France vs France

Author of recent publishing sensation ‘Indignez-vous’ has managed to pit French values against questions over religion and race.

By ROBERT ZARETSKY
January 24, 2011 22:08
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robert zaretsky 58. (photo credit: Courtesy)

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 less momentous.

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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 governments.

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 histories.”

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 “exasperation.”



INDIGNEZ-VOUS! 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 hostile.

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 Propagande Anti-Juive (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 anti-Zionism.”

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 intellectually respectable.”

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.

To this 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 understandable.”

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 sectarian claims.”

Where are those individuals of goodwill today?

The writer is an historian at the University of Houston, author of Albert Camus: Elements of a Life (Cornell 2010) and coauthor of France and Its Empire Since 1870 (Oxford 2010).


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