Jean-François Lyotard: Europe, the Jews and the Book

During the night of May 8-9, 1990, a group of neo-Nazis broke into the Jewish cemetery in Carpentras and desecrated about 30 graves. The vandals dug up a body and impaled it on a spike to simulate the aftermath of an execution. Jean-François Lyotard, his pen stirred by events, commented on the persistence of antisemitism in postwar Europe in an article in the Liberation newspaper. In what has become a seminal text, the philosopher reflected on the relationship between French and the Jews. The crime had indeed sent many French into the streets to protest. Lyotard’s article, emblematic of his later interest in “the Jewish question” in post-Holocaust Europe, has become a reference of specialists, who have passed it around in the intervening three decades. K. is reprinting the text in both English and French so that a wider public can engage with it. Jacques Ehrenfreund, professor of Jewish history at the University of Lausanne, prefaces the philosopher’s landmark meditation.


Jean-François Lyotard, Personal family collection



Where does Jew-hatred come from? Should it be distinguished from racism and xenophobia? The first question is rarely answered; the second, on the other hand, is the subject of a near-consensus today; antisemitism should not be treated apart from other forms of bigotry. Delineating the specificity of antisemitism would mean establishing a hierarchy of hate and drawing distinctions among victims; in short, doing so would already be a form of differentiation.

In 1990, an antisemitic crime occurred in France, the last event of its sort to draw a unanimous condemnation. At the Jewish cemetery of Carpentras, the coffin of a recently deceased man was dug up and his corpse was impaled on a stake; the monstrosity of the act immediately touched off a firestorm of reaction. Hundreds of thousands demonstrated in the streets, including the French president himself, to denounce what seemed a resurgence of the age-old anti-Jewish barbarism. These protests were among the largest that France had seen since May 1968, and were only surpassed by those that followed the murder of the journalists of Charlie Hebdo in January 2015.

Jean-François Lyotard reacted to these events in a a dense, concise and incisive text published in Libération, in which he traced the roots of antisemitism and demarcated it from racism. He saw the hatred of Jews as a singular phenomenon whose source had to be understood as metaphysical and foundational to European civilization. The dispute between the Jews and Europe concerns the relationship to transcendence and, by extension, the nature of the world in which we live. This chasm gives rise to a desire – all the more powerful because it is partly unconscious – to see the Jews disappear, no matter how. One could thus draw a line between soft forms of disappearance (e.g., conversion, acculturation, assimilation) and the violent forms (e.g., expulsion, exclusion, massacre, extermination). If the anti-Jewish predilection had defined Europe in the past, the desecration of the tombs in Carpentras attested to the persistence of this desire, even after the paroxysm of the Holocaust. Hence the urgency to understand antisemitism. Xenophobia and racism are characterized by a feeling of superiority toward those who are subordinated. Hatred of Jews is also the expression of a fear of being dominated, but correlated with a feeling of inferiority. Lyotard’s thesis arose in the heat of the moment, and as such deserves to be interrogated. The idea merits our consideration nonetheless as one answer to a weighty question.

“The Jews represent something of which Europe wants to know nothing,” asserts Lyotard in what amounts to a phenomenology of antisemitism. What can this “something” be, so important as to arouse the desire to make them disappear and to desecrate their dead? At first look, we can say that it is theological and not biological, hence the distinction from racism. Antisemitism transcends the ages, the Christian Middle Ages, republican modernity, etc., and can still be found in egalitarian and inclusive post-modernity. This is because Jews rejected from the first hour the Christian postulate of humanity’s redemption through Jesus’ sacrifice. The heart of the Jewish-European dispute, according to Lyotard, concerns incarnation and Christology. Did the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ cleave history in two and abolish original sin, as Paul and then the Fathers of the Church affirmed? Did the crucifixion bring about a world in which men are free to give themselves their own law? Europe has always thought so, says Lyotard, at least since it became Christian. Jews have contested this on the basis of the biblical text, which announces a promise, one that still has not been fulfilled. Jews thus undermine Europe’s founding myth, i.e., God’s sacrifice of his only son, on which human unity is founded. If, for Europeans, the Jewish law has been declared null and void, it is because the new world is fraternal, because it has been redeemed, redeemed by the most important sacrifice. Such is the vision of the Universal that Christianity has birthed.

