Friday, December 05, 2003

France Falling – Alain Finkielkraut on Anti-Semitism

Alain Finkielkraut’s pamphlet on the new anti-Semitism is divided into four short sections. Each section highlights one aspect of the anti-Semitism that is on the rise in Europe today. In order to grasp clearly and precisely this new phenomenon, I’d like to dedicate four separate posts over the next four days to each section. I do so because this issue is so vital, so central to understanding the forces that are at work in the world today, that I think it is worth our while to reflect on each topic in depth.


The issue of anti-Semitism in Europe today, and in France particularly, is one that ignites some strong passions. In the wake of a string of attacks on Jewish synagogues in France, and following the ascension of Jean-Marie Le Pen to the second round of the presidential vote in France in April 2002, many commentators, especially in the United States, took these events as evidence of the return of the old European scourge called anti-Semitism – the hatred of the Jewish race. In response, a number of French authors quickly denied the charges, arguing that incidents against Jews were perpetrated primarily by France’s Arab population in response to events in the Middle East and were not representative of the French population as a whole. Indeed, some speculated that the new anti-Semitism was not hatred of Jews, but of Arabs, the other Semites.

While there is some truth to both arguments, there is also an underlying difficulty – specifically, a political difficulty. Both critics and defenders were missing the political element which lies at the heart of the new anti-Semitism. Alain Finkielkraut has done us the service of uncovering that element and showing us the real face of contemporary anti-Semitism.

The first section of Finkielkraut’s essay is entitled, “Vigilances.” It’s more or less the same word in French and in English, but Finkielkraut is pointing to a double meaning. He begins this section noting that Hitler and the name Auschwitz have, for fifty years, placed hatred of Jews beyond the pale in Europe. Today, many in the Jewish community remind us of the need for vigilance in order to ensure that the horror of the Shoah is never repeated. And so, museums are built, memorials constructed and consecrated, speeches made and the rights of man extolled on both sides of the Atlantic. But there is a problem, because amid all this vigilance, synagogues are once again burning in France, and as Finkielkraut notes, “Jews have a heavy heart, for the first time since the war, they are afraid.” Vigilance, it would seem, is not enough.

To many, it appears as though the old hatreds are reborn. At the exact time when the western world is apologizing for its past transgressions, the firestorm rises anew. And throughout the Jewish world, concern is mounting that the old specter is back. Finkielkraut, however, disagrees. In order to demonstrate his contention he asks the reader to consider contemporary Europe: “What are the foundations of today’s Europe?” he asks. Are they Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, Pascal, Cervantes, Giotto, Rembrandt, Picasso, Kant, Kierkegaard, Mozart, Bartók, Chopin, Ravel, Felini, Bergman? Does Europe’s present celebrate a glorious past? According to Finkielkraut, these things, these great names and achievements are foreign to modern Europe, dumped into the dust bin of history. Europe is rejecting its past, a past it views as nothing but blood soaked, replacing it with a radically new beast, a beast that says to its entire past, “Plus jamais ça!,” “Never again!” Europe’s old positive humanism has been replaced by a humanism of pure negation.

And what of Auschwitz? In Finkielkraut’s assessment, the memory of Auschwitz, “has not been eroded; to the contrary, it has become encrusted.” Auschwitz has been interpreted, more than the equally murderous regimes of communism, as an affront to democratic man, to universal man as the carrier of specific rights. Quoting Habermas, Finkielkraut notes that in the horror of the Holocaust, the solidarity of common humanity was formed.

Or was it? As Finkielkraut remarks, the Holocaust was an affront to democratic man, but even democratic man needs a place to live, and that place has been, for over two hundred years, the United States. Despite France’s claim to having sired the rights of man, it is the United States that created its nation around the enlightened principles of modern liberal democracy. Europe, including France, did not build its nations around these principles. Rather, it was forced, through violent revolution and often disastrous ideology, to impose democracy. And here is the difference, for the United States, democratic universalism, which already was part of America’s English heritage to some extent, is not at odds with the reality of the American nation. The universal and the particular exist together in the United States. Thus, America’s victory in World War II was a justification of its national pride.

By contrast, Europeans have come to see the Holocaust as a European failure, a condemnation of their national pride. This is far more the case on the continent than in Britain, which, like the United States, saw victory as a national event. But for many continentals, the Holocaust demonstrated the incompatibility between the nation and democracy. A choice had to be made between the particular and the universal, and the particular, at least according to the European political elite, has lost. (At this point, few in Europe notice that Europe too is ultimately not the whole of reality, so the dilemma of universal and particular will recur despite all the rhetoric about universal humanism so rampant today in Brussels.)

As Finkielkraut remarks, “The memory of the Holocaust reminds America of its true vocation, and reminds Europe of its fragility…Democratic America does battle with its adversaries, Europe wrestles with its ghosts.” Vigilance in Europe has come to mean vigilance against, vigilance in opposition to national existence, which is associated immediately with fascism. America looks outward, Europe obsesses with itself and sees the rest of the world through this very dirty lens. Vigilance is a double-edged sword, and it is one Europe wields, recalling the memory of the Holocaust, against those who would assert their national identity. And who better to attack than the model modern nation: Israel. Vigilance launches the new anti-Semitism.

Tomorrow – Part Two: The nightmarish dream


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