Lavrov’s statement that Zelensky could be both a Jew and a Nazi and that Hitler had “Jewish blood” struck a chord. Reactions in Europe were unanimous in their indignation at what was perceived as the obscene words of a political leader ready to do anything to justify his country’s brutal war. But what exactly is behind this sense of obscenity? Is it really the expression of a rejection of the real Nazism, the one that had the hatred of the Jews as its springboard? Or does this feeling cover a more fundamental ambivalence in the relationship that Europeans have with Jews, even today? Stéphane Bonnet shows us that this is indeed the case. Europeans, rightly shocked by Lavrov’s words, are not so inclined to analyse themselves as much as they should be to fight the roots of their antisemitism. After the Shoah, it is impossible for them to ignore the fact that it lies deep within themselves. And opposing it is a task that requires more than condemning it when it is stated openly: it requires going so far as to want Judaism in Europe and for Europe.
Something like the persistence of a certain past shows itself in the present of the war between Russia and Ukraine: In the territories that were those of the Holocaust through bullets, Russians, who claim to denazify Ukraine and accuse Ukrainians of genocide in the Donbass, confront Ukrainians who in turn accuse them of genocide and crimes against humanity, while a Sergei Lavrov declared last May that Zelenski can be a Jew and a Nazi, since Hitler had Jewish origins and according to the wise Jewish people themselves, the worst anti-Semites would be Jews.
It is difficult to decide whether the Russian war crimes in Ukraine are the result of a genuine genocidal intention. But in Russian power circles, another intention is more easily discernible, as Lavrov explicitly formulates it: they would like the victims of Nazism not to be the victims of Nazism, but the executioners, and to be able to be anti-Semitic again in good conscience. The past that has always been there, and which is now coming to the fore in the war in Ukraine, is that of an unrestrained anti-Semitism, an anti-Semitism of the past, which only supports the memory of the Shoah as an impediment that should be able to be got rid of by transforming the Jews into Nazis responsible for a new genocide.
We Western Europeans look at this with amazement. Of course, the idea that the Jews must be identified with the Nazis, so that one can once again, without any guilt, be anti-Semitic, is one of those old moons that we know well: they regularly appear in anti-Zionist or decolonialist discourse, because the diversions via Palestine or colonisation can give all the audacity. But we can see that what is impossible here is for such antisemitism to occupy a central or overhanging position, a position of ideological hegemony in society or among members of the government.
What is central and overarching for us is the ban on antisemitism associated with the memory of the Shoah. So when I say “we Western Europeans”, I am speaking from the assumption that antisemitism is forbidden to us because we remember the Shoah. My “we” represents our Europe, in the sense that no speech that does not accept this premise could become public without a clamour of indignation, in France, in Germany, in Italy, in England. The force of the ban is such that those who want to be antisemitic hide, become anti-Zionists or retreat into some small place, perhaps a mosque, a blog, a club of nostalgic Nazis, an indigenist association.
A proposition such as “Jews are Nazis”, as long as we forbid ourselves to say it, can only be a proposition that others, for example Putin and his ministers, really want to say by assuming what they say. For our part, it is a proposition that we hear with horror, a forbidden enunciation. The horror refers to the crimes committed by the Nazis. The Italian Prime Minister called Lavrov’s statement “obscene”: this is the right word, because it suggests that something like the object of a repressed desire that is forbidden is laid bare. The stronger the ban, the more the affirmation of what is banned is present, but blocked by the ban, sent back to the obscene where it breaks through the barrier of repression.
In the case of us Europeans, we know how powerful the ban on anti-Semitism is, which means that there is a repressed desire in us, and we know it. This is the problem of anti-Semitism as it is felt in Western Europe: there is a desire for anti-Semitism in us, surfacing at different points of consciousness and social groups, and we know collectively that we must not want it. In short, we would like to be Russian, but we are not allowed to be.
This is the condition of Europeans since the Shoah. The prohibition of antisemitism in Europe is the antisemitic desire affected by its negation, it is wanting antisemitism and wanting it not to be. If, apart from the prohibition of antisemitism, we do not want much, it is because our will is worthless – our desire for antisemitism proves it – and we would therefore like to get rid of it. The will has become a dangerous thing that we can only use by crushing it under negation. Of course we want a lot of little things, little things that are enough to make us consumers, traders and producers; and we want to organise ourselves sustainably to remain consumers, traders and producers. We want a small present that lasts. But we want nothing else, nothing that lives up to what our past seemed to promise in terms of science and emancipation. A will for the future that lives up to the promises of the past is no longer allowed. What we receive from the past and which orients our future is a criminal will that we disown, in order to absolve ourselves of the crime of a will that was the will of the Shoah.
