Jean-Paul Sartre when turning his gaze to the phenomenon of anti-Semitism as a political and ideological movement in the 19th and 20th centuries, essentially wished to show how the anti-Semite had not only created a god in his own image but how he created the demon of the ‘Jew’ in his own image (Befu 2012, 27). sartreSartre desired to explore and outline exactly how the anti-Semite’s view of the ‘Jews’ was not merely an opinion that was caused by external observances of the actual lives of Jewish people, but rather that “If the Jew did not exist, the anti-Semite would invent him”, so great was the passion of the anti-Semite (Sartre 1995, 7–13). Furthermore, Sartre desired to show that anti-Semitism was a “…syncretic totality…” of not only a view of the Jewish people, or rather the idea of the Jew, but a view “…toward men in general, toward history and society…” (Sartre 1995, 17). What will then be outlined in our review of Sartre’s depiction of the anti-Semite, is how Sartre tries to show how the anti-Semite possesses many of the characteristics that he accuses the ‘Jew’ of having and how the anti-Semite projects these characteristics onto the ‘Jew’ as an entire manner of being in the world, not merely an opinion but a strategy to form the world in the manner that the anti-Semite would wish. Hannah Arendt’s historical work (Arendt 1973) here will be of great benefit as we attempt to describe how anti-Semitic propaganda portrayed Jews alongside of how Sartre describes the passionate view of the anti-Semite. It is not the question of whether Sartre was correct in his assessment of the anti-Semite but how exactly Sartre comes to arrive at a definition of anti-Semitism through the lens of examining the projected desires of the anti-Semite, as Sartre understands him. Lastly, after having done this comparative work we will turn our attention to the question of whether Sartre’s conception of anti-Semitism can be helpful in the task of describing and explaining the varieties of historical anti-Semitism.

            Sartre begins his analysis of the make-up of the anti-Semite by making the claim that the passion of the anti-Semite, being an irrationally chosen passion for the love of the emotion of hatred rather than for an object, causes him to fulfill his desires for “impenetrability” and for being “terrifying” by purposefully adopting this passion to ignore reason (Sartre 1995, 18–21). By doing this, the anti-Semite claims “the right to play”, that is to be frivolous in discourse, and the right to extend out his passion as far as he likes, for the object of certainty is something which he constantly seeks outside of himself, thus leading to the projection of himself onto others (Sartre 1995, 20–21). In historical parallel then, Arendt rightfully points out how secularization and anti-Semitic views of the Jewish people as unassimilable lead to the understanding among many Jewish people, particularly well embodied in Benjamin Disraeli, that “…the old religious concept of chosenness, was no longer the essence of Judaism; it became instead the essence of Jewishness” (Arendt 1973, 74). Furthermore, Arendt also points out how the leading anti-Semitic piece of propaganda, out running even the charge of ritual murder, that of the Jewish secret society of bankers, politicians etc… who “had the world’s destinies in its hands”, was so influential that Disraeli himself had adopted this view that secret societies played with the world ‘behind-the-scenes’ (Arendt 1973, 76). So then, what we have in the anti-Semitic propaganda of the Jewish people as those who thought of themselves as the immutably chosen people who felt they had the right to play with the world of politics, is a well formed historical parallel to Sartre’s portrayal of the anti-Semite whose desire is for impenetrability in their immutable state of passion gives them the right to play with the reason/discourse of others.

