Jean-Paul Sartre’s three articles on anti-Semitism and the modem Jew, published in Commentary in April, May, and June of 1948, were perhaps the most widely debated articles yet to appear in this magazine. The complete volume of which these articles formed the larger part has now been published by Schocken Books under the title Anti-Semite and Jew, and the reception of this book by the reviewers promises to continue the current of interest first set in motion by the COMMENTARY articles. HAROLD ROSENBERG here attempts a full-scale critical analysis of Sartre’s views, with special reference to his provocative thesis that the Jew is today primarily a reflex of the mentality and attitude of the anti-Semite.
“Eternity changes him into himself.”
In Considering Sartre’s conception of the Jew and his relation to anti-Semitism we must not forget that Reflections on the Jewish Question (published by Schocken as Anti-Semite and Jew) was written immediately after the downfall of the Nazis. It was a moment of intense confusion as to the meaning of the terrible events that had just taken place and of uncertainty as to the attitudes and groupings that would now emerge in liberated France. The Occupation had enlivened the current of anti-Semitism among Frenchmen of all classes. With the return of those Jews who had escaped the German hangman everyone was most anxious that this “question” should not once more stir up hidden rancors. Thus, as Sartre tells us, in the midst of the general greeting of returned prisoners and deportees not a word about the Jews, for fear of irritating the anti-Semites. This testimony is supported by André Spire’s account, in his preface to Bilan Juif, of the difficulties experienced in finding a publisher in Paris by those who wished to speak of what had happened. “There has been too much hate,” they were told. “Let’s have a love story.”
Under suck circumstances for Sartre to have challenged the anti-Semite as a menace to Frenchmen, to have called upon Gentiles to organize in a war on anti-Semitism, and to have welcomed the French Jews into the French nation was an act of generosity, of feeling, courage, and good sense. With different shadings of collaborationists and supporters of the Resistance bitterly eyeing one another, no opportunist or politician calculating the advantages to be derived from attracting segments of public opinion would have isolated the question of anti-Semitism. Yet here was the ultimate poison of the mind from which many social contaminations had flowed and could still be expected to flow. The Dreyfus Affair had permanently established the role of anti-Semitism in all conspiracies against the French people. Precisely because it might have been bad politics at this instant to launch an assault against the slanderers and murderers of Jews, it was sound patriotism and a gesture of human solidarity.
So as an act performed in a given circumstance we ought wholly to applaud Sartre’s Réflexions sur la Question Juive. With its three characters—the vicious leering psychopathic anti-Semite, the “inauthentic” Jew vainly trying to escape in disguise, and the “authentic” Jew proudly turning upon his tormentors—one can consider the work in its original appearance as a kind of 20th-century morality play sent to do service at a political battle front. Anyone coming upon it should have been stirred to greater effort against the enemy and against the traitor in himself.
Reading Sartre’s essay in America in 948 is, however, a somewhat different matter. Not that the battle against anti-Semitism is over, of course. But Sartre’s study cannot play the same part in it at this date and in this country. Hence we are not tempted to ask, “Is it useful?” rather than, “Is it true?” Although still attracted by the magnanimity of Sartre’s act, we can scrutinize dispassionately his image both of the Jew and of the anti-Semite.
For Sartre the Jew exists. The Jewishness of the Jew is not merely, as with the democratic thinkers, a few ethnic, religious, and physical traits added to a man. In dissociating himself from liberal rationalism and its abstract man, Sartre asserts the reality of the Jewish identity as a “concrete synthesis” created by history. There is, in short, The Jew, not only men and women who happen to be Jewish. With this conclusion, “unscientific” as it may appear, it is necessary, I believe, to agree. In fact, the best passage for me in Sartre’s essay is his criticism of the democratic defender of the Jew, for whom all men are essentially alike, for whom the Jew can belong to human society only to the extent that he suppresses himself as a Jew, and for whom the assertion by Jews of Jewish difference is a sign of stubbornness, backwardness, or ill will. The liberal-scientific concept of the human being, and the demands for uniformity that go with it, somehow seemed sounder while plans for a universal society were on the order of the day. We would have been willing to lose ourselves as we were for the sake of the men we might have become.
The dream of eliminating all inherited differences among peoples has proven, however, to be Utopian, and not only not possible but not even desirable as a program. Has not democratic universalism meant in practice not a society of man but the absorption of small nations and minorities into larger ones, even if with full equality and freedom? Theoretically, the democrat is for the assimilation of all nations into man in general; actually, man turns out to be the American, the Englishman, the Frenchman, the Russian. As soon as concrete questions of the language, the mores, the style of the future One World are raised the difficulties involved in universalism become visible. Sartre is justified in beginning with these difficulties, with the concrete historical “syntheses” represented by nations, peoples, cultures. The Jewish question centers on the fact of Jewish difference.
