Jews in the voting booth: how to loosen the noose

With parliamentary elections approaching in France, and the issue of antisemitism taking center stage in the political debate, the editorial staff of K. felt it was their duty to take a stand. However, given the existential and strategic dilemma facing Jews, we felt it was impossible for this position to be expressed in a single voice: it had to be divided. Two Jewish voices, those of Bruno Karsenti and Danny Trom, are thus articulated and answered here. Let there be no mistake: the aim is not to make each hold one pole of the electoral dilemma, but rather to grasp it at two different levels. First, that of the philosopher, who poses it from the point of view of what the reference to the Jewish condition represents, or should represent, for the Jews themselves, and above all for the Left and its future. Then that of the sociologist, who takes charge of the practical dimension of the dilemma, illuminating through the strategies of perseverance in exile the embarrassment and wanderings of Jews who no longer know where to look for security.


Mathieu Kappler via WikimediaCommons


The neglected condition of the left-wing union

by Bruno Karsenti

In the diaspora, Jews are national minorities. As a people in exile, they are structurally a minority in the nation-states of which they are citizens. This does not mean that they are opposed to the majority culture, but it does mean that they are disposed towards it in a very specific way. This disposition entails responsibilities and duties, both to themselves and to their host nation, the one in whose life they participate. In the first place, this fundamental condition of theirs requires them to show solidarity with any minority potentially threatened by the powers in place. As a result, they are opposed to reactionary nationalism, and the discriminatory, even persecutory policies that go with it. If they are faithful to their Jewish status, they inevitably reject any legislation that makes national preference, with its selective logic based on criteria of origin, race or religion, its guiding principle. They know the slope that is taken once this principle is established. They also know that combating it requires more than ad hoc compromises and delaying tactics whose sole aim is to gain or retain power. As Jews, they are acutely aware of the vulnerability of minorities, of any minority, when national integration is transformed into coercion by the majority.

Right now, this sensitivity has been reached. At a time when France runs the risk of having an extreme right-wing government, the Jews, insofar as they are aware of their condition as a minority integrated into the nation, place themselves on the side of the communities that are most threatened, in this case the Muslim immigrant populations and sexual minorities. They join the only forces likely to counter the reactionary nationalist trend. Not those who pose as a bulwark, banking on the benefits they believe they can derive from the shadow cast by the far-right – a supposedly subtle maneuver that the current government tried again when it decided to dissolve the Assembly. A liberal government of this type, whose only resource is the verbal denunciation of extremism, and which increasingly weakens the levers of a genuine integration policy, can only contribute to worsening the trend.

It must be made clear: to counter the reactionary camp, it is only possible to rely on forces that pursue a policy clearly linking social justice and minority rights, and are committed to formulating a genuinely progressive vision of the nation and of Europe.

At present, therefore, it is only on the left that a sustainable way out of this situation can be articulated, and this is where Jews should most naturally find their place.

But this is not what is happening. It is indisputable that the left-wing bloc formed in response to the reactionary peril contains antisemitic elements. What’s more, for many years, and with dizzying haste since October 7, these elements have acquired a structuring role on the left, through ignorance and simplification of the problems that progressive thought must confront in an increasingly complex and globalized world. By reducing these problems to the common denominator of “domination”, and by associating the Jewish name and that of Israel with that of the dominant, the Left has led Europe, and especially France, into a great antisemitic moment. Of course, antisemitism, as has always been the case, draws on sources on both the right and the left. Nevertheless, it is on the left that it now has its barycentre.

This, then, is the dilemma facing Jews: whether, in order to honor their responsibility – out of loyalty to themselves and to the non-Jewish democratic nation of which they are a part – they can go so far as to ally themselves with antisemitism, and even more so with that which is most active in contemporary antisemitism, whether conscious or unconscious.

The answer is clear to us, however painful it may be. They can’t get away with it. The misfortune of Jews is not just that they are suffering an unprecedented antisemitic upsurge. It’s that they have to stand shoulder to shoulder with the main agents of this upsurge in order to oppose reactionary, racist and xenophobic nationalism. It means not being able to avoid this contradiction, and having to live with it. It’s about resisting within the camp of the Left and stubbornly refusing to be expelled from it, even if it means situating themselves at the point in social space where they will have to face the greatest adversity. This is how the tragedy of the Jewish condition presents itself today. The alternative is heartbreaking, but all the more so because its options do not include the ultimate comfort of the suspension of choice.