            The connection just brought together can be further seen in Sartre’s claim that the anti-Semite takes pride in his mediocrity, as being one of the people, using anti-Semitism as his means of defining himself as a possessor (while perhaps in reality being quite poor), and that by making the ‘Jew’ the inferior he can be rest assured in his superiority (Sartre 1995, 22–27). Once again, a good historical parallel can be made in the anti-Semitic propaganda, which viewed ‘Jews’ as one monolithic people, who at one and the same time ‘stuck together’ for purposes of group survival in their mediocre special class and, after the disintegration of the nation-state, possessed an inordinate amount of wealth, while being powerless (Arendt 1973, 15; 24). In other words, the ‘Jews’, in the view of the anti-Semite, as a self-collected loyal group committed to their purposes in their rather lowly position yet being the possessors of a great amount of wealth, is strongly paralleled in Sartre’s portrayal of the anti-Semite who while in actuality being in a lowly position, nevertheless views himself as part of a collective of lowly people who are the true possessors. Furthermore, Sartre’s portrayal of the anti-Semite as the one who has “a vital need for the very enemy he wishes to destroy”, in that he needs the ‘Jew’ in order to view himself as having rights and being superior (Sartre 1995, 28), is also well paralleled in the anti-Semitic propaganda. The portrayal the ‘Jews’ in the anti-Semitic propaganda, as being only “inter-European middlemen” that feed upon the enemy of the Gentile nations, likewise viewed the Gentile as the very enemies the ‘Jews’ needed in the same manner as Sartre’s Anti-Semite needed the ‘Jews’ as his enemy (Arendt 1973, 15).

            Sartre, in addition to all of this, expounds upon the idea that the anti-Semite precisely because he does not want authentic freedom, but inauthentic freedom, that devoid of actual responsibilities, views himself as essentially above the law of the surrounding political society, which is contaminated by Jewry. In viewing himself in this manner, he claims to be deeply committed to an idyllic primitive social order that he seeks to restore and thus all his acts of rebellion against the current order are done out of a supposed obedience to a social order, while in reality are done out of a complete desire for lawlessness (Sartre 1995, 30–34). Sartre even, at one point during a lecture, describes the anti-Semites as a collective group with an agenda, an “almost secret society” fighting the “inequalities of established society” [those of the ‘Jews’ owning any French land], in almost tremendous parallel to the anti-Semitic propaganda that Jewish secret societies were fighting for equality as well (Sartre 1999, 41).Arendt, Hannah - The Origins of Totalitarianism Likewise, in anti-Semitic propaganda, even while viewing this feature of their imagined ‘Jew’ as a positive attribute in their mind, the Jewish people were “traitors”. The imagined ‘Jews’ of anti-Semitic propaganda, in Arendt’s view partially brought about by the existence of wealthy Jewish family bankers, were traitors to the society, yet useful to the international order because they had no national commitments or government to call their own (Arendt 1973, 20; 81). Subsequent to this, the rebellion of some Jewish intellectuals against the state out of great frustration against the way reactionary governments starved them while being supported by Jewish bankers, were viewed as rebels acting against the current order in support of an idyllic order that the Jewish secret society to which they were loyal were secretly charting out across the world (Arendt 1973, 64). As Sartre even notes himself, while the Jewish people as portrayed in the anti-Semitic propaganda claim to be defending their social order in their acts of rebellious freedom, they are nevertheless only “free to do evil, not good” (Sartre 1995, 39). The parallel then, between Sartre’s anti-Semite who is a traitor to the current order by proclaiming and acting in obedience to an idyllic social order, while actually having a thirst for lawlessness/evil, and the ‘Jew’ of anti-Semitic propaganda that could never be loyal to a nation-state because of their loyalty to another social order, while in actuality (in the mind of the anti-Semite) the ‘Jew’ is capable but nothing of lawlessness/evil, is substantially clear.