Yet Sartre’s recognition of the Jewish fact does not take him beyond the democratic conception of the big nation assimilating minorities. For in the end he, too, wishes to dissolve the Jewish collective identity into its abstract particles, that is, into men made more human by ceasing to be Jews. He wants the French Jew to become a Frenchman, as the democrats do. Sartre differs from the democrats only in falling short of the idealism of their theory of man which seeks the ultimate homogeneity of human beings. Though he comes out for socialism he does not say a word about dissolving the French identity. For Sartre it is enough that the Jews should be assimilated.
This exceptionalism he maintains on the grounds of the peculiar nature of the Jewish identity, that the Jews “have no history” and are but the wretched creatures of anti-Semitism. We shall take up this characterization shortly. Here let us note that Sartre offers us much less than the liberals. For it makes sense that the Jews should assimilate into man (though it makes sense only as a theory). But why, especially for a socialist, should the Jew look forward to becoming a Frenchman? Even if, as Sartre says, “bit by bit and by the very course of history.” The Frenchman himself, from the socialist point of view, should look forward to becoming something else, through, to use Sartre’s term, “choosing himself” as a European or as a socialist.
After all, the democrat is really not unaware that the Jews exist. He simply does not believe that they have to exist as Jews. He believes that by changing their situation, by creating a situation common to all men, the Jews, together with all peoples, will shed their particularities “bit by bit.” Sartre, like the liberal, anticipates that with social improvement both the Jew and the anti-Semite will be eliminated, but he does not anticipate that the Frenchman will be eliminated. Thus what Sartre calls “concrete liberalism” is nothing else than liberalism that has discarded its abstract theory of man and embraced its nationalist reality, the Frenchman, the American, the Englishman, though with an ideology of good will. It leads Sartre to a nationalist socialism in which the democratic ideal of a free, equitable, and united community is conceived as realizable within the confines of the old national state. But in such a socialism, at least as much as among the liberals criticized by Sartre, the Jew as Jew is felt to be an obstacle inherited from the past—as we see among certain British socialists—and the sooner he liquidates himself into the larger “whole” the better.
It seems to Sartre that all Jews wish to disappear into the nations in which they live and would do so were they not prevented by anti-Semitism: “the authentic Jew . . . is not opposed to assimilation.” No doubt many Jews agree that if there were no anti-Semitism there would be no Jews. They reason as follows: Political freedom and social opportunities for the Jews have gone hand in hand with enlightenment; enlightenment has brought assimilation. The flight from Judaism has been stopped only by persecution and discrimination. Hence it is a “law” of history that the perfection of liberty and enlightenment will see the end of the Jews. If that were the case, Sartre, regardless of the validity of his arguments, would have gotten to the heart of the matter.
The fault in this reasoning is that it links the process of assimilation with one aspect of the situation in the free Western countries during the past one hundred fifty years—their liberalism—but not with its other aspects—their racial and national prejudice. The conditions under which minorities like the Jews have tended to merge into the cultures around them have not been those of complete freedom and equality but of partial liberty and limited equality. Even in the most liberal democracies, where the greatest opportunities for merging have been available, prejudice against “aliens” has never ceased to exist. To overcome handicaps, Poles, Irishmen, Italians, Ukrainians, Jews have desired in various countries to lose their identifying marks. The drive to assimilation, in short, represents reaction to pressures exercised by a more powerful culture at least as much as it does to liberty and enlightenment.
Jewish assimilation of the past century belongs to transitional conditions of partial freedom and partial enlightenment. No “law” of assimilation can be deduced from this experience. We have no historical proof that in a completely free world the Jews, or any other minority, would choose to dissolve itself. We have equal grounds to assume that in such a world every group, regional or cultural, would find no opposition between its interest in itself and its past and its interest in the rest of mankind. Just as the individual would remain interested in himself, his history, and his development and not feel forced to “assimilate” his uniqueness into an overpowering environment. The assimilationism of Jews in France thus provides no basis for Sartre’s thesis that the Jew wants to get rid of his Jewishness.
The Jew exists, says Sartre, but he exists In a mirror. “It is the anti-Semite who creates the Jew.” The entire life of the Jew, his innermost sentiment of self as well as his relations to other men, is made of the substance of the anti-Semite’s glare. In himself and for himself the Jew is nothing: he is “one whom other men consider a Jew.”
