Jean-Paul Sartre: A View of Antisemitism

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Jean-Paul Sartre: A View of Antisemitism

The twentieth century is remembered as an era of the great discoveries, great upheaval, and great madness, at which the world had trembled in horror and ecstasy. It was then when Jean-Paul Sartre, the founder of the French existentialism, experienced the most active period of creativity. He witnessed Europe after the First World War, violent and hysterical. Later, it was the Second World War and the Holocaust. The postwar years have brought the new social and psychological challenges rather than the expected repose to the society. One of these problems was antisemitism. Being a philosopher, whose favorite words were “freedom and “authenticity,” and a man opposing bourgeois prejudices, Sartre tried to address this problem from the unique point of view. Therefore, the following essay is dedicated to the identification and discussion of Sartre’s analysis and critique of the antisemitism, which is presented in his works, namely Antisemite and Jew and “The Childhood of a Leader.”

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Antisemite and Jew starts with the passage, in which a man that blames all the personal misfortunes and those of his country on the Jewish people and sees the solution of this problem in such radical measures as expelling and extermination of its source expresses the antisemitic opinions (Sartre, 1995). However, at the same time, Sartre claims that antisemitism is not an opinion but a passion. Moreover, this passion is of a rare nature as it is manifested not in an unrestrained attraction to something but rather in a repulsion and hatred towards it, which is determined by the rejection. As a result, for an antisemite, the Jewish people are just an object of such a passion. In particular, the nation does not define it by their actions but its very existence. A hate of such a kind usually does not require recognition; the object needs only to be of an alien, external, and, ultimately, abstract nature. A Jew is but a symbol of that hate, as well as something to be passionately entailed to. Therefore, antisemitism may exist even without the Jews (as in the medieval England); it is the focus of hatred that, just like any passion, is caused by something other than its real object. According to Sartre, the antisemites see this something in the Jews that causes them a physical disgust (Sartre, 1995). This something, which makes people hate the Jews, is like phlogiston, a substance, the existence of which was assumed by the alchemists. An antisemite strongly believes in its existence, but anyone with common sense will have to admit that there is no phlogiston, so there is no valid reason for the hatred towards Jews. Therefore, antisemitism is an irrational phenomenon without any explanation (Sartre, 1995).

As a result, the worldview of an antisemite is close to that of Manicheans. However, in his explanation, Sartre does not use the example of Manichaeism as a secondary principle but as the initial one that explains the causes of antisemitism – the Good is the destruction of Evil. For an antisemite, any Jew is not good. Moreover, by perceiving the Jews as inferior beings, an antisemite confirms his or her privileged place in the society. Such an elite, however, is very reminiscent of a hereditary aristocracy since an antisemite has to do nothing to earn superiority and cannot lose it as it is given once and for all. In the society of such elites, one of the functions of a Jew is to help a righteous man get away from the consideration of the problem of the good and evil. As it was mentioned before, being guided by the Manichean principles, an antisemite believes that all he or she has to do is to eliminate the Evil, which means that the Good has been already given to him or her (Sartre, 1995). Therefore, there is no need to search for it, invent, or investigate it, as well as take any responsibility for the moral choice that is made. In general, all these tasks have been already done before, and there is no need to develop it further. In such a manner, antisemitism can be considered a state of stasis since there is no need to search as the Good and the Evil always remain the same; the worldview of an antisemite remains unchanged, as well as his attitude towards him or herself (as an elite) and the people around. In turn, such stability and predictability give a sense of tranquility and peace (Sartre, 1995).

A vivid example of such a worldview is described in Sartre’s short story named “The Childhood of a Leader.” It tells the story of Lucien, the only son of a wealthy industrialist, who is struggling to find a direction and meaning in his life. Despite being treated like a girl since his childhood, the man tries to get out of his angel’s costume, change his pretty and childlike face to the inscrutable appearance of a grown-up (with a mustache), and become a real male: powerful, cruel (towards the enemies), and without sentiments. He meets Lemordant, a young man with certain convictions. Soon, Lemordant introduces Lucien to antisemitism: its ideology, literature, and ardent supporters in the same way as an adult introduces a teenage to drugs. As a result, Lucien is cured of his crisis of identity by identifying himself as the one who despises Jews. As it was mentioned before, such identification requires no efforts, no investigations, and no searches. However, now, only in the shadow of Lemordant, Lucien’s weak soul can rest. Only among the other antisemites, he can find what he was looking for – the national and racial instead of the individual; a mystical sense of ownership, freeing him from reflection, doubt, and personal responsibility – a sense that is incompatible with rationality; the truth given once and for all: stone and unshakable instead of searching for it, risk-taking and defeats (Sartre, 1969).

Therefore, an antisemite chooses antisemitism as own outlook in order not to have to choose himself. A man does not just accept a certain bunch of ideas but his identity. However, an antisemite is afraid of himself, of own consciousness, freedom, a need to recognize personal responsibility, loneliness, and changes in life. In other words, antisemitism is the fear of humanity itself, as well as an evasion of existence. Here, Sartre sees a kind of psychological disposition that is generating opinions, beliefs, and stereotypes, the correctness of which is beyond doubt. The antisemitic worldview is determined by the need for xenophobia. It gives a sense of ownership of the country, and an antisemite seems to own it jointly with the other true people, who are rich and successful. A sense of unity with them compensates the limitations of these unlucky people, usually the representatives of the bourgeoisie. They feel – with no real apparent reason – superiority over every Jew, even over the most intelligent or wealthy one. Such behavior is an expression of the desire to rise at the expense of the others. The antisemite acts as a representative of the masses and on behalf of the people; he believes that the persecution of the Jews is necessary for the good of the nation (Sartre, 1995).

Finally, Sartre notes that anti-Semitism is not the problem of the Jews but rather of the rest of the world. In particular, he claims that it is antisemitism that forms a Jew (Sartre, 1995). However, it should be noted that this concept is referred not to a national but a social role of an outcast and a scapegoat. As it was mentioned before, the image of a Jew is particularly suitable for an antisemite, namely in his or her fight against the Evil. However, the role of the Jews (the outcasts) can be performed by any other social groups, usually racial minorities. By taking into account this fact, it is possible to draw a parallel between the antisemitism and the white supremacy as both of them are based on the same principles. In particular, simply being white is often enough for the self-identification that, in this case, does not require any efforts. Again, the feeling of supremacy is similar to that of an antisemite; it is reminiscent of the hereditary aristocracy and cannot be lost as it is given once and for all. The antipathy towards the people with a different skin color is often irrational and cannot be explained, so they often act as the mere objects of hatred rather than its cause. Therefore, just like antisemitism, the white supremacy is the problem of the white people.

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As a conclusion, it is possible to say that Sartre views antisemitism as a psychological phenomenon. In particular, the irrational hatred towards the Jews is often based on the desire to rise at the expense of the others, which is characteristic of many people. At the same time, antisemitism is a sign of spiritual poverty, as well as a rejection of complexity and individuality in the favor of simplicity and integrity. The reasons for the existence of this phenomenon may be a fatigue and isolation of the Old World, fashion, snobbery, and, of course, fear. The fear of making a choice and bearing responsibility for one’s actions leads to a desire to find peace and tranquility in a way that does not involve any of these hurdles. Therefore, for many people, antisemitism is a door to their world, in which the Good and Evil are clearly distinguished, and these people are undeniably on the side of the first one. Therefore, antisemitism, just as racism, is a blight on the humankind. However, despite all the attention it has received, this problem is far from being solved, and no one can say for sure whether the world will ever be free from it.

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