Such a divide is unbridgeable, and ever more so because no one broaches the matter. We, moderns, believe ourselves liberated from these outmoded religious trifles, which have been abandoned to the handful of bigots who still care to fiddle with them. The text’s power is to recall this essential and fundamental division. What separates Jews from Europeans is not only a set of prejudices that reality could deconstruct. What separates them is a fundamental relationship to the idea of limits and overcoming. Europeans, beginning from the Pauline postulate of the Law’s obsolescence, plead for a world in which men alone sets his limits. The oneness of humanity has been achieved, and no one should undercut this beautiful unity. Unlimited and transcendent, such is the horizon of Europe. “There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free man; there is no longer male or female, because you are all one in Christ Jesus,” proclaims Paul in the Epistle to the Galatians (III, 28), announcing what Jean-Claude Milner has called an “easy universalism” (Le Juif de savoir, 2006). Whoever challenges this dogma is seen as a threat, even as an enemy of humanity. But the Jews have challenged this idea from inception and have not stopped doing so since. They are the only ones to contest it with such constancy. This is the root of the phenomenon, still fully active in modern society, though one might think it has been attenuated by various forms of secularization.

The dispute is so consequential because the test of truth for Europe’s brand of universalism depends on the disappearance of the Jews. Paul declares that neither nor Jew nor Greek exists in Christ. But the Jews are still around. We can conclude that if this is the case perhaps not all are one in Christ. Christ has perhaps not accomplished the mission of the Gospels. Antisemitism’s longevity has to be understood in light of this universal promise, which presupposes the disappearance of Jews. If the Jews are still around, then either the promise has been fulfilled and their existence is an anomaly, an error or even a fault. Or their existence is proof that the promise has not been fulfilled, even a presence preventing its fulfillment. In both cases, Jewish existence is a problem or a major obstacle.

Jews are those for whom the Christian universal is the mark of an illusion rather than a truth. Are they therefore recalcitrant to the universal? Not at all. Their texts were the first to affirm a unique genealogy for humanity, all created by a God who made man in his own image. The quarrel is therefore about the meaning of the Universal. The proposal of Paul, and then of the Church, is that of a universal which abolishes differences, which is imposed on all, without exception. If limits have been abolished, if the universal has been established, it is because Jesus is the Christ, who sacrificed himself to save mankind. For the Jews, on the other hand, the redeemed world is a promise, and one never ceases to wait and wonder about its meaning and about the moment of its realization. To hold on to the universal presupposes a patient acceptance of waiting, of living in an imperfect world where there are unsurpassable differences, and continuing to study and question. Christian universalism is based on the certainty that something has happened that has changed the nature of the world in which we live. Christian universalism is based on this affirmation, which in the eyes of the Jews is a mere illusion. This is the nub of the issue for Lyotard. The supporters of certainty find it difficult to tolerate contestation. The holdouts’ contestation and expectation attests to their belief that the edifice of Christian universalism is nothing but a mirage. — Jacques Ehrenfreund


Jean-François Lyotard, 1988, Personal family collection


Europe, the Jews and the Book[1]


In unifying itself, Europe also unifies its hatreds. Amongst them, it is indispensable not to confound racism or xenophobia with anti-Semitism. These are two different types of hatred. Both of them can go as far as cold-blooded murder, lynching, arson, ransacking of households, destruction of communal edifices. By setting anti-Semitism apart, it’s not a question of neglecting, of trying to forget (“swallowing up”) the almost regular murder of North African children, adolescents or adults in France.