To establish this anti-Semitic “being” of the Jew, Sartre relies on the theory that a man “cannot be distinguished from his situation.” If we look at the situation of the Jew we see only the anti-Semite and the victim of his peculiar hatred. For the Jew today, Sartre insists, can point to no historical identity save that springing from anti-Semitism.
Let us analyze this method of defining the Jew. “If I wish to know who the Jew is,” says Sartre, “I must first inquire into the situation surrounding him, since he is a being in a situation” (his italics). This could imply that human identity can be deduced from “environment.” To know a Flemish miner I would study his work and conditions and the landscape in which he lives, etc.; the same for a Parisian novelist. But such an approach, defining human reality by external factors, would be frankly mechanistic, and Sartre rejects mechanism. For him the individual and his situation “form a synthetic whole” not in the sense of deriving the man from the situation but in that the man is a free actor within it. To know the situation means for Sartre also to know the “being” in it, whether one’s own or another’s. To know “who the Jew is,” we have been told, we have to inquire into his situation, but to know his situation we have to inquire who the Jew is.
Sartre breaks out of this circle by adopting in practice the externality which he rejects in theory, just as he adopts the conclusion of liberalism whose philosophy of man he criticizes. His Jew, though he “makes himself” by his choices, has his being given by his environment, defined as the immovable scrutiny of the anti-Semite. But Sartre’s externality is more limited than that of the materialists. Besides anti-Semitism the latter would include in the situation of the Jew various developments of modern history: the Industrial Revolution, the breakup of the old communities, the decline of church and family, the establishment of cosmopolitan cultures. They would recognize that to the extent that the modern Jew is the product of other men, the democrat too has “created” him by his glance. Sartre refers to such factors only as explanations for various unpleasant “Jewish traits.” The self of the Jew he defines demoniacally as formed by anti-Semitism, which to Sartre is a free, autonomous, uncaused, disembodied and measureless spirit of evil.
If the situation is to reveal the “who” of the man in it, its dimensions must extend to his beginnings. For instance, the situation of Oedipus at the opening of Sophocles’ tragedy does not tell us who Oedipus is. Here the situation, which includes the present and a limited portion of the past but stops short of Oedipus’ origins, conceals the identity of the hero. If, following Sartre, I were “to inquire into the situation surrounding him,” I should learn that King Oedipus is the son of Polybus and that he is now “choosing” with respect to the plague in Thebes. This knowledge of the situation would cause me to be mistaken as to Oedipus’ identity, as it would prevent Oedipus from “choosing himself.” My ignorance could not be overcome until the situation, which now proves Oedipus to be another, had been changed into one that reveals the content of the moment when Oedipus came into the world. In brief, a man is not always knowable through his situation. The situation will form a genuine “synthetic whole” with the individual in it only when the fact originating his identity—that Oedipus is the son of Laius and Jocasta—becomes a visible part of it.
The situation of the Jew does not reveal who the Jew is except when it becomes a situation that discloses his link with Abraham, Moses, and David, from whom the Jewish identity sprang. Such a revealing situation has come into being during the various movements to regain the Land of the Fathers, whether by prayer or politics. In these moments—and with the Orthodox Jew the “moment” has lasted for two thousand years, since his constant prayer is a continuing act directed toward redeeming the Land—the Jew and his situation are indeed one.
Sartre fails to consider the Jew and his situation in relation to his beginnings. He splits his “being” in time and in place. “It is the Christians,” he says, “who have created the Jew.” The opposite is, of course, the case: the Jews created Christianity. But Sartre has cut the Jews off from their past; he even thinks it possible to speak of the Jews while “limiting my description to the Jews in France.” If, nevertheless, the Jew’s historical feet still protrude from under the blanket of the situation with which Sartre has “surrounded” him, Sartre has misunderstood fundamentally the problem of identity. It is surely not enough simply to state that the Jews of the Exile are in a different predicament from those who “at a remote time in the past [possessed] a religious and historical community that was called Israel.” The position in the world of King Oedipus of Thebes differed entirely from that of the infant exposed on the mountain—yet he was the same individual. To show that the origin of the Jew lies not in Abraham but in the anti-Semite, Sartre would have to indicate at what point the Jew of former times ceased to exist and a different Jew was born out of anti-Semitism. It was not when they were driven out by the Romans, for Sartre himself asserts that the Christian created the Jew “by putting a stop to his assimilation”—in other words, that the act of the Christians was a negative one and that even in the Diaspora the original Jews existed.
Thus Sartre’s argument that the Jews of the Exile are disconnected from the Jews of antiquity rests entirely on external considerations; they no longer live in the same place, perform the same rites, possess the same institutions. But the continuity of the modem Jew with the Jews of the Old Testament is established by those acts that arise from his internal cohesion with his ultimate beginnings, in which his future is contained as possible destiny—the acts of turning toward the Promised Land in his crises. And these acts, not deducible from his surroundings, make the Jew’s situation and reveal who the Jew is.
