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

“Sartre’s analysis is mere gossip parading as well-reasoned, irrefutable phenomenological argument.”
Pierre Birnbaum, 1999.

Sartre on ‘the anti-Semite’

As noted previously, the ambivalent response to Sartre’s thoughts on ‘the Jew’ is in stark contrast to the much-more positively received section of the text dealing with ‘the anti-Semite.’ Indeed, Michael Walzer states that this portrait of the anti-Semite is “rightly taken to be the strongest part of the book.”[1] Jack Kugelmass has described it as a “key text for Jewish cultural studies.”[2] Herbert Spiegelberg, meanwhile, argues that Sartre’s interpretation of the anti-Semite is “persuasive and brilliant.”[3] Such appraisals, it will be demonstrated, can be based only on the value of Sartre’s conclusions as an ideological weapon: that the anti-Semite is a highly pathological individual, and that Jews and their behavior have absolutely no bearing on the opinions of Jews formed in the minds of the surrounding population. This conclusion is nowhere summarized more succinctly than in Sartre’s formulation: “Far from experience producing his idea of the Jew, it was the latter which explained his experience. If the Jew did not exist the anti-Semite would invent him.”[4] It is argued here that Sartre’s dubious critique of ‘the anti-Semite’ has enjoyed significant praise solely because the author provided Jews with the strength of his own personal reputation as a public intellectual, as well as a relatively novel and valuable theory of anti-Semitism which denied it any social or political legitimacy and heavily stigmatized individuals associated with it. It is further argued that, in terms of methodology and historical awareness, Sartre’s ‘portrait of the anti-Semite’ is perhaps the weakest and most ignorant text ever produced on the subject of anti-Semitism.

Sartre’s anti-Semite is an overwhelmingly negative presence in society, and the philosopher’s interpretation of anti-Semitism is overwhelmingly beneficial to the reputation of Jews. Sartre argues that it is wrong to examine external causes when attempting to understand why host populations develop antagonistic attitudes to Jews. He writes that anti-Semitism cannot be explained as “an impersonal phenomenon which can be expressed by figures and averages, one which is conditioned by economic, historical, and political constants.”[5] He adds that it is merely the idea of the Jew that causes anti-Semitism and that history can tell us nothing about the phenomenon: “No external factor  can induce anti-Semitism in the anti-Semite.”[6] Joseph Sungolowsky summarizes it thus: “Sartre contends that anti-Semitism is a self-sufficient psychological process taking the form of a passion that is not motivated by any external cause, but rather the idea that has been formed of the Jew.”[7]

In Sartre’s opinion, any examination of historical, social, economic, or political contexts will lead to a neglect of the true source of the issue — the personality of the anti-Semite. Heavily influenced by Freud and by his own Marxist/existentialist ideas, Sartre concludes that the anti-Semite “has chosen hate” for reasons he never quite explains other than that the anti-Semite must love this “state of passion.”[8] The anti-Semite longs for “impenetrability;”[9] to be “impervious and terrifying.”[10] He is a wholly rotten individual, who cannot be good, or even human, in the same way as others: “A man who finds it entirely natural to denounce other men cannot have our conception of humanity; he does not see even those whom be aids in the same light as we do. His generosity, his kindness are not like our kindness, our generosity. You cannot confine passion to one sphere.”[11] The anti-Semite, in Sartre’s representation, is also a coward and a mediocre individual.[12] How anti-Semitism develops in the individual is never quite explained, though Julian Aronson suggests that Sartre’s argument is basically as follows:

Anti-Semitism is deeply rooted in humanity, a mad result of the frustrations connected with life. It cannot be explained without employing the language of social psychology, psychoanalysis, and the many Marxian derivatives that serve as background information for the understanding of the complex problem.[13]

It would be fair to state that much of Sartre’s argument is presented in a way that is deeply obscure, ideologically self-referential, and empirically untestable. It’s crucial here to reflect on Sartre’s methodology in reaching his conclusions, and subsequently to reflect on how, or indeed if, one might even assess them. Sartre explains that while he conducted no research whatsoever on the history of anti-Semitism, or on the contemporary socio-political anti-Semitism of nations other than France, he “questioned a hundred people on the reasons for their anti-Semitism.”[14] Assuming Sartre did so—highly doubtful given that his encounters bear all the hallmarks of caricature, this is surely insufficient for the broad claims he makes, and it is surely also highly problematic that he presents no material on this conversational survey that can be objectively examined.

