Monday, 4 September 2017

Anti-Semite and Jew. An Exploration of the Etiology of Hate. By Jean-Paul Sartre (1944)

In 1944, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) wrote his essay "Anti-Semite and Jew", a critique of anti-Semitism. The critique is criticised for not being based on research and being a philosophical speculation written on an abstract level. Nevertheless, the result is "a powerfully coherent argument that demonstrates how theoretical sophistication and practical ignorance can, sometimes, usefully combine", as Walzer writes in his preface. Here are some excerpts:

Anti‐Semitism does not fall within the category of ideas protected by the right of free opinion. Indeed it is something quite other than an idea. It is first of all a passion. No doubt it can be set forth in the form of a theoretical proposition. The "moderate" anti‐Semite is a courteous man who will tell you quietly: "Personally, I do not detest the Jews. I simply find it preferable, for various reasons, that they should play a lesser part in the activity of the nation." But a moment later, if you have gained his confidence, he will add with more abandon: "You see, there must be something about the Jews; they upset me physically." (...)

This involvement is not caused by experience. I have questioned hundred people on the reasons for their anti‐Semitism. Most of them have confined themselves to enumerating the defects with which tradition has endowed the Jews. "I detest them because they are selfish, intriguing, persistent, oily, tactless, etc” – “But,at any rate, you associate with some of them?” – “Not if I can help it!" A painter said to me: "I am hostile to the Jews because,with their critical habits, they encourage our servants to insubordination."Here are examples a little more precise. A young actor without talent insisted that the Jews had kept him from a successful career in the theatre by confining him to subordinate roles. A young woman said to me: "I have had the most horrible experiences with furriers; they robbed me, they burned the fur I entrusted to them. Well, they were all Jews." But why did she choose to hate Jews rather than furriers? Why Jews or furriers rather than such and such a Jew or such and such a furrier? Because she had in her a predisposition toward anti‐Semitism.

A classmate of mine at the lycée told me that Jews "annoy" him because of the thousands of injustices that "Jew‐ridden" social organizations commit in their favour. "A Jew passed his agrégation the year I was failed, and you can't make me believe that that fellow, whose father came from Cracow or Lemberg, understood a poem by Ronsard or an eclogue by Virgil better than I. " But he admitted that he disdained the agrégation as a mere academic exercise,and that he didn't study for it. Thus, to explain his failure, he made use of two systems of interpretation, like those madmen who, when they are far gone in their madness, pretend to be the King of Hungary but, if questioned sharply, admit to being shoemakers. His thoughts moved on two planes without his being in the least embarrassed by it. As a matter of fact, he will in time manage to justify his past laziness on the grounds that it really would be too stupid to prepare for an examination in which Jews are passed in preference to good Frenchmen. Actually he ranked twenty‐seventh on the official list. (...) To understand my classmate's indignation we must recognize that he had adopted in advance a certain idea of the Jew, of his nature and of his role in society. And to be able to decide that among twenty‐six competitors who were more successful than himself, it was the Jew who robbed him of his place, he must a priori have given preference in the conduct of his life to reasoning based on passion. Far from experience producing his idea of the Jew, it was the latter which explained his experience. If the Jew did not exist, the anti‐Semite would invent him. (...)

I noted earlier that anti‐Semitism is a passion. Everybody understands that emotions of hate or anger are involved, but ordinarily hate and anger have a provocation: I hate someone who has made me suffer, someone who condemns or insults me. We have just seen that anti‐Semitic passion could not have such a character. It precedes the facts that are supposed to call it forth; it seeks them out to nourish itself upon them; it must even interpret them in a special way so that they may become truly offensive. Indeed, if you so much as mention a Jew to an anti‐Semite, he will show all the signs of a lively irritation. If we recall that we must always consent to anger before it can manifest itself and that, as is indicated so accurately by the French idiom, we "put ourselves" into anger, we shall have to agree that the anti‐Semite has chosen to live on the plane of passion. It is not unusual for people to elect to live a life of passion rather than one of reason. But ordinarily they love the objects of passion: women, glory, power, money. Since the anti‐Semite has chosen hate, we are forced to conclude that it is the state of passion that he loves. Ordinarily this type of emotion is 'not very pleasant: a man who passionately desires a woman is impassioned because of the woman and in spite of his passion. We are wary of reasoning based on passion, seeking to support by all possible means opinions which love or jealousy or hate have dictated. We are wary of the aberrations of passion and of what is called mono‐ideism. But that is just what the anti‐Semite chooses right off. (...)

