Thoughts on Sartre’s Essay: “Anti-Semite and Jew”

May 13, 2021
Clementine Assayag

Paris, France

Class of 2021

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Jean-Paul Sartre is one of the leading figures in 20th-century French philosophy. Throughout his life, he continuously worked towards challenging social and cultural assumptions, particularly by denouncing destructive “conformity.” For instance, in 1964, he refused to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature he was awarded, by arguing that “a writer should not allow himself to be turned into an institution.”
During the second world war, Sartre will first be enrolled as a soldier and then held prisoner in a German detention camp up until March 1941; he then participated in a few resistant movements against Nazi occupation, such as the National Writer’s Comity. In 1944, shortly after the Liberation of Paris from the German occupation,  he published an essay, titled “Réflexions sur la question juive” in French.

I found this essay to be extremely valuable in the sense that it explains the “etiology” of hate; in other words, this work explores the universal causation and mechanisms that lead to the development of antisemitic hate and hateful ideologies in general. Sartre’s philosophical essay thus also provides insightful psychological and sociological explanations to the development of hateful behaviors.

Here are a few of this philosopher’s key ideas that I found to be very insightful and enlightening in understanding antisemitic hate (and in preventing/fighting it better)!

1. There is no such thing as an “antisemitic opinion.” According to Sartre, the word “opinion” can sometimes be dangerous as it gives thoughts a harmless appearance by associating them to simple “preferences.” According to his idea, we can have an opinion on our governments’ policies, because it relies on rational reasoning and deals with the “administration of objects,” but we can not have an opinion that deals with persecuting a specific, targeted group of people, which explains why in France, antisemitism is outlawed and not included in the domain of liberty of expression.

2. “If the Jew did not exist, the Antisemite would invent him.” Sartre establishes a distinction between the Jew and the concept of the Jew. Indeed, he explains that the notion of being a  “Jew” is a social construct associating Jewish people to scapegoats, ones on which all mistakes or wrongdoings can be blamed on. In one of his examples, Sartre portrays a woman who explains her hatred towards Jews; she says that a Jewish furrier has stolen from her, and burnt the fur she gave him. Sartre quickly raises a question; why did the woman decide to hate all Jews specifically, and not all furriers instead? According to Sartre, this goes to show that people are more inclined and pre-disposed to rely on the antisemitic social concept of the Jew to blame their wrongdoings on than another figure.

3. The antisemite is passionate, and thus irrational; he chooses to reason falsely and to ignore rational arguments and facts going against his assertions. But how can anyone decide to think wrongly? According to Sartre, this behavior can be explained by a form of “nostalgia for impermeability.” Indeed, the rational individual knows that his assertions are only probable and that his ideas might be questioned by future discoveries or other considerations; the very shape of truth, explains Sartre, is one of an object of “infinite approximation.” The rational individual looking to establish the truth, therefore, has to be open to constant change and questioning of his assumptions; and as such, he might appear to be hesitant. That is why, in opposition to the rational individual, the antisemite is attracted to a “rock-like permanence;” he fears reasoning (and to some extent fears himself) and is thus looking to adopt strong sentimental prevention in order to avoid reasoning. The antisemite aspires to hold onto an unshakable certainty, one that is impermeable to rational arguments and experience.

Clementine Assayag is a BBG from Paris, France, and is the founder of a charity organisation in China.

All views expressed on content written for The Shofar represent the opinions and thoughts of the individual authors. The author biography represents the author at the time in which they were in BBYO.

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