Racism Through the Lens of 1944 France

2016 has brought, as Charlamagne Tha God has said (yes I am quoting him), “the issue of race into the minds of a generation that wasn’t even thinking about it.” The president-elect of the United States wasn’t short of racial slurs during his campaign to the White House, and as someone who is considered “of color,” his rhetoric struck a nerve with me. The disillusionment brought on by this election–realizing, among other things, that many people are still racist in a 2016 America–prompted me to do some heavy research on the topic of race. The most illuminating piece of media that I can recommend to anybody who is interested in this topic is the essay Anti-Semite and Jew by Jean-Paul Sarte, published in 1946 shortly after France was liberated from German occupation. This essay not only illuminates the silliness of racists themselves, but the ineffectual passivity of self-proclaimed defenders of equality during this time.

The eloquence with which Jean-Paul Sarte articulates the climate of a 1944 France, a country that, having been rid of Jews for some time, was facing a civil dichotomy where those who struggled against anti-Semitism and those who struggled against democracy coexisted in a post-war state in which the struggle against anti-Semitism won and Jews were invited back into the country. But anti-Semitism doesn’t just disappear after anti-Semites lose a war.

As I read the English translation of this essay, I highlighted some important text.

On anti-Semitism being an opinion:

This word opinion makes us stop and think. It is the word a hostess uses to bring to an end a discussion that threatens to become acrimonious. It suggests that all points of view are equal; it reassures us, for it gives an inoffensive appearance to ideas by reducing them to the level of tastes. All tastes are natural; all opinions are permitted. Tastes, colors, and opinions are not open to discussion. In the name of democratic institutions, in the name of freedom of opinion, the anti‐Semite asserts the right to preach the anti‐Jewish crusade everywhere.

On debating the anti-Semite:

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.

On the anti-Semite who is convinced superiority is their birth right:

We must remember that a man is not necessarily humble or even modest because he has consented to mediocrity. On the contrary, there is a passionate pride among the mediocre, and anti‐Semitism is an attempt to give value to mediocrity as such, to create an elite of the ordinary.

Besides this, many anti‐Semites — the majority, perhaps — belong to the lower middle class of the towns; they are functionaries, office workers, small businessmen, who possess nothing. It is in opposing themselves to the Jew that they suddenly become conscious of being proprietors: in representing the Jew as a robber, they put themselves in the enviable position of people who could be robbed.

Thus I would call anti‐Semitism a poor man’s snobbery.

On the anti-Semite and the democrat:

Thus the anti‐Semite and the democrat tirelessly carry on their dialogue without ever understanding one another or realizing that they are not talking about the same things. If the anti‐Semite reproaches the Jew for his avarice, the democrat will reply that he knows Jews who are not avaricious and Christians who are. But the anti‐Semite is not moved. What he meant was that there is a “Jewish” avarice, an avarice determined by that synthetic whole, the Jewish person. He can agree without embarrassment that it is possible for certain Christians to be avaricious, for to him Christian avarice and Jewish avarice are not the same. To the democrat, on the contrary, avarice has a certain universal and invariable nature that can be added to the ensemble of the traits which make up an individual and still remain the same under all circumstances. There are not two ways of being avaricious: one is or one is not.

On the anti-Semite’s affect on the Jewish psyche:

…the Jew, an “intruder” into French society, is compelled to remain isolated. If he does not consent, he is insulted. But if he consents, he is no more readily assimilated on that account; he is tolerated — and always with a distrust that drives him on each occasion to “prove himself.”

Thus the Jew, if he is to be left in peace, should be mobilized ahead of other people; in case of famine, he should be hungrier than others; if a general disaster strikes the country, he should be the one whom it hits hardest.

Stekel, along with several other psychoanalysts speaks of a “Jewish complex,” and many are the Jews who mention their “inferiority complex.” I see no harm in using this expression if we understand that this complex has not been received from the outside and that Jew creates this complex when he chooses to live his situation in an inauthentic manner. He (the Jew) has allowed himself to be persuaded by the anti‐Semites; he is first victim of their propaganda.

3 thoughts on “Racism Through the Lens of 1944 France

  1. Racism has never gone away. We have made strides, but we need to make more. It is hard to change peoples way of thinking and perceiving when for so long, they are used to the status quo. You have to learn tolerance, empathy, compassion, humility and simple decency. We are all capable. On the other hand certain behaviors have to be unlearned.

    Liked by 1 person

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