Once the contradiction has been posed, once its inevitability has been established, it is nevertheless possible and necessary to act within the constrained space it defines. If the tragic, in this case, leads to action rather than inaction, this action is only worth requalifying. We therefore need to redefine what it means to “choose the left”, and to do so with as much determination as on the road that led to this conclusion.

The issue of antisemitism only concerns Jews on the margins. More globally, it’s about making it possible once again, for anyone and everyone, to assert oneself consistently on the left. Even if there were no longer a single Jew in France to defend, the problem would remain intact, and would lose none of its dimension as a problem that affects everyone.

It must be said, repeated and hammered home that left-wing unity will only be achieved if we confront left-wing antisemitism, name and analyze it, and make its rejection a fundamental principle. Not because this union would then win Jewish votes, a negligible quantity of the electorate in any case. But only then will we be able to break the deadlock that has long prevented the Left from articulating its discourse in a consistent manner, and freeing itself from what undermines it at the core. Left-wing antisemitism, unspoken or denied, is what is currently preventing a genuine social and democratic alternative from rising up against the reactionary tide. For this antisemitism is a symptom of the fact that part of the left is prepared to divert and pervert reflection on injustice by translating it into purely negative affects, in other words, by denying the thought that goes into it and reducing it to simple, easily mobilized emotions. This populist approach to the organization of political mobilization, to the detriment of reflexivity, betrays what has always been the hallmark of truly progressive movements. Instead of seeking to derive knowledge about shared ideals from the critique of injustice, and using it to formulate a project for social transformation towards greater justice for all, this left flatters the most primitive reactions to injustice, by applying Manichean interpretive schemes to the social world. In this, it appears to be both a cause and a consequence of our societies’ inability to organize a reflexive take on themselves. The rise of left-wing antisemitism and the crisis of knowledge – particularly sociological knowledge in its critical function of illuminating political action – are inseparable. Together, they form the vortex in which the Left has been losing its footing for too long.

To get out of it, we must have the courage not to look away. But above all, we need to root out the evil by seeking it out exactly where it is rooted: precisely in its denial, and in the social and political critique in perdition that never ceases to revive it under garb that changes as national and international conflicts shift and worsen.

In this respect, we can sketch out the beginnings of an analysis. The two points on which this antisemitism is based, while not easily dealt with, are nonetheless easily identifiable. The first is the refusal to make a clear distinction between anti-Zionist criticism advocating the destruction of Israel and criticism of the injustices generated by Israeli policy calling for their correction – even when this criticism goes so far as to envisage, through a movement that can only emanate from Israeli democratic society itself, constitutional change. The second point lies in the refusal to consider another distinction, that between racism and antisemitism – a distinction that does not imply any hierarchy of evils, but calls for a different self-examination in each of the types of discrimination and violence, in view of their respective motivations, and taking into account the singular type of minority that Jews embody.

The Left will only remake itself by purging itself of the kind of left-wing populism that has become the major focus of contemporary antisemitism. The PS (Parti Socialiste; socialist party in France) candidate for the European elections, by emphasizing his refusal of violence and brutalized discourse, had suggested this clearly enough. Not enough, however, and the platform of the “New Popular Front”, by having the merit of mentioning antisemitism in the midst of intolerant behavior, and condemning it “wherever it comes from”, went a step further, which has just been continued by the “Charter of Republican Commitment against antisemitism” signed by Place Publique, the PS, the Greens and the Communists – but not by LFI (La France Insoumise; far-left political party in France), which shows that on this point, it’s wrong to think that the front is united.

Be that as it may, just clarifying principles is not enough. The left needs to take another step – and this is the step that really matters, the one that will ensure that no antisemitic comment, act or trope breaks through on the left and radically corrupts what is said and done there. We must go so far as to assert that we are fighting antisemitism as an evil whose specific nature, irreducible to other forms of discrimination and violence against minorities, lies in the type of judgment and motivation that underlies it. It must be said that we know the extent to which it permeates many discourses which, while claiming to promote the emancipation and equality of individuals and peoples, tip over into hatred of Jews. And so, not only is there something specific about antisemitism in relation to racism, but among the forms that this evil can take, left-wing antisemitism is itself distinct, and owes its current vigour to a determined structure of thought and form of politicization, which is very active in certain bangs, whether they are denied or not. This last distinction is crucial, since it is one of the essential conditions for the Left to be able to rethink itself more deeply, to clarify its own principles, its understanding of equality and emancipation, and to be reborn. That’s why we need to agree to rearm ourselves ideologically and intellectually in this battle. A struggle that revolves around the Jewish question, i.e. the minority condition of this transnational people integrated into the nations, and which for some time has not been present in the mind of the left, due to the weakening of critical reflection that affects it.