The tenuous nature of this aspect of Sartre’s “classic” defense of the Jews hasn’t escaped criticism, even among those otherwise keen to embrace his conclusions. For example, Pierre Birnbaum concedes that most of Sartre’s “pure thought” in Anti-Semite and Jew consists of absurd anonymous “anecdotes,” involving both Jews and anti-Semites he allegedly knew. These include an anti-Semite who became impotent during a sexual episode with a woman he suddenly discovered was a Jewess, and “the intimate relations of an anti-Semitic woman whom Sartre “knew” with a Polish Jew from whom she will only accept caresses.” Birnbaum describes this collection of often ridiculous and lurid tales as, at best, “mere gossip parading as well-reasoned, irrefutable phenomenological argument exonerated from the pathetic contingencies of sociohistorical reality.”[15] He asserts that Sartre’s text is based on “more than dubious martial,” and is devoid of “any research into the existing body of scholarly works.”[16] Sartre’s disdain for facts and empiricism reminded me of the brilliant Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s classic no-holds-barred attack on the work of Herbert Marcuse (a huge admirer of Sartre’s work). MacIntyre noted that “Marcuse seldom, if ever, gives us any reason to believe that what he is saying is true. He offers incidental illustrations of his theses very often; he never offers evidence in a systematic way.”[17] This dubious ‘methodology’ is of course an outgrowth of the cultural Marxist belief that positivism (recognizing only that which can be scientifically verified or which is capable of logical or mathematical proof) is an oppressive bourgeois ideal.[18] The result is an overwhelming reliance on exaggerations and especially on abstractions.

Aside from serious methodological problems, where Sartre does stray from abstractions into historical claims, many of those he makes are demonstrably, even embarrassingly, false. For example, he claims that:

the anti-Semite would under no circumstances dare to act or think on his own. And the group would be unable to conceive of itself as a minority party, for a minority party is obliged to devise a program and to determine on a line of political action, all of which implies initiative, responsibility, and liberty. Anti‐Semitic associations do not wish to invent anything; they refuse to assume responsibility; they would be horrified at setting themselves up as a certain fraction of French opinion, for then they would have to draw up a program and seek legal means of action.[19]

Sartre here is essentially arguing that anti-Semites have never, and cannot, form themselves into minority political movements. In Sartre’s theoretical formulation, they are prevented from doing so because they are fixated on the idea of themselves speaking on behalf of the entire nation: “They prefer to represent themselves as expressing in all purity, in all passivity, the sentiments of the real country in its indivisible state.”[20] However, while this presumably sounded coherent to Sartre and those with no real reading in the subject, the argument is not only false, but laughable. In truth almost every country on earth has at one time had a specifically anti-Semitic minority party with a program and line of political action. In doing so, and quite contrary to the baseless assertions of Sartre, anti-Semites have indeed been extremely inventive, often assuming responsibility in the face of overwhelming odds and opposition.

In Hungarian history one might look at the example of Győző Istóczy, who in 1880 launched an anti-Semitic periodical (Twelve Circulars) before founding “The Central Association of Non-Jewish Hungarians.”[21] This political group was itself founded on the example of Wilhelm Marr’s Antisemitenliga in Germany. The Hungarian operation actively sought the political responsibility Sartre claims they would have avoided and, by 1882, Istóczy’s group succeeding in getting five members elected to parliament. By 1884 the group was openly self-describing as “The Anti-Semitic Party,” and had seventeen members of parliament. Around the same date a similar organization known as the Reformverein had been established in Austria, demanding “the expulsion of Jews from their political, economic, and social positions.”[22] In France, two anti-Semitic weekly newspapers were founded in 1881-1882, and a third, L’antisémitique, was established by a group that would go on to establish an international anti-Semitic league and organise an anti-Semitic conference. They later formed the nucleus of La Ligue National Antisémitique, essentially the French counterpart to the Hungarian Anti-Semitic Party, the German Antisemitenliga, and the Austrian Reformverein. “Eligibility for membership in the league was based on devotion to anti-Semitism, irrespective of political or religious considerations.”[23] One could continue with many more examples, but we must already ask ourselves, given the evidence, if indeed “the anti-Semite would under no circumstances dare to act or think on his own,” or if an anti-Semitic party really would be “unable to conceive of itself as a minority party,” because of its inability “to devise a program and to determine on a line of political action.” The answer must be that Sartre was utterly wrong, owing mainly to a woeful lack of even relatively recent and local (to him) historical and political knowledge.