Having mistaken the Jew’s identity, Sartre cannot comprehend his history, his creative accomplishments, his possibilities. Measuring the Jews by general standards of ethnic uniformity, sovereignty, and church—going, he finds that the Jews are not a people or a race (or that belonging to this “race” means “a hooked nose, protruding ears, thick lips”), not a nation, not a religion. From this he concludes that “the sole tie that binds them is the hostility and disdain of the societies that surround them.” The Jews, says Sartre, “have no history . . . twenty centuries of dispersion and political impotence forbids its [the Jewish community’s] having a historic past” (his italics).
What is the conception of history that excludes the Jews from possessing a historic past? Sartre refers to Hegel’s idea that “a community is historical to the degree that it remembers its past.” Obviously, remembering is not something that can be “forbidden” by “dispersion and political impotence.” What can be forbidden is that this remembered past should be “historical” in the nationalist sense of civil rebellions and wars. That this is precisely what Sartre means by a historic past becomes plain when he adds to Hegel’s dictum, “the Jewish community is the least historical of all, for it keeps a memory of nothing but a long martyrdom, that is, of a long passivity.” The Jews, of course, remember many things besides martyrdom, and even in that relation they may recall not passivity but resistance; for instance, the dialectical battles of the rabbis against the overwhelming power of the medieval Church. But they were not able to resort to arms, and on this score alone can Sartre deny them a history.
Only if warfare is the essence of the historical is the memory of the Jew during the past two thousand years without historical quality. Is not this period of Exile, with its hopes, coherent with earlier exiles, previous redemptions? The entire story of the Jew—including the movements toward assimilation that form part of it from the beginning—has an inner meaning and a structure that would seem to make it history par excellence. To such an extent is the Jew identified by the story he remembers, that political and social institutions, linguistic and somatic characteristics, even religious beliefs and practices appear superficial to the common autobiography: these may change, through the uniqueness of his tale the Jew remains himself. In fact, history is the burden under which the Jew all but breaks.
The common story of the Jews and not “the hostility and disdain” of others is the principle of their togetherness. That each member of a group has the same story to tell, which is the story of all as well as the story of the teller, is the basis of collective identities, whether it be the story of the miraculous founding of a cult or of the exploitation and struggles of the proletariat. This story alive in the individual may not make itself manifest in his behavior except in peculiar circumstances, perhaps even to his surprise, for no man acts “historically” all the time. The Jews have shown that without being a race, a nation, or a religion, it is possible for people to remain together in a net of memory and expectation.
It is because of his presumed lack of history that the French Jew is to become a good Frenchman. “We have only to welcome him without reserve; our history will be his history, or at least his son’s.” The motive is no doubt laudable. But to say that the Jew has no history in comparison with the French worker—for to Sartre only a socialist France will truly absorb the Jews—is to create a nationalist confusion with respect to the history of both the Jews and of France.
Each community has a common story, beginning in an event—a revolution, a conquest, a miracle, the founding of a city—which gave birth to its identity, creating it, so to speak, out of nothingness. The Jews differ from other peoples, both ancient and modern, in that every Jew, regardless of class or even of blood origin, is included equally in the entire common account. Whether he begins with himself as a French Jew, an American, a Pole, a Turk, or as worker, scholar or millionaire, the Jew who extends his story backwards in time reaches the same substance of events converging into the Old Testament and its lucid geography of his childhood. The survival of the Jews may well be attributable to this “democratic” participation in the Jewish past which appears in the earliest Biblical situations and which was immeasurably strengthened by the prophets. The peasants and the urban proletariat of Greece and Rome were not, and could not remain, the vessels of ancient Greek or Roman history, which was created above them and to their exclusion by aristocrats and heroes. With the decline of their elites those historic identities disappeared. Each Jew, however, possessing from the first the equal status of a member of a clan, could call himself by the primary name of Son of Abraham and preserve the whole in his single existence. In this respect the history of the Jews resembles that of a religion, in which all believers have the same status, more than it does the history of nations. The vision that sees the Jews as “a nation of priests and a holy people” stresses this totality equivalent to the religious. Yet Jewish history is the history of a people, not of a cult, since the participation is not metaphysical but in an actual past.
It is likely that there are Jews in France who feel that they have no history, except a history of persecution. But if such sentiments exist among Jews they give no support to Sartre’s “no—history” thesis, since he is not attempting to derive his definition of the Jew from what the Jews feel about themselves but from their situation. Besides, not all Jews even in post-Vichy France regard Jewish history as a prison sentence that is not yet over. The various contributors to Bilan Juif, referred to above, are witnesses that very lively and positive conceptions of the Jewish past exist in France today.