The desecration of the graves and the display on a stake of a corpse tom from its coffin in the Jewish cemetery of Carpentras say something specific: it’s that, after the Shoah, the Jews don’t have the right to their dead nor to the memory of their dead. The desecration of Jewish cemeteries bas a long tradition in Europe. The “final solution” tortures and kills millions of Jews, without a political reason, but it also makes them disappear and it tries to efface the traces of that annihilation.

I say that the Jews represent something that Europe does not want to or cannot know anything about. Even dead, it abolishes their memory and denies them burial in its ground. All of that happens in its unconscious and doesn’t have the right to speak. When the thing is publicly carried out, Europe is seized for an instant by the horror and terror of seeing its desire.

Towards foreign immigrants, especially if they are themselves Euro­ pean, the nationals of Europe behave like rich relatives with poor cousins. The violence of passions, the blindness, the multiplicity of criminal acts are those of family affairs. Every tragedy is a family affair. But the Jews aren’t part of the family, even though they’ve been “settled in,” as one says, for more than a millenium at Carpentras, for centuries at Prague, at Budapest, and in the Rhineland. The Jews aren’t a nation. They don’t speak a language, their own. They don’t have any roots in a nature, like the European nations. They appeal to a book.

Does one have something against books, against their book, against the readers of this book, to the point of violating their sepulture so as to kill their dead? In principle, nothing at all. Europe is enlightened, the scholars and the learned are respected there. In fact, yes. Nothing is as slow, difficult, scarcely profitable as learning to read; it’s never finished. In a society avid for performances, profitability, and speed, it’s a devalued exercise, and along with it the institution which provides for it. General teaching crisis, scorn for professors, ambient anti-intellectual­ ism, right up into the media “cultural professions.” But, should the Jews be the “men of the Book,” that nevertheless doesn’t explain the desecration of their cemetery.

What begins to explain it is what their book says. For, it’s that which Europe, Christian first of all, then Republican, today rich and permissive, doesn’t want to or cannot know anything about. This book, which is at the base of its whole culture, remained excluded within it.

It’s an old story. lt begins with the Epistles that the apostle Paul addresses to the Romans and the Hebrews. Forgive me for making a long story short, that is, for misrepresenting. The Book of the Jews says: God is a Voice, one never bas access to His visible presence. The veil which separates the two parts of the temple by isolating the Holy of Holies can­ not be crossed (except once a year by the sacrificant, designated by God). Everything that presents itself as divine is an imposture: idol, charismatic leader, supreme guide, false prophet, Son of God. The law of justice and peace cannot be embodied. It doesn’t show us an example to follow. It gave you a book to read, full of history to interpret. Don’t try to come to an agreement with it. You belong to it, it doesn’t belong to you.

Yet, Paul says: not at all, the temple’s veil was tom apart “once and for all” at the moment when Jesus died on the cross. His sacrifice redeemed your sins, “once and for all,” repeats the apostle. The law has pardoned you, Gad gave you bis Son and the death of His Son as a visible example. Through him the voice was shown. It said clearly: love one another as brothers.

That was a revolution. It’s the beginning of modernity. Christianity is established and spreads out by supplanting without any trouble (or almost) the ancient dying paganism. But what is to be done with Juda­ ism, with those who are unable to believe in the christly myth, but who nevertheless brought the first book, the old law? The fathers, within Europe, of the written religion? And, a religion which reveals that the veil cannot be lifted?

All of the social, political, religious, speculative history of Christian Europe attests to a permanent undertaking, using diverse means (question, conversion, expulsion, censure) to neutralize the Jewish message and banish the community of disbelievers. It will be necessary to wait until the twentieth century for the Church to revise its position on this subject. That’s not to say that the villages, the towns and the suburbs of Europe will follow the movement. …

l’m not accusing anybody. What is at stake here is a “différend” [2]bearing on the relation to the symbolic, that is, to the law and death. The Christians tell us that finally we are all reconciled brothers. The Jews remind us that we are always sons, blessed but unsubdued. The message of forgiveness is more pleasant to hear, easier to “exploit” and spread than the memory of indignity.

