Thursday, March 06, 2008

"The world is full of terror"

This evening, Francophilia and Zionism collided like never before. At one point during his lecture on "The State of World Jewry" at the 92nd Street Y, Bernard-Henri Lévy, or BHL, le philosophe, he of the exposed chest and left-wing neoconservatism, uttered the phrase, "In my country..." Given that his English is, as he admits, not so great actually, and given the subject matter of the talk ("The New Anti-Semitism"), the obvious point of cultural reference was that of another visitor to America, in whose country there is problem. This happens to be a comparison I had the foresight to make nearly two full years ago. With his many references to "dikes bursting," BHL gave Borat some competition, since I do not remember what this analogy was supposed to refer to (anti-Semitism? nuclear war?) but do remember the snickering that it, like the "in my country," evoked.

There was something quite surreal about today. In the afternoon I gave a presentation in one of my classes on Tocqueville's Democracy in America (but yeah, in French), which was as Jo pointed out quite thematic, given that BHL is the Tocqueville of the 21st century. Then a few hours later, after the above-mentioned talk, I was in a room on the Upper East Side with not only BHL, but also Isabella Rossellini, a man who looked remarkably like--but was not--Nicolas Sarkozy, and presumably many other people infinitely more important than myself. I managed to get a few (French!) words in, asking BHL about what he meant by ending his talk with a note on universalism, and about his (dubious) assertion that there are many believing Catholics today in Western Europe.

But to backtrack a bit, before the reception was the lecture on World Jewry. Thematically, BHL's talk went something like this:

I. Everybody hates Israel, now more than ever.

(I'm convinced).

II. Everybody hates the Jews, and always has.

(True, but he's wrong about "new" anti-Semitisms. They basically build up upon one another. The religious, racial, and economic coexist, and the anti-Zionist angle doesn't change this. I believe it's Vicki Caron working on this question, for those interested in the academic angle of all of this. But from a non-academic perspective, he's also a bit off, since really, what's changed? Jews are rich warmongers, they say? They, whoever they may be, did not just come up with this.)

III. Here are some brilliant (read: ineffective) ways we can fight The New Anti-Semitism!

(This brought up a Catch-22: We are simultaneously to fight anti-Semitism by educating people about the unique tragedy of Holocaust, and by reminding people that we are aware that their tragedies matter, too, so as to avoid a competition over victimhood. BHL did not present this as at all contradictory. Plus, BHL makes the classic mistake of thinking one can fight anti-Semitism, which is irrational, using argument and reason. It didn't work during the Dreyfus Affair, and yet well-coiffed French intellectuals continue to believe that there is hope where none exists.)

IV. Any oppressed group which cannot in some way connect its suffering to oppression by the World Jewish Conspiracy is effectively screwed in the public arena.

(This has a ring of truth to it, but every oppressed or even oppressive group has a way of connecting its story to that of the Zionist Entity, which means, well, not so much. But yes, Jews are seen as controlling just about everything, and subject matter having to do with Jews has an automatic audience even in locales where no one's ever seen a Jew or in all likelihood ever will.)

V. To fight anti-Semitism, Jews should remember our allies! Who are, he explained, Protestant evangelicals in the US (sorry, no) and observant Catholics in countries like France. I was not aware that there were observant Catholics in France in any kind of significant numbers, but he's sure there are. Discuss amongst yourselves.

VI. In fact, Judaism should not be about fighting anti-Semitism, but should be centered around something positive. What, one might ask? Not 100% clear, but if this is the case, why parts I-V? As in, why talk for well over an hour about how "the world is full of terror" (quoting Israeli band Teapacks, not BHL) if you're going to conclude that our focus should be elsewhere?

OK, end of outline. The one point BHL made that I think is particularly worth taking away from his talk, and that is extra relevant to the massive, Francophilic-Zionistic-New Yorker audience at the 92nd Street Y, is that American Jews need to get off our collective high horse. By which I mean, before we get all worked up about French anti-Semitism, asking in concerned voices what it's 'really like' over there, we should ask ourselves what it's really like over here. Granted within however many feet of Zabars, it's just dandy, but that's not the whole country, or even the whole city.


Withywindle said...

Yet more "French youths" just tortured some Jew because he was, you know, Jewish. This does seem to me to be a mite worse than the American incidents you mention. It also seems to me that having American Jewish attention focused on France does help prevent the French elite from ignoring such trivialities. (I wonder if the poor Jews of the banlieus agree with BHL that American Jews should stop worrying about them.) Wouldn't it be more useful for BHL to prescribe that French Jews worry more about American Jewry than to prescribe that American Jews worry less about French Jewry?

While I fancy there aren't many observant Catholics left in France, I wonder if they really are less anti-Semitic than their secular countrymen now. If so, that would be an interesting change.

The comparison of BHL to Borat is wicked. And I like the phrase "yet well-coiffed French intellectuals continue to believe that there is hope where none exists."

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I don't think there's that much American Jewish attention paid to France, only that whenever the topic comes up, the consensus is it's bad over there. So I don't think the French elite is affected much either way.

But more importantly, what I'm saying is not that it's worse in the US than in France, but that it's not incomparably better here, either. Historically, whenever a Diaspora Jewish population has dwelt on how terrible things are for Jews somewhere else (one thinks of late-19th-C French Jews' preoccupation with Romania and Russia), there's a tendency to ignore what's going on at home, and what is their more direct responsibility to worry about.

Withywindle said...

I do think it's a lot more dangerous in France than in the United States for Jews. Lots of people don't like Jews, but the real murderous intensity nowadays comes from Muslims. The proportion of Muslims in the French population is much higher in France than here. The French elite, furthermore, seems less convinced that Jews are really Frenchmen, and worthy of their full protection, than the American elite is convinced that Jews are really American, and worthy of their full protection. And there have already been large-scale Muslim riots in the suburbs that the French state has been hard-pressed to summon up the willpower to repress. Is France yet in Black Hundred territory? No. But it is, I think, a reasonable analysis of the situation to say that the odds that the situation will spin terribly out of control are far higher in France than here.

(Am I repeating myself? Forgive me if so. But I do think you suffer from unwarranted optimism about the Hexagon.)