Another of Sartre’s embarrassing historical errors is his claim that “we find scarcely any anti-Semitism among workers.…Anti-Semitism is a bourgeois phenomenon.”[24] Sartre is of course not alone in making such a statement, and this is considered the orthodox Marxist position on anti-Semitism. Marcuse, along with the rest of his Frankfurt School colleagues, held to the thesis that “Nazism represented a culminating stage in the development of bourgeois society based on a capitalist economy such that in the philosophy and theory of Nazism we find the culmination of tendencies present throughout the bourgeois epoch.”[25] A book, or perhaps even a series of books, could be written in refutation of such a thesis. Indeed, the presence, even origins, of anti-Semitism among peasants and workers in the deep past could fill the pages of several volumes.

It should suffice here to state first that the idea (much-beloved by the Frankfurt School and essential to Adorno’s theory of The Authoritarian Personality) that the National Socialists rose on a wave of a neurotic lower middle class support has been demolished in scholarship for over two decades. Shelley Baranowski writes in her review of The Rise of National Socialism and the Working Classes (Berghahn Books, 1996):

 The long-entrenched thesis that National Socialism represented the revolt of the Mittelstand has undergone decisive revision. Although few historians would deny the Nazi party’s success among the German middle classes in recruiting party members and drawing voters, sophisticated statistical work, much of it drawn from newly-explored regional archives, has shown that the Nazi constituency was much more diverse than once imagined. Recent scholarship now argues that support for the Hitler movement extended to all social classes. In short, National Socialism evolved into a genuine Volkspartei that transcended the class and milieu-based politics of the Weimar period. The implications of demonstrating the integrative character of National Socialism go beyond providing a more nuanced understanding of who voted for Hitler, who joined the Nazi party, and why. … Newer work on the social composition of Nazism has underwritten the trend away from class-based approaches, Marxist or otherwise, that once defined the debates on the rise and stabilization of Nazism.

Even more importantly, there isn’t a single historical period in which a class-based analysis of anti-Semitism could be regarded as applicable or valid. During the medieval and early modern periods, Jews were almost exclusively of financial value to elites, and were engaged alongside these elites in financially exploiting the baron class, the Church, and the peasantry. Jews were far more frequently protected by elites than victims of them (before the expulsion of 1290 the Kings of England executed significantly more anti-Semites than Jews), and the networks of status and exploitation between the two were so closely entwined that a narrative in which elites promote anti-Semitism in order to release socio-economic pressures is hardly appropriate at all. In the modern era, the idea that Jews formed part of the proletariat in Eastern Europe is, like the tale of an exclusively bourgeois National Socialism, an easily debunked myth. Indeed, the nineteenth century in particular was remarkable for the number of instances (from Prussia, to Ukraine, and Russia) of discrete (rather than propagandistic) upper- and middle-class support for the serfs and the peasantry against Jewish exploitation. In 1802 King Frederick Wilhelm of Prussia wrote to a Polish noble expressing his discontent that he would abuse his peasantry with Jewish lessees in his taverns.[26] In 1821 the Ukrainian military governor Prince Nicholas Repnin expelled the Jews from Chernigov and Poltava, explaining that “some landowners, tempted by the money they received from Jews, thoughtlessly protected them. … Being indifferent to the welfare of the peasants who belong to them, for their own selfish temporary advantage they want to have Jews present in the country in order to make money through them.”[27] Meanwhile benevolent state officials were working hard to emancipate the serfs, a move generally regarded by historians as detrimental to the Jews — a telling indication of the disparity of interests between the two. Even in the British Isles in the early 20th century the two most serious incidences of anti-Jewish agitation arose in working class areas among working class constituencies, and in response to perceived Jewish exploitation. The Limerick Boycott in Ireland in 1904 was backed mainly by local Irish population indebted to Jewish merchants and moneylenders, and the Tredegar Riots in Wales in 1911 were carried out by miners against precisely the same class of individuals. In short, Sartre’s claim that “we find scarcely any anti-Semitism among workers,” isn’t just erroneous, but almost laughable in its naivety, ideological narrowness, and ignorance of the historical data.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the reception of Anti-Semite and Jew is that most critics acknowledge it’s many weaknesses while still insisting that it is a “classic,” or even a work of genius. Michael Walzer insists that although Sartre produced a mere “philosophical speculation variously supported by anecdotes” the result is “a powerfully coherent argument.”[28] Robert Misrahi concludes that Sartre’s doctrine is ultimately “false” and that his description of the mechanics of anti-Semitism “did not correspond to Jewish reality,” but still insists that it’s a work of “good faith and good will.”[29] The merits of the work are clearly seen in its usefulness as a tool against anti-Semitism rather than in the quality of its contents.