Jews could then, without living in contradiction, form a common front with all progressive forces against the extreme right. In finishing, let’s emphasize one point. As we can see, the issue of antisemitism only concerns Jews on the margins. More globally, it’s about making it possible once again, for anyone and everyone, to assert oneself consistently on the left. Even if there were no longer a single Jew in France to defend, the problem would remain intact, and would lose none of its dimension as a problem that affects everyone. It lies at the heart of the Left’s refoundation. It is like its shibboleth, that is to say the sign by which, today, it can recognize itself for sure, and distinguish itself completely from what it is not, or from what is only a caricature of itself.

Bruno Karsenti


The neglected condition of the Jews

by Danny Trom

Jews have formed minorities living within and separate from “nations”. Only with political modernity were they nationalized, integrated into nation-states. To persevere in exile, they have traditionally combined two tropisms, alternating according to circumstances, without contradiction. Despite all the transformations, this alternation can still be seen today, even in the current legislative elections.

The first tropism acknowledges the condition of exile by giving Jews a place in the host society, which presupposes recognition of the legitimacy of the law of the foreign land (the principle Dina De-Malchuta Dina, the law of the land is the law), but also of the existence of a public domain in which they participate (Tikun Medini, the correction or improvement of the land). This is the foundation on which they have built their aspiration to emancipation, and their attachment to the modern nation as soon as the rule of law, benevolence towards minorities and progress towards freedom and equality are affirmed and deepened.

In the current parliamentary elections, therefore, everything could tend to encourage Jews to vote for the New Left Front, if it were the faithful successor to the Popular Front of 1936. But the antisemitic populism of LFI, the pivotal party in the Union of the Left coalition, is preventing them from doing so. The drift to the left of the left, while disapproved of from within the union, nevertheless seems tolerated, or at least written off, leading many Jews to exclude the New Left Front from their choice. Of course, the prospect of a future reconstruction of a republican left – expurgated of its populism which has antisemitism, open or latent, as its correlate – does not answer the dilemma of the voter who will have to make up his mind in the days to come.

It is precisely here, in the crisis, that the second traditional tropism, which had faded with modernity without having disappeared, takes over. This Jewish proto-politics consisted in ensuring the protection of Jews by the powers that be, according to the logic of alliance with the supreme power. The Jewish diplomat’s function in pre-modern societies was to bind himself to the ruler in order to persuade him of the Jews’ loyalty, to promise to replenish the king’s treasury and to invoke the custom of hospitality in the host country, in order to ward off any hostile measures on his part, whether from an intermediary power or directly from the crowd. The advent of popular sovereignty has rendered this practice obsolete, since the nation-state integrates Jews as part of itself, and the popular sovereign makes the emergence of a hostile rabble impossible in principle.

In principle, therefore, only the logic of Tikun Medini remains effective, pushed to the point of indistinction from progressive politics, provided the latter do not turn against the Jews. However, it soon became clear that antisemitism could perfectly well take the form of a social movement with progressive overtones, and even find its point of articulation there, as long as the Jews were the dominant force to be destroyed. Under these conditions, which are exactly the same as today, the prudential policy of ensuring that the power resulting from the elections will be favorable to the Jews once again rears its head. Here, politics, as part of the horizon of an ideal, reaches its limits. Here, the logic of the least bad possible solution for the Jews takes over.

In excluding the RN and LFI, all that’s left is a center that mistreats the working classes and polarizes society by also taking Jews hostage.

This narrowing of the political horizon for Jews is in no way reprehensible, since it is the global configuration that forces them to do so. It is the product of a crisis characterized by the polarization of the political field following the collapse of a Center which, rather than structuring itself, has created a vacuum. In a context where it is anticipated that the Center will not be in a position to govern, two blocs, the left united under the tutelage of LFI and the right united around the RN (Rassemblement National [TN: National Rally]; far-right political party of France), are facing each other. The question then arises as to which is the least bad solution, given that it is the one from which they will suffer the least. A vote for a candidate from the left-wing union if he or she is not LFI is a solution, despite the risk of reinforcing a union under its aegis; a vote in favor of the presidential party or the republican right is also a solution, despite the risk of failing to block the RN. Then there’s the question of the second round, the trade-off between the worst possible solutions.

