Second Home – or the Political Implications of the Halimi Affair

The decision of the Cour de Cassation (French court of appeal), which confirmed the penal irresponsibility of Sarah Halimi’s murderer, has provoked a tremendous collective emotion. An unprecedented fact: the civil parties plan to fight, not on the French judicial terrain – which seems blocked to them – but by addressing themselves to Israel. It is not important here to know whether a claim will finally be filed nor if it will be received there. However, the fact that such an eventuality could be raised is an event in itself, symptomatic of the political significance of the Halimi affair. An additional step seems to have been taken here in the transformation of the relationship of French Jews to their own country.


Rally in honor of Sarah Halimi, Paris, April 25, 2021 © Alain Azria


Nobody can deny that the Sarah Halimi case represents a major event. Although, the exact nature of the event remains to be seen. Certainly not, as is sometimes claimed, does it amount to a denial of justice. The law has been applied, and it is the law of all, to which all consent insofar as it is the law of the whole national community. In a democracy, this law is open to criticism, review, and evolution, and it is possible that this case will be the impetus to change it. However, this evolution also passes through procedures to which one agrees, without letting oneself be carried away by opinion, on the basis of a common reflection and deliberation. The declaration of the irresponsibility of the murderer, without doubt, is legitimately debated. The fact that the trial did not take place leaves the anti-Semitic act in unbearable suspension. But the essence of the case lies elsewhere: in the collective emotion itself, and in what it reveals about the current situation of the Jews of France. More precisely, in what it reveals, not so much on the moral or psychological level, as on the strictly political level.

The emotion of the Jews of France is great. This time, however, what gripps this community and to which it reacts was not the chain of anti-Semitic acts of which this murder is a link, but the inability to obtain judicial repression of anti-Semitism. There is mobilization, there is protest – clearly one doesn’t want to remain powerless, nor to suffer passively the acts themselves and their disastrous repetition. In short, one acts. But what is the route of effective legal action, of processual action, as the jurists say?

In the Halimi case, for the first time in France, the civil parties [Translator’s Note: in France, third parties, such as victims’ families or associations, can participate in criminal cases] are now hesitating about the path to take. They are wondering whether to take the case to the European Court, that is, to the level that France, a European country, recognizes as a legitimate authority. Or should they bring it before the courts of another state, in this case the State of Israel? It is the position of this alternative what constitute the major event: the action of the Jews of France transits, or seeks to transit, via Israel and within the framework of Israeli law. The fact that this step is being seriously considered is certainly the significant event that we are witnessing. And its quality is unquestionably political, in the strongest sense of the term.


It is political because it amounts to a bypassing of the logic of Jewish existence in modernity, with the nation-states and their insertion into the European constellation of the post-World War II era as its focus. In this segment of Jewish history in which we still find ourselves, being a Jew and being a citizen of a particular state, a member of a nation which also is particular, have become firmly connected. This connection is the most tangible consequence of emancipation. The construction of Europe, by adding a supranational law accepted by each state, does not change the arrangement in this respect. The law, for Jewish citizens as for any citizen of any state in Europe, is that of his state and of Europe, entities articulated and arranged in such a way as to reinforce and guarantee the rights of all Europeans, distributed in particular nations. Whether it is a question of civil, political or social rights, belonging to the nation is the foundation on which belonging to Europe is built.

But here, suddenly, a displacement is envisaged, out of France and out of Europe. Without prejudging the outcome of the case and the directions it will take, the gesture of wanting to resort to the Israeli courts, the very thought of exploring this path, gives a striking political translation to the disarray of the Jews of France. Converted into resolute action, this disarray takes on an unprecedented dimension. It is as if French citizens who are also Jews, in this part of Europe which has been hardest hit by the antisemitism of the last two decades, imagined themselves to reside secondarily elsewhere – an elsewhere towards which their eyes and expectations are directed, because it would be the place, and the only one in their eyes, where justice for Jews could finally be done.

Residing and Belonging

This thought and this option deserve reflection. What is a second home? In the administrative sense of the word, it is a dwelling of occasional use, which serves as a vacation spot for short periods of time, most often spread over the course of the year. This home is secondary, as opposed to the so-called “principal” residence, the actual dwelling place of a person and his family, which also constitutes, in the tax lexicon, the center of the taxpayer’s material and professional interests, by which he is locally identified from the point of view of the public authority that levies the tax. This is why it is possible to own several second homes, but it is impossible to own more than one principal residence. The principal residence, with some exceptions, presupposes that the citizen is anchored in one and only one point of the national territory, from which his relationship to the State and his social life are organized.

