#78 / Editorial

What is antisemitism? This is a question that never stops coming up. Every generation asks it again. Whether a description or a position is considered as such is always a matter of context, as Philippe Zard reminds us in connection with the reissue of Georges Clémenceau’s Au pied du Sinaï (1898) published in France by Editions de l’Antilope, for which he wrote a preface. We are publishing the long version of this preface this week. He explains us how, at the end of the 19th century, it was possible to ardently embrace the cause of Captain Dreyfus while at the same time harboring strong anti-Semitic prejudices when it came to the Jews of Eastern Europe. This astonishing ambivalence has to do with the difficult management of the inherent contradictions of political modernity. The anti-Semitic motive could support a plea for the emancipation of the Jews, or it could question the persistence of the Jews, when nothing seemed to justify their continued existence.

The famous American historian David Nirenberg, whose work has renewed the approach to anti-Judaism, also hesitated, maintaining at first that the forms of hostility towards Jews varied according to place, time and circumstances, each time assuming a singular face. Then he changed his perspective. In his masterpiece Anti-Judaism, The Western Tradition (2003), which David Haziza is interviewing this week, Nirenberg argues that anti-Judaism structures the thought of the Christian West, in such a way that its infinite variations are manifestations of a single phenomenon, as many replicas of the same pattern.

If anti-Judaism occupies this structuring function, it may be conjectured that the question of what anti-Semitism is is inevitably condemned to reappear, from generation to generation. Except perhaps for the Jews of the cosmos, but this exception is a fiction; a fiction by André Benhaïm which closes our issue this week.

Georges Clemenceau, France’s newspaper editor-cum-prime minister, endures in historical memory as an implacable foe of antisemitism. He was accused of being indebted to “the Jewish syndicate.” Reading Au pied du Sinai (At the Feet of Sinai, untranslated) might be surprised to find in this collection of short stories and monologues rhetoric that belies the text’s status as a pro-Jewish apologetic. Clemenceau regurgitates a bevy of antisemitic motifs in this book. Philippe Zard explains how at the turn of the century antisemites and anti-antisemites both drew on “a broad repertoire of shared representations” vis-a-vis Jews.

David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition proved an instant classic of Jewish studies on its publication a decade ago. Nirenberg, Director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, presents anti-Judaism as a structural discourse in the history of the West (and arguably in the history of the world at large). The figure of the “Jew,” and the bugbear of “Judaism,” he maintains, have served as epistemic tools for philosophers and theologians to define themselves – and Western civilization – over and against. In such a scheme, Judaism morphs from religion into foil, the Jew from living being into abstraction; and even societies hosting few or no Jews can entertain “Jewish questions.” Nirenberg’s study starts in the Egypt of the Hellenistic Period and ends in our own time.

The doctor whom Picard had come to see to get checked out in order to be reinstated at the helm of a Starfleet ship, that old friend he had met more than half a century before aboard the Stargazer, was named Moritz Benayoun. “Benayoun?!” exclaimed Hayon. His astonishment was twofold. First, Star Trek suggested that, in less than four centuries, the Jews of the future would include space Sephardim. But above all, he was amazed that this Dr. Benayoun had the same name as he did. Or rather, the name that, more or less, he could have had.

With the support of:

Thanks to the Paris office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation for their cooperation in the design of the magazine’s website.