Jewish history belongs to all Jews; most Frenchmen possess only a portion of theirs—at least, so a socialist should insist. This implies no advantage—perhaps the less history the better. At any rate, French history as the history of the worker goes back only to 1789. At that point another France appears, in the story of which he has no part. The French worker cannot hear the story of aristocratic France, its court, its clergy, its great men, without recognizing his own anonymity in it. From the Revolution backwards he has lost his identity—he does not embody the France of feudalism. He cannot say as Roosevelt did: “Let us not forget that we are all descendants from revolutionaries and poor immigrants.” The ultra-nationalist and anti-Semite attempts to bridge the subjective gap between the two Frances, of before and after 1789. Even putting aside Marx’s contention that “the workers have no fatherland,” Sartre should be concerned as a socialist with denying history to the French workingman or with limiting it to the France of the Revolution. Instead, it is of the French Jews that he makes the unfounded and brutal observation: “These are Frenchmen who have no part in the history of France.”
To Reinforce his notion that anti-Semitism provides the exclusive content of Jewishness, Sartre claims that the Jews “cannot take pride in any collective work that is specifically Jewish.” If he means a national style of architecture or of painting, he is undoubtedly correct. If he means a Jewish post-office system or a Jewish army, he was correct. There is, of course, a fairly large literature that is “specifically Jewish,” and the world is becoming increasingly aware of Jewish philosophical and mystical thinking throughout the centuries. Sartre is either ignorant of, or indifferent to, all this. I shall, therefore, mention one collective work of which he must be aware—I mean the Jewish creation of a unique type of human being, the “Jewish intellectual,” who springs from the tradition of talmid hacham, the life-long student. For two thousand years the main energies of Jewish communities in various parts of the world have gone into the mass production of intellectuals. From among these have emerged several noble traditional figures: the pure-minded judge, the scholarly man of affairs, the poverty-loving saint. I estimate this enterprise of the Jews to be as civilized and “historical” as the catching of herring to which the Dutch devoted themselves in their great period, or the production of cotton by the British. True, the Jewish output of intellectuals was not a “planned” project and often resulted in surpluses. This occurs in any one-crop or one-product economy, and peanut growers or pottery makers then experience a crisis. When the Jews began to “export” their major commodity in the nineteenth century, they found themselves competing against “home products.” While this is, of course, not all there is to modern anti-Semitism, its peculiarly odious form of “protectionism” attests to “the collective work that is specifically Jewish.”
The unique “culture heroes” created by Jewish communities continue to live in the imagination and memories of individual Jews. They play their part in that “mystical and pre-logical feeling of kinship” among Jews which to Sartre is but a reaction to a common history of humiliation. If the Western Jew is, as Sartre claims, a “haunted man” (the term is rather melodramatic), whose life is a doubling of self-disguise and self-scrutiny, it is by the sweetness and metaphysical security of his sages that he is haunted and by the sense of treachery and degradation that overcomes him when he wills to renounce such grandfathers, rather than by the opaque eye of the anti-Semite.
The Jew, Sartre maintains, having no Original existence, has his identity to create. He will “make” himself by his choices in his present anti-Semitic situation. The Jew can either consciously become what this situation demands that he be and, “accepting it in pride and humiliation,” attain “authenticity.” Or he can strive, futilely, to evade his situation and make himself “inauthentic.”
In that it seems to offer us a clear choice in dealing with anti-Semitism—to stand our ground come what may, or waste our lives in fruitless ruses of disguise and escape—Sartre’s formulation has a tonic quality. The lens of the anti-Semite is permanently trained upon us, it will not allow us to be anything but Jews. We cannot dare to pretend that it is not there; we must decide how we shall behave under this scrutiny.
Were “authentic” and “inauthentic” simply different ways of confronting anti-Semitism, we could have no objection. But Sartre is not offering a choice in action. In fact, he feels that the Jew can do little about anti-Semitism, and in general “his situation is such that everything he does turns against him.” What is left to the Jew is the choice of being “authentic,” that is, of accepting himself as the creature of anti-Semitism and nothing else. Let this be clear—not choosing to do but choosing to be. Nor is it to be Orthodox or a Zionist or openly a Jew in any specific manner. It means ceasing voluntarily to be a man: “the authentic Jew makes himself a Jew in the face of all and against all” (his italics). He proudly becomes what the anti-Semite says he is, for “he knows himself and wills himself into history as a historic and damned creature.” Not only does he accept the hatred and disgust of his neighbors; he makes himself what they hate and despise.