            Lastly then, having made our list of parallels between the anti-Semite’s ‘Jew’ and Sartre’s anti-Semite, we will end with a consideration of the strengths and weakness of Sartre’s definition of anti-Semitism and the anti-Semite in relation to the various historical contexts in which anti-Semitism has arisen. Sartre’s outlining of the totality of the anti-Semite has one obvious beneficial aspect, that of explaining the psychological make-up of the anti-Semite solely in terms of the anti-Semite alone without reference at all to the social status or religion of the Jewish people. However despite this benefit, Sartre’s portrayal is greatly limited in two respects. One, Sartre’s anti-Semite, while an attempt at constructing a particular view of a particular man that could presumably be found across cultures and times due to its internal psychological character, is nevertheless, according to Sartre, the product of being unassimilated by the French Revolution of 1789. Most importantly, it is precisely because they rejected the ideals of human universality embodied in the ideals of the new Republic that the spawning ground for anti-Semitism even emerged (Sartre 1999, 36). Given this precise historical context, one can be reasonably skeptical that Sartre’s portrayal of the anti-Semite could be extended in time forward or backward, or across cultures outside of France’s New Republic at the end of the 18th century. The second respect in which Sartre’s portrayal is severely limited is precisely paradoxically in its expansiveness to the point where Sartre can declare that “The Jew only serves him [the anti-Semite] as a pretext; elsewhere his counterpart will make use of the Negro or the man of yellow skin” (Sartre 1995, 54). Having his ‘net cast so wide’ actually limits its usefulness, for it does not take into account of how the anti-Semite might differ from simply another racist or xenophobic person. By overlooking the peculiarity of the ‘Jew’, making the anti-Semite’s choice of the ‘Jew’ as the object of arbitrary hatred, Sartre has in fact only described in abstract terms a type of human personality, not a specific ideology or special psychological make-up specifically targeted at the Jewish people.

            In summation then, having (1) examined the major parallels between Sartre’s outlining of the totality of the anti-Semite, and the anti-Semite’s propaganda concerning the portrayal of their ‘Jew’, and (2) evaluated the usefulness of Sartre’s outlining concerning the anti-Semite and anti-Semitism, we may reasonably conclude that perhaps Sartre’s focus is far too abstract to be historically useful. The project of explaining the anti-Semite’s perception of the ‘Jew’, as solely a projection of himself, is perhaps just one-step too far. Perhaps the further, more dangerous step that needs to be taken in addition to Sartre’s analysis is Arendt’s suggestion that in an historically reasonable fashion we must consider the degree of the Jewish ‘responsibility’/causal role (the difference being the moral content implied in the term ‘responsibility’, which of course would be reprehensible) in the modern phenomenon anti-Semitism (Arendt 1973, 5-10). Having shown then that Sartre’s project in his description of the anti-Semite is merely the mirror image of the anti-Semite’s project in his description of the ‘Jew’, for in fact this is the logical out working of Sartre’s view because projection can lead to no where else than to its source, we may say that ‘projecting’ is perhaps the psychological equivalent explanation of the school yard rant “No, I’m not, you are!”, which while perhaps having some explanatory power, never gives the whole story.

Works Cited List

Arendt, Hannah. 1973. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New Edition. USA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Trade & Reference Publishers.

Befu, Harumi. “Demonizing the Other” in Wistrich, Robert S., ed. 2012. Demonizing the Other: Antisemitism, Racism and Xenophobia. Routledge.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1995. Anti-Semite and Jew: An Exploration of the Etiology of Hate. New edition. USA: Schocken.

———. 1999. “Reflections on the Jewish Question, A Lecture.” (Trans. Krauss, Rosalind and Denis Hollier. October 87 (January 1): 33–46.

Brief Appendix:

How do we describe our enemies? And how do we explain their actions?

            The central problem with Sartre’s, as well as many others’ uses of projection theory in their explanations of their enemies and their actions is precisely because (ironically enough for Sartre given his philosophy) it absolves us of all the responsibility in whatever confrontation is taking place. Projection theory is essentially another form of scapegoating, where your accuser involuntarily becomes the scapegoat to absolve your guilt resulting from his accusations and simultaneously also becomes the very thing he is accusing you of being, which by default is your admission that if you were all the things your accuser said you were he would have some right to be so hostile toward you. Often times it is true that people see or wish to see particular evils in another precisely because they can recognize them so easily in themselves, but it does not follow that therefore what they see in you of those particular evils is not there just because it is in them also. You see in them and they see in you, your mutual flaws. Most paradoxically then, by abandoning projection as a variation of scapegoating in order to describe our enemies and their actions, we can then see most clearly ourselves in our accuser and in turn, hopefully our accuser can see themselves in us. What one does with that recognition is up to one’s disposition toward the world: (1) fear, in which case we would hide from our accuser because we fear our reflection, (2) dominance, in which case we would eliminate our accuser because we wish to conqueror that evil in ourselves, or (3) love, in which case we love our enemies because we are them.

Advertisements