Anti-Semitism Everywhere?

Alain Badiou, Eric Hazan and Ivan Segré, Reflections on Anti-Semitism

Verso, 256pp, £19.99, ISBN 9781844678778

reviewed by Eugene Brennan

Badiou and Hazan’s ‘“Anti-Semitism Everywhere” in France Today’, the first text in this two-part volume, situates French anti-Semitism within a historical continuity of harnessing anti-popular sentiment against the most recent arrivals in France. Marine Le Pen has lead her Front National party from widespread Holocaust-denial to brazenly offering kindness and friendship to the Jewish population. Her kindness towards the Jews does not, however, extend to other minorities in France. Le Pen’s alignment with the new ‘struggle against anti-Semitism’ while simultaneously denouncing the evils of Islam, immigration and the Roma population, is only an extreme example of a normalised tendency in French public life: the use of an apparent sensitivity to Jewish history as a kind of spurious moral justification for the stigmatisation of Muslims.

The launch of the Second Intifada in September 2000 and the ‘War on Terror’ re-ignited tensions from France’s colonial history leading to an apparent ‘upsurge in anti-Semitism’, as widely reported in the media. The accused perpetrators of anti-Semitism were frequently Arabs and Muslims. France’s large Arab population are mostly confined to the impoverished banlieues surrounding the affluent city centres at a safe distance, thus their alignment with the dispossessed Palestinians provides an especially resonant political and cultural identity. The tediously banal reminder that a state’s actions are not that of its population is still wilfully ignored by those who conflate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. From expressing solidarity with Arab youth in France to criticising the actions of the state of Israel, accusations of anti-Semitism are regularly used as a means of silencing dissent.

Alain Finkielfraut is one of the most prominent and influential intellectuals to advance the cause of a ‘new struggle against anti-Semitism’. In 2002 he declared that France was living under ‘une année de Cristal’, comparing Jewish persecution in contemporary France to that of the Kristellnacht . While France continues to witness anti-Semitic incidents that should rightfully be denounced, Badiou and Hazan argue that the manifestations of anti-Semitism are varied and disparate, with little in common. This ranges from small groupings of neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers to apparently more sophisticated Pétainists. The tense feelings of certain sections of black and Arab French youth towards Jews is something entirely different from historic anti-Semitism, instead linked to the Arab-Palestine conflict and fuelled by, among other factors, French colonial rule of Algeria, in which privileged status was granted to the Jewish population while Arabs were denied citizenship.

While these complex variants of anti-Semitism persist in fragmented forms, the authors denounce the prevalent thesis which claims that there has been a ‘surge of anti-semitism’ since the early years of the War on Terror. This is not a description of an actual situation but an ideological smokescreen for stigmatising one portion of the population, conveniently one of the most disadvantaged: black and Arab youth.

Beyond stigmatising the banlieue youth, accusations of anti-Semitism have been tangentially pursed in political debates which have nothing to do with Jewish concerns. After Nicolas Sarkozy came to power for example, Alain Badiou compared those who abandoned the left to rats leaving a sinking ship. For the literary columnist Pierre Assouline, Badiou’s comment was somehow reminiscent of Holocaust propaganda. Bernhard-Henri Lévy then weighed in on the quarrel in support of Assouline’s absurd implication that talking about rats is tantamount to vilifying Jews. Writing in Le Monde (22 July 2008), he made the entirely fictitious claim that Sartre had once written that use of zoological metaphors bore the mark of fascism. Like a Stalinist judgement of certain classical works as being objectively anti-communist, these authors can assert that certain political language (namely, that which dissents from the neo-conservative ideology which the likes of Bernhard-Henri Lévy advocate) is objectively ‘anti-Semitic’, even if it does not implicate Judaism or Jewish concerns in its arguments.