The anti‐Semite has chosen hate because hate is a faith; at the outset he has chosen to devaluate words and reasons. How entirely at ease he feels as a result. How futile and frivolous discussions about the rights of the Jew appear to him. He has placed himself on other ground from the beginning. If out of courtesy he consents for a moment to defend his point of view, he lends himself but does not give himself. He tries simply to project his intuitive certainty onto the plane of discourse. I mentioned a while back some remarks by anti‐Semites, all of them absurd: "I hate Jews because they make servants insubordinate, because a Jewish furrier robbed me, etc." Never believe that anti‐ Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti‐Semites have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past. (...)

(...) By treating the Jew as an inferior and pernicious being, I affirm at the same time that I belong to the elite. This elite, in contrast to those of modern times which are based on merit or labour, closely resembles an aristocracy of birth. There is nothing I have to do to merit my superiority, and neither can I lose it. It is given once and for all. It is a thing. (...)

We begin to perceive the meaning of the anti‐Semite's choice of himself. He chooses the irremediable out of fear of being free; he chooses mediocrity out of fear of being alone, and out of pride he makes of this irremediable mediocrity a rigid aristocracy. To this end he finds the existence of the Jew absolutely necessary. Otherwise to whom would he be superior? Indeed, it is vis‐à‐vis the Jew and the Jew alone that the anti‐Semite realizes that he has rights. If by some miracle all the Jews were exterminated as he wishes, he would find himself nothing but a concierge or a shopkeeper in a strongly hierarchical society in which the quality of "true Frenchman" would be at a low valuation, because everyone would possess it. He would lose his sense of rights over the country because no one would any longer contest them, and that profound equality which brings him close to the nobleman and the man of wealth would disappear all of a sudden, for it is primarily negative. His frustrations, which he has attributed to the disloyal competition of the Jew, would have to be imputed to some other cause, lest he be forced to look within himself. He would run the risk of falling into bitterness, into a melancholy hatred of the privileged classes. Thus the anti‐Semite is in the unhappy position of having a vital need for the very enemy he wishes to destroy. (...)

A destroyer in function, a sadist with a pure heart, the anti‐Semite is, in the very depths of his heart, a criminal. What he wishes,what he prepares, is the death of the Jew. To be sure, not all the enemies of the Jew demand his death openly, but the measures they propose — all of which aim at his abasement, at his humiliation, at his banishment — are substitutes for that assassination which they meditate within themselves. They are symbolic murders. (...)

Until the nineteenth century the Jews, like women, were in a state of tutelage; thus their contribution to political and social life, like that of women, is of recent date. The names of Einstein, of Bergson, of Chagall, of Kafka are enough to show what they would have been able to bring to the world if they had been emancipated earlier. But that is of no importance; the fact is there. These are Frenchmen who have no part in the history of France. Their collective memory furnishes them only with obscure recollections of pogroms, of ghettos, of exoduses, of great monotonous sufferings, twenty centuries of repetition, not of evolution. (...)

What we propose here is a concrete liberalism. By that we mean that all persons who through their work collaborate toward the greatness of a country have the full rights of citizens of that country. What gives them this right is not the possession of a problematical and abstract "human nature," but their active participation in the life of the society. This means, then, that the Jews — and likewise the Arabs and the Negroes — from the moment that they are participants in the nation enterprise, have a right in that enterprise; they are citizens. But they have these rights as Jews, Negroes, Arabs — that is, as concrete persons.

In societies where women vote, they are not asked change their sex when they enter the voting booth; the vote of a woman is worth just as much as that of a man, but it is as a woman that she votes, with her woman intuitions and concerns, in her full character of woman. When it is a question of the legal rights of the Jew, and of the more obscure but equally indispensable rights that are not inscribed in any code, he must enjoy those rights not as a potential Christian but precisely as a French Jew. (...)

But we who are not Jews, should we share it? Richard Wright, the Negro writer, said recently: "There is no Negro problem in the United States, there is White problem." In the same way, we must say that anti‐Semitism is not a Jewish problem; it is our problem. Since we are not guilty and yet run the risk of being its victims — yes, we too — we must be very blind indeed not to see that it is our concern in the highest deg is not up to the Jews first of all to form a militant against anti‐Semitism; it is up to us.

Sartre, J.-P. (1944/1995). Anti-Semite and Jew: An Exploration of the Etiology of Hate. With a new preface by Michael Walzer. Translated by George J. Becker. New York: Schocken Books, download

photographs of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir on the beach of Nida, Lithuania, 1965 (by Antanas Sutkus) via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via


  1. Interesting read. I'm half through it ...

  2. How precisely this great man describes the construction of "the other" to feel superior...
    Many thanks, Kenneth, Macy, and Karen!