Residency and belonging are, as we can see, closely associated. What about the Jews? In their case, the advent of modernity marked a notable change. When the sociologist Max Weber wanted to circumscribe their specificity in the historical-political space of Europe before emancipation, he called them a “Gastvolk“, a guest people. The appellation sounds right. The guest is obviously the one who is received in a residence that is not his own. He is the antonym of the host, that is, the one who receives. The latter authorizes the former, without which the guest finds himself an intruder, an unwanted individual. Together, the two figures form a pair whose solidarity remains suspended on fundamentally asymmetrical dispositions and attitudes.

Alexandre Rodschenko, “Red and Yellow’, 1918, wikiart

In this configuration the right to reside is granted: it is the right to live in a certain domain or in a certain place, under the consented protection of the power that exercises its authority there. This is indeed the political condition of the Jews in premodern Europe summed up in a few words. But this condition is overcome and surpassed as soon as the Jews become citizens in modern Europe. Weber’s appellation then becomes obsolete. If they still form a people, it is no longer as guests that they form it. Their belonging to the Jewish people must be combined with their full belonging to the non-Jewish nations where they reside by right, principally, in the sense that they are no longer guests who are liable at any moment to fall into the status of intruders.

If this ancient condition must be recalled, it is because it still functions as a background. It has been deposited in the memory of the Jews as the sediment of their long history, of which modernity is only the last, relatively short sequence. And in this sequence, the Jews have undergone an unprecedented ordeal, that of their destruction. In short, the Jews, modern as they are, remember what they were as guests. They know, with tacit knowledge, that the guest, protected, always resides conditionally, and that this also implies that they can always be kicked out. In the premodern period, this precariousness was assumed in principle by the communities. Certainly, its unfortunate consequences, the first of which was expulsion, could be contested. But the fundamental attitude was the acceptance of a precarious condition on the background of which events, positive or negative, stood out.

In all cases, it was a confirmation of the Galut, that is, of exile in its traditional sense: that situation in which the Jews persist, and which makes each foreign country, by definition, a place of second home, strictly distinct from their principal residence.  The space of the “nations” – a word which did not have the meaning it has in the context of modern popular sovereignty, but that means ethnically and culturally characterized historical groups, each united by its origins – was always the space of the host nations, these more or less accommodating hosts. As for the principal residence, it was tinged with a mixture of imagination and reality, since it was none other than the place from which the Jews were expelled, their lost kingdom whose restoration was barred to them by divine will, and which they kept in mind in their memory.

Paul Klee, “Mural from the Temple of Longing ↖Thither↗’, 1922, Wikipedia commons.
Exile and modernity

Of course, pre-modern exile is not a long vacation: the principal residence, unavailable, implies that one is received abroad, in the best possible conditions, giving pledges of loyalty to the power in order to ensure its protection, and in order not to be seen as an intruder targeted by the populace or by malevolent intermediate powers. Often, it happened that the change of the chosen second home was the only solution to survive the structural unavailability of the principal residence and the fickleness of the sovereigns in place. In this respect, the sages knew how to draw the best from the worst: one of the blessings of the Galut, they said in substance, is that second homes are potentially multiple. The deterioration of a situation in one place is immediately compensated by the possibility of migrating to another. For there are many nations.

This is why the right to reside was, until the modern era – and indeed beyond, for emancipation was neither an instantaneous changeover nor an idyllic path – the major issue for Jewish communities in Europe. Then, with the formation of the modern states, a process of progressive residentialization began, rapid or slow depending on the place, never quite linear, but globally oriented in one and the same direction, that of the dissipation of the old model. This process was a constitutive element of the nationalization of the Jews, projected onto the horizon of their integral collective experience, which should eventually concern them all. And this is in fact what happened. Despite variations, political modernity ultimately fulfilled the promises first made and kept by the French Revolution. Full citizenship in the nation-states in which Jews resided would eventually be achieved throughout Europe (Russia being a long-standing exception, until its revolution).

This new status for the Jews had, however, an immediate consequence for them, which was the subject of much discussion, both within and outside the communities: it was that the former principal residence, which had been shrouded in representations and had been lost for a long time, was necessarily to take a back seat and be obliterated. For it was the previously second home that now had to become the main one. It was necessary to voluntarily abandon “Jerusalem”, to transform its representation and to situate it elsewhere or otherwise in the consciousness of the people.

