#Misha things

Blog Music Random RSS Matrix

10 Jan 2024

Sartre: Antisemite and Jew

Intro and disclaimer

I read this book with some friends. Someone had recommended it, and we felt that it was an appropriate time to reflect on what antisemitism has meant in the past, to better understand what it means in the present.

At the start I was a bit sceptical about this contemporary relevance: after all, a lot has happened since Sartre wrote this book (written in 1944, published in 1946). For example, to just mention something, the founding of the state Israel (in 1948). But after reading the book, I was surprised how helpful some of the arguments still are (at least to me).

Before sharing my thoughts on the book, I think it should be noted that the way the book uses the term "the Jew" to refer to a specific kind of people is problematic. More on this below. Also I want to acknowledge that reading and discussing this book with a group of non-Jewish people felt a bit awkward at times, even when (or because?) Sartre wrote the book specifically as a non-Jewish person for a non-Jewish audience. I do think it is important for non-Jewish people to think and read about antisemitism, but I also feel that it's important to remain careful, modest and open to critique in our understanding/arguments/claims.


Moving on to the actual book, it basically consists of two main parts: a reflection of "the antisemite" and "the Jew". In both cases the overriding question is: what has made (or what makes) these people who they are? More specifically, the goal is to trace how both archetypes do not exist by themselves, but are mutually constitutive: how they create one another.

The choice for antisemitism

The first part of the book describes the "logic" of antisemitism: how it is made up of particular experiences, sentiments, and predispositions. This part sounded surprisingly familiar to me. To mention a few of Sartre's characterizations of "the antisemite":

  • the desire to be one with the masses, to not stand out (to be "normal", to be "the common man"),
  • the invocation of some kind of emotional, irrevocable, hereditary connection to "the land" in order to elevate oneself above "the Jew",
  • the uncritical acceptance (or eager embrace) of inequality and exploitation within one's own group, as long as these "own elites" temporarily come down from their horses to join the persecution of "the Jew",
  • the lack of a clear political program beyond the persecution of "the Jew" (and as such the need to maintain "the Jew" as the rallying flag),
  • the distrust of the institutions that (allegedly) do not recognize the inherited (emotional, irrational) superiority of the "real people" (institutions like "the state" or "science"), which - together with the desire to be "normal" - leads to the celebration of anti-intellectualism.

I feel any of these descriptions could be easily modified to apply to the contemporary hatred that (for example) led to the landslide victory of extreme right in the Netherlands; just replace "the Jew" with "the Muslim". This is not to say that antisemitism and anti-Muslim hatred are the same. It's more that they seem to share quite a few general predispositions.

Among all these claims, there was one that specifically caught my attention: Sartre suggests that it is the choice of the antisemite to indulge in hatred that - to some extent - creates the very thing he hates. Antisemites, the book argues, do not just hate "the Jews" for being Jewish, they also hate "the Jews" for being helpless in the face of this antisemitism (as a minority in a antisemitic society). They hate "the Jews" for not being openly proud of their identity. For not having any real (connection to) land of their own. They hate them for even trying to escape from their very own Jewish identity (more below). In other words, antisemites hate "the Jew" for (allegedly) not possessing the very things that the antisemites themselves actively break, undermine, destroy and steal. The proud, territorially secure, normal, common man would never let that happen, or so he likes to think.

Why it is problematic to suggest that antisemites created "the Jew" #1

I understand that (many?) people take issue with this suggestion that antisemites created "the Jew". First, I think that the book does a bad job distinguishing between on the one hand the antisemite representation of what it means to be "a Jew", and on the other hand the actual effect of antisemetic practices (including, but not restricted to, this representation) on the beliefs, behaviour, self-image of people who identify (or are identified) as Jewish.

This is especially problematic, considering that the book occasionally (implicitly) argues that certain antisemitic representations have had a certain "self-fulfilling" (or performative) effect. It for example discusses how the antisemitic hatred of (what antisemites see as) "Jewish discomfort" can contribute to actual discomfort among the they identify as Jewish).

As a result, some of the arguments become very dangerous very fast. For example when the book talks about a Jewish "lack of bodily shame" without clarifying whether this refers to an antisemitic bigoted imagination or a real/empirical (externally imposed) predisposition among Jewish people.

I also belief that a more explicit distinction might 'save' the title of the book, if it is recognized that the "the Jew" only exists in the antisemitic imagination, whereas "Jewish people", "Jews" or "the Jewish community" are all real, in all the diversity you can also find in other communities.

Why it is problematic to suggest that antisemites created "the Jew" #2

Secondly, if we for the moment understand "the Jew" as "Jewish people", I also get why people take issue with the suggestion that antisemites created what binds Jewish people together. Such a suggestion leaves no room for any Jewish constitutive agency (apart from a response to antisemitism), nor does it leave room for other things (apart from the Jewish community itself and the antisemites) that have contributed to any shared Jewish identity.

Having said that, I do think it is important to recognize the constitutive force of antisemitism (as an identity builder), if only as an argument to confront "liberals"1 with when they complain about - what they see as - Jewish efforts to remain Jewish. I believe it is, for example, quite common - also within my own bubble (family, work) - to hear people complain like: "I don't even understand what it means to be Jewish. Is it a religion, a ethnicity? Why can't people simply stop identifying as Jewish". An answer could be that an important part of what it means to be Jewish is the experience of being identified as Jewish by antisemites, and that even if one would want to, it is not easy to escape from this.

The "inauthentic Jew"

The book, in fact, talks extensively about such an "escape": about the efforts of some Jewish people to stop being (seen as) Jewish. Here, Sartre uses the terms "authentic" and "inauthentic". Whereas the former refers to the conscious recognition and acceptance of what constitutes one as a human being, the latter refers to an unwillingness or inability to do so. The way I understand it, according to Sartre, it is only by recognizing and openly accepting what makes you who you are (including the hatred of others), that you can begin to fight it (and as such carve out your own path). These ideas (which I believe follow quite directly from his more general existentialist philosophy) lead Sartre to write about the people who try to stop being (seen as) Jewish as "inauthentic Jews". Although Sartre warns the reader that is not up to us (as non-Jewish people) to judge Jewish people for choosing an "authentic" or an "inauthentic" way out, calling anyone an "inauthentic Jew" still, of course, sounds terrible (especially in our more colloquial understanding of what it means to be inauthentic).

The monsters that antisemitism created

When I was talking about "an appropriate time" in the introduction, I was of course referring to the extreme violence that is taking place in Gaza. After reading this book, I can't help but draw the conclusion that the people controlling the state of Israel have learned a lot from the antisemites. The lessons are: 1) never be weak, and never depend on the discretion, compassion or goodwill of your enemies, and 2) use all the force you have to religiously propagate and defend - at all costs - your ethnically defined territorial claims.

I believe that the state of Israel - by violently imposing a colonial, racist apartheids-regime - is in turn being quite effective in passing these lessons on to the people whose families are currently being murdered in Gaza. Or let's put it differently: I am more than impressed by the Gazans who - under these circumstances - can withstand the appeal of these lessons.

In the end, the conflict in Palestine knows many monsters, and they all feed on each other. But the mother of these monsters came from within us, non-Jewish people, either by actively committing antisemitism or by allowing it to exist. And since we cannot go back to fight that monster in the past, the second best thing is to fight and resist its manifestation in the present, both at home and abroad.



I was surprised by the similarity between the way Sartre writes about "the liberal" (or "democrat" as he also calls this archetype) and the way the term is currently used in more radical left-wing political circles.

Tags: blog english politics