Naturally, most Jews reject this choice. Some write philosophical works like Bergson, novels like Proust, create mathematical theories like Einstein—in a word, they behave as if they were men in a world, not reflections in the glass of anti-Semitism. According to Sartre, such gestures of belonging to the human race render them “inauthentic.” They amount to falsifying their natures and “being ashamed of their own kind.” These Jews develop the characteristics of people who are permanently in flight from the truth and from themselves. Sartre’s inauthentic Jew is a quivering, self-conscious creature, anxiously hiding his inescapable Jewishness or masochistically embracing it as degradation. This Jew is a rationalist without intuitions or spontaneity; he is tactless, acquisitive, denies his very body, etc. Sartre is careful to tell us that it is only the “inauthentic” Jew that he has thus portrayed. But it turns out that this painful and, in large part, repulsive figure is none other than the Jew, because very few people are authentic and those that are contribute nothing to Sartre’s image, since, as he tells us, the authentic man “escapes description.”
In short, on the basis of his authentic-inauthentic conception, Sartre has consciously permitted himself to accept the anti-Semite’s stereotype of the Jew. His disagreement with anti-Semitism reduces itself to arguing that these Jewish traits which he enumerates are not so bad; besides, not the Jew himself but the anti-Semite is responsible for the Jew and his character. Though about this responsibility for the Jew he is not altogether certain, since it seems to him that it was “by taking advantage of certain aspects of the conduct of inauthentic Jews that the anti-Semite has forged his general mythology of the Jew.” II this is the case, the behavior of Jews, of most Jews, provides the material for the anti-Semitic caricature.
The fallacy in Sartre’s notion of “authentic” and “inauthentic,” which results in such profound distortions, may be traced to his erroneous conception of a “situation.” “Authenticity,” Sartre tells us, “consists in having a true and lucid consciousness of the situation, in assuming the responsibilities and risks involved, in accepting it in pride and humiliation, sometimes in horror and hate.” Can one have a “true and lucid consciousness” of his situation? Only if “situation” is defined in terms of external relations. I can be conscious that I am an American, a Jew, a husband, a father. But to Sartre, one’s self is part of the situation. Therefore to know my situation I must know myself. I must have solved the Socratic problem. But if we Jews strove to arrive at such a consciousness of our situation and of ourselves we should surely develop that “almost continuously reflective attitude” which for Sartre is “the first trait” of the inauthentic Jew. If like Socrates, Pascal, Hamlet, Kierkegaard, we really attempted to reach a “true and lucid consciousness” of ourselves, we should not attain to authenticity at all but merely demonstrate to Sartre that we are inauthentic Jews.
Here again Sartre, attempting to leap from instrumentalism to subjectivity, falls into an abyss. The choice between being authentic or inauthentic has to do not with any specific historical or social condition in which one may find oneself but with one’s meta-physical situation, with the fact of being alive as a unique individual. In the particular situation we cannot choose ourselves, since our action in it is the means by which we discover ourselves. Could Oedipus, while still unconscious of his origin, have chosen himself and achieved authenticity by “assuming the risks and responsibilities” of his situation as king, father, husband? The distinction between choosing to be oneself and choosing not to be oneself was made by Kierkegaard. But to Kierkegaard both to choose to be oneself and to choose not to be oneself are forms of despair, not of authenticity and in authenticity. The Jew who wills to make himself nothing-but-a-Jew (and as a Jew nothing) does not thereby become more authentic than the Jew who wills not to be a Jew. Both have taken the way of despair, since they have willed to transform themselves from what they are, as given, into what they conceive the situation to demand them to be. They are guilty of the Sartrian fallacy of imagining that they have a total knowledge of the situation and can therefore, like God, create the “being” in it.
There is a situation in which a man’s choices appear to “make” him entirely, instead of altering what was given by his origin and his past: the concentration-camp situation. Sartre’s categories of authentic and inauthentic apply to the concentration-camp victim. He has been deprived of his identity; his entire past has been wiped out; he was born again “in horror and hate” upon the closing of the gate. Starting in nothingness, he will make himself by his choices in his situation, of which he can have a “true and lucid consciousness,” since its limits and those of his existence in it are visible from moment to moment. The prisoner, the pure human Nobody, is restricted to authentic and inauthentic, an adjective without a noun.
This concentration-camp vision of beginning one’s life anew within a situation imposed by others is primary in Sartre’s metaphysics. It has a traumatic fixity in him; it also inspires him. I suspect it came upon him with the force of a religious conversion during the Occupation. It is the Sartrian situation, decorated with a “no—exit” sign, and inhabited not by “concrete syntheses” but by the watched and the watchers, the prisoners and the guards.
