Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew: A Critique [Part Two]

“Sartre almost always swallowed huge quantities of amphetamines when writing non-fiction.”
    John Gerassi, 1989.[1]

Sartre on ‘the Jew’

Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew is divided into four sections, concerned as it is with four actors, or character profiles: the anti-Semite, the democrat, the inauthentic Jew, and the authentic Jew. Existing criticism of the book has almost exclusively concerned Sartre’s treatment of Jews (in Sartre’s jargon, both ‘inauthentic’ and ‘authentic’), while the most highly praised aspect of the book has been his incredibly negative characterization of the anti-Semite. Since Sartre’s comments on ‘the democrat’ are generally regarded as the most meagre and the least consequential, this critique is concerned only with Sartre’s comments on both the Jew and the anti-Semite. We will start with a summary of problems in his theory of Jewishness.

Other than swallowing huge amounts speed, a habit that would ultimately lead to several debilitating strokes, Sartre conducted no preparations before writing Anti-Semite and Jew, telling Benny Levy in 1980: “I wrote without documentation, without reading one book about Jews.”[2] Sartre also failed to conduct any research into the history of anti-Semitism, or to read widely the arguments put forth by anti-Semites. He would later state that his opinions on anti-Semitism had been shaped for the most part by his reaction to reading a handful of contemporary French anti-Semitic pamphlets.[3] It is notable that while Sartre’s lack of research on the history and nature of anti-Semitism hasn’t prevented his commentary on anti-Semitism being portrayed as a “a classic,” his lack of research on Jews and their history has been pointed out as highly problematic. Indeed, from the moment of its publication Jews have been torn between a desire to adopt Sartre’s ‘weapon’ against the anti-Semite, and their unease at Sartre’s treatment of their own sense of identity.

Jewish criticisms of Sartre have for the most part revolved around his Marxist/existentialist interpretation of Jewish identity, and to a large extent these criticism are valid. It was argued in the first section of this essay that Sartre was beholden to an image of Jews and Jewishness as useful allies in his subconscious quest for social and cultural revenge. For Sartre this would necessarily involve denying Jews and their history any specificity which may exclude him. Predictably then, he advanced a theory that ‘the Jew’ was not a member of a rigid ethnic group defined by blood, history, and culture, but was instead a mere abstract compilation of Jewish ‘traits’ — the Jew as ‘intellectual,’ ‘urban,’ ‘social critic,’ ‘marginal,’ and ‘disruptive’—traits which he would himself come to embody, so one might label his book an exercise in narcissism. In his haste to portray Jews as a picture of innocence in relation to the origins of anti-Semitism, Sartre essentially suggested that the Jews themselves didn’t even exist, or if they did, it was in a largely ‘inauthentic’ form. In Anti-Semite and Jew Sartre writes that Jews are neither a national or religious community, but merely “an abstract historical community.”[4] Jews are not united with each other, or made Jews, by their history or religion, but “because they have in common the situation of a Jew, that is, they live in a community which takes them for Jews.”[5] Jews are thus, like Sartre himself, ‘created’ from exclusion and marginalization.

Misrahi summarizes Sartre’s argument as amounting to the contention that

 the Jew was nothing but an unreal image artificially created by anti-Semites. The Jew was produced by anti-Semitism, was nothing more than something invented by anti-Semites and projected onto a person designated as Jew. The Jew was a purely imaginary being.[6]

In some respects, of course, the innocent Jew was a purely imaginary being — entirely in Sartre’s mind. Meanwhile real Jews, comprising one of the globe’s most ethnocentric groups and one which places premium value on its specificity, history, religion, culture and sense of exclusivity, found this aspect of Anti-Semite and Jew more troubling than any other aspect of the text. While Jews were delighted with Sartre’s attack on the anti-Semite (to be explored later in this essay), they were irritated by the apparently rash and dismissive manner in which he referred to Jews. Misrahi notes that some Jews were happy with Sartre’s suggestion of a kind of ‘anonymity’ for Jews, “this negation of all particularity and the affirmation of their egalite vis-à-vis all men.”[7] But the majority “insisted on the recognition of a real and singular Jewish being. … The majority of the community based their lives (livelihood, rites, and values) on the Torah, Jewish law, the fundamental text that Sartre had not taken into consideration in his definition of a Jew.”[8] Michael Walzer accuses Sartre of a “willful and programmatic” ignorance of Judaism, adding that the philosopher “did not stop to read about Jewish history or religion, and the only Jews that he knew were highly assimilated. … He wrote what he thought, describing a world that he knew only in part.”[9] Enzo Traverso argues that Sartre demonstrates a “near-total ignorance of the history, culture, and philosophy of the Jews,” and points out that Hannah Arendt once scoffed that Sartre’s “myth” of Jewish identity was merely a glib fashion of French existentialist circles.[10]

