartre did so by reflecting on ‘the Jewish Question.’” Regardless of whether the author succeeds in achieving this “scandalous” point, the ensuing chapters more than reasonably demonstrate the corollary of his thesis, that Sartre’s “representations of Jews and Judaism as persistent figures of alterity serve as a fecund site to interrogate and reevaluate his oeuvre, especially his conception of the role of the intellectual" (p. 3).
Judaken’s account of Sartre’s early intellectual journey as a brilliant normalien, philosophy teacher at a series of lycées, and budding author during the late 1930s, is set against the backdrop of the cultural and political lineages of the fin-de-siècle Dreyfus Affair. The author follows a detailed trajectory through the tumult of the Thirties and the coming of a second European war, examining closely Sartre’s first literary-philosophical explorations of the Jewish Question in an existentialist context, which offer modern, Jewish mirrors of the unstable, contingent self. In Nausea (1938) and “The Childhood of a Leader” (1939), the respective protagonists follow crossed paths, Roquentin’s away from the narrow provincialism of Bouville toward cosmopolitan Paris (and the sound of Black-Jewish jazz), and Lucien’s toward the decisive loss-of-self in a cult of antisemitic, fascist violence. Influenced by Edmund Husserl and phenomenology, then Martin Heidegger and Karl Marx, after his wartime experiences as a POW and a contributor to the Resistance, an increasingly radical Sartre argued for the responsibility of the writer to testify and militate against injustice.
Anti-Semite and Jew proved indicative of an unfolding campaign on Sartre’s part against racism and colonialism, culminating in his iconic presence among throngs of student radicals and middle-class Maoists during and after 1968, yet that work itself contained almost no mention of (save one oblique reference) what would eventually be called the Holocaust. Judaken does not rely on a monocausal explanation for what might be called Sartre’s “silence,” or aporia, regarding the Shoah, and the larger societal context of delayed consciousness of the Holocaust has been discussed in detail in other recent studies. Perhaps a more awkward case of Sartre’s “ambivalence” toward the Jewish Question might be seen in the simultaneous sympathy of the editor of Les Temps modernes for the state of Israel and the Palestinian cause, and Judaken gives a detailed and thoughtful account of Sartre’s earnest and painfully objective--given the elevated expectations of many of his interlocutors--visits to the Middle East in the 1960s and 1970s, a period that also saw increasing anti-Zionism among European leftists.
Sartre’s encounter with the Jewish Question receives further, insightful attention from Judaken in his enlightening analyses of how a wide range of thinkers from the vituperative antisemite Céline to the “postcolonial Jew” Albert Memmi have been provoked and inspired by Sartre’s Réflexions. But a particularly fascinating part of this book concerns the aged, now-blind philosopher revisiting the Jewish Question in the light of messianic hope. Near the end of his life, Sartre engaged in what might be called a mutual interview with his younger soixante-huitard friend, Benny Lévy, and apparently recanted some of the simplistic objectifications of Jews and Judaism present in his 1946 book. The dialogues, published posthumously, provoked a denunciation by Beauvoir, although Sartre’s adopted Jewish daughter Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre testified to their authenticity. While other scholars have offered a cursory treatment of the question of whether Hope Now accurately represented Sartre’s last reflections on the Jewish Question, Judaken’s deft use of “a hermeneutic sensitive to the flow of discussion” (p. 231) provides a convincing and nuanced performative interpretation of Sartre’s late appreciation of the Jewish ethical tradition. Still, the author’s analysis of Sartre’s idealistic turn to “Jewish messianic thought as his example of an ethics that moves beyond Marxism and humanism to this idea of fraternity/maternity” (p. 234) also might undermine the distinction made at the beginning of the book between anti-antisemitism and philosemitism on Sartre’s part.
Jonathan Judaken’s study of Jean-Paul Sartre and the Jewish Question stakes a claim to new scholarly territory. It foregrounds the existentialist philosopher’s disparate forays into antisemitism from the 1930s through the 1970s, establishing their continuity not only with his seminal 1946 study, Anti-Semite and Jew, but also interweaving them into his lifelong dedication to an anti-essentialist and anti-foundationalist philosophy of emancipation. Whether Sartre’s pursuit of the Jewish Question in any predominant way motivated his philosophical development remains debatable, but the lingering, and not simply episodic, presence of the question juive in Sartre’s oeuvre appears incontestable thanks to Judaken’s meticulous research and expert analysis. This is a book that indeed scandalizes, in that it takes interpretive risks, and as promised, uncovers a “fecund site” for further discussion and debate.
. Emmanuel Levinas, “Existentialism and Antisemitism,” trans. Denis Hollier and Rosalind Krauss, October 87 (winter 1999): 27-31.
. Jean-Paul Sartre, Anti-Semite and Jew, trans. George G. Becker (New York: Schocken Books, 1948).
. The term résistancialisme comes from French historian Henry Rousso. See The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France Since 1944, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994).
. Cf. Samuel Moyn, A Holocaust Controversy: The Treblinka Affair in Postwar France (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2005).
. Jean-Paul Sartre and Benny Lévy, Hope Now: The 1980 Interviews, trans. Adrian van den Houven (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).
. A future edition of this book would benefit from correcting the occasional and very incidental, factual error. On p. 179, one encounters a reference to the Hamburg industrial dynasty the Gerlachs participating in the postwar economic recovery of the German Democratic Republic; apparently, the reference should be to the German Federal Republic, i.e., West Germany. Slightly more substantively, on p. 316, the author identifies Père Pierre Boisselot as the “creator of the publishing house Éditions du Cerf and the journals Vie Sprituelle and Vie Intellectuelle.” That distinction belongs to another Dominican, the indefatigable Père Pierre Bernadot. Jean-Claude Delbreil, La Revue «La Vie Intellectuelle»: Marc Sangnier, le thomisme, et le personnalisme (Paris: Cerf, 2008), 120-21.
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Richard F. Crane. Review of Judaken, Jonathan, Jean-Paul Sartre and The Jewish Question: Anti-antisemitism and the Politics of the French Intellectual.
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