Sartre’s Jew is a personification of the man in the camp, and it is as a concentration-camp drama that his study of the Jew hangs together. First appears the anti-Semite, murderous lord of a “total” world.1 Even when he does not kill outright, his ultimate intent is to slay. His victim, the Jew, like the concentration-camp prisoner, has no history because he was cut off from it; he is nothing but what his guards have made of him. His life is a choice between trying to hide this fact from himself through philosophizing or dreaming or making plans like other men—or assuming the situation and the existence that the camp has imposed upon him. It is peculiar to Sartre’s philosophy that the latter choice means to recover one’s humanity and one’s “freedom” in the very degradation which he accepts. But free or not, the Jew will not alter his fate by becoming “authentic”; his situation “is such that everything he does turns against him.” Nor will authenticity establish for him any connection with the “outside” world of humanity: his choice must be “in the face of all and against all.” For the point is that there is no Jew on this side of the walls where human beings dwell. The sole Jewish fact is the camp of the anti-Semite. Under the circumstances the Jew would have but one goal—to get out. He would assimilate to anything, for outside are human beings—and what imprisoned nothing does not dream of becoming any human being? But assimilation, escape, is not possible. First the camp has to be removed by the acts of the good men outside (all Gentiles).
The above is a synopsis of Sartre’s Reflections in terms of the image behind his analysis. When Sartre says “Jew” he means someone else, the prisoner. For instance, the Jew to him, like the camp inmate, feels solidarity only with those who have suffered the same experience—no fraternity is possible with outsiders. Were he not carried away by his fantasy, could Sartre have made the following dreadful statement? “In effect the Jew is to another Jew the only man to whom he can say ‘we’.” If this were true the most destructive accusations of the anti-Semite would be justified. Unable to enter into community with non-Jews for whatever reason, the Jew would deserve to be shunned. A Jew in a trade union whose “we” was weaker than his brother’s; a Jew on a baseball team, a Jew in a political party or a military squad, with his “we” restricted to the other Jews in it, would deserve to be kicked out, at least. This person without a positive historical tie to his fellow Jews would yet be fused to them in rejecting humanity—one almost detects here the leer of the Elders of Zion munching their conspiratorial matzot.
But we need not be shocked because Sartre is not really talking about the Jew at all but about his favorite theme, the concentration-camp situation and the man in it, a man hopelessly cut off from the world and subjected to the behavior of his enemies. We see this most clearly in Sartre’s discussion of Bergson. The world thinks of Bergson as a philosopher of intuition. Benda, a Jew, attacked Bergson as the demiurge of modern irrationalism and the type of the “musical Jew” who scorns rationality. But Jews, say the anti-Semites, are incapable of intuition; they are all just clever rationalists. Yes, Sartre agrees, the anti-Semites have made rationalists of the Jews. Since Bergson is a Jew his “system is a rationalism that has undergone a change of name.” (Not a bad characterization of Sartre’s Existentialism, by the way.) “For my part, I see it as the supreme defense of the persecuted.” Spinoza and Husserl, too, are rationalists in spite of themselves. Bergson, among other inauthentic Jews, thought as he did, and what he did, because he was defending himself against a “true and lucid consciousness” of his Jewish situation. His philosophy is an inutile attempt to say “we” with all mankind when he could only really say “we” with Jews. Bergson’s entire intellectual life—which Valéry hailed during the Occupation as the quintessence of French thought, in contrast to the system-building of the German philosophers—this entire life is to Sartre but a symbolic activity designed to conceal from Bergson himself the impermeable fact of his Jewishness. Jews are incapable of metaphysics—“metaphysics is the special privilege of the ‘Aryan’ governing classes”—they can only defend themselves. At this point the Existentialist philosophy of freedom, dominated by its terrible dream, has dropped far below the deepest cellars of psychological and historical determinism. Even the most rigid Freudian sees the source of a writer’s involuntary fictiveness in some private fact that may be changed through consciousness; while the most mechanical Marxist regards an individual’s thought as compelled by the broad movement of world history. For Sartre, Bergson is moved neither by himself nor by the world. He is locked into a middle area, the Jewish situation. And yet he is moved absolutely, for that is what he is. “Whatever he does, his course is set for him. . . . He cannot choose not to be a Jew.”