For Jean-Claude Milner, the word ‘Jew’ has replaced the word ‘Worker’ as the master-signifier structuring political thought and action. If Jewish identity is the nucleus of democracy, it follows that any attachment to the word ‘Worker’ is an anti-Semitic archaism. Similar to the equation of Jewish identity with democracy, Islam is portrayed as the totalitarian threat, an update of anti-Communist arguments familiar from the Cold War. As Badiou and Hazan put it,

For the people we are talking about, whatever they say, what matters to them is not the name ‘Jew’ but rather the ‘fate of the West’. This is the reason they identify ‘Jew’ with the state of Israel … This also explains why the American far right, traditionally anti-Semitic, has organized, under Bush and his successors, an unlikely alliance between Christian ultra-conservatives and formerly ‘progressive’ Jews who have converted to the new world order.

The second part of the book, Ivan Segré’s ‘The Philo-Semitic Reaction’, reinforces many of the arguments made by Badiou and Hazan with more rigorous research. The Philo-Semitic Reaction refers to the ideological current represented for him in particular by sociologist Emmanuel Brenner, political scientist Pierre-André Taguieff as well as the aforementioned Milner, Adler and Finkielkraut among others. The common feature of their work is a betrayal of universalism in favour of communitarian identity, essentially operating as a method of defence of the West. Their aims can be pursued through all manner of ideological alliances as long as they form an effective opposition to the ‘Islamist threat’. Taguieff’s La Nouvelle Judéophobie (Fayard, 2002), for example, attempts to gloss over the Catholic Church’s silence during the Holocaust with feeble, unconvincing examples which apparently attest to the Church’s anti-Nazi commitment. The apparent historic alliance between the Christians and the Jews must then be affirmed today, according to Taguieff, comparing the plight of the Jews under Nazism to the plight of the Judeo-Christian west under the invasion of ‘the most exclusionary ideological configuration today, that of Islamism.’

Segré also patiently dissects Oriana Fallacy’s The Rage and the Pride (Universe, 2002), a criticism of the basis of Islam which is particularly extreme in its xenophobic language. When Fallaci was taken to trial in Paris for incitement to religious hatred (‘The sons of Allah breed like rats’ is one stand-out line), the leftist Jewish association LICRA contributed in the case against her. She later wrote of her disbelief that the Jewish group had contributed to the case. Her shock at a Jewish community being offended is an almost caricature-like instance of the twisted ideological manipulation at work. Fallaci apparently cannot understand how a Jewish group might be offended that she has exploited their identity for xenophobic purposes. The full implications of the new ‘struggle against anti-Semitism’ become apparent here, Fallaci betraying anti-Semitic views herself with the assumption that Jewish identity must necessarily carry an anti-Islam bias.

The two texts that make up this book were originally released separately with Eric Hazan’s La Fabrique, a beacon of radical publishing in France. Segré’s detailed case-studies complement the broader overview which Hazan and Badiou give us in this volume. The two texts are not always clear on the extent of actual anti-Semitism among Arab French youth. Badiou and Hazan state that ‘The hostility of these young people towards Jews is fundamentally bound up with what is happening in Palestine’, while Segré seems to imply that there is little actually existing hostility towards Jews. However both accounts of the issue are consistently strong in showing the dearth of sociological analyses and normalisation of racist denunciations. The perpetrators of the new anti-Semitism thesis seem to ascribe racial or ‘ethno-religious’ causes to tensions that are fuelled by complex historical, social, and geo-political factors. For the likes of Finkielfraut and Fallaci, any anti-social or hostile behaviour from banlieue youth is explained in terms of racial origins, plain and simple. As Finkielfraut said of the 2005 riots, ’ Look, in France there are also other immigrants whose situation is difficult – Chinese, Vietnamese, Portuguese – and they’re not taking part in the riots. Therefore, it is clear that this is a revolt with an ethno-religious character.’

Factions of the left have often faced accusations of anti-Semitism, particularly in connection with conspiracy theories evoking a ‘Jewish lobby’ behind America’s worst foreign policy decisions. What Badiou, Hazan and Segré point to is nothing of this kind. They are not criticising Jewish influence on political decisions, but rather the cynical exploitation of Jewish identity, by various individuals in the public sphere, in order to assert Western geo-political hegemony and support the latest manifestation of the reactionary tradition in France.
Eugene Brennan is a PhD researcher with the University of London Institute in Paris and teaches English with Université Paris 13. He is also a contributor to 3AM Magazine and The Quietus.