The New Anti-Semitism
Many observers have linked recent anti-Semitic episodes in France with the same ancient enmities that led to the Holocaust, but something new seems at work.
“In the Name of the Other: Reflections on the Coming Anti-Semitism” by Alain Finkielkraut, in Azure (Fall 2004), 13 Yehoshua Bin-Nun St., Jerusalem, Israel.
The easy explanation for the burned synagogues, profaned cemeteries, and schoolyard taunts of contemporary France is that they are a revival of Europe’s ancient anti-Semitism—the same enmity that spawned Shakespeare’s grotesque caricature of Shylock, kindled the Dreyfus affair, and culminated in the Holocaust. Too easy, writes Finkielkraut, a lecturer in social sciences at Paris’s École Polytechnique. Today’s anti-Semitism flourishes in some of the most “enlightened” quarters of French society.
The roots of this new anti-Semitism lie in Europe’s reaction to the Holocaust. America’s reaction to that horror has been strong but relatively uncomplicated: It was an abomination on foreign soil, and Americans helped put an end to it. But the Holocaust placed Europe in a more troubled position, in which it assumed “the roles of vanquisher, victim, and criminal all at once. The Final Solution took place on its land; the decision was a product of its civilization; and the enterprise found no shortage of accomplices, mercenaries, executors, sympathizers, and even apologists well outside of Germany’s borders.” So Europe has taken on the identity of Albert Camus’ “penitent-judge,” who, Finkielkraut explains, “takes pride in his penitence and is always on guard against himself.” It has “broken with its bloody past, intent on remembering only its radical evil.” No longer does Europe think of itself first as the home of Dante, Mozart, Picasso, and Fellini. “It must unburden itself by switching from an admiring humanism to a reviling one.” Europeans thus say “never again” to Auschwitz—and to war, power politics, nationalism, and all the other things they think drove them to Auschwitz.
One of the Holocaust’s lessons for Europeans is that one must always side with “the Other,” according to Finkielkraut, and for decades after 1945, Jews retained that status. But with the rise of Palestinian militancy, and in recent years the hard line of Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, Palestinians have claimed the victim’s mantle. Now they are the Other, while Israel—warlike, nationalist, and racist, in Europe’s eyes—embodies everything that Europe has rejected.
In France, Finkielkraut shared the sense of relief that inspired huge, joyful crowds to take to the streets on the day in May 2002 when the right wing’s Jean-Marie Le Pen went down to defeat in the presidential election. But he didn’t join the throngs, thinking, “The future of hatred is in their camp, and not in that of Vichy’s faithful. It is in the camp of the smiles, not of the gritted teeth. In the camp of humane, and not barbaric, men. In the camp of integrated society, rather than that of the ethnic nation. . . . It is in the ranks of the devoted admirers of the Other, and not among the narrow-minded petit bourgeois who love only the Self.”