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The curse of anti-semitism

Earlier today, in fulfilment of a lifetime aspiration, I had the signal honor of addressing a special plenary session of the United Nations General Assembly. The topic was rising anti-Semitic violence worldwide.

Not often is a philosopher called upon to speak in this forum.

This is one of the first times (Elie Wiesel and Jiddu Krishnamurti came before me) that a writer has stood at this dais from which so many great voices have rung out and where the cause of peace and brotherhood among peoples has achieved some of its most important and noble advances.

It is therefore with great emotion and with a deep sense of honor that I address you today.

But you invited me, this morning, not to hear me hold forth on the honor and nobility of humanity but rather to lament the renewed advance of the radical inhumanity, the total baseness, that is anti-Semitism.

In Brussels, just a few months ago, the memory of the Jews and the keepers of that memory were attacked.

In Paris, just a few days ago, we heard once again the infamous cry of "Death to the Jews!"--and cartoonists were killed for cartooning, police for policing, and Jews just for shopping and being Jews.

And in other capitals, many others, in Europe and elsewhere, faulting the Jews is once again becoming the rallying cry of a new order of assassins--unless it is the same order, cloaked in new habits.

The United Nations was founded to fight this plague.

This assembly was given the sacred task of preventing those terrible spirits from reawakening.

But they have returned -- and that is why we are here.

On the subject of this curse, on the subject of its causes and of the means by which to resist it, I would like to begin by refuting a number of current analyses that I fear serve only to keep us from looking this evil squarely in the face.

It is not true, for example, that anti-Semitism is just a form of racism. Both must be fought, of course, with equal determination. But one cannot fight what one does not understand. And it must be understood that, if the racist hates in the Other his visible and conspicuous Otherness, the anti-Semite hates his invisible and indefinable difference--and on that awareness the nature of the strategies that one will have to deploy is going to depend.

Nor is it true that the new anti-Semitism has, as one hears constantly, especially in the United States, its taproot in the Arab-Islamic world. In my country, for example, it has a double source that acts as a sort of double bind. There are, it is true, the many lost souls of a radical Islam that has become the most toxic opium invading the lost territories of our Republic. But there is also that old French monster that, since the Dreyfus Affair and Vichy, has slept with one eye open and, in the end, is not incompatible with the Islamofascist beast.

And, finally, it is not accurate to say that the policy of a particular state -- I am referring, obviously, to the state of Israel -- generates anti-Semitism in the way clouds produce a storm. I have seen European capitals in which the destruction of the Jews was nearly total, yet where anti-Semitism still thrives. I have seen others, farther away, where no Jews have ever lived--yet where the word "Jew" is a synonym for the devil. And I say here that even if Israel's conduct were exemplary, even if Israel were a nation of angels, even if the Palestinians were granted the state that is their right, even then, alas, this old, enigmatic hatred would not dissipate one iota.

To understand how anti-Semitism really operates today, we must abandon these clichés and listen instead to how it is expressed and how its supporters justify it.

Because, after all, the anti-Semites have never been content to say, "Well, that's how it is--we're bad people and we hate the poor Jews."


They have said, "We hate them because they killed Christ." That was Christian anti-Semitism.

They have said, "We hate them because, by producing monotheism, they invented Christ." That was the anti-Semitism of the Enlightenment, which wanted to do away with religion altogether.

They have said, "We hate them because they belong to another species recognizable by traits observed in them alone and that pollute other species." That was racist anti-Semitism, the variety contemporaneous with the emergence of the modern life sciences.

They even have said, "We have nothing against the Jews per se--no, no, really, nothing at all. And we couldn't care less whether they killed or created Christ or whether they are a separate race or not. Our complaint is just that most of them are plutocrats bent on dominating the world and oppressing the humble people." That was the socialism for dummies that, throughout Europe, infected the workers' movement at the time of the Dreyfus Affair.

Today, none of those arguments works anymore.

For reasons having to do with the history of the terrible 20th century, very few people, thank God, remain unaware that all those anti-Semitic arguments resulted in abominable massacres and have therefore been, as a French anti-Semitic writer once said, discarded by Hitlerism.

So, for the old virus to resume its assault on people's minds, for it once again to inflame crowds of ordinary people, for great numbers of men and women to resume hating while believing that they are doing a form of good, or, if you prefer, to believe that there could be legitimate reasons to hate the Jews, a new set of arguments is needed, one that history has not yet had time to debunk.

* * *

Today's anti-Semitism says three things, at bottom.

It can operate on a large scale, convince, inflame hearts and minds, only by offering three shameful new propositions.

1. The Jews are detestable because they are assumed to support an evil, illegitimate, murderous state. This is the anti-Zionist delirium of the merciless adversaries of the re-establishment of the Jews in their historical homeland.

2. The Jews are all the more detestable because they are believed to base their beloved Israel on imaginary suffering, or suffering that at the very least has been outrageously exaggerated. This is the shabby and infamous denial of the Holocaust.

