The Least and the Last of the Jews

Figuring the Jew in Postwar French Thought


‘Nous sommes tous des juifs allemands!’We are all German Jews. This is the famous slogan taken up by throngs of students during the May 1968 protests in Paris.The cry was most immediately the response of a crowd to the news that the movement’s leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit had been denied re-entry into France after a brief trip abroad. This spontaneous act of sympathy marked an event in the history of France’s Jews, a moment when the Jew, understood as a figure on the margins of the culture, a rootless wanderer, a foreigner, publically came to represent a political ideal. As such, this event registered the history of the figure of the Jew perhaps more than the history of the Jews themselves: a moment when a shift in value, wrought by the crucible of the Shoah, manifested itself publically and politically.

May 1968 was not of course the first time that a Jew’s plight before the French authorities of Justice had incited a public outcry. One could even say that the students’ expression of solidarity with Cohn-Bendit self-consciously echoed that of the Dreyfusards, the intellectuals and politicians who defended Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish French army captain falsely accused of treason in 1894. However, the Dreyfusards acted in the name of the Enlightenment ideal of humanity, an ideal uniting men above and beyond differences. As Émile Zola famously said in 1898 in his open letter to President Faure: ‘I have but one passion, that of the Enlightenment, in the name of the humanity that has suffered so much and that has a right to happiness.’ Dreyfus’s Judaism was, for his supporters, almost beside the point.The student protestors of May 1968, in contrast, allied themselves with Cohn-Bendit by adopting his Jewish identity. They protested, not in the name of an idea of humanity, but in the name of the ‘The Jew’; instead of claiming the status of the universal for Cohn-Bendit, they claimed the status of exception, of Jewish particularity for themselves.

They protested, not in the name of an idea of humanity, but in the name of the ‘The Jew’

Much was made of the slogan ‘We are all German Jews’ in the years following the student uprisings. In The Imaginary Jew, Alain Finkelkraut, a child of two World War II refugees, describes his mixed feelings of pride and violation, as the protesters declared the banner of the Jew one that could be taken up by anyone, regardless of ethnicity or religious upbringing. Maurice Blanchot, the enigmatic writer, theorist and a prominent figure within the May ‘68 movement, in contrast, not only lauded the students’ chant as one of the most powerful political acts in modern France, but also seemed to do so for the reason that Finkielkraut criticised the protesters: the students were taking up the position of the outsider rather than defending their own Frenchness. For this reason, Blanchot called it an ‘inaugural speech-event, opening and overturning borders.’ And the philosopher Jacques Rancière has described it as a paradigmatic political moment, its power arising from the very impropriety of the students’ performance, a moment of disidentification, when the students aligned themselves with a name that could not be appropriated. In examining this variety of responses, we must consider how the figure of the Jew came indeed to function as such a powerful signifier. At the heart of these responses is the question of what the figure of the Jew had itself come to symbolise in a postwar era in which the nationalist ideals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries had become an anathema. It is, I contend, for the very reasons Jews had historically been maligned that among postwar French intellectuals the Jew comes to represent an ideal to be emulated.

Although the association between the Jew and rootlessness is at least as old as the medieval tale of Ahasverus, the legendary wandering Jew, it is within the context of modern nationalism that the image of Jewish rootlessness developed specifically political overtones as the foreign Jew came to represent a threat to the integrity of the nation state. In France, ear coalesced around Alfred Dreyfus, whose alleged act of treason was seen as symptomatic of the danger posed by the deracinated Jews posing as Frenchmen contaminating French blood and poisoning its soil. Dreyfus is himself depicted in a period postcard as a modern Ahasverus, hunchbacked and pulling a rickety cart. For rightwing nationalists such as Maurice Barrès, it hardly mattered whether or not Dreyfus had truly committed any crime: his guilt was ontological:‘[H]e has no roots…That Dreyfus is capable of betraying I conclude from his race. . . As for those who say that [he]. . .is not a traitor . . .So be it! They are quite right: Dreyfus doesn’t belong to our nation, so how could he betray it?’ Dreyfus was a symbol for Barrès, as were the Jews themselves. It was not so much a question of who had done what to whom but that the crowd ‘had a word of war to rally itself. It wants some cry of passion that makes abstract ideas tangible,’ Barrès wrote already in 1890 in an essay for Le Figaro about anti-Jewish sentiment.