If Sartre’s interpretation of anti-Semitism isn’t a good example of history, psychology, or sociology, then what is it? What is it a “classic” of? Walzer suggests it “should not be read as a piece of social science,” but instead as a “Marxist/existentialist morality play.”[30] Sungolowsky concludes, perhaps more strongly, that Anti-Semite and Jew is “hardly more than an abrégé of Sartre’s existentialism, for he applies to the Jewish problem such notions from his philosophical vocabulary as choice, situation, bad faith, the subject-object relationship, inauthenticity, and authenticity.”[31] In other words, Sartre moved into an area in which he had no expertise merely to narcissistically disseminate his own jargon-laden philosophy. I believe that these descriptions of Anti-Semite and Jew are accurate. I would add only the interpretation suggested at the outset of this essay — that Sartre brought many of his own personal motivations and demons to bear in the writing of this pernicious and sadly influential text. Casting a cold eye on its contents, however, we should at least be able to ask a better question of it and its author: Who’s really pathological here?

[1] Walzer, ‘Preface,’ in Jean-Paul Sartre, Anti-Semite and Jew, p.viii-ix.

[2] J. Kugelmass, Key Texts in American Jewish Culture (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2003 ), p.93.

[3] H. Spiegelberg, The Phenomenological Movement: A Historical Introduction (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1994 ), p.515.

[4] Sartre, Anti-Semite and Jew, p.8.

[5] Ibid, p.5.

[6] Ibid, p.11.

[7] Sungolowsky, ‘Criticism of Anti-Semite and Jew,’ p.68.

[8] Sartre, Anti-Semite and Jew, p.12.

[9] Ibid, p.14

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Sungolowsky, ‘Criticism of Anti-Semite and Jew,’ p.69.

[13] Aronson, ‘Sartre on Anti-Semitism,’ p.231.

[14] Sartre, Anti-Semite and Jew, p.7.

[15] Birnbaum, ‘Sorry Afterthoughts on Anti-Semite and Jew,’ p.92-3.

[16] Ibid, p.94.

[17] A. MacIntyre, Marcuse (Glasgow: Collins & Sons, 1976), p.17.

[18] Ibid, p.13.

[19] Sartre, Anti-Semite and Jew, p.22.

[20] Ibid.

[21] For more on the context of political anti-Semitism in Hungary see J. Katz, From Prejudice to Destruction: Anti-Semitism, 1700-1933 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), pp.273-280.

[22] Ibid, p.285.

[23] Ibid, p.297.

[24] Sartre, Anti-Semite and Jews, pp.24 &26.

[25] MacIntyre, Marcuse, p.8.

[26] G. Dynner, Yankel’s Tavern: Jews, Liquor and Life in the Kingdom of Poland (Oxford University Press, 2014), p.54.

[27] Ibid, p. 79.

[28] Walzer, ‘Preface,’ in Jean-Paul Sartre, Anti-Semite and Jew,

[29] Misrahi, ‘Sartre and the Jews: A Felicitous Misunderstanding,’ pp.63 & 67.

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

[31] Sungolowsky, ‘Criticism of Anti-Semite and Jew,’ p.68.

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