But in doing so, we maintain our desire for anti-Semitism because we affect it simply by a negation. Underneath the official negation, it remains there. Here and there, among certain Gilets Jaunes, among such and such a speaker from the extreme right or from La France insoumise, it sometimes shows itself unvarnished: this desire to take on the crime forever. To those who know how to see and hear, it emerges as the outcropping of a major obsession of contemporary Europe, an obsession of forbidden desire that we would like to finally assume in order to regain the possibility of wanting something ‘greater’. The price of the very possibility of true political action seems to be this for all those disappointed by the little things that are only allowed to the will of Europeans after the Shoah.
Let us now turn to the depth of European guilt that nourishes the specific configuration of the prohibition of antisemitic desire.
What gives consistency to the European ‘we’ is the fact that the vast majority of Europeans are Christians or inherit Christianity. In other words, the European ‘we’ refers as much to the history of Christianity as to the Shoah. When I want to say “we” as a European, I must do so by assuming the heritage of Christianity and by assuming the fact that from within this tradition the Shoah became possible, and then necessary, and, as a result, the current ban on anti-Semitism according to the coordinates we have mentioned.
Now, Christians or those who think of themselves as emancipated from Christianity are then troubled by an anxiety of their own: the fact that anti-Semitism is now radically forbidden to them does not change the fact that they remain Christians. The relationship of Christianity to Judaism is maintained in the common experience. And it has always consisted of an inclusive exclusion: a Jewish heart denied by the Christian will.
In other words, Christians want to be the people of God in a way that cancels out the first people of God, the Jews, for the present and sends them back into the past. To be a Christian is to unconsciously desire to be a Jew, and consciously to want the Jews to be no more, except as witnesses to the fault which would justify their disappearance, if they were not to remain present to bear witness to the fault through their stubbornness in not becoming Christians. But all this is now only possible within the limits of the powerful prohibition linked to the Shoah. Christians no longer have the right to want the Jews to be no more; they no longer have the right to be Christians to the point of considering this last consequence. Perhaps this is why so many Christians in Europe are no longer Christians, even when they still attend church or temple? By this we mean that they retain everything of Christianity, except the relationship to God, the belonging to the people of God; for it would be too obvious to want the Jews to be no more, which the prohibition of anti-Semitism excludes.
“We Europeans” is a “we” of Christians without God. If the ban on anti-Semitism is so central, so overbearing and so powerful among us, it is primarily because European societies are at their core made up of Christians who no longer want to be this people of sinners who have taken the place of the people. Yet they remain Christians, that is, sinners, naturally gifted with guilt: the great sin of which we are now guilty, if we assume the heritage of Christianity, is certainly the Shoah. And what is still Christian in us, a certain habit of carrying the weight of original sin, means that we cannot free ourselves from the guilt of the crime, even though we did not commit it. We are born guilty, not guilty before the law.
There is a circle of Christianity without God in which the majority of Western Europeans find themselves enclosed: the prohibition linked to the unsurpassable guilt separates the Christian from God and from the will to make the Jews disappear by taking their place. This leaves him to grapple with his original guilt, which gives force to the prohibition of antisemitism but does not make the desire disappear, on the contrary. Where there had been hope in guilt, the hope of being able to take the place of God’s people if only one accepted one’s sinful condition, the actual crime put an end to this hope for good. Only the guilty desire remains, without remission.
The current question is the following. How do we get out of this circle of Christianity without God, which keeps antisemitism under the lid of the ban, but also keeps it, necessarily, as that which returns?
To get out of it does not imply erasing antisemitism, which one can dream of, but which is obviously impossible: it would be like erasing our unconscious. Rather, it is by escaping the natural guilt of the Christian that we can get out of the circle. If some of us were truly guiltless, finally fully dechristianised, what would happen to them? At first glance, they would no longer carry the burden of Christian anti-Semitism associated with the crime that Christian history in Europe has led to. The antisemitism of Christians would become for them the antisemitism of others.