One could say the same about the student protesters of 1968.They too needed a word around which to rally themselves and once again ‘the Jews’ functioned as the necessary symbol. The representation had largely not shifted but its value had. The Jew was still the rootless foreigner whose power derived from his very marginality. However, by 1968 the dissociation between the Jew and hegemony gave this figure a political significance. The 19th century philosopher G.W.F Hegel had declared the Jews a people standing outside of history, and it was their exterior position—historically at least—to the machinations of national powers that made the Jews an evocative figure in 1968, if not for the students directly than for those intellectuals influencing the student movement and for those influenced by it.

The figure of the Jew is never distant from Sartre’s descriptions of existentialism

By 1946, Jean-Paul Sartre had already begun indirectly to rehabilitate the figure of the Jew in Réflexions sur la Question Juive (published in English as Anti-Semite and Jew). He defined the anti-Semite as the one who flees his existential destiny by clinging to determinist ideas of essence, nature and race. In contrast he presented the Jew as something of an archetype for the everyman: faced with existential groundlessness and struggling against the fact of being over-determined by the other. Sartre asserted on multiple occasions that he himself identified with the Jew,‘a type who has nothing, no land, an intellectual.’That these are characteristics that could seem appealing, worthy even of emulation, is, to some extent at least, a result of Sartre himself, even if he himself could hardly be said to fit this description.As is clear from some of Sartre’s short fiction written in the thirties, this ideal was crafted as a direct contrast to Maurice Barrès’s conception of the self as developed in his Culte du Moi trilogy. For Barrès the identity of the self is ultimately discovered by way of the ties that bind us to nation, ancestry and soil. Thus even when not presented in these terms, the figure of the Jew is never distant from Sartre’s descriptions of existentialism.

It is however the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, a Jewish émigré to Paris from Lithuania, and a former disciple of Martin Heidegger, who set out most clearly to revalorise the trope of the Jew. Like Sartre, Levinas is motivated by the failures in the philosophical project of the West to find an alternative to the dichotomy that pits a determinist particularism against a notion of freedom founded in abstract universalism. For Sartre, however, the Jew merely reflects the social and cultural dilemmas created by this dichotomy. For Levinas the history and culture of the Jew reveals a way out. Once again, it is the very reasons for which the figure of the Jew was maligned that this figure should now be venerated. That is to say, it is the Jew’s supposed position of passivity in the face of power, his uprootedness, his rejection of the cult of blood and soil that make him worthy of emulation. To the myth of Ulysses returning to Ithaca, a metaphor for the way in which European culture has privileged self-mastery over the encounter with the other, Levinas opposes ‘the story of Abraham, who leaves his fatherland forever for a yet unknown land.’ While Abraham is for Levinas first and foremost a model of ethical subjectivity and thus universal, Levinas asserts that Judaism has historically been the culture that testifies most clearly to this truth. Levinas will even suggest that it is for this very reason that the Jews have been historically maligned and persecuted. To the cult of power and earthly greatness, forces which nearly triumphed in World War II, Judaism, according to Levinas, offers not merely an escape toward transcendence, a path he identifies with both Christianity and abstract humanism, but rather, an emphasis on the neighbor, the other to whom I am responsible to the point of abnegating my own needs.

This is not to say, of course, that the student protestors of 1968 were thinking of Levinas when they claimed for themselves the banner of the German Jew. Certainly very few of them had ever read or heard of Levinas at the time. Levinas, a loyal De Gaulle supporter and fairly politically conservative by French standards, was not even sympathetic to the student movement. And his post-1948 sympathies with Zionism led him on occasion to make political interventions that seemed in tension with his own diasporic ideals. Nevertheless, Levinas’s revalorisation of the association between Jewishness and uprootedness does tell us something about Maurice Blanchot’s interpretation of the slogan in the months following the May events. It is Blanchot and ultimately Jacques Derrida who exploit for political ends the association Levinas makes between deracination and Judaism.

