Wednesday, December 03, 2003

France Falling – Alain Finkielkraut on Anti-Semitism


Of all the issues troubling Franco-American relations, as well as domestic French peace, nothing encapsulates the current situation like anti-Semitism. And no one does a better job tackling this thorny topic than Alain Finkielkraut. Finkielkraut recently published a pamphlet on the subject, entitled: Au nom de l’autre : Réflexions sur l’antisémitisme qui vient. The short work, about twenty pages, is a terse and passionate treatment of the nature and growth of anti-Semitism in France specifically and Europe generally. But if the document appears brief, it more than makes up for its brevity in the weight and insightfulness of its content. It is nothing less than a clear and concise statement of the state of modern Europe.

But rather than going into the content today, I’m going to provide a brief introduction to Alain Finkielkraut. Finkielkraut is himself a Jew, and his very appearance, his manners and the breadth of his intellect serve to remind us of the vibrant Jewish intellectual and moral tradition that has contributed so much to French society and civilization. While there are numerous other Franco-Jewish thinkers and authors (André Glucksmann among them), few have the sheer presence and courage of Alain Finkielkraut, and even fewer so well represent the long French tradition of Jewish social commentary.

Certainly there are other more chic Jewish authors, such as the popular Bernard-Henri Lévy (better known as BHL), who recently published the best-seller, Who Killed Daniel Pearl. But where BHL is a man of intellectual flash and sexual flare, Finkielkraut is the embodiment of the timeless Jewish battle against ideology and hatred. Jan Marejko, a Swiss journalist, philosopher and friend of Finkielkraut, recently likened him to Hannah Arendt in his dedication to combat the lies and deceptions that contributed to so many deaths at the hands of totalitarian despots in the twentieth century. And indeed, to see Finkielkraut in action is to witness a driven man, one who will make no compromises with the murderous obfuscations that marked the recent past and continue to muddy the international waters.

During the prelude to the war in Iraq, I remember watching Finkielkraut on television. A participant in a round-table discussion about American arrogance, Finkielkraut, head down, hands spiraling in circles was doing his utmost to show his fellow discussants that the real issue at stake was not American arrogance but civilization and the belief in civilization. As he proceeded, his frustration mounting with each befuddled reply from the other participants, he finally came to the clincher: America, he said, still knows how to do great things in the name of civilization; we Europeans have forgotten ourselves. This, in a nutshell, is Finkielkraut’s argument.

But this is not just some disconnected intellectual. Finkielkraut himself has taken knocks for his views, most notably during the Lindenberg affair. In October of 2002, Daniel Lindenberg, a leftist French intellectual, published a scathing and miserably argued pamphlet attacking various contemporary French authors for their reactionary views. They were, according to Lindenberg, enemies of democracy. Among these was Alain Finkielkraut. While the pamphlet was a best-seller, it was not universally accepted in Paris. In fact, it was seen as a last-ditch attempt by aging leftists to demonize open debate in France. The only time I saw Finkielkraut in person was during a seminar where he responded to the infamous pamphlet. With his usual integrity, studious drama and penetrating mind, he launched into a defense of himself that cut to the heart of the Stalinist tactics employed by Lindenberg.
The old Lindenberg tactics seem to have backfired, but as we’ll see, Finkielkraut does not believe they are completely dead. Rather, such ideological slight of hand has found a new home in a mutated form of anti-Semitism. This new anti-Semitism, comrade in arms with today’s anti-Americanism and humanitarian transnationalism, is that new home. Finkielkraut is already familiar to English speakers from the translation of his celebrated French work, La Défaite de la pensée (published in English as The Defeat of the Mind). He deserves to be better known among English speakers.

My discussion of Finkielkraut’s treatment of anti-Semitism will appear on Friday.


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