A State of Perpetual Unease

Sartre’s essay on French anti-Semitism cast the problem in existential terms

Jean Paul Sartre (second from left) and Simone de Beauvoir (right) arrive in Israel and are welcomed by Avraham Shlonsky (center) at Lod airport near Tel Aviv, March 1967 (Wikimedia Commons)
Jean Paul Sartre (second from left) and Simone de Beauvoir (right) arrive in Israel and are welcomed by Avraham Shlonsky (center) at Lod airport near Tel Aviv, March 1967 (Wikimedia Commons)

Seventy-five years ago, Schocken Books published Anti-Semite and Jew, the English translation of a book-length essay by Jean-Paul Sartre. Published two years earlier in France, the work originally bore the title, Réflexions sur la question juive, or Reflections on the Jewish Question. This question was one that Europeans had long pondered, but that Nazi Germany had sought to answer definitively in the gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz.

Not surprisingly, most Europeans and Americans were not eager to dwell on the subject. In France, recently liberated from four years of German occupation and state collaboration, there was little appetite for the news from Auschwitz. As one death camp survivor, Simone Veil, remarked about her return to France, “There was no one to listen to us. We were confronted with indifference or the inability of those close to us to hear of our suffering.”

With the publication of his Réflexions, Sartre was an exception to Veil’s observation. In fact, the shabbily dressed and wall-eyed thinker was an exceptionally important exception. Along with Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus, Sartre represented a new school of thought: existentialism. Seeded by earlier thinkers like Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, existentialism took root during les années noires—the dark years of the German occupation during which, as Sartre famously and paradoxically declared, the French were never freer.

This proved an ideal soil for a philosophy that insisted on the essential importance of individual freedom and the necessity of political engagement. Once the war ended, the boom in existentialism began. For French youths still reeling from a total war driven by totalitarian ideologies, and now facing a cold war threatening them with nuclear annihilation, a philosophy that portrayed life as absurd and proposed engagement as a response proved irresistible. (So, too, did black wool turtlenecks, which became the iconic symbol of the philosophy’s young followers.)

Whether or not they were dressed in black, French Jews gratefully welcomed the appearance of Réflexions. How could they not? Here was, in Beauvoir’s words, this “little ball of fur and ink” who, suddenly thrust into the role of the conscience of his generation, was asking inconvenient questions. As Sartre writes, “Today those Jews whom the Germans did not deport or murder are coming back to their homes. Many were among the first members of the Resistance. … [But] do we say anything about the Jews? Do we give a thought to those who died in the gas chambers at Lublin? Not a word. Not a line in the newspapers.” Sartre does not find this surprising: “For four years French society has lived without them; it is just as well not to emphasize too vigorously the fact that they have reappeared.”

With the kind of sweeping judgment—so wide that it left historians weeping—that became his trademark gesture, Sartre concluded that during those four years, there was not “one of us who is not totally guilty and even criminal; the Jewish blood that the Nazis shed falls on all our heads.”

The essay revealed just how seriously Sartre believed in the moral role of public intellectuals and their engagement on behalf of all innocent victims, including those targeted by the absurdity of anti-Semitism. As the French-Jewish philosopher Robert Misrahi recalled, the essay was a “powerful affirmation of sympathy.” In the stubborn silence over the Shoah and their country’s role in its implementation, French Jews were “astonished, even stunned” by Sartre’s book. “What we were used to,” Misrahi sighed, “was hatred and contempt.”

With Sartre, what French Jews instead got was an “écrit de circonstance,” a short piece of writing occasioned by a specific event. Remarkably, Sartre had begun to draft this écrit barely two months after France’s liberation, well before the end of the war and the return of death camp survivors. Taken by the urgency of this specific “circumstance,” Sartre did not bother spending days at the Bibliothèque Nationale to do the historical research. (The sort, for example, that Beauvoir did a short time later for her book The Second Sex.)

Instead, he limited himself to what he dubbed a “phenomenological inquiry”—one intended for a hundred or so people, very likely the kind of people who passed by Sartre’s office: a small table at the Café de Flore, in Paris’s 6th arrondissement. Sartre also consulted his own memories, recalling his pampered youth and growing alienation from his family’s bourgeois values. It was as if he superimposed the existential crisis of European Jewry over his personal crisis of self-identity. Indeed, Sartre freely confessed this confounding of the personal and historical. “It is me,” he later remarked, “that I was describing when I thought I was describing the Jew.”

