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Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980)

Anti-Semite and Jew

Summary

Sartre constructs his landmark postwar analysis of anti-Semitism around four feature characters: the anti-Semite, the democrat, the authentic Jew, and the inauthentic Jew. He presents their interactions as a kind of hypothetical drama. Sartre examines how the four actors in the “drama” create the others, or more precisely, how each character both defines the others and is defined by them.

Sartre first explains that the anti-Semite character represents the most reactionary tendencies of a French cultural nationalist. He hates modernity and sees the Jew as the representative of all that is new and mysterious within society. In this way, the anti-Semite creates for himself a Jew that is representative of all that he loathes. In turn, the presence of the Jew, the object of his hatred, forms the anti-Semite and gives him his very reason for being. In perhaps the most famous passage of the work, Sartre declares that even if the Jew did not exist, the anti-Semite would create him.

Sartre then explains that the democrat is the proud upholder of the Enlightenment, a believer in reason and the natural equality of man. However, the democrat is blind to the true effects of anti-Semitism: he expounds on the virtues of the universal rights of humanity while denying the Jew his identity as a Jew. While the anti-Semite creates the Jew to destroy him, the democrat negates the Jew to pretend the problem of anti-Semitism does not exist. In Sartre’s analysis of the democrat, his contempt for all things bourgeois is plainly evident, as is his rejection of the Enlightenment as the ultimate savior.

Finally, Sartre discusses the Jews themselves, who are divided into two representatives—the authentic and inauthentic Jew—who represent slightly different ways of confronting and dealing with anti-Semitism and contemporary society. Sartre describes all the Jewish people as without a civilization of their own, without a history save for martyrdom and suffering. Thus, they are the perfect candidates for assimilation, wherever they may find themselves in the Diaspora. Both the authentic Jew and the inauthentic Jew, in Sartre’s view, live wholly in the present. The reason they exist in the present, as opposed to the anti-Semite, who dwells in the past, and the democrat, who inhabits the future, is that the anti-Semite has placed them firmly in the here and now. The Jew, Sartre argues, affirms his role in the drama by believing the Jewish identity that is imposed on him by the other, the anti-Semite, who acts as the oppressor.

Analysis

Toward the end of World War II, Sartre observed that no one seemed to be talking about the potential return of the French Jews deported by the Nazis. With Anti-Semite and Jew, Sartre sought to deconstruct the causes and effects of anti-Semitism in France. Anti-Semite and Jew is an extraordinarily important and ambitious work in Sartre’s oeuvre. It represents an attempt to incorporate existentialist psychoanalysis into the discussion of what had traditionally been viewed as a social, cultural problem. Anti-Semite and Jew is also notable as one of the first works in which the Sartre’s Marxism is evident, foreshadowing his later embracing of the Marxian class analysis.

Anti-Semite and Jew is also significant to Sartre’s body of existentialist work for its determination to explore the idea of individual freedom in a social context that is undeniably deterministic. Sartre believed that man is inherently and totally free and that we are nothing less than the sum of the choices we make. However, social circumstance at least partially facilitates the decision-making process of the individual. Anti-Semite and Jew is one of the first instances in Sartre’s oeuvre in which Sartre places his philosophy of freedom and ontology within the framework of contemporary social, political, and economic realities. Later works such as Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960) explore in greater detail the relationship between the free individual and the systemic forces that mitigate the choices he or she makes.