3. In so doing, the Jews would commit a third and final crime that could make them still more guilty, which is to impose on us the memory of their dead, to completely stifle other peoples' memories, and to overshadow other martyrs whose deaths have plunged parts of today's world, most emblematically that of the Palestinians, into mourning. And here we come face to face with the modern-day scourge, the stupidity, that is competitive victimhood.

Anti-Semitism needs these three formulations, which are like the three vital components of a moral atomic bomb.

Each taken separately would be enough to discredit a people, to make it abominable once more. But when the three are combined, brought into contact and allowed to form a knot, a node, a crux, a helix, well, at that point we can be pretty sure of facing an explosion of which all Jews, everywhere, will be the designated targets.

What a monstrous people, it will be said, to be capable of all three of these crimes!

What a strange picture is formed by this community of men and women adulterating what they should hold most sacred--the memory of their dead--for the base purpose of legitimizing an illegitimate state and sentencing the rest of the world's victims to silence deaf and dumb.

That is modern anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitism will not return on a large scale unless it succeeds in popularizing this insane and vile portrait of the modern Jew.

It has to be anti-Zionist, it must deny the Holocaust, and it must feed the competition of pain--or it will not thrive: The logic is implacable, despicable, but compelling

To recognize that is to begin to see, symmetrically, what you can do to combat this calamity.

Let us imagine a UN General Assembly in which Israel would have its place, its full place, one country among others, no more and no less flawed than others, bound by the same responsibilities but enjoying the same rights--and let us imagine, while we are at it, that you unanimously acknowledge it to be what it truly is: an authentic, solid, and rare democracy.

Let us imagine a UN General Assembly that, faithful to its founding agreement, made itself the diligent guardian of the memory of the worst genocide conceived since man began to walk the Earth--imagine that 2015 was the year when, under your high authority and with the help of the world's most eminent scientists and scholars, the most complete, exhaustive, and definitive conference ever conceived on the attempt to destroy the Jews was convened.

And let us dream, somewhere between New York, Geneva, Jerusalem, or Durban, of a second conference--yes, a second--devoted to all the forgotten wars that cast their tragic shadow over the inhabited world but that are not talked about too much because they do not fit within the framework of the blocs or groups into which you divide yourselves. And let us dream, then, that this second conference--by adopting the position opposite to the stupid and grotesque idea that a given heart has room for just one object of compassion and empathy--reveals what has been the real truth of the past decades: That it was by remembering the Holocaust that we immediately recognized the horror of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia; that it was when we held in mind the standard of inhumanity of the Holocaust that we understood without delay what was happening in Rwanda or Darfur. I could multiply the examples, but this is the principle: Far from blinding us to the torment of other peoples, the will to forget nothing of the torment of the Jewish people is the best way to make salient, obvious, and unignorable the affliction of the Burundians, Angolans, Zairian, and so many more, including the Palestinians.

By adopting such a program, you would be fighting real anti-Semitism.

By first rehabilitating the Israel that the Assembly bore on its baptismal font 70 years ago; by next using your colossal authority to silence, once and for all, the negationnist lunatics; and then by aligning yourselves closely with the wretched and accursed who have been sacrified--in Durban, for example--on the altar of anti-Zionist madness; by doing those three things you would be methodically deconstructing, one by one, the components of modern anti-Semitism.

At the same time--I repeat--you would be defending universal human rights and the cause of humanity!

I would not be here if I did not believe that this forum was one of the few in the world--perhaps the only one--in which can be orchestrated that "solidarity of the shaken" of which spoke Jan Patocka, the great Czech philosopher, an idea that has been the throughline of my life.

When, in my country, the highest officials of the government recently said, "France without its Jews would no longer be France," they erected a dike against infamy.

But when, in that same country, we French saw a quarter of you, one head of state or government out of four, marching beside us to say, "I am Charlie, I am a police officer and I am a Jew," it was a reason for true hope for which we had almost stopped waiting.

Your presence here this morning, your will to make this event possible and perhaps memorable, your good faith and obvious will to act, all of these attest to the fact that on all continents, in all cultures and civilizations, people are beginning to realize that the struggle against anti-Semitism is an ardent obligation for everyone--and that is good news indeed.

When a Jew is struck, another writer once said, humanity falls to the ground.

When you go after the Jews, insisted an early opponent of the Nazis, it is like a first line crumbling under an invisible volley that eventually will hit the rest of us as it draws closer.

A world without Jews indeed would not be a world. A world in which the Jews once again became the scapegoats for all people's fears and frustrations would be a world in which free people could not breathe easy and the enslaved would be even more enslaved.

It is up to you now to take the floor and to act.

It is up to you, who are the faces of the world, to be the architects of a house in which the mother of all hates--anti-Semitic hate--will see its place reduced.

May you in a year's time, and the year after that, and every succeeding year, reconvene to observe that our mobilization of today was not in vain and that the anti-Semitic beast can be kept at bay.

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