The return of the little “h” (typographical slips and antisemitism)

For Jews, the current political situation gives the impression of being caught in a bind, as if it were impossible to position oneself without betraying oneself. In this text, Judith Lyon-Caen bears witness to the doubts that beset her, and to the way in which one too many of a simple little “h” can mark the impossibility of breaking free from it.


Palais Royal, Orléans gallery, Wikipedia Commons


A few weeks ago, I had a sort of altercation via e-mail correspondence with a young colleague I don’t know. My university, the EHESS (École des hautes études en sciences sociales), has an internal e-mail list, dedicated to “discussions and debates”. Until very recently, the list was not moderated; it reaches a very large community of teachers, researchers and students; since October 7, the discussions have been almost entirely devoted to exchanges of arguments, thoughts, information but also invective on the situation in Gaza and the war between Israel and Hamas. 

On May 8, 2024, in an e-mail posted on this discussion list, this young colleague returned to the question of the qualification of what is taking place in Gaza. She did so by quoting, not so much to refute as to denounce, an e-mail I had myself written on this list in November, dedicated to the question of the qualification of genocide – an e-mail which, according to her, amounted to “denying the genocide perpetrated in Palestine”.

In November, I had in fact reacted to a statement from the EHESS “Palestine Committee”, which spoke of a “genocidal context”. I contested the use of such an expression; I emphasized that this recourse to the term genocide, while avoiding pointing out Hamas’ responsibilities in the war, did not allow us to properly address the question of the war crimes committed by Israel in its response, as a response. Finally, I wondered what the use of the term genocide implied in our relationship with Israel: if the State of the Jews were to commit genocide, the same State that had won international recognition for the genocide perpetrated against the Jews of Europe, then the legitimacy of the State of Israel would be struck to the heart. My 19-year-old daughter, whom I had read this letter to, thought that, on this last point, “I was exaggerating”. In a private message, a colleague urged me to get rid of my “inherited automatisms of thought”. I didn’t react. On the other hand, my daughter’s remark shook me. 

I probably wouldn’t put it in the same terms today. The tens of thousands of deaths in Gaza, the deprivation and destruction on an unprecedented scale, the strikes on schools and hospitals, the alleged humiliating treatment of Palestinian detainees – all of this adds a heavy burden to the assessment of the Israeli government’s conduct of the war. The UN speaks of crimes against humanity. And it’s true that, as a Jew, I’m ashamed, deeply ashamed of what’s happening in Gaza. Even if I know that there are the hostages from October 7, whose fate doesn’t seem to really move anyone outside Israel, and if I know the responsibility of Hamas and its allies not only in starting the war but also in exposing civilian populations, I’m ashamed.

“Mrs Lyon-Cahen”, she had written. It’s hard to describe what I felt when I read it: something like a symbolic slap, a slap that leaves a trace, a mark. The “Jew” stamp on my family name.

On May 8, 2024, the young colleague repeated the terms of my November letter, in a letter that was not addressed to me but to the entire “discussions” list. She quoted my name three times. And the third time, an “h” had slipped into the “Caen” of “Lyon-Caen”: “Mrs Lyon-Cahen”, she had written. It’s hard to describe what I felt when I read it: something like a symbolic slap, a slap that leaves a trace, a mark. The “Jew” stamp on my family name. It was undoubtedly a slip of the tongue; there’s nothing more banal than a mistake on a surname. I reacted strongly, however, not wanting to put my head down. In a letter addressed to this colleague, but still posted on this same collective list, I wrote: “I note with dismay how, at the end of your message, you misspell my name. No doubt ‘Lyon-Cahen’ sounds more Jewish than ‘Lyon-Caen'”. It was scathing. At the time I sent the message, I wondered whether, as my daughter had told me, I wasn’t exaggerating a little.  

Of course, the young colleague immediately wrote to me, this time privately, to apologize, explaining that she didn’t “know that my name might be Jewish” – an odd phrase to which I almost retorted that, obviously, something inside her did. But this time, I didn’t reply, precisely because I didn’t want to exaggerate. And I told myself that this young colleague couldn’t possibly know what the “h” was doing to me, as a Jewish mark on a name whose history tells the story of a family of French Jews. At first, like all Jewish surnames before emancipation, the name was uncertain: Cain, Caïn, Cahin, Cahen, Caën. It stabilized in the course of the 19th century, with the addition of another name, Lyon, which was also the maternal name of one of my forebears, Lyon Jacob Caën, according to the civil registry at the time of his death in 1870: Lyon Caen was his artist’s name – he was a chansonnier in his spare time – and his sons, Charles and Léon, who had pursued careers as lawyers, wished to keep their father’s name, becoming Charles and Léon Lyon-Caën, or Lyon-Caen. A Jewish patronymic stabilized in the form of double French town names, a hyphen between two towns as a sign of alliance with France. So, of course, I tell myself that the colleague who writes “Lyon-Cahen” can’t know that she’s denouncing this history of stabilization, that she’s undoing the sign of this alliance. So why is this “h” surfacing? And why do I experience this slip of the tongue so violently as a marking, a reassignment, a stigmatization?

