Sartre, Antisemitism and Brexit

In my attempt to read around the topic of race in Vichy France – one of the two main projects I am currently working on – I recently picked up my dad’s highschool copy of Sartre’s Réflexions sur la question juive. Originally published in 1946, this edition was re-printed by Gallimard in their ‘Idées’ collection in 1954.

The first part of his essay explores the inner-workings of the antisemite. First, antisemitic sentiments are not opinions which merit the platform of free speech. The idea that the antisemite is allowed to his own antisemitic opinions, and that democracy protects his right to free speech, is false and dangerous. The antisemite manipulates democratic values in order to spew hatred. Antisemitism is not an opinion because it is a passion, grounded in neither reason nor experience. It covers suppressed sexual fantasies and criminal desires. But who is this antisemite ? According to Sartre, antisemites are part of a bourgeois economic background : ‘On ne trouve guère d’antisémitisme chez les ouvriers.’ – ‘We don’t find antisemitism amongst workers.’ The antisemite is also someone who is afraid to think. He wants order, not republican values. He accepts a certain idea of ‘Good’ without ever asking any questions, and spends his time identifying and reinforcing ‘Evil’. The antisemite is ‘l’élite des médiocres’ – ‘the elite of mediocracy’.

Not all of what Sartre says rings true or relevant. First, antisemitism is a lot more complicated than his Marxist interpretation suggests. Second, his definition of antisemitism – amongst other things – is limited. As David Feldman has written in his Sub-Report Commissioned to Assist the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism, the definition of antisemitism is hugely complex and merits much careful consideration.

That being said, Sartre’s text has real resonance. Indeed, Réflexions sur la question juive is not just about antisemitism. The Jew, Sartre says, ‘n’est ici qu’un prétexte’. ‘is only a pretext’. He argues that ‘ailleurs on se servira du nègre, ailleurs du jaune.’ ‘elsewhere it is about a negro, elsewhere a yellow man.’ These few words immediately catapult his essay into a much bigger sphere. Exploring how notions of antisemitism and racism intersect is part of my bigger project, so I am very interested by the way in which Sartre juxtaposes these three words – Jew ; negro ; yellow. Beyond the antisemite and the Jew, Sartre’s text helps us to think about the persisting fear and hatred of the ‘other’.

To pick up Sartre’s own words, elsewhere, it is the immigrant, the refugee, the European, the European Union. Indeed, for months – and years, in fact – the debate of ‘in or out’ has been raging on. I have often belittled the reality of a potential Brexit, believing that the British people do not have it so bad that they would seek – and risk – radical change. And yet, over the past few weeks, my stomach has gotten tighter. First, because as a French person who cannot vote, the result of this Referendum could radically change my life. Second, it is because I am hearing more and more British people – being interviewed in a pub in Yorkshire, or in some (and I cringe here) academic settings – say that the European Union, Europeans and the immigrants who come with it, threaten their identity, their security, their society. The EU and its citizens become scapegoats for Britain’s problems. Of course not all Brexiters hate immigrants, and not all Bremainers like them ; yet the rhetoric around immigration is part of the Brexit campaign. And I find this terrifying.

Sartre’s text, read 70 years later, is a chilling reminder of how hatred based on religion, race and nationality continues to bubble along in the 21st century. (Although granted, you don’t need to read Sartre to be reminded of that. Sadly the evidence is everywhere.) I am not saying that Brexiters are dominated by passion, sexual frustration and criminal desires – these are arguments which I do not care to step into too deeply. But ignorance (which is not only to do with education) and fear seem to be driving factors behind the scapegoating of the ‘other’ which is laced throughout the Brexit campaign. When reading the following sentence I got chills up my spine: ‘…les mesures qu’ils proposent et qui, toutes, visent à son abaissement, à son humiliation, à son bannissement, sont des succédantes de cet assassinat qu’ils méditent en eux-mêmes : ce sont des meurtres symboliques.’ ‘…the measures they {the antisemites} propose, all of which aim towards his {the Jew’s} belittlement, his humiliation, his banishment, precede this assassination they are all thinking of within themselves : they are symbolic murders.’ Again, I do not want to discuss suppressed criminal and murderous desires ; but taken out of the context of the antisemite and the Jew, Sartre’s point that the belittling, humiliation and/or persecution of a minority group is not a democratic right, but a step in the wrong direction, is a very important one.

This blog post is off the cuff – it is spontaneous and lacks full reflection and I apologise for inconsistencies. But on the day of the Referendum vote, I cannot help but read my research through the eyes of today. And lets hope that the society which we started to build in 1945 will still be here tomorrow morning.


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