This article was published in Ha'aretz Newspaper .
Friday, May 14, 2004. Iyar 23, 5764
If things are
so good, why are they so bad?
By Robert S. Wistrich
Some critical comments on the essay `In the Name
of the Other,' by philosopher Alain Finkielkraut,
who argues that Europe has indeed shown remorse for the Holocaust and
attacks the `anti-racist' rhetoric of universal fraternity.
At the heart of the
contemporary eruption of anti-Jewish violence in Western Europe lies a
stunning paradox. Never has there been such a general European consensus at
the official level regarding anti-Semitism - namely, that it is socially
unacceptable and politically damaging. Never has there seemed to be such a
united front against racism, fascism and xenophobia - widely repudiated as
evils from a dark past that present-day European elites are determined to
transcend. Never has the memory of the Holocaust been so frequently evoked by
European politicians, intellectuals, academics, journalists, churchmen and
shapers of public opinion - as the antithesis of that fraternal multicultural
and post-national European Union of tolerance and pluralism, which they are
seeking to create.
The recent conference in Berlin offered a further illustration of
this apparent consensus - if such proof were necessary. On the surface then,
this should therefore be the best of all times for Europe's Jews on a continent that has
truly learned the lessons of the Holocaust and exorcised its genocidal past!
So if things are so good, why then are they so bad? How can one explain that
since 1945, the Jews of Western Europe have never felt such a level of
malaise, insecurity and anxiety in this idyllic new anti-fascist world that
beckons to them? How can it be that in France, for example, anti-Semitic acts of
violence have increased sixfold since the turn of
the millennium, according to a recent European Union report?
The facts are no longer in dispute. There have been many ugly
examples of harassment of Jewish pupils and teachers in French educational
institutions. Synagogues have been torched; schools and communal centers have
been burned to the ground. Virtually all major Jewish communal institutions
in the EU need constant surveillance and police protection. Jews who wear
skullcaps in public can often expect to be insulted, spat upon and sometimes
beaten up in the streets of
Brussels, Antwerp, London, Berlin, Amsterdam and other large European cities.
A challenging answer
This new atmosphere of fear, despite Europe's repudiation of the
Nazi legacy, is what the French Jewish philosopher Alain Finkielkraut
sets out to illuminate in his short but intriguing essay, "In the Name
of the Other." His answer is challenging, controversial, and guaranteed
to upset some of the conventional wisdoms about Europe's current crisis of
anti-Semitism. This is primarily because he offers a scathing critique of the
"anti-racist" rhetoric of universal fraternity in which much of the
contemporary hostility to Israel and the Jews clothes itself.
The EU's liberal and leftist
elites, in invoking the Holocaust, have in effect substituted the Muslim Arab
and Palestinian "other" for the murdered Jews of Europe. They have
established a cult of the colonized "other" as the "absolute
victim," who - whatever horrors he may perpetrate - can never be wrong.
The vehement antipathy toward Israel (and the consequent slippage into
a leftist, neo-anti-Semitic discourse) is linked, therefore, to an
unconditional embrace of the Arab "other" - which in France is also linked to a wholesale
rejection of its own colonial history. Contemporary politics have been
polarized into a Manichean dialectic of colonizers and colonized, exploiters
and oppressed, masters and slaves - in which Zionism has come to embody all
the "racist" evils of European history. Israel evokes the specter of tribal
nationalism, power politics, exclusion of the
"other," ethno-religious particularism,
apartheid, settlement expansion and, worst of all, the nightmare of
In this culturally dominant anti- fascist discourse of the
left, it becomes almost axiomatic to identify Ariel Sharon with Adolf Hitler, while at the same time insisting on the
memory of the Holocaust and the virginal purity of one's own
"anti-anti-Semitism." Thus we arrive at the paradox of a new anti-Jewishness dressed up in the radiant glow of human
rights, evoking the brotherhood of man and a world without frontiers. This is
a kind of New Age, feel-good Third-Worldist Marxism
based on boundless compassion for the "wretched of the earth." It
has more than a few echoes of Pauline Christian universalism and its ancient
bi-millennial reproach against the stubborn particularism
of the Jews, who insist on maintaining their separate earthly existence,
territorial integrity and ethnic solidarity.
But there is also a more contemporary dimension to this
repudiation of any moral legitimacy for the existence of Israel and any distinctive Jewish
identity. I mean the perverse alliance of "Islamo-progressivism,"
in which secular liberals and Trotskyists strongly
defend militant Muslims - including their rights to the Islamic veil (which Finkielkraut views as a provocation and rejection of the
French Republic) - notwithstanding the chasm in
their views on a broad range of sociocultural
issues. What binds these strange bedfellows is something more than their deep
hostility to America, Israel, capitalist democracy and
According to Finkielkraut, they
share a common loathing for France - its national heritage,
traditions and republican values. Thus he interprets the anti-Jewish
orientation of the "Islamo-progressive"
alliance as profoundly anti-France, and all the more vocal as France's own national identity and
collective memory continues to disintegrate. This was indeed the central
thesis that Finkielkraut eloquently defended at a
lecture he gave in January 2004 to the
Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism in
Jerusalem - a public meeting which I chaired. On that
occasion, he expanded on a theme he briefly evokes in this essay, that those Francais de souche (meaning,
people who are French by birth) who have become so pro-Palestinian today, are
fundamentally detribalized, Europeanized and "globalized."
To use a good old-fashioned French word (much favored in the traditional
nationalist vocabulary of the radical right) they are in fact "dýracines" (people who have left
their roots). This is the heart of the matter for Finkielkraut.
