During the Dreyfus Affair, French intellectuals clashed over the definition of
republican France. Was it a nation, as Emile Zola believed, whose greatness was
founded on the universal values of justice and reason? Or, as his opponent
Maurcie Barrès replied, was it a nation whose identity was rooted in its past
and people – the “soil and the dead”?
Slightly more than a century later, France
is revisiting this debate, one whose implications for French Jewry may be no
THE UNLIKELY protagonist in the current drama, Stéphane
Hessel, is no stranger to the storms of history. Born in Berlin to a Jewish
father and gentile mother, Hessel became a naturalized Frenchman in 1937.
Following the fall of France, he joined the Free French in London and, in March
1944, was sent to France to prepare the resistance for the imminent Allied
invasion. Caught by the Gestapo, Hessel was tortured and sent first to
Buchenwald and then Dora – the camp where tens of thousands of slave laborers
assembled V-1 and V-2 rockets.
Hessel escaped in the chaos of Nazi
Germany’s collapse and returned to France. He entered the Foreign Service and
was posted to the fledgling United Nations, where he assisted in the drafting of
the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man. The document’s emphasis on the
imperatives of justice and law is not just deeply Dreyfusard, but also steeped
in Hessel’s experience of the French Resistance.
For Hessel, the act of
resistance – sparked by moral indignation – entails not just the defense of
one’s life, but the values that infuse that life with meaning. For the past
half-century, this conviction led him to fight on behalf of the disenfranchised
and dispossessed in France: illegal workers and the homeless, the Roma
communities and North African squatters demonized by conservative
Now 93, Hessel has taken up the cause of the Palestinians.
An outspoken critic of Israel’s actions, in particular its 2008 incursion into
Gaza, he has added his name to the call for a boycott of products from the
occupied territories. In his recently published Indignez-vous!
, Hessel declares
his support of the Goldstone Commission. While he has condemned the actions of
Hamas, he has largely focused on Israeli policies: “That the Jews would
themselves engage in war crimes is intolerable. Alas, history offers few
examples of nations that have drawn lessons from their own
Long an advocate of nonviolent resistance, Hessel
nevertheless insists on the insidious relationship between the bleak reality in
Gaza and terrorism. The violence practiced by Hamas, he argues, is
“comprehensible” as a symptom of this people’s collective
has stunned the French publishing
industry. Since November, the work has sold nearly 500,000 copies in France (the
equivalent of 2,500,000 copies in the US). The book’s unprecedented success
attracted the attention French Jewish organizations, most notably CRIF (Council
of Jewish Institutions in France), whose response was immediate and
So too was the reaction of some prominent intellectuals, most
notably Pierre-André Taguieff.
A well-known historian who specializes in
the history of French anti-Semitism, Taguieff’s most recent work, La Nouvelle
(The New anti-Jewish Propaganda) , argues that an
important current of French anti-Semitism, once associated with the political
Left, has not died. Instead, it has gained a new lease on life as “radical
By conflating Zionism and Nazism, this school of thought
“legitimates the racist agenda for the destruction of Israel.” It is, Taguieff
warns, the only “racist ideology that today is not only legitimate, but
Taguieff’s claim unsettles for reasons both
intended and unintended. There is, incontestably, a disturbing tendency on the
European Left to judge Israel far more harshly than Hamas or Hizbullah. But
equally disturbing is the syllogism lurking in Taguieff’s analysis: namely that
if all critics of Israel are anti-Zionists and all anti-Zionists are
anti-Semites, then all critics of Israel are anti- Semites.
dubious reasoning, Taguieff added an unsavory flourish on, of all places, his
Facebook page. Paraphrasing Voltaire – a thinker who, ironically, despised
Judaism and Jews – Taguieff declared: “When a poisonous snake is given a good
conscience, as with Hessel, the desire to smash its head is
The posting soon disappeared, replaced by a less
hateful, but equally unfortunate phrase: “He could have at least finished his
life in a more dignified manner instead of inciting hatred against Israel and
joining his voice to the worst of anti-Jews.”
Much of the debate has
since been mired in attacks and counterattacks by the opposing camps. Rather
than wrestling with the real questions at hand – What, for example, constitutes
illegitimate criticism of Israel? How do we weigh the findings of the Goldstone
Commission? – the most frequently asked question deals with the religious
backgrounds of the two antagonists. Despite the common assumption that Taguieff
is Jewish, his immigrant parents were in fact Polish and Lithuanian Catholics.
(A fact that did not prevent Tariq Ramadan, for example, from lumping Taguieff
with other “Jewish apologists” for Israel.)
As for Hessel, no one, including
Hessel, is quite sure whether he is or isn’t Jewish. In his autobiography, Danse
avec le siècle
(Dance with the Century) he states plainly he is not Jewish – his
father’s parents had converted to Protestantism – but has since affirmed his
Jewish roots. (Compounding the confusion are accounts, like Gil Shefler’s report
on January 4 in The Jerusalem Post
, describing Hessel as a Holocaust survivor
when in reality he was a political deporté.)
What would Dreyfus’s defenders have
made of the current confusion? For them, the question of religion (or race) was
irrelevant; all that mattered was justice and truth. In the current affair over
Hessel, however, religion (and race) threatens to become once again square and
center, while justice and truth are being pushed aside.
Last week, the
abyss between Hessel’s supporters and French Jewish organizations was deepened.
A public debate on the boycott of goods made by settlements in the occupied
territories, scheduled to be held at the prestigious École Normale Superièure in
Paris, was canceled due to pressure from the CRIF when it was learned that
Hessel would appear with other intellectuals like Gisèle Halimi and the former
justice minister Elisabeth Guigou.
In an open letter to Maurice Barrès –
Facebook, happily, had not yet replaced newspapers as the means of public
discussion – the Dreyfusard Lucien Herr declared that he was writing on behalf
of his fellow citizens, individuals of “goodwill... who placed the law and an
ideal of justice before their own interests, their own instincts and their own
Where are those individuals of goodwill today?
writer is an historian at the University of Houston, author of
Elements of a Life (Cornell 2010) and coauthor of
France and Its Empire Since
1870 (Oxford 2010).