But today, after the Shoah? That’s still not finished? That will never end. The Christian Churches had introduced the motive of fraternity. The French Revolution extended it, while turning it around. It’s not as sons of God that we are brothers but as free and equal citizens. It’s not an Other who gives us the law. lt’s our civic community that makes it, obliges, prohibits, permits. That’s called emancipation, in relation to the Other, and autonomy. Our law makes citizenship available to every individual, under the condition of respect for republican principles. The Jews are admitted here like anyone else. That’s called assimilation.

But how can he who confesses to heteronomy be transformed into one who exercises bis autonomy? A Christian can succeed in reconciling things: the debt to the Other was symbolically paid, once and for all; autonomy is permitted under certain conditions (the latter vary from one church to another). But for a Jew, the debt is not symbolically extinguished, its extinction is only promised. Its remission doesn’t depend on works, nor even on intentions. God alone will emancipate.

What can a “French or German citizen of lsraelite confession” be, then? Especially if he is an officer: Dreyfus, or a head of government: Blum! In the European unconscious, it is admitted that his debt with regard to the Other will prevail over his duties towards the others, the national community. And that he is necessarily a potential traitor. Or perhaps he manages to forget that he is a Jew. That’s the great temptation of the “assimilated” themselves. The “final solution” will come to remind them, monstrously, that they are always, even in spite of them­selves, the witnesses of that which Europe doesn’t want to know any­thing about.

Some are astonished that, after all that, anti-Semitism persists. But look at contemporary society. It no longer talks at all about fraternity, neither Christian nor Republican. It only talks about the sharing of the goods and advantages of “development.” Everything is permitted here

within the limits of what is defined as distributive justice. We no longer owe anything but services, and only those due to one another. Socio­ economic partners in a great big affair, development. The past only has importance here inasmuch as it is capitalized in all kinds of powers, which permit us to be the first with a hold “on the future.” A profession also affected by discredit, politics only serves to encourage development by looking after the redistribution of its effects. lt has lost its monopoly on tragedy. So much the worse and so much the better. lt will be like this for all of the great new Europe.

Rushed onwards, what interest can Europe have for what, in the Book of the Jews, the unknown Voice says? How can these obscure stories of law and debt between bands of clergymen, stories old by several millenia, matter to Europe? These commandments from another age? The stubborn readers of this book, the witnesses of the Other are no longer even disturbing but picturesque. Postmodern form of repression: they are placed in a state of obsolescence, they become kitsch. The Jews, they are well liked on the whole.

Thus is carried on, in the unconscious of permissive Europe, the annihilation of what their book says, which is that the law doesn’t belong to us and that our reconciliation with it remains pending. That’s the anti­Semitism constitutive of Europe, which, in one way or another, has always thought the contrary: its self-constitution. What was cause for indignation, in the desecration of the cemetery at Carpentras, is, I fear, that it was from another age. Abject in view of contemporary “values.” But how do the latter stand in view of the book that the dead of Carpentras were reading?

Jean-François Lyotard


Translated by Thomas Cochran & Elizabeth Constable in L’Esprit Créateur 31:1 (1991), 158-161. © 1991 L’Esprit Créateur.



1 This article is a translation of “L’Europe, les juifs et Je livre,” published first in Libéra­tion (15 mai 1990), then, with minor changes, in Esprit, juin 1990): 113-116. 
2 ”As distinguished from a litigation, a differend [différend] would be a case of conflict between (at Ieast) two parties that cannot be equitably resolved for Jack of a rule of judgement applicable to both arguments.” Jean-François Lyotard, The Differend, trans. Georges Van Den Abbeele (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1988), p. xi.

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