Derrida’s (Crypto-) Jewish Identity

In Culture of Critique I had a brief section on philosopher Jacques Derrida’s strong Jewish identity and how that informed his writing. (See here, p. 198ff.) It emphasizes the point that Derrida thought of himself as a crypto-Jew. Despite his pose as “a leftist Parisian intellectual, a secularist and an atheist,” Derrida descended from a long line of crypto-Jews, and at one point he explicitly identifies himself as a crypto-Jew: “Marranos that we are, Marranos in any case whether we want to be or not, whether we know it or not.” Derrida changed his first name to the French Christian sounding ‘Jacques’ in order better blend into the  French scene.

Indeed, one might say that Derrida’s crypsis is typical of Jews on the left:

[Leftist] universalism may thus be viewed as a mechanism for Jewish continuity via crypsis or semi-crypsis. The Jewish radical is invisible to the [non-Jew] as a Jew and thereby avoids anti-Semitism while at the same time covertly retains his or her Jewish identity. Lyons (1982, 73) finds that “most Jewish Communists wear their Jewishness very casually but experience it deeply. It is not a religious or even an institutional Jewishness for most; nevertheless, it is rooted in a subculture of identity, style, language, and social network. . . . In fact, this second-generation Jewishness was antiethnic and yet the height of ethnicity. The emperor believed that he was clothed in transethnic, American garb, but [non-Jews] saw the nuances and details of his naked ethnicity.” (Chapter 3 of CofC, p. 91)

The Forward has an article on a recent biography of Derrida that adds to the portrait. It notes that Derrida was “acutely aware of his ethnic identity” and as a result much of his early writing was on “fellow Jews.” He took his crypto-Judaism to the grave:

Abundant details provided by Peeters prove Derrida’s lasting devotion toYiddishkeit When Derrida was buried, his elder brother, René, wore a tallit at the suburban French cemetery and recited the Kaddish to himself inwardly, since Jacques had asked for no public prayers. This discreet, highly personal, yet emotionally and spiritually meaningful approach to recognizing Derrida’s Judaism seems emblematic of this complex, imperfect, yet valuably nuanced thinker.

In other words, Derrida was a crypto-Jew until the end and instructed his family to participate in the charade. 

The article also implies ethnic networking at the heart of the  Derrida phenomenon and central to all the intellectual movements discussed in CofC:

Derrida was always surrounded by ardently supportive Jewish friends and colleagues, like Sarah KofmanPeter Szondi, Hélène Cixous and Avital Ronell. The last mentioned was so devoted to the Derrida family that in 1979, at age 28, Ronell began a love affair with Derrida’s then-16-year-old son, Pierre, under the tolerant eye of his parents.

A cursory examination reveals the  strong Jewish identity of these intellectuals, all of them quite well known and influential—one might call it a microcosm of The Culture of Critique. Sarah Kofman is Holocaust-obsessed, with a large dose of Freud, perhaps the iconic Jewish philosopher (I hesitate to call him a psychologist) of the 20th century. She argued that “among the many human capacities, the ability to kill and the ability to ‘tenir parole’ (that is to say, to speak and to let speak, but also to keep promises) are the two most important. To learn to read well is to teach others to ‘tenir parole.’ In doing so, one impedes killing, that is to say, one postpones the return of Auschwitz.”

Szondi was very close to Paul Celan, the Holocaust poet, and wrote the first book of criticism on Celan. Hélène Cixous is a feminist theorist who has used Derrida-type ideas to deconstruct traditional attitudes about women and sexuality. In many ways she is a female version of Derrida:

Contemporaries, lifelong friends, and intellectuals, Jacques Derrida and Cixous both grew up as French Jews in Algeria and share a “belonging constituted of exclusion and nonbelonging”—not Algerian, rejected by France, their Jewishness concealed or acculturated. In Derrida’s family “one never said ‘circumcision’ but ‘baptism,’ not ‘Bar Mitzvah’ but ‘communion.’” Judaism cloaked in Catholicism is one example of the undecidability of identity that influenced the thinker whom Cixous calls a “Jewish Saint.”

Avital Ronell was one of the first translators of Jacques Derrida’s work into English; “she in effect introduced his work to the American academy.” Like Derrida, her works are “relentlessly destructive”; “rigorous interruptions of certitude.” She envisions a postfoundational era –an era in which “all the transcendental navigation systems are down.”

The article notes that Derrida has been criticized because his writings “lead to ‘nihilism,’ which threatens to ‘efface many of the essential differences between Nazism and non-Nazism.’” However, Derrida’s writings have certainly not had any effect on the power of the Holocaust industry, and indeed, some of Derrida’s biggest boosters have been intellectual Holocaust activists. But Derrida’s writings have been part and parcel of the ideology of the deconstruction of Western culture and the belief systems that sustained it in the past (e.g., Christianity, nationalism) or could be recruited to save it now (race realism and evolutionary theories of the ethnic basis of cultural conflict in the West since at least the beginning of the 20th century). As I noted in CofC, quoting Derrida scholar John D. Caputo:

The idea behind deconstruction is to deconstruct the workings of strong nation-states with powerful immigration policies, to deconstruct the rhetoric of nationalism, the politics of place, the metaphysics of native land and native tongue. . . . The idea is to disarm the bombs . . . of identity that nation-states build to defend themselves against the stranger, against Jews and Arabs and immigrants, . . . all of whom . . . are wholly other.

It is of course revealing that academics who are concerned about the possibility that deconstruction could lead to an inability to condemn National Socialism and are concerned that deconstruction would undermine the foundation of the Holocaust as the  central icon of post-World War II Western society would never express concerns about the role of deconstruction in undermining Western self-confidence and will to resist the invasion of millions of “others.” This is particularly the case among the associates and intellectual descendants of Derrida who now staff elite academic departments of humanities throughout the Western world.

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