It was up to France, the pioneer of emancipation, to set the tone for all. The figure it invented of the “Israelite”, an export product of uneven success but wide distribution, is this new version of the Jewish resident. In its matrix, he is a French citizen. His emergence, as a modulation of the Jew, is due to the fact that one can have only one principal residence, since modern nationalization absolutely excludes dual membership. Such is the residential logic of emancipation, particularly marked in Western Europe, more inchoate as soon as one moves eastward and enters the multinational contexts of the dying empires. Nevertheless, the general trend is of this type: linked to emancipation, focused on nationalization, it affects and modifies the entire Jewish world.

There is no need to go back over the sinuosity and the meanders of this path. In the West as well as in the East, it obviously takes shape against the backdrop of modern antisemitism, seen as a more or less controlled reverse of emancipation, i.e. as a recurrent and perpetually reviving counter-tendency. Whenever the real belonging of Jews to nations was questioned, whenever emancipated Jews were suspected of defection, it was if they were returned to their former status of resident-invitees. This regressive move could be translated into reform projects aimed at them in particular, into demands for emergency measures and emergency decrees, into popular uprisings, and even – the Dreyfus Affair revealed the possibility of this in France itself – into authentic denials of justice, where the right of the nation was flouted.

On each of these occasions, the Jews expose themselves to a reminder of their fundamental experience, the long term suddenly refracting into their present-day: the present principal residence becomes precarious, and the unavailable principal residence, then secondarized, then forgotten one, reappears in their minds, like a part of their sensitive memory always ready for use. But to what use? This is where another change takes place.

Kazimir Malevitch, “Resting. Society in Top Hats”, 1908, wikiart
Israel as address

The birth of the State of Israel is the last decisive fact that has changed the existence of the Jews as a whole, whatever the actual relationship of the Jews to Zionism, which ranges from adherence to rejection through the whole gamut of intermediate feelings. This state was born in 1948 as one state among others, but created for Jews who want to join it. While it was an extension of the original version of Zionism, which expressly aimed to gather all dispersed Jews into their new principal residence, one point must be emphasized: this state, once founded, never set out to disrupt the status acquired by European Jews. Its immigration policy could be particularly proactive, relayed by institutions present in all the countries where the Jews were scattered, but there was never any question of hindering their life in the diaspora, but on the contrary of ensuring the viability of their conditions of existence, in all places, and especially in those states where the major part of the people had been persecuted and destroyed. Precisely for this reason, the new state wanted to be open to Jews from wherever they came and whoever they were, as long as they felt the need to join it. For this, it relied on their personal judgment. This is the meaning of the so-called “Law of Return”, passed by the Knesset in 1950. The State of Israel was intended to be the shelter of the Jews, it stood before them as a shelter-state, whose existence was to be taken as a new fact of their experience, as an objective fact independent of their will.

Since the appearance of the State of Israel, it can be said that a new residence is proposed to the Jews, and that it is proposed in an optional mode. It is a proposal that is addressed to them individually, soliciting them one by one, that is, considering them as citizens of their States. Politically, in the modern configuration, it is certainly a strange mechanism. Without ceasing to be the citizen of his present principal residence, the Jew is the recipient of an address which neither enjoins nor summonses him, but which only signifies that a door is open to him, and as long as he wants it, that is to say, as soon as he feels the need.

In France, birthplace of Israelism, this invitation has for a long time been received with a discreet mixture of astonishment, indifference, and sometimes interest tinged with fear. Did it not risk triggering the suspicion of dual allegiance? Didn’t it come into tension with the single residential affiliation, in terms of the unwavering belonging to the emancipating nation? The door remained open, however, and the address was maintained. In the course of national and international events, it has echoed with varying degrees of insistence and intensity.

Europe, land of doubts

The State of Israel was born at the end of the war, at a time when the condition of the Jews in Europe had become very uncertain. As for knowing they would be able to continue to live there, no one could foresee. In large areas of the continent, it is clear that the possibility was excluded, the devastation being absolute and the hostility towards the survivors unabated. In other areas, bruised to a lesser degree, it was subject to rearrangements in which doubt and anxiety did not cease to weigh. In all cases, uncertainty was an integral part of the Jewish experience; it suffused it to the depths, despite all efforts to recover and move forward.