In essence, Sartre fell victim to the suspicion that Jews inevitably feel for all philo-Semites, whether they are religiously or politically motivated. This suspicion is best illustrated in the argument of the Jewish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman that philo-Semitism and anti-Semitism share the same root and bring about largely the same effect by identifying the Jew as ‘Other.’ Bauman even coined the term ‘allosemitism’ as a replacement for both since it “does not unambiguously determine either hatred or love for Jews, but contains the seed of both, and assures that whichever of the two appears, is intense and extreme.”[11] It should be considered an axiom that Jews overwhelmingly prefer socio-cultural ethnic anonymity in all areas of social discourse except those open to claims of exceptional victimhood or exceptional accomplishment. As such, even those non-Jews who posture as arch defenders of Jews will inherently run the risk of suspicion since they have, first of all, noticed that Jews are Jews, marking them out as special or outside the norm. Predictably then, Sartre was not warmly embraced by what he simplistically perceived to be his ‘brothers in marginalization’ (Jews had their own sense of brotherhood and Sartre could never truly be part of it). Instead he was rather awkwardly welcomed for his usefulness and castigated for his more zealous assumptions. The Jewish leftist Wladimir “Rabi” Rabinovitch (1906–81) was particularly scathing of Sartre’s excesses in denying the basis of Jewish identity, opining that Anti-Semite and Jew reduced Jews to mere “objects of Sartre’s generosity.”[12] He also took issue with Sartre’s claim that Jews were little more than a “heterogeneous minority among other peoples”—that Jews were everywhere a scattering of individuals and not a collectivity. Rabi, countering, insisted that Jews are “a people with a common history, a common religion, and a common claim to a special mission.”[13] Others argued that despite his fixation on ‘authenticity,’ Sartre himself had denied the Jews “the very basis for authenticity, namely the history of the Jewish people and their traditions.”[14]

Many of these criticisms are of course perfectly valid. Sartre had by his own admission performed no research on Jewish history, culture, religion, or traditions. Had he done so, and thus inevitably encountered patterns of behavior and networks of influence throughout centuries of Jewish settlement in Europe, he may have come to some very different conclusions. And Sartre’s Jewish critics were, and are, correct in asserting that Jews are a clearly defined ethno-religious group with a distinct history, culture, and sense of peoplehood. One of the most serious flaws of Anti-Semite and Jew (and there are several) is therefore that in failing to recognize Jewish identity, Sartre denies that Jewish agency and Jewish interests play any role in the development of anti-Semitism. Indeed, he states plainly that “it is not the Jewish character that provokes anti-Semitism but, rather, that it is the anti-Semite who creates the Jew.”[15] This flawed thinking would lead to Sartre issuing a number of failed predictions. For example, following his denial of Jewish ethnocentrism, Sartre made predictions that the founding of the State of Israel and ongoing assimilation would lead to the end, or dramatic decline, of the ‘inauthentic’ diaspora existence. Walzer points out that Sartre failed entirely to envisage the ongoing strength of Jewish group identity in the form of “the institutional strength of diaspora Jewish communities, the rise of Jewish Studies in universities throughout the Western world, the revival of religious interest (if not of religious faith), and transnational solidarity that extends across the diaspora as well as binding diaspora Jews to Israel.”[16]

Although it will be discussed and critiqued in more detail in the final section of this essay, it is worth noting here that the denial of Jewish interests is to a large extent built into Marxist theory, at least in its pure economic form (one of the reasons the modern Jewish Left has diluted Marx with Freud, the Frankfurt School being a classic example). Orthodox Marxist interpretations of anti-Semitism have always maintained that it is an exploitable and vile prejudice rather than the result of group conflict. This is of course because Marxists argue that the only genuine conflict is that which occurs between the classes, and that the only genuine interests we possess are class-based. Thus, in strict Marxist interpretations and narratives of anti-Semitism, Jews are necessarily stripped of any sense of agency or interests which may cause direct friction with other populations and, correspondingly, Europeans have been portrayed in Marxist theory as having no genuine or legitimate interest in engaging in hostility against Jews. Anti-Semitism is regarded merely as a side-effect of capitalism; a diversionary tactic of the ruling classes employed in order to release some of the tension of economic failure and maintain the ‘false consciousness’ of the workers. Misrahi summarizes this position as meaning “the Jews were nothing in themselves, though their right to security had to be defended while waiting for the Revolution to suppress anti-Semitism.”[17]

