A British friend, curious about my attachment to things Jewish, recently put the question to me most starkly: “Hasn’t that Sand fellow settled the Jewish business once and for all?”
The “Sand fellow” is Shlomo Sand, a Tel Aviv University historian best known for claiming that there is no such thing as a Jewish people and, in a separate but related move, renouncing his own Judaism. The titles of his books—The Invention of the Jewish People, The Invention of the Land of Israel, How I Stopped Being a Jew—leave little to the imagination. Within the ideologically-freewheeling precincts of Israeli academia, his work is accorded a certain respect (though his influence in Israeli society at large is negligible), but outside of Israel, and particularly in Europe, he and his claims are taken seriously by the serious sorts of people—like my well-meaning British friend.
Sand’s view is easy to summarize. Those whom we today call “the Jews” are a mishmash of peoples of different ethnic origins, few if any of whose ancestors hailed from ancient Judea. Moreover, Judaism itself is only a “social construct,” a set of manufactured rituals and laws designed to enforce artificial homogeneity on a disparate population. Since good social science, history, and genetics have lately permitted “the Jews” to dispense with this fiction of their national origins, they should quickly seize the opportunity to do so, lest continued association with it implicate them further in Israel’s radically unjust domination of the Palestinians. (Nowhere, so far as I know, has Sand undertaken to debunk Palestinian national origins.)
Although the arguments mustered by The Invention of the Jewish People have been thoroughly exposed—a scathing review by Hillel Halkin in the New Republic called the book “so intellectually shoddy that once, not very long ago, it would have been flunked as an undergraduate thesis by any self-respecting professor of history”—they feed into, and off of, a growing body of sentiment in liberal circles surrounding the concept of Jewish peoplehood and the alleged discrimination and exclusivity it entails. Recently the Jewish American writer Michael Chabon, in a commencement speech at Hebrew Union College, urgently advised the graduating class to renounce “wall-building and boundary-patrolling”—two qualities that, after all, form part of even the most minimalist notion of what Judaism is. And Chabon is hardly alone.
This brings us to Sand’s newest book, The End of the French Intellectual (Verso). Translated ably from the French by David Fernbach, it is divided into two parts. In the first, Sand presents a diverse account of the role of intellectuals in France from the 18th through the 20th century. Along the way, we receive his analysis of the Dreyfus Affair, his views on whether or not intellectuals form a distinct social class, his account of the relationship of French intellectuals to fascism and Communism during the 1930s and 40s, and, finally, his summary of the unsavory political stances taken by well-known 20th-century intellectuals including Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and Michel Foucault. In the second section, he addresses the current intellectual scene in France. In both parts, Jews figure heavily.
Sand presents a freewheeling, Marx-ish approach to the history recounted in the first part. Thus, in reviewing the case of Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish artillery officer falsely accused and convicted in 1894 of spying for Germany, he lines up those French intellectuals who rallied to Dreyfus’s side, like the novelist Emile Zola and the essayist Charles Péguy, against his opponents, like the right-wing, anti-Semitic Charles Maurras, only to conclude that where these various figures stood on the issue of Dreyfus’s guilt or innocence had as much do with their particular social milieu and class as with any rational assessment of the facts. It’s better, he argues, to think of “intellectuals” as belonging to putative subdivisions of society—“petty bourgeois-intellectual,” “worker-intellectual,” “reactionary-intellectual,” and so forth—than as a unique social category in their own right. Whether any of this will interest those who do not follow the schisms in Marxian academic thought is difficult to say.
Turning to the early and mid-20th century, Sand mostly abandons his classificatory analysis and simply criticizes French intellectuals who flirted with fascism or Communism. That’s a pretty long list. Most famously, Sartre and de Beauvoir fell for Stalin and Mao, and later for Castro. Foucault saw true revolutionary potential in the Shiite theocracy in Iran, and so forth. In almost every case, says Sand, a thinker’s “local impotence” was yoked to a fatal “attraction to dictatorships,” spurring words and deeds that epitomized the very opposite of either moral or political virtue.
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And so to the present day and the book’s second section, to which the first is evidently meant to serve as prelude. Here Sand devotes himself to the work of three contemporary French intellectuals whom he holds in contempt.
The first, the sole non-Jew in the trio, is Michel Houellebecq, generally recognized as the most important novelist in France today and the author of Submission, a 2015 satire of the French political and intellectual class under the imagined conditions of a Muslim Brotherhood takeover of the country by means of the ballot box in 2022. The second is the journalist Eric Zemmour, author of the best-selling Le Suicide Français: a sensationalist account of the decline of French civilizational confidence. Finally, there is the philosophe and public intellectual Alain Finkielkraut, who in newspaper columns and a popular weekly radio program has sought to defend the French way of life in the face of its current political and economic challenges.
Alain Finkielkraut is also known as a proud defender of the Jews and their place in France. Houellebecq’s Submission offers a favorable account of Jews and Israel. But to Sand, all three men are dangerous scaremongers: not only “Islamophobes” but heirs to a long line of French xenophobes and jingoists. The only things that’s changed since the days of Dreyfus is the object of their fevered animosities: where once, he writes, right-wing anti-Dreyfusards rallied their supporters by pointing their fingers at the threat to France represented by the pernicious Jews, these three are so infused with hatred of today’s chimerical “others” as to become cheerleaders and enablers of a new nativist fascism. “Is it not pathetic,” Sand asks theatrically of Finkelkraut and Zemmour, “to see a son of Jewish Poles and a son of Jewish Berbers fantasize about the ‘great nation’ that has vanished forever?”
