By Daniel Strimpel January 31, 2005
In "Anti-Semite and Jew", Jean Paul Sartre, a non-Jewish Frenchman writing shortly after the Nazi holocaust, explores the questions of what it means to be a Jew, and conversely, an anti-Semite. He elucidates the nature of "The Jew" as not simply a religious entity, nor a racial one, nor a cultural one but something more complex. Similarly, the anti-Semite is not simply a man of prejudice as is the simple racist, but rather a man who adopts a certain philosophical paradigm or teleology. Sartre discusses an incredibly symbiotic relationship between the anti-Semite and the Jew, and concludes that the Jew could not exist without the anti-Semite. For Sartre, in a very broad and perhaps reductionist sense, the Jew exists because the anti-semite created him.
Some have argued a particularly Jew-philic version of this; that over time, quintessentially Jewish attributes will be subsumed into the general character of societies, and at this point, the Jew will cease to exist. In some sense, when we are all Jews, there will be no "Jews". Certainly, something like this has been going on for some time. For example, whereas in the middle ages, the Jews were simultaneously hated and depended upon for money-lending and financial transactions because these activities were considered sinful by most Christians, now "Jewish" money-lending and economics has become completely integrated into Western society and has ceased to be essentially a "Jewish" phenomenon.
Note that in the above example, the anti-Semite created the conditions under which the Jew became the money-lender. The anti-Semitism of the society at large set the course of Jewish development. Sartre makes similar arguments vis-א-vis the Jewish fascination with the "universal". The more the Jew explicates the universal nature of subjects such as science, morality, economics and virtually everything else, the more the Jew is able to make himself transparent to the forces of anti-Semitism, and the more the anti-Semite's rug is pulled from under his feet. Thus arises the modern cosmopolitan Jew who samples ideas and cultures like cheeses at a market.
But the anti-Semite depends on particularism for his anti-Semitism, that is, the particularism of being a "real" Frenchman, a "real" German, a "real" aristocrat, a "real" peasant, a "real" artisan etc., so that he can always say "no matter what the Jew does, he will never know what it feels like to appreciate wine like a true Frenchman, who is rooted in his fatherland, and the fatherland of his ancestors."
Again we see a familiar cycle. The anti-Semite creates hostile conditions for the Jew, who must then find strategies to extricate himself from the tangled web created for him, and whose strategies then develop into branches of knowledge and gradually become fully integrated into gentile society.
Thus the Jewish Question is turned on its head. Whereas one used to ask "Can the Jew become a citizen?", now one asks "Can citizens remain Jewish?" What is the future of the Jew? Will he vanish when the anti-Semite runs out of attacks on his legitimacy? Will he vanish when society is entirely "Judaized"?
I believe not, and we can begin to understand why by observing the related phenomenon of anti-Americanism. Anti-Americanism bears many of the hallmarks traditionally associated with anti-Semitism. To the anti-American, America is sinisterly powerful, destroying and creating governments almost at the drop of a hat, engaged in numerous conspiracies around the world and always using double-speak. For example, consider the popularity of a book in France shortly after 9/11 arguing that 9/11 was orchestrated and planned by the American government. In addition, a great proportion of hardcore anti-Americans no doubt also harbor anti-Semitic ideas or conspiracy theories.
But we do not speak in terms of "when we are all American", even as America engages in nation-building around the world and exercises more power than any civilization in the history of the world. We recognize that America, while on the one hand an abstract entity and force for globalization and democratization and many other nations, is also a country with approximately 300 million people and a very proud and particularist sense of "American" traits. The same goes for Israel, the home of the Jewish people which, according to the above theory, would cease to exist, or at least, cease to have any significance, save perhaps historical when the full judaizing influence becomes manifest in the world. According to that theory, Israel has no future but to wither away into obscurity, as does America.
And now we arrive at an apparent conundrum. How can a people be both particularist and universalist? By "particularist", I mean the idea that rules that apply to others do not apply to the particular group, and by "universalist" I mean the idea that true principles must hold for all people at all times.
On closer inspection, there is no contradiction.
Those who see themselves as having a special role in the world, such as Jews or Americans, are inherently particularist and their "special role" is that of spreading universal principles. A people who discovers universal principles, adheres to them, and propagates them is by its very nature unique among peoples who do not share such a commitment. Thus, America was founded as a "city upon a hill" and Israel, a "beacon unto the nations".
Therefore, in both the universal and particular, in the fossilized and progressive, the Jewish Question might finally be resolved.