It is perhaps one of the miracles of modern thought that such theories could survive to the present despite well-documented histories replete with demonstrations of the opposite: overwhelming evidence that Jews over the course of thousands of years have very strongly perceived themselves to have specific interests and, moreover, have actively and willingly engaged in exploitative structures as Jews in such a unique historical manner as to essentially comprise a ‘class’ of their own. It should be clear by now that this Marxist theory of anti-Semitism would represent something of a double-edged sword to Jews. The offer of socio-cultural anonymity and blamelessness offered in the strict Marxist analysis would certainly be attractive. But it is also something that, from a Jewish cultural and psychological perspective, would be best kept at arm’s length, and certainly not internalized on a communal level. Jews, for all their vital historical and contemporary associations with the Left, ultimately do not want to give up their interests and specificity in the name of a putative ‘class war.’

At a time when there are ongoing rumblings about “the Left’s problem with anti-Semitism,” it is worth keeping in mind that Jews have also long had a problem with the Left. While fully enamoured with the uses of Leftist ideology, Jews have always felt a deep insecurity about its potential dangers. Nowhere is this more apparent in the modern context than in Leftist attitudes towards Israel. Sartre himself attracted Jewish scorn on precisely this subject when he suggested in 1967 that the creation of Israel represented nothing more than “the establishment of an economy of profit” and the extension of Western imperialism.[18] In 1980 Sartre went even further in suggesting that a post-Revolution world would have no place for a Jewish state, contending that Judaism would be reduced to a kind of “moral option” and “not an institutional reality.”[19] Sartre essentially believed that once the Revolution ended or ‘solved’ anti-Semitism, the existence of an organized Jewish community in any form would be redundant, if not harmful to the Revolution itself. The ‘Jewish people’—to Sartre an imaginary construct—would be permanently dismantled.

As Jews continue to struggle with this more unpredictable and dangerous aspect of radical Left ideology, it isn’t surprising that recent opinion on Sartre’s interpretation of Jewish identity should receive harsh and renewed criticism. Indeed, early suspicions surrounding Sartre’s philo-Semitism have morphed into active quests to discover anti-Semitism in his work. In this area of critique, much attention has been paid to Sartre’s emphasis on Jewish identity as being composed of traits. Sartre’s belief that Jews possessed traits, and those traits he selected as being Jewish, are portrayed as evidence that Sartre was beholden to anti-Semitic tropes. The Brooklyn art critic Harold Rosenberg (1906–1978) accused Sartre of “accepting the anti-Semites’ stereotype of the Jew.”[20] Pierre Birnbaum, perhaps Sartre’s harshest critic from this perspective, argues (with considerable hyperbolic invective) that Anti-Semite and Jew describes Jews “in language belonging to the most extreme anti-Semitic propaganda.”[21] Birnbaum argues that in Sartre’s mind “Jews are always associated with commerce, with the world of business, with money,” and that the Jewish relationship with religion was nothing more than “ceremonial and polite.”[22] The latter is certainly a direct quote from Sartre and is representative of his poor understanding of the power of Jewish tradition and the influence of religion on Jewish ethnocentrism. As a critique of Judaism as lacking in genuine spirituality, it bears close similarly to that advanced by Kant who, in Birnbaum’s formulation, is presumably also guilty of using “language belonging to the most extreme anti-Semitic propaganda.” (Not that such accusations haven’t already been made.) The former assertion attributed to Sartre by Birnbaum is merely a misrepresentation or magnification of Sartre’s (self-evident) assertion that Jews have “a special relationship to money.”[23]