The new anti-Semites are not only "anti-racist," but themselves
rootless cosmopolitans who seek to eradicate the French national memory in
favor of an amorphous multicultural entity that idealizes the new immigrants
as the quintessential "other." These same "progressives"
regard the Jewish community with suspicion as insiders in the old republican
order, which has to be dissolved, just as they condemn the effrontery of Israel's very existence as a
transgression against "the religion of humanity."
Flaws and omissions
While much of this provocative analysis rings true, there are
also some serious problems, flaws and omissions in this essay, which need to
be taken into account. In the first place, I believe that Finkielkraut
overstates the case when he argues that France and Europe are so penitent and remorseful
about the Holocaust that they have truly internalized the Jewish slogan
"Never Again!" While this may be true at the level of establishment
rhetoric (especially in Germany), it is hardly representative of
the vox populi.
Otherwise, it would be impossible to understand the widespread resentment
against Holocaust restitution and public evocations of the memory of Nazi
crimes in Germany, Austria and Switzerland - not to mention parts of Eastern Europe. Nor have racism and xenophobia
vanished from the European (let alone the French) political landscape as the
strength of populist, right-wing parties such as Le Pen's National Front, the
Vlams Blok in Belgium, Haider's Freedom Party, Tudor's "Greater
Romania" party and similar movements indicate. True, their racism is
directed more against new immigrants, Arabs, Africans and Gypsies rather than
Jews, but the older anti-Semitic tradition is by no means dead.
Nor can Europe as a whole be characterized as
"post-nationalist." Eastern Europe after the fall of communism has
been increasingly sensitive to issues involving territorial boundaries, state
sovereignty, national independence and patriotism - factors which arguably
make it more sympathetic to Israel's predicament. The instinctive
pro-Americanism of these traditionally anti-Semitic countries, which recently
entered the EU, and their attachment to ethnic nationalism, reinforces these
trends. Had Finkielkraut mentioned these points, it
might conceivably have strengthened his argument.
As so often happens with Parisian intellectuals, France is taken to be Europe. This is manifestly no longer the
case. Moreover, a glance at the graph of contemporary European anti-Semitism
would have shown that it has risen spectacularly in those societies like France, Britain, Germany,
Holland, Belgium and Sweden, where Muslim communities have
grown most rapidly in recent years. Yet, surprisingly, there is little
discussion of this new sociological phenomenon, which is surely critical to
the prospects of the "coming anti- Semitism." True, there are some
references to the leftist/Muslim antiglobalist
convergence, but not to the impact of fundamentalist preaching in thmosques of Europe, the anti-Semitic baggage that North
African and other Muslims bring with them from their homelands; their
receptivity to global conspiracy theories, the influence of Arab media
incitement, the bitterness provoked by Palestine, Iraq and other conflicts
where Muslims feel themselves to be under attack; and there is no reference
to the envy and resentment that many Arabs in France - already alienated by
the racism of the white majority - feel toward the success of Jews in having
integrated so fully into French society. Radical young Muslims are often
enraged by this success - as much as by hatred of the French republic as such.
This is an obvious but important factor that Finkielkraut
passes over in evoking the physical assaults on the Jews of France.
The author is highly critical of those commentators
(including many Jews) who fail to see that anti-Semitism in Europe today is no longer comparable to
the racist, ethnic nationalism of the 1930s. There is no "return of the
repressed" - he emphasizes - no revival of Vichy. It is equally absurd, he rightly
suggests, to identify anti-Semitism today with the Judeophobe
tradition of Drumont's "France for the French" or the
integral nationalism of Charles Maurras. This would
be as simplistic as the attempt to equate Jew-hatred with Nazi jackboots, brownshirts and skinheads screaming "Sieg Heil!" I fully agree
but believe that he also tends to underestimate the neo-fascist potential
represented by "Le Penism" and above all
the extremist bigotry of Islamo- fascism. Nor does
this essay come to grips with the conspiracy theory of society and history at
the heart of so much of modern anti-Semitism - a paranoid worldview that has
survived the Holocaust and achieved its "second coming" with the
emergence of Israel.
Finkielkraut's solution to the impasse facing French and European Jewry seems to
be a return to republican values rooted in secularism ,
the assimilatory virtues of French culture and a firm reassertion of the
French national identity threatened by the "new barbarians." But
this has a curiously utopian ring in the light of his own pessimistic
cultural diagnosis that France is in the process of destroying
itself. On the other hand, it has always been the traditional posture of
French Jews in the modern era (especially in times of crisis) to suggest that
a threat to the Jews is also an attack on the Republic. This strategy seemed
to work at the time of the Dreyfus affair and on a number of occasions since
then. The present firm line of the French government toward anti- Semitism
might suggest that this standard formula still has some life left in it.
However, the continued growth of the Muslim Arab population in France, the unresolved tensions in the Middle East and their repercussions in Europe - not to mention the
"anti-Jewish" logic of the multicultural society analyzed by the
author - suggests a rather darker picture. This is confirmed by the fact that
many French Jews are currently thinking about an alternative future for
themselves and their children.
Despite some evident flaws and the lack of any comparative or
historical perspective, Finkielkraut's best-selling
essay offers a thought-provoking contribution to the ongoing debate about the
"new anti-Semitism" - one of the most sensitive issues in
contemporary European and Jewish consciousness.
Robert Wistrich is Neuberger
Professor of Modern European and Jewish History at the Hebrew University of