2011: Jean-Paul Sartre and the Jewish Question
Book Review; written 2011, never published.
Jonathan Judaken, Jean-Paul Sartre and the Jewish Question, Lincoln & London, University of Nebraska Press, 2006, 390 pp. ISBN 978-0-8032-2489-6, $28.90
Jonathan Judaken’s study of Sartre and the “Jewish Question” traces Sartre’s approach to Jews and their oppression from L’Enfance d’un chefthrough Vichy and the Liberation to LeScénario Freud and L’Espoirmaintenant. It is an impressive and formidably documented piece of work (marred only by a few small inaccuracies) which will undoubtedly form a valuable foundation for further research and discussion.
Judaken does not confine himself to analysing Sartre’s work, but places it in the context of French political and intellectual life from the Dreyfus case to the 1970s. Sartre’s views on Jewish oppression were formulated in opposition to the noxious current of antisemitism which infected many French intellectuals before 1945 – and some afterwards. Thus Judaken’s work is not just a major contribution to the narrow field of Sartre studies, but offers a broader approach to the “history of ideas” in France.
As one might expect of an author who had at one point wished to live permanently in Israel, Judaken has an axe to grind, but he grinds it gently, not at all in the style of the bullying Zionist trolls encountered all too frequently on the internet. However, like Sartre himself, Judaken is sometimes better at posing questions than at answering them, and while recognising the strengths of his work, I have certain reservations.
To begin with the title: what exactly is the “Jewish Question”? As Judaken himself shows, Sartre’s Réflexionssur la question juive actually deals with four separate questions: the nature of antisemitism, Jewish alterity, antisemitism and Jewish identity and the French response to anti-Semitism. The oppression of Jews raises not a single question, but a whole complex of interlinked problems. At times the Jewish Question seemed to me a bit like the Ultimate Question in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Perhaps Judaken has tried to impose excessive unity on a range of themes and problems in Sartre’s work.
As for the answer to the question, Sartre in Réflexions is fairly clear that this can only be the socialist revolution. It is a measure of how far we have travelled (regressed) since 1946 that many modern readers find this almost incomprehensible and Judaken certainly seems a bit bemused by the idea, dismissing Sartre’s “closed dialectical” approach as “utopian” and “untenable”.
Judaken sees Réflexionsas the source of all Sartre’s thinking on the question of oppression, which is central to the development of his ideas on morality. There is undoubtedly some truth in this, and it is valuable to trace continuities between Réflexions and works such as Orphée noir, Saint Genet (on which Judaken has disappointingly little to say) and Beauvoir’s LeDeuxièmeSexe. Fanon acknowledged the influence of Réflexions on his thinking.
Yet Judaken overstates his point when he writes: “Replace the Jew with the proletariat, the colonized, women, gays, indeed any marginalized, dispossessed, repressed, and oppressed member or group in the human species, and you have the contours of Sartre’s political and ethical itinerary.” The young Sartre was aware of colonial oppression long before he wrote on the Jewish question. More importantly, Judaken may be underestimating the specificity of different oppressions. Anti-black racism, with its origins in colonialism, has very different socio-economic roots to antisemitism. And as early as Réflexions Sartre clearly saw the working class, not merely as one oppressed group among others, but as the key to the liquidation of all oppression.
Judaken disentangles Sartre’s positions on Middle East politics carefully and sympathetically, though at times, understandably, he struggles to make sense of them. He quotes with apparent approval Sartre’s position after the Six Day War of rejecting “simple binary thinking, depicting one side as evil and the other as good”. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that in any other context Sartre would, quite rightly, see such an evasion of choice as “bad faith”.
Occasionally Judaken comes close to blurring the distinction between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. He notes, rightly, that many of the militants of the 1968 far left were of Jewish origin. But while he points out that some former Marxists became orthodox Jews he fails to notice that many of the Jewish activists of the 1968 generation have remained sharp and eloquent anti-Zionists. There is a proud tradition of Jewish anti-Zionism, and Sartre would have done well to take greater notice of it. Judaken gives perhaps excessive attention to Sartre’s relation with Benny Lévy, surely only a minor episode in in a complex career.
Overall Judaken has given us a fascinating account of a particular strand in Sartre’s thought. To look at Sartre’s massive and multifaceted work in terms of a single theme can be powerfully illuminating, but sometimes also misleading.
The first decade of the twenty-first century has given us a number of important and original studies of Sartre. In addition to Judaken’s book there have been Sam Coombes’ The Early Sartre and Marxism and Paige Arthur’s Unfinished Projects. The last word has not been said about Sartre, and hopefully he will continue to inspire both theory and practice in our century.