More generally, Birnbaum takes issue with the Sartre’s claim that Jews were forced to flee psychologically from anti-Semitism and, in doing so, developed a specific Jewish personality built on “reflexive behavior, rationalism, denial of the body, lack of tact, universal humanism, a special relationship to money, basic doubling of sensibility, non-metaphysical disquietude.”[24] Perhaps equally problematic for some critics, Sartre also remarked on the social ascent of Jews and their continued psychological existence as Jews: “Thus he moves rapidly and brilliantly up through all social levels, but he remains like a hard kernel in the circles which accept him.”[25] This for Sartre was the quintessential ‘inauthentic Jew,” a figure broadly representative of most Jews throughout history. Again, rather than being the product of extensive socio-historical research, Sartre is likely to have based his conclusions on this Jewish personality, which he presents in thoroughly victimized form, on his own personal encounters among an assimilated Parisian Jewish milieu. The option offered by Sartre of becoming an ‘authentic Jew,’ was no more appealing to critics since it was perceived by some Jews as an ultimatum on Jewish identity—“Jewish authenticity” would require total assimilation or the end of the diaspora.[26]

As stated at the outset of this section, even if one finds fault with the hypocrisy underlying Jewish criticisms of Anti-Semite and Jew when compared with heavy praises for those aspects of the text attacking the anti-Semite, it is undeniable that the majority of these criticisms are valid. Sartre possessed an incredibly weak understanding of Jewish history, culture and religion, and his analysis of the role of the Jew in the origins of anti-Semitism necessarily suffered greatly because of it. If Sartre occasionally fleshes out his largely repetitive argument with shades of accuracy, particularly in relation to some of the traits he ascribes to semi-assimilated or ‘inauthentic’ Jews, then this can be ascribed to the real-life interactions that Sartre experienced in the Parisian Jewish/Leftist milieu. The tension between what Sartre found unappealing in Jews, and the manner in which he psychologically (and later literally) apologized on their behalf is succinctly alluded to by Vincent von Wroblewsky, who found in Sartre’s War Diaries (written four years before Anti-Semite and Jew) “a mixture of unreflected anti-Semitic prejudice and cliches, as well as paternalistic sympathy and irritated disdain.”[27]

Sartre, like all philo-Semites, ultimately struggled with the object of his affections, and they in turn would struggle with him. Ultimately, both were united only in their hatred of the ‘anti-Semite,’ and it is to the critique of this character that we now turn our attention.

[1] Gerassi, Jean-Paul Sartre: Hated Conscience of his Century, Volume 1: Protestant or Protester?, p.3.

[2] Jean-Paul Sartre & Benny Levy, Hope Now: The 1980 Interviews (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1996), p.102.

[3] Traverso, ‘The Blindness of the Intellectuals: Historicizing Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew,’ p.31.

[4] Jean-Paul Sartre, Anti-Semite and Jew, p.47.

[5] Ibid, p.48.

[6] Misrahi, ‘Sartre and the Jews: A Felicitous Misunderstanding,’ p.65.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Walzer, ‘Preface,’ in Jean-Paul Sartre, Anti-Semite and Jew, p.vii.

[10] Traverso, ‘The Blindness of the Intellectuals: Historicizing Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew,’ pp.33-4.

[11] Z. Bauman, “Allosemitism: Premodern, Modern, Postmodern”, in B. Cheyette and L. Marcus (editors), Modernity, Culture, and ‘the Jew’ (Stanford University Press , 1998), p.143.

[12] Sungolowsky, ‘Criticism of Anti-Semite and Jew,’ p.70.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid, p.71.

[15] Jean-Paul Sartre, Anti-Semite and Jew, p.103.

[16] Walzer, ‘Preface,’ in Jean-Paul Sartre, Anti-Semite and Jew, p.xxv.

[17] Misrahi, ‘Sartre and the Jews: A Felicitous Misunderstanding,’ p.71.

[18] Ibid, p.68.

[19] Ibid, p.71.

[20] Sungolowsky, ‘Criticism of Anti-Semite and Jew,’ p.70.

[21] Birnbaum, ‘Sorry Afterthoughts on Anti-Semite and Jew,’ p.91.

[22] Ibid, p.95.

[23]Misrahi, ‘Sartre and the Jews: A Felicitous Misunderstanding,’ p.64.

[24] Ibid, p.65.

[25] Jean-Paul Sartre, Anti-Semite and Jew, p.72.

[26] Misrahi, ‘Sartre and the Jews: A Felicitous Misunderstanding,’ p.66.

[27] V. Von Wroblewsky, ‘The Early Sartre and the Jewish Question,’ Sartre Studies International, Vol.3, No.2 (1997), pp.21-8.

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