Here are some other characteristics of the inauthentic Jew. He is uneasy, but his uneasiness is social rather than metaphysical (in the camp anguish comes not from God or the universe but from society). He is not a surrealist, for he does not believe in destructiveness (destruction has chosen him as its victim). He feels himself forever surrounded by others; no Jew can “perceive the loneliness of each man in a silent universe” (in the camp one never has the chance to be alone). Let Sartre poll Paris today to see how many Frenchmen are secure, metaphysical, surrealist, and in love with solitude. The irony is, however, that Sartre himself, precisely because the concentration camp is central to his thought, is outstandingly anxious, rationalistic, lacking in the metaphysical sense, opposed to surrealism and “disengaged” poetry, and conceives every situation as a purely social one. (I am not suggesting that he is secretly a Jew.)
Those “Jewish traits” collected by Sartre which are not directly deducible from the concentration-camp situation belong to the modem city man, Gentile or Jew, as he appears in the perspective of nostalgia. For instance, Sartre comments about the Jews that “they do not feel toward their bodies that tranquil sentiment of property which characterizes most ‘Aryans.’ For these latter the body is a fruit of French soil.” One recalls what D. H. Lawrence had to say about the “tranquil” physicalness of the “Aryans.” Sartre’s remarks are in the tradition of 20th century ideologists of “aristocracy.” Like them he ascribes to the Jew, regardless of class or locality, the personality of the bigcity bourgeois (“he prefers this form of property [commodities] to all others . . . because it is universal”) seen in contrast with the sentimentalized peasant. This identification of the Jew and the cosmopolitan plays an enormous role in modem anti-Semitism.
In sum, Sartre’s inauthentic Jew is a fiction justified neither by philosophy, history, nor direct observation. Not that there are no Jews who have psychological qualities mentioned by Sartre. Jews in the United States may recognize them as typical of the assimilationist who nervously tries to “lose himself in the Christian world.” And they will approve Sartre’s moral enjoinder to this harassed man: Be a Jew, be yourself, whatever the cost. But in the midst of our approval let us remember that we cannot agree with Sartre (and with the assimilationist) that the Jew is nothing but anti-Semite bait. This is a distortion common to Gentile friends of the Jew. To them the Jew is one who against his will is kept from being a “man like everybody else” by the anti-Semite, who includes every goy who has not made anti-anti-Semitism his vocation. We have had several recent examples of such humanitarian exuberance. But here in America, where Jews are not the only “foreigners,” nor the only target of racialism, it should be clear that being singled out by an enemy is not the cause of our difference from others, is not what makes us Jews.
In opposition to Sartre’s compendium of Jewish nothingness, Jewish imprisonment in his situation, and Jewish traits we may assert the following: Since the Jew possesses a unique identity which springs from his origin and his story, it is possible for him to be any kind of man—rationalist, irrationalist, heroic, cowardly, Zionist or good European—and still be a Jew. The Jew exists but there are no Jewish traits. The Jew who chooses to flee his Jewishness does not thereby turn into something other than a man, any more than an Italian who decides to become an American. Whatever it is, the desire to assimilate is not “inauthentic”; one may choose to suppress the past in oneself or to surpass it. On the other hand, the Jewish identity has a remarkable richness for those who rediscover it within themselves.
1 For all his viciousness and “mediocrity,” Sartre’s anti-Semite is more human than his Jew. True, the anti-Semite is “inauthentic,” in that instead of a true consciousness of his situation he interprets his miseries as caused by Jewish malevolence. Yet he is a man of passionate conviction and has the glamor and initiative of one who has made “a total choice of himself and the meaning of the world”—while the Jew, no matter what he does, thinks or feels, is degraded and impotent.
Concentrating on his sentimental image of the “passionate” anti-Semite, Sartre fails to consider a type much more menacing historically: the anti-Semitic conspirator. This anti-Semite may be quite lacking in the “passion” and the concept of the world of the anti-Semite in Sartre’s portrait (Sartre might have called him the “authentic” anti-Semite, since he is conscious of his situation, and of the uses of anti-Semitism in it). In a given historical situation this cold manipulator of anti-Semitism may prove far more deadly than Sartre’s “Manichean” and folklorist. Robert Pick’s observation (Commentary, September 1948) that the fatal point in the development of anti-Semitism occurs when it receives encouragement from above seems to touch the essence of the problem. The Jew is truly endangered when different forms of anti-Semitism come together and achieve the power to act. Sartre is unaware of this turning point, since for him the Jew is always a marked man. Thus he fails to distinguish between the regime of the yellow star and the normal environment of the Jew in Western democracies. “The Nazi ordinances,” he says, “only carried to its extreme a situation to which we had formerly accommodated ourselves very well.” But the very life of the Jew depends on distinguishing sharply between a situation in which he will be killed if he arouses someone’s hostility and one in which his enemy can only try to injure him through prejudice or disdain.