Despite his being unfettered by facts and untethered to history—or because of it, perhaps—Sartre got certain things terribly and terrifyingly right about Jews and those who hate them. In his most enduring insight, Sartre argues that the latter, in effect, creates the former. “If the Jew did not exist, the anti-Semite would create him.” The anti-Semite, Sartre writes, “finds the existence of the Jew absolutely necessary. Otherwise, to whom would he be superior?” This leads to an oddly tragic predicament: “The anti-Semite is in the unhappy position of having a vital need for the very enemy he wishes to destroy.”

The anti-Semite, then, sees his own image in the eyes of those he torments, finding his being in the other’s fearful gaze, avoiding the need to look at the void within himself. “He is a man who cowers not at the sight of the Jews, but of himself, of his own consciousness, of liberty, of change … of everything except the Jews.” In a word, the anti-Semite is a coward.

The existentialist phrase for this kind of cowardice is mauvaise foi, or bad faith. Each of us, Sartre claims, is defined by the possible choices we can make when confronted by a specific situation—choices, Sartre holds, that will shape the course of our lives and, perhaps, inform them with meaning. And when faced with a choice, choose we must, since refusing to choose is itself a choice, one that reeks of bad faith. In his postwar manifesto Existentialism is a Humanism, Sartre illustrated this imperative in his famous account of a meeting with a former student during the German occupation. Torn between caring for his mother and joining the resistance, the young man asked Sartre what he should do. “I had but one reply to make. ‘You are free, therefore choose, that is to say, invent. No rule of general morality can show you what you ought to do: no signs are vouchsafed in this world.’”

Had the student refused to make a conscious and deliberate choice—it turns out he opted to remain with his mother—it would have been a confession of inauthenticity or bad faith. This also applies to the anti-Semite who, rather than choosing the hard work of creating an authentic self, instead defines himself against an imaginary construct he calls “the Jew.” This places Jews in an awkward situation. Whatever they do and no matter how well they do it, no matter how hard they strive to be like their fellow French, Sartre contends, Jews cannot help but remain outsiders in the eyes of those same French. The goal of assimilation is as impossible to reach as it is impossible to resist. Sartre argues that French Jews labor under an identity they have not chosen, an identity that has instead been chosen for them. Is it any wonder, then, that Jews, as Sartre suggests in a stunning instance of understatement, are “often uneasy”? The Jew, he notes “watches the progress of anti-Semitism; he tries to foresee crises and gauge trends in the same way that the peasant keeps watch on the weather and predicts storms. He ceaselessly calculates the effects that external events will have on his own position.”

For the existentialist, all of us—Jew and Gentile alike—must embark on the path of authenticity. This does not mean to be yourself, but instead to become yourself. For the French Jew, Sartre argues, this means realizing one’s Jewish condition—an act of rebellion against society. “The moment he ceases to be passive, he takes away all power and all virulence from anti-Semitism. … The authentic Jew makes himself a Jew in the face of all and against all.”

But is it possible that authenticity, while striking a heroic pose, also leads to a tragic end? In Anti-Semite and Jew, Sartre suggests that Jews could achieve authenticity through “the creation of a Jewish nation possessing its own soil and autonomy,” an event that came to pass with the birth of modern-day Israel in 1948. Sartre hailed not just this event, but also what he saw in 1967, when he and Beauvoir toured both Egypt and Israel. Though he was disturbed by Zionist “militarism,” Sartre was impressed by the egalitarian ethos he experienced during a stay at a kibbutz, an ethos that gave flesh to his abstract ideals.

In Egypt, his experience was different. A visit to Gaza left Sartre depressed by the plight of the Palestinian refugees. He was disturbed by both the refusal of the Arab states to alleviate the miserable conditions in the camps and the refusal of Israel to recognize the rights of those condemned to live in those camps. “It is impossible to justify the Jewish right of return after two thousand years,” he affirmed, “and to deny the same right to the Arabs after only twenty years.”

Shortly after his trip, however, Sartre signed a manifesto in support of “Israel’s security and sovereignty,” a choice that outraged more than a few of his admirers on the left.

Sartre’s choice, or perhaps his refusal to choose, reflects our own ethical quandry in the face of the harrowing events now cascading across Israel and Gaza. Another influential French intellectual, Pierre Bourdieu, confessed he had “always hesitated to take public positions” on the matter of Israel and Palestine. He did not, he explained, “feel sufficiently competent to offer real clarifications about what is undoubtedly the most difficult and most tragic question of our times.” Indeed. It is a question that has become yet more tragic as this year draws to an end, leaving us to wonder if the only authenticity we can muster is when it comes to our confusion.

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Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston. He is the author most recently of Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague.


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