Understanding Antisemitism

Summary of JeanPaul Sartre‘s Anti-Semite and Jew

Anti-Semite and Jew (FrenchRéflexions sur la question juive, “Reflections on the Jewish Question“) is an essay about antisemitism in France during World War Two, written by Jean-Paul Sartre shortly after the liberation of Paris from German occupation in 1944.

The first part of the essay, “The Portrait of the Antisemite”, was published in December 1945 in Les Temps modernes. The whole text was then published in 1946. This essay deals with antisemitism and how Jews react to it. More broadly, the book tries to explain the etiologyof hate by analyzing antisemitic hate.

According to Sartre, Antisemitism (and hate more broadly) is, among other things, a way by which the French middle class lay claim to the nation in which they reside, and an oversimplified conception of the world in which the Antisemite sees “not a conflict of interests but the damage an evil power causes society.”

Sartre begins by defining antisemitism as characterized by certain opinions: attributing “all or part of his own misfortunes and those of his country to the presence of Jewish elements in the community, … The Antisemite proposes to remedy this state of affairs by depriving the Jews of certain of their rights, by keeping them out of certain economic and social activities, by expelling them from the country, by exterminating all of them ….”

Sartre then explains the idea that these antisemitic opinions are produced by external causes, such as the experience of objective situations involving Jews. Sartre argues that antisemitism is not an “idea” in the commonly understood sense of the word: nor is it a point of view based rationally upon empirical information, calmly collected and calibrated in as objective a manner as is possible. Sartre states that “It is first of all a passion.”

It is often a deep passion, “Some men are suddenly struck with impotence if they learn from the woman with whom they are making love that she is a Jewess. It is an involvement of the mind, but one so deep-seated and complex that it extends to the physiological realm, as happens in cases of hysteria.” 

Far from experience producing the anti-Semite’s idea of the Jew, it was this idea of the Jew that explained his experience. If the Jew did not exist, the anti-Semite would invent him.” Anti-Semitism is a view that arises not from experience or historical fact, but from itself. It lends new perspective to experience and historical fact. The anti-Semite convinces himself of beliefs that he knows to be spurious at best.

Sartre deploys his concept of bad faith as he develops his argument. For Sartre, the anti-Semite has escaped the insecurity of good faith, the impossibility of sincerity. He has abandoned reason and embraced passion. Sartre comments that, “It is not unusual for people to elect to live a life of passion rather than of reason. But ordinarily they love the objects of passion: women, glory, power, money. Since the anti-Semite has chosen hate, we are forced to conclude that it is the state of passion that he loves.” He chooses to reason from passion, to reason falsely “because of the longing for impenetrability. The rational man groans as he gropes for the truth; he knows that reasoning is no more than tentative, that other considerations may intervene to cast doubt on it.” Anti-Semites are attracted by “the durability of a stone.” What frightens them is the uncertainty of truth.

 “The anti-Semite has chosen hate because hate is a faith.” He has escaped responsibility and doubt. He can blame anything on the Jew; he does not need to engage reason, for he has his faith. The anti-Semite is a prime example of a person who has entered into bad faith to avoid responsibility. He attempts to relinquish his responsibility to anti-Semitism and a community of anti-Semites. He “fears every kind of solitariness… however small his stature, he takes every precaution to make it smaller, lest he stand out from the herd and find himself face to face with himself. He has made himself an anti-Semite because that is something one cannot be alone.” 

Anti-Semitism is a way of feeling good, proud even, rather than guilty at the abandonment of responsibility and the flight before the impossibility of true sincerity. The anti-Semite abandons himself to the crowd and his bad faith, he “flees responsibility as he flees his own consciousness, and choosing for his personality the permanence of the rock, he chooses for his morality the scale of petrified values.” He pulls down shutters, blinds, mirrors and mirages over his consciousness to keep himself in his bad faith away from his responsibilities and his liberty. The anti-Semite is afraid “of himself, of his own consciousness, of his own liberty, of his instincts, of his responsibilities, of solitariness, of change, of society, and the world – of everything except the Jews.” He is “a coward who does not want to admit his cowardice to himself.” The anti-Semite wallows in the depths of an extreme bad faith. “Anti-Semitism, in short, is fear of the human condition. The anti-Semite is a man who wishes to be pitiless stone, a furious torrent, a devastating thunderbolt – anything except a man.” This is his bad faith.

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