There is, to be sure, a sliver of truth in Sand’s accusations against certain self-styled defenders of France. Zemmour, unfortunately, has recently made it his business to minimize the evils of the Vichy regime and its collaboration with the Nazis during World War II. In this he has fallen for the temptation of excusing or erasing past mistakes, or evils, on the grounds that the tender psyche of the nation demands it. Wasn’t it necessary, he asks, for France to sue for accommodation in World War II? In this fanatical “political correctness of the right,” Zemmour is joined by others in France and elsewhere.
But Sand’s equation of all three men with late-19th-century anti-Dreyfusards is grotesque. Whatever the anti-Semites of that time may have claimed, Jews and Judaism were never a threat to France or its laws. By contrast, only a soapbox ranter would deny the gravity of the challenge posed today by fundamentalist Islam. True, Islamism is not the sole cause of the increasingly fragile state of France, as today’s violent “Yellow Vests” protests have revealed; true, too, France is home to Islamic moderates and liberals as well. But this hardly gainsays the reality presented by the bubbling violence emanating from certain immigrant-heavy banlieues, or the unsettling fact that 30 percent of French Muslims say they would prefer Sharia to the law of the land, or the regularly recurring attacks on both Jews and non-Jews that have been perpetrated almost exclusively by Islamists.
All of this speaks to the abysmal failure of successive French governments to integrate the recent immigrants from Muslim lands and their descendants. Yet where do Sand’s nemeses stand on this issue? Finkielkraut, for one, that supposedly alien “son of Jewish Poles,” has been at the forefront of the effort to think the problem through and formulate measures befitting a liberal polity determined to meet it. Together with the Catholic political thinker Pierre Manent, for example, he has most recently argued in favor of revising France’s old model of laicité, which holds that religion must never intrude in the public sphere, proposing instead a greater tolerance for the hijab and for Muslim public prayer while still drawing the line at practices like female genital mutilation and incendiary Wahhabi sermonizing in French mosques.
Whatever their chances of success, such measures are the opposite of crude exercises in xenophobia. Indeed, without more such reflection, thinking about Islam and assimilation will end up being relegated to chauvinists of the worst kind. In Sand’s book, however, neither Manent, nor the philosopher Rémi Brague, nor the political thinker Marcel Gauchet merits so much as a mention, and neither does any other figure, left or right, who is reckoning seriously with the challenges facing the country.
And that is not all. In equating Finkielkraut, Houellebecq, and Zemmour with each other, and all three with the anti-Dreyfusards, The End of the French Intellectual indulges the pretense that actual anti-Semitism has effectively disappeared in France. Anti-Semitism isn’t the problem, Sand writes summarily; the problem is prejudice against Muslims. And yet, to my knowledge, there have been no anti-Muslim pogroms in France like the large-scale riots against Jews.
What is perhaps most interesting to note, finally, is that Sand’s case against the French intellectuals is identical to the one he levels against the idea of Jewish peoplehood. As he puts it, defenders of the French way of life like Finkielkraut are incapable of offering a return to any real past, for there is none; rather, they are reduced to embracing “a series of selected scenes designed to give the impression of a national homogeneity, forever unchanged,” fanatically hoping thereby to ward off the supposed evils of multiculturalism and the phantom threat posed by immigrant Islamist hordes.
From Sand’s point of view, both the French and the Jews construct a mythical past. It would be as absurd for the French of today to take credit for the heroic stand of Vercingetorix against Caesar at Alésia as it is for Jews to speak of Sinai as their “founding moment.”
In pointing this out, Sand believes he has essentially deconstructed both Frenchness and Judaism. To which we may respond, to him and others like him: what among human things is not constructed? Is it not human nature to construct, and the duty of thinkers and political figures to judge, and modify as suitable, the constructions inherited from those who have gone before?
Judaism, at least, has long accepted the fact of its own construction—by God, by the prophets, by the rabbis, by the students who memorialized the rabbis’ debates, by Maimonides, and by many more. According to the Bible, the children of Israel became a people upon accepting the covenant at Sinai—that is, even before entering the land of Israel; and in this sense, the Jews are a people constructed by the law. In addition, Judaism has regularly provided reasons to justify the rightness of its laws and the morality of its way of life.
French intellectuals eager to defend the French way of life against the likes of Shlomo Sand are therefore well-advised to borrow a page from the great “constructors” of Jewish history, offering reasoned arguments that go beyond the fact that their country is an old country and that Paris will always be Paris—to say nothing of the baldly chauvinistic arguments heard in some quarters. By the same token, the basis of Jewish peoplehood deserves its own rational restatement, one that avoids the pitfalls of ethno-nationalism on the one hand and the anything-goes worship of individual preference on the other.
Not that recovering the rational basis of either Frenchness or Judaism will suffice in itself to guide the policies that each people will need in order to protect itself and its way of life. But it is an indispensable step in understanding why such policies are worth pursuing in the first place. In that important enterprise, Alain Finkielkraut sets one mature and worthy example, Shlomo Sand a wholly jejune and wholly destructive one.