In their hands Levinas’ representation of Judaism becomes a cogent critique of the very nature of political belonging, one that can even be redirected against Levinas’ claim that the Jewish people could instantiate the ideal of uprootedness. For Blanchot, a life long-friend and conversation partner of Levinas’, Abraham’s act of leaving the fatherland in Genesis 12, for which he was maligned by Hegel in The Spirit of Christianity, is a diasporic lesson which bears on more than our relation to soil. It signals to the very dangers of nationalist chauvinism. ‘Everything that roots men by values, by sentiments, in one time, in one history, in one language, is the principle of alienation that constitutes man as privileged insofar as he is what he is (French, of precious French blood) imprisoning him in contentment with his own reality and encouraging him to offer it as an example or impose it as a conquering assertion.’ In contrast, he writes, ‘If Judaism is destined to take on meaning for us, it is indeed by showing that, at whatever time, one must be ready to set out, because to go out. . . is the exigency from which one cannot escape if one wants to maintain the possibility of a just relation.’ Judaism has, under Levinas’s tutelage, become for Blanchot a trope for resisting the hegemonic call of political allegiance. It is not surprising, thus, that Blanchot perceived the student chant of 1968 as a great political moment; not, as Finkielkraut understood it, one in which France’s youth tried to usurp the position of Jewish victimhood, but rather a moment when the students chose to resist their natural identification with the state and chose to go outside. It was a moment when the Jews’ supposed disconnection from soil made them a heroic exemplar, one, however that could never be properly claimed or owned by anyone. For Blanchot, Finkielkraut’s experience of usurpation was part of the point; the moment one claims to instantiate the ideal of deracination, one has elevated the value of belonging over and above the command ‘to go out from your father’s house.’ Levinas’s powerful critique of nationalism as a modern paganism requires one further step, which Levinas failed to take: its disengagement from the claim that the Jews are the paradigmatically uprooted people.This is this final step that Blanchot sees performed in the students’ gesture, not because they claim to take the place of the Jews, but because their very act reveals that the space of deracination is only occupied in a gesture of disavowel. Blanchot leads the way toward this final deracination by way of his reading of May 1968. It is, however, Derrida, the philosopher of deconstruction, much better known for his effect on American English departments than for his treatment of Judaism, who takes up the mantle.

The students of 1968 probably had no sense of themselves as performing an ironic political gesture: claiming to be what they could never be, and in so doing critiquing dominant modes of political identification. It is only analysis that unearths this significance. Derrida, on the other hand makes the ironic gesture of identification (which can simultaneously be read as an act of disidentification) a self-conscious political performance. If the students of 1968 transgress the boundaries of political identity by claiming to be what they are not, Derrida takes this procedure a step further: he claims to be a marrano. He claims, that is, to be a Jew only in secret. An impossible gesture if there ever was one and yet it follows perfectly from the history of the trope of the Jew in 20th century Europe. If the rootless Jew is, in the words of Paul Celan, the one to whom nothing belongs,‘which is not on loan, borrowed, never to be returned,’ then, in the words of Derrida, who was himself born into an Algerian-Jewish family,‘It makes it possible to say that the less you are what you are, the more you are Jewish, and as a result the less you are Jewish, the more you are Jewish . . .’ And thus the only way to remain true to the legacy of the wandering Jew is, as Derrida put it,‘to be the least and thus the last of the Jews.’ For Derrida, this claim acknowledges the inevitability of allegiances while, at the same time, performing a final act of uprooting on that structure. For Derrida, there is no doubt that this play of identity had a political significance. It was meant to trip up the impulse toward exceptionalism that accompanies claims to exemplarity. It was meant as a sign of hospitality to the other. One that was received, whether knowingly or not, when a Palestinian repeated the same trope.

The less you are what you are, the more you are Jewish, and as a result the less you are Jewish, the more you are Jewish

In August of 2000 Edward Said in an interview with Ari Shavit for Ha’aretz said, in terms that were, no doubt, meant to be provocative, ‘I am the last Jewish intellectual . . . the last one, the authentic follower of Adorno. I will articulate it like this: I am a Jewish Palestinian.’ Not surprisingly, in Said’s words Alain Finkielkraut once again smelled a threat. He registered his offense in an article for Le Débat in 2004. This claim to be the new Jews,‘the ethical Jews’ was the last frontier, he argued, in a battle to deprive ‘the ethnic Jews’ of their identity. But once again he misses what is at stake in the claim. Said is doing more here than aligning himself with a discourse of the margins. He is calling attention to the irony that the Palestinians have been uprooted by Jews. Said clearly understands that he is playing with a trope and that the impact lies in this very play. In this claim, he sets in motion a double irony: at the moment he calls himself a ‘Jew,’ he himself is acting as the ‘occupier.’ At that very moment he can no longer claim the mantle of the rootless Jew. In claiming it, he has also forfeited it. Said’s statement and Finkielkraut’s response both reveal the political relevance of the figure of the Jew. Its history—both the history of the Jews and their representation as the other—has become paradigmatic.Whether we like it or not, to speak in the name of the rootless Jew, the foreigner, the victim, is to set in motion an irony; for we annul our right to the position the minute we claim it as our own.To be the last of the Jews, will always mean being the least of the Jews.

Sarah Hammerschlag is assistant professor in the department of Religion at Williams College in Massachusetts. She is the author of The Figural Jew: Politics and Identity in Postwar France, published by the University of Chicago Press in 2010.


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