Some on the left claim that antisemitism on the left is cyclical, while that on the far right is structural, so that the former should be preferred to the latter. On the other hand, others warn that antisemitism on the extreme right belongs to a bygone historical sequence, and will continue to diminish, while antisemitism on the left is the antisemitism of the future, destined to flourish. Should we prefer a far-right that has recently converted to anti-antisemitism to better stigmatize post-colonial minorities in one fell swoop, in order to pursue a xenophobic policy cloaked in the veneer of philosemitism? This would be the worst solution, and one that would inevitably backfire on Jews and everyone else. The fact that a prestigious voice such as Serge Klarsfeld is leaning towards this option, erasing the RN’s anti-republican political culture and keeping quiet about its program, which reflects a regressive nationalism, at European level as well as in terms of the treatment of minorities and more generally of civil liberties, is an indication of the degree of disorientation of Jews at the moment of choice. However, this inclination, it is crucial to note, does not give way on what Bruno Karsenti calls the “fundamental condition” that disposes Jews to solidarity with any minority potentially threatened by the power in place. It results from the observation that there are persecutors within minorities themselves.

Jewish solidarity with SOS-racisme (French anti-racist movement) was unwavering when equal treatment was at stake, but when minority demands lead to the denunciation of a “state philosemitism”, the horizontal alliance between minorities reaches its limits. For, over the past two decades or more, the very soil of minority life has given rise, in its Islamist or decolonial version, to a hostility towards Jews that has created a climate of chronic insecurity and pressure to leave, for other neighborhoods, for Israel or elsewhere. And it has to be said, regulation has not come from civil society, while successive governments, despite their thundering declarations, have never managed to curb this trend.

If Jews, as a structural minority, are inclined to show solidarity with any persecuted minority, they can no longer do so when fragments of these cyclical minorities aim for a majority-type hegemony by turning against them; they can do so even less if the only place where Jews have managed to form a cyclical majority in a refuge state is denied its very existence.

So, in the event of a face-off between RN and LFI in the second round, should we prefer a populist left that hopes to maximize electoral profits by fanning the flames of antisemitism? The rise of LFI clearly appears to be the political translation of this antisemitic social agitation, with its violence at the level of Jewish social life, supported by theoretical set-ups that thrive in the world of authorized opinion. This is why a ruling RN that suddenly presents itself as the protector of Jews will appear to some Jews as the body with which an alliance will protect them against elements of a persecuting minority capable of allying themselves with majority segments, of which LFI is the sounding board. It takes a great deal of self-delusion to believe this; above all, hostility towards Jews in France must have reached such a degree, relayed by vocal political megaphones on the left who capture all hopes, that a party with its origins in Petainist, colonialist and Holocaust-denialist circles can now present itself as the protector of Jews.

The Jews of France are living through an unprecedented, paradoxical situation: a reactionary party born of state collaboration with the Nazis is at the gates of power; but so is a rabble hostile to the Jews, through the figure of Mélenchon. Is the RN sincerely or strategically philosemitic? The answer is that it is strategically. Is LFI strategically or sincerely antisemitic? The answer is that it sincerely is, as long as it purges those who aren’t. The mobilization of the Gilets jaunes (yellow vests) has clearly shown that the crowd is two-sided, opposing power without it being clear whether the antisemitism expressed there marks a leaning towards the RN or LFI.

Then there’s the Center, which the President has pre-empted. In some constituencies, sometimes right up to the second round, this will be a possible choice, based on an assessment of the least bad solution in the circumstances. A power that we already know has been lost. And a choice that feeds the denunciation of state-sponsored philosemitism, a nagging thesis of the far right before it came to its senses by concealing its antisemitism, a thesis now endorsed by the left of the left to describe the injustice done to so-called post-colonial minorities, with, it must be emphasized, the infamous wager for the very many people from these backgrounds that antisemitism dominates unchallenged. Voting for the party of a President who didn’t know whether to join the great November demonstration against antisemitism, which the government itself had incited, and who ended up not going when the RN took part but the LFI boycotted it, is a sub-optimal solution, to say the least. Supporting a power that stands beyond antisemitism and the fight against antisemitism is disturbing. In excluding the RN and LFI, all that’s left is a center that mistreats the working classes and polarizes society by also taking Jews hostage.

So, who should we vote for? While we wait for the left to clean up its act, all that remains is the short term of uncertain calculations, unrequited solidarity and reckless gambling.

Danny Trom

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