“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.” Jack Kugelmass has described it as a “key text for Jewish cultural studies.” Herbert Spiegelberg, meanwhile, argues that Sartre’s interpretation of the anti-Semite is “persuasive and brilliant.” 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.” 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.” 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.” 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.” Read more