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Book Review: Anti-Semite and Jew

TL;DR: Racism/antisemitism sucks. But we need to talk about it.

I read this book for my “Close Readings” program with The London Book Review. It’s a philosophy book, an expanded essay, really. Therefore, this review differs from how I review fiction or narrative books. When I read non-fiction, I like to engage with the ideas that the author raises, as the many furious scribblings in the margins of my non-fiction books can attest. This book is probably one of the first to engage with antisemitism post WWII. The concept of antisemitism gets bandied around quite a lot lately, and I want to tackle that in addition to the book. Ready? Let’s go.

First, a book review. This is a well-written book for a philosophy essay. From my experience, these tend to be rather obtuse. But this one is almost light reading, as Sartre chose to describe the personality and motives of anti-semites and Jews in lieu of dry arguments. I’m not familiar with Sartre’s fictional work, but it’s evident this isn’t an academic philosophy essay.

Sartre argues that the “anti-Semite” assumes that he is entitled to some kind of birthright. It comes from being born into a particular nationality, owning land, or having roots in a specific place. For example, an ideal “Frenchman” can trace his lineage several generations back. His family has always owned and worked the land. He works the land or may work in a factory due to the Industrial Revolution but has roots in the countryside. He speaks French and can appreciate French art.

In contrast to this ideal Frenchman, there is the “Jew” who lives in the city, is an intellectual, doesn’t produce anything (i.e., trader), and has no roots in France necessarily. The anti-Semite, Sartre contends, relies on the contradiction between himself as the ideal Frenchman and the Jew. This contradiction reassures the anti-Semite of his place in the world. This worldview comes as a reaction to the idea of merit that arose in France during and following the Revolution. Social mobility requires hard work, and the anti-Semite isn’t interested in working hard. He wants to have an unconditional social status.

This argument, of course, could be applied to all Western Racism. A racist perceives a fundamental difference between the races and determines their place in the world by their belonging to a particular race. A lot of what Sartre writes sounds like how I heard Democrats describe Neo-Nazis. Sartre makes it sound like people chose to be racists because they’re too lazy to contend with the facts of life (as he sees it).

I think it’s a rather condescending description of racists. What I think happens is that people are tired and scared. When we’re tired and scared, we take shortcuts. It’s called being human. We like to have someone to blame, someone who is responsible for the reasons our lives are crappy. This scapegoat can be the Jews, the Intellectuals, the Immigrants, the Rich. We think that somewhere out there, there is a world in which we are royalty, and the only thing standing between us and that world is this group of other people. It’s much less scary to believe that than to recognise that maybe the world isn’t actually fair and that there is a possibility we would work hard our whole lives and never succeed. I think that is what Sartre means when he says, “If the Jew did not exist, the anti-Semite would invent him.” (p. 13). We need someone to blame. If it’s not the Jews, it’s the immigrants. 

One issue I have with Sartre’s argument is that anti-Semitism preceded modern life. It preceded the French Revolution by centuries, if not millennia. There is documentation of anti-Semitism from 1190, and I genuinely believe that if there’s no documentation of antisemitism from the first millennium, it’s because of a lack of documentation, not a lack of antisemitism. Jewish tradition teaches us that we have been persecuted ever since we were enslaved in Egypt. So, I find it difficult to believe that the source of antisemitism is social mobility, as Sartre argues. There was no concept of social mobility in 1190. The antisemitism that Sartre describes is a reincarnation of an older antisemitism, the last link in a long chain of hatred. 

Which brings me to today. Is any criticism of the Israeli government antisemitic? Of course not. I disagree with almost every decision this government makes. We can criticise people without ascribing their behaviour to their race. My criticism of the Netanyahu government has nothing to do with the fact that all of them are Jews. I begin with the assumption that people are not their origins. Suppose Netanyahu decides tomorrow to stop slaughtering innocent people and begins true, respectful negotiations with the Palestinian leadership. In that case, I will not criticise his handling of the current crisis. Do I think that’s a likely scenario? No, but I’ve been wrong before. Not about these things, but, you know. 

Antisemitism is tricky. It’s the oldest form of racism, and my theory is that because of that, it has a “special status”, as David Baddiel eloquently argues in his book Jews Don’t Count. A well-meaning lady whom I like a lot told me that, of course, I was smart because I was Jewish. When I told her that I know Jews who are smarter than me and Jews who aren’t, that’s when it dawned on her. She’s not racist; it’s just the oldest trope in the book, literally, which is why people think it’s true, at least sometimes. And that’s how you end up with casual antisemitism. 

By the way, Jews can be pretty antisemitic. The narrative in Israel, at least the one I grew up on, is that we are a persecuted, chosen people. The whole Zionist project is about a “Jewish Democracy”, which is an oxymoron. I understand, by the way, the reason Jewish people feel they need the protection of an established state. Let’s not forget the timing of that state’s establishment. Still, you need only look at the current government: there is no representation for the substantial minority of what we call Israeli Arabs. That is because the Zionist narrative is racist. 

Sartre’s essay is antisemitic in places–the portrayal of Jewish people is cartoonish–and patriarchic all over. But it’s a start. We need to talk about racism in a way that doesn’t make us feel guilty about something we all do naturally. It’s okay to take shortcuts; our brains evolved that way. But our brains didn’t evolve for the modern world, and we must be mindful that what worked before may not be as helpful now. We need to talk about racism and antisemitism in a more nuanced way.

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