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Revisiting the Jewish Question

Roudinesco, Elisabeth


'Nazis, that's what you are! You drive the Jews out of their homes - you're worse than the Arabs.'

This accusation was uttered in December 2008 by some young fundamentalist Jews settled in Hebron, in the West Bank, who had never experienced genocide: it was aimed at other Jews, soldiers of the Israeli Army (Tzahal) who had been given orders to evacuate their compatriots, and who had also never experienced genocide.

'Nazis worse than Arabs': these words symbolize the passion that has been spreading unstoppably across the planet ever since the Israeli-Palestinian conflict became the main issue in every intellectual and political debate on the international scene.

At the heart of these debates - and against a background of kill­ings, massacres, and insults - we find extremist Jews reviling other Jews by calling them 'worse than Arabs'. This shows how much they hate the Arabs, and not just the Palestinians, but all Arabs - in other words, the Arab-Islamic world as a whole, and even those who are not Arabs but who claim a stake in Islam in all its varieties: Jorda­nians, Syrians, Pakistanis, Egyptians, Iranians, inhabitants of the Maghreb, etc. So they are racist Jews: in these words, they are com­paring what they call Arabs - i.e., both Muslims and Islamists - with Nazis, except that the Arabs are not so bad. But the same Jews iden­tify other Jews with people worse than Arabs, i.e., with the worst assassins in history, those genocidal killers responsible for what, in Hebrew, they call the Shoah, the catastrophe - the extermination of the Jews of Europe - that was such a decisive factor in the foundation of the State of Israel.

If you cross the walls, the barbed wire, the borders, you will inevitably encounter the same passion, kindled by extremists who, though they may not represent public opinion as a whole, are just as influential. From Lebanon to Iran, and from Algeria to Egypt, the Jews are often, in one place or another, called Nazis, or seen as the exterminators of the Palestinian people. And the more Jews as a whole are here viewed as perpetrators of post-colonial genocide, as followers of American imperialism, or as Islamophobes, the more people find inspiration in a literature that has sprung from the tradi­tion of European anti-Semitism: 'The Jews', they say, 'are the descendants of monkeys and pigs.' And: 'America has been cor­rupted by the Jews; the brains of America have been mutilated by those of the Jews. Homosexuality has been spread by the Jew Jean-Paul Sartre. The calamities that befall the world, the bestial tenden­cies, the lust and the abominable intercourse with animals come from the Jew Freud, just as the propagation of atheism comes from the Jew Marx.'

In that world, people eagerly read Mein Kampf, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, or The Mythical Foundations of Israeli Policy; they deny the existence of the gas chambers and denounce alleged Jewish plans to take over the world. It's all thrown into the brew: the Jacobins, the supporters of liberal capitalism, communists, free­masons - all are presented as agents of the Jews, witness for example the Twenty-Second Article of the Charter of Hamas, which marks a real step backwards compared with that of the PLO:

"The enemies [the Jews] have been scheming for a long time, and they have consolidated their schemes, in order to achieve what they have achieved. [. . .] [TheirJ wealth [permitted them to] take over control of the world media such as news agencies, the press, publication houses, broadcasting and the like. [. . .] They stood behind the French and the Communist Revolutions and behind most of the revolutions we hear about here and there. They also used the money to establish clandestine organizations which are spreading around the world, in order to destroy societies and carry out Zionist interests. Such organi­zations are: the Freemasons, Rotary Clubs, Lions Clubs, B'nai B'rith and the like. [. . .] They also used the money to take over control of the Imperialist states and made them colonize many countries in order to exploit the wealth of those countries and spread their corruption therein."


If we turn now to the heart of Europe, especially to France, we see that the same insults erupt with equal vehemence. Many essayists, writers, philosophers, sociologists, and journalists support the IsraelI cause while heaping insults on the defenders of the Palestinian cause, while the latter insult them back - and both sides endlessly call each other 'Nazis', 'Holocaust deniers', 'anti-Semites', and 'racists'. On the one side are the sworn opponents of the 'Shoah business' or 'Holo­caust industry', the 'genocidal Zionist state', 'national-secularism', 'collaborators' 'Judaeolaters' and 'Ziojews' (Zionist Jews). On the other, we have the fierce critics of 'collabo-leftist-Islamo-fascist-Nazis'.

In short, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - experienced as a struc­tural split tearing the Jews and the Arab-Islamic world apart, but also as a rift within the Jewishness of the Jews or as a break between the Western world and the world of its former colonies - now lies at the centre of all debates between intellectuals, whether they are aware of it or not.

And it is easy to understand why. Ever since the extermination of the Jews by the Nazis - a tragic event underlying a new organization of the world from which sprang the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the State of Israel in Palestine - the notions of genocide and crime against humanity have become applicable to every country in the world. As a consequence, and gradually, the so-called Western discourse of universalism has been seriously undermined. Since the most civilized nations in Europe had given birth to the greatest of barbarities - to Auschwitz - it was now possible for all the peoples humiliated by colonialism or the various forms of capitalist exploita­tion, as well as for all minorities oppressed on grounds of their sex, the colour of their skin, or their identity, to criticize so-called univer­sal values of freedom and equality. After all, in the name of these values, Western states had committed the worst crimes and continued to rule the world while perpetrating crimes and misdemeanours that went completely against the principles of the Declaration of Rights that they themselves had enacted.

What we are thus witnessing is a new quarrel over universals. Whether we take an interest in anti-globalization, in the history of colonialism and post-colonialism, of so-called ethnic minorities and minorities of 'identity'; whether we focus on the construction or deconstruction of definitions of gender or sex (homosexuality, hetero-sexuality); whether we highlight the need to study the phenomenon of religion or the desacralization of the world; or whether we take the side of history as memory or 'memorial history' [I'histoire memorielle] versus scholarly history [I'histoire savante], we always start with reference to the question of the extermination of the Jews, insofar as it is a foundational moment in all possible thinking about conflicts over identity.