A few days later, still on this open list, when Sciences Po, then the École normale supérieure, followed by a building of the EHESS, that had all been occupied and then evacuated, another colleague denounced the “deleterious effects of tribalism and primary affiliations” on those unable to see what was happening in Gaza (according to him, a genocide inscribed in a colonial logic). Upset by the violence of the exchanges and the growing difficulty of discussing these issues with our students and colleagues alike, I wrote an open letter entitled “What’s happening to us? May 30, 2024”. I took up the sentence on the deleterious effects, pointing out that it flirted with the limits of antisemitism. The author of the sentence replied curtly, still on the open list, “Mrs Lyon-Caen, paranoia can be treated”. 

After that, I received many e-mails of support against the “antisemitic attacks” against me. They comforted me, but I kept wondering if that was what it was all about. After all, maybe I’d exaggerated… People are always warning that antisemitism can be used as a tool to prevent any criticism of Israel that’s not too sharp. Wasn’t it my turn to fall into this trap, seeing antisemitism under the innocent guise of an “h” slip of the tongue in a message dedicated to Gaza, or a convoluted formula about tribes and “primary” affiliations, and draping myself in my indignation to avoid being indignant about something else, which is indeed far more serious? I remain doubtful.

 After all, maybe I’d exaggerated… People are always warning that antisemitism can be used as a tool to prevent any criticism of Israel that’s not too sharp. Wasn’t it my turn to fall into this trap? I remain doubtful.

And yet… This “h” thing never leaves me. I’m a Holocaust historian. Antisemitism is one of my subjects of study: until now, for me, it belonged to the past, to history and to collective and family memory. I have seen it at work and in the present in Poland, however, against historians working on the forms of participation of the Polish population in the extermination of the Jews. But, how can I put it, it was other people’s antisemitism; it made me angry, but didn’t affect me. 

This morning, as I walked through the Palais-Royal gardens, it occurred to me that an “h” could prevent Jews from crossing a garden. Incidentally, the absence of this “h” had in no way prevented part of my family from being – among other things – banned from green spaces, and deported. This “h” keeps coming back to me, reassigning me, preventing me from entering into discussion with the proponents of colonial genocide, from contesting an analysis of the situation that quite simply erases the entire history of the formation of the Jewish national home in Palestine, and then of the founding of the State of Israel, an analysis that seeks to ignore the responsibilities of Arab countries, then as now of Hamas, Iran and their allies. Incidentally, the proponents of “colonial genocide” aren’t that interested in history: Israel would be a colonial state, not only in the West Bank (which it undeniably is), but by nature, and a colonial state driven by a genocidal logic. Neither Israel’s history since 1947-48, nor October 7th, nor Hamas have any place in this narrative, except as a concession. The indisputable tragedy of the current situation makes it absolutely pointless to put it into perspective, which could be seen as a way of minimizing it. 

I am writing this text, on this day of June 14th, to bear witness to what has taken place over the last few months. At a time when the far right is on the doorstep of power in France and a left-wing union is forming with a far left that has conducted its campaign for the European elections by knowingly playing on antisemitic connotations. I still don’t know if I’m exaggerating.

It seems to me that this uncertainty, this difficulty in knowing, is the sign of the anguish in which the situation places us, far from Gaza, here, faced with the impact of the event in our society: faced with indignant students who cannot admit that we do not adhere to the terms of what they hold to be the most just, the purest of protests; faced with what, at the heart of this indignation that the situation in Gaza never ceases to call forth, appears : outrageous words and slogans (“Warsaw, Treblinka, today Gaza”, as we read at Sciences Po), and tiny acts of language, such as that most unwelcome “h”, which separates and undermines the trust that, despite everything, we can have in exchanges with those who are our colleagues, our peers, our students, sometimes our friends. What can we do with the “h” that crept into the story of a Jewish Frenchwoman in the spring of 2024? To this day, I can only testify to the anxiety into which it plunges me. But perhaps I’m exaggerating.

Judith Lyon-Caen, June 14, 2024

Judith Lyon-Caen is a historian and director of studies at EHESS.


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