France, with the post-war Vichy trials and the re-establishment of the Republic, was not really an exception. Certainly, a relatively consistent thread had been maintained, supported by a demography that was not insignificant, since it had not been annihilated by Nazi policy as was the case in the East. This demography was even to experience a significant rebound at the end of decolonization, with the influx of another Jewish population which, for the most part, had been subjected to Vichy but had been saved from the Shoah. Uncertainty remained no less perceptible there too, fueled by the memory of persecutions and deportations that the bridge launched between the Republics did not erase. Something had cracked, affecting the protecting state, even the very modern idea of the national principal residence, which France had made itself the paradigm of. In this fissure, the double residential question, with the optional inflection that the State of Israel had managed to give it, was making its way into people’s consciousness. On the occasion of the Six-Day War, this subterranean path pushed into broad daylight. Faced with the danger to the existence of the new State which was delivering its strange message to them from afar, the Jewish citizens had to face the facts: it turned out that even the most Israelite among them held on to this state by some fiber of their being which their nationalization had not eliminated.

Let’s be clear: it was not that they suddenly heard and received favorably the invitation to join the State of Israel. It is not even that they became massively Zionist. Rather, it was that they understood what it was all about, what the address meant, inserted into the ordinary course of their lives as citizens of modern nations, however diverse their political orientations and social conditions. Whatever their dispositions, this state touched them, because it fulfilled in their minds a function that they had not taken into account: that of a substitute residence in times of crisis. Not another principal residence, nor a new second home comparable to the old days when one moved from one premodern nation to another, but rather the materialization of a stand-in for a main residence, constantly at hand.

René Magritte, “The Seducer”, 1950, Wikipedia commons.
Protecting and doing justice

This residential doppelganger only replaces the modern national residence under certain conditions and in a very specific way. This is the rule of the optional. When the social situation in the European nation-state is such that hostility to Jews is clearly on the rise, the crack widens and the option becomes available. It does not mean a disaffiliation, a defection of Jews, as is superficially believed, and according to an opinion which is rarely well-intentioned, but the activation of the anxiety which gathers in the heart of the most nationalized Jews, those who are most certain that their only principal residence is the one in which they currently live. For their relationship to the residential option open to them is not a national one: it does not correspond to the attribution of rights and duties articulated within the framework of the nation, to democratic self-legislation, or to the political and social belonging that the term citizenship summarizes. But it is resolved in its entirety in the function of protection that every State provides as a matter of principle, and in a more resolute and more lucid way with regard to the perils incurred in post-1945 Europe. It is its failure as a protecting state for all its citizens, that is to say for all its principal residents, that provokes, in the consciousness of some of them, a dynamic of secondarization of the national residence and the search for an alternative. For, in the face of failure, it turns out that for the Jews a palliative exists: it is called the State of Israel. Neither really secondary nor really primary, this state is the anchor of a justice which they legitimately hope can be rendered, and which they can, in this place, always demand, whatever happens to them.

It is called Israel, and it is not called Europe. Or at least, if we rely on the alternative that arose in the development of the Sarah Halimi affair, it is called Israel in counterpoint to Europe. The latter is still invoked, since it is indeed the legally accessible instance from the point of view of national law. But one discerns that it is without figuring the recourse where the certainties cling. Not that Europe is not the object of expectations for this community. On the contrary, living in Europe after 1945, living in European states which have placed the defense and deepening of rights at the heart of this construction, is charged with a particularly strong meaning for the Jews. Their persistence in these states depends on the existence of that Europe. But the Israeli counterpoint, here, indicates the insufficiency felt, even the disillusionment anticipated. It is as if there were doubts that the crisis of the nation-state, which is expressed in its inability to defend its Jews, could be corrected at the level of European construction. As if the doubt had reached the very foundation of their persistence in Europe.

In the alternative, the disarray experienced in the State is thus transformed into disillusionment which is reflected in the higher level that is Europe. An important lesson emerges from this. For the most part, Jews are not good diagnosticians of the situations in which they find themselves, but they are often quite good seismographs of more general dynamics. Since the violence that affects them is the effect of a crisis on two levels, which we would do well to realize is the same crisis, seen from two different sides: that of the European nation-states which fail to think of themselves as consistent and just collectives of belonging, and that of Europe which fails to impose itself as the place of their common deployment on the horizon of an effective universalism and of a higher justice. The disarray of the Jews of France, when they appeal to the law of another state which is not their state, nor their grouping of states, is the most reliable indicator of this double crisis. It concerns all Europeans, because it can be resolved neither by nationalist withdrawal nor by renouncing the missions that are still incumbent on nation-states. In these moments of acute crisis, that is to say of generalized crisis, it is natural that in the eyes of these singular Europeans, that is to say the Jews, the shelter-residence may appear as the last resort.

Bruno Karsenti and Danny Trom




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