What then would be the relationship to the Jews of those men who were truly liberated from Christianity, or at least more liberated than ever? By the effect of this accomplished emancipation, they would be entirely stripped of the anti-Semitism inherited from Christianity; but, on the other hand, they would remain emancipated Christians, Christians who have ceased to be the people of God and to be guilty by nature, Christians who have destroyed Christianity in themselves, at least that which in Christianity implied the inclusive exclusion of Judaism. To be emancipated from Christianity could then mean to rediscover Judaism as something external and unrecognized, as that which is foreign is unrecognized, as opposed to the internalized thing, unrecognized because internalized, that Christianity had made of it. Thus, for the emancipated Christian, the Jews could once again become strangers whom one does not think one knows, but whom one can get to know, and cease to be familiar people whom one thinks one knows, knowing them better than they know themselves because one perceives in them the decay they present, which is what the non-emancipated Christian does when he thinks he is expressing the truth of Judaism which the Jews themselves do not see.
The idea that the Europeans in whom antisemitism is most intimately present, albeit covered by the ban, are those who remain crushed by the natural guilt inherited from Christianity, sheds light on the strength of the ban in those among them who sincerely oblige themselves on every occasion not to be antisemitic. But it also sheds light on the variations of contemporary guilt when it is related to other faults, in particular the crimes of colonisation, and when, being thus distributed over other objects, it allows for the weakening of the ban on antisemitism. For it must be said that the integration of new objects into our guilt is rarely done without the pleasure of finally being able to lift this ban. So it is certainly not the intensification of the feeling of guilt and its distribution of new objects that will make us get out of the circle in which Christianity without God locks us.
On the contrary, getting out of the circle presupposes that we begin by no longer feeling guilty for crimes that we have not committed. It would then be possible to construct another relationship to the universal, the matrix of which would be found precisely in the inscription of Jewish particularity at the centre of dechristianised society: this new relationship to the universal would finally make us capable of welcoming other particularities as well, without levelling them or idolising them. And it would make us better able to face, without deception and confusion, our real responsibilities in the present situations.
Let us be optimistic: there would then be another future for Europe, which would not consist in endlessly going through the choice between wanting anti-Semitism or not wanting anti-Semitism. This other future could consist in wanting what is not antisemitism, while understanding that this is quite different from not wanting antisemitism, since it would then be a matter of wanting Judaism, of welcoming Judaism as what Europeans want.
To want the Jews means no longer unconsciously desiring to be Jews instead of Jews, to cease to be Christians as far as possible, to cease even to be Christians without God, retaining from Christianity only the unconscious desire to be Jews instead of Jews, which is the basis of pure antisemitism, stripped of the old anti-Judaism. To want the Jews means to want this difference between Europe, which comes from Christianity, and the non-Christian persistence of Judaism; it means to mediate the relationship of Europe to the Christian God, from whom too many Christians have emancipated themselves without emancipating themselves from their guilt and thus from their desire for anti-Semitism, which is still alive, through the relationship that the Jews have with God For those who are not Jews, there is, in short, another relationship to God which is possible outside of this will of Christians to erase the Jews by becoming Jews instead of Jews, by becoming the new people of God. Let us note that what we are saying here about Christians would undoubtedly also apply, with some adjustments, to Muslims who, for their part, are Muslims insofar as they want to be the new people of God, in the place of the Jews and in the place of Christians. The other relationship to God is to be without God, but with the Jews, who have never ceased to be with God in a way that is forbidden to all others. That God is forbidden to us immediately, but allowed to us through the mediation of the Jews in our midst, is what we will want if we leave the anti-Semitic desire to others (to the Russians, for example), even when we take it upon ourselves only through its negation, which can always become the other side of a new affirmation.
Europe is thus at a crossroads: to want anti-Semitism, to continue to forbid itself anti-Semitism, or to want the Jews; to become Russian, to continue to be without a will because of the impossibility of abstraction from the crime with which the will is burdened, or to want finally to overcome Christianity. If this last possibility were to gain strength and guide the future of Europe, neither Christianity nor the Shoah, nor the history that gave rise to them, would be forgotten, but they would become a past to be remembered and learnt from: they would no longer be that past which does not pass and makes our present a desert.
Stéphane Bonnet is a philosopher. His last book, ‘Les lois de la désobéissance’ (2020), was published by PUF. He is also the author of ‘Droit et raison d’État’ (Classiques Garnier, 2012) and ‘Des nouveautés très anciennes. De l’esprit des lois et la tradition de la jurisprudence’ (Éditions de la Sorbonne, 2020).