Paul Valéry Didn’t Think Much about the Jewish Question, but Couldn’t Escape It

Dec. 21 2017

In the midst of a long essay on the French poet Paul Valéry and his 1917 masterpiece La Jeune Parque (“Young Fate”), Paul Berman addresses his subject’s politics and attitude toward the Jews. Valéry, living through the Dreyfus Affair, the growth of French anti-Semitism after World War I, and then the Holocaust, couldn’t be ambivalent about the Jew’s fate:

The poetic and artistic rebellions of the 1890s fed sometimes into a right-wing cult of nationalism, militarism, and folk tradition, which led to “imbecile anti-Semitism,” in Emile Zola’s phrase, which meant hostility to Captain Dreyfus, the victim of a military frame-up. Not everybody succumbed to the right-wing temptations. [Valéry’s older friend Stéphane] Mallarmé—the master-thinker, [poet, and critic]—was intelligent enough to line up with Dreyfus’s defenders. The then-young [writer André] Gide likewise managed to resist the right-wing fervor, even if his own thinking on Jewish matters was reliably close to imbecile.

But Valéry in the 1890s was not so clever. Maybe he was fond of military heroes. He wrote an awestruck sonnet about Julius Caesar. . . . And he came out against Dreyfus. He contributed money to a fund for the widow of Dreyfus’s fiercest enemy of all, the colonel who had forged the crucial document in the frame-up. And yet, . . . by 1899 or thereabouts, when he was in his late twenties, Valéry had already begun to work up a new set of ideas for himself, which he presented many years later in the series of essays that he liked to call “quasi-political.” The essays added up to a rebuke of the extreme right, and a rebuttal. . . .

As for the Jewish question, this never seems to have grabbed his attention—at least, not in anything I have read. Among the writers of his generation in France, the only one to write intelligently and sympathetically about the Jews and their situation in Europe was Charles Péguy, the Catholic—a smaller poet, with a bigger heart. Still, the Jewish question was not something Valéry could escape for long, if only because of personal circumstances.

Henri Bergson, the [French Jewish] philosopher, died in 1941, during the first year of the German occupation, and, because Bergson was one of his friends, it fell to Valéry to deliver the eulogy at the Académie Française. He saluted the philosopher as a “very high, very pure, very superior figure of a thinking man,” “the last great name in the history of European intelligence”—which displayed, on Valéry’s part, a generous spirit, and a mood of bitterness. But the bitter and generous phrases also displayed a touch of bravery. “The last great name in the history of European intelligence” was, after all, a Jewish name, even if German military vehicles were roaming the French roads. Thus it was that Valéry, who began his political life on the wrong side of the Dreyfus affair, spoke out nobly, in the final period of his life, on the right side of the Nazi occupation. Defiance was one of his gifts.

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More about: Alfred Dreyfus, Anti-Semitism, Arts & Culture, France, Literature, World War II

The Democrats’ Anti-Semitism Problem Involves More Than Appearances

Jan. 22 2019

Last week, the Democratic National Committee formally broke with the national Women’s March over its organizers’ anti-Semitism and close associations with the Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Also last week, however, the Democratic leadership gave a coveted seat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee to the freshman congresswoman Ilhan Omar—a supporter of boycotts of Israel who recently defended her 2012 pronouncement that “Israel has hypnotized the world” to ignore its “evil doings.” Abe Greenwald comments:

The House Foreign Affairs Committee oversees House bills and investigations pertaining to U.S. foreign policy, and it has the power to cut American arms and technology shipments to allies. So, while the Democrats are distancing themselves from anti-Semitic activists who organize a march every now and then, they’re raising up anti-Semites to positions of power in the federal government. . . .

There is no cosmetic fix for the anti-Semitism that’s infusing the activist left and creeping into the Democratic party. It runs to the ideological core of intersectionality—the left’s latest religion. By the lights of intersectionality, Jews are too powerful and too white to be the targets of bigotry. So an anti-Semite is perfectly suitable as an ally against some other form of prejudice—against, say, blacks or women. And when anti-Semitism appears on the left, progressives are ready to explain it away with an assortment of convenient nuances and contextual considerations: it’s not anti-Semitism, it’s anti-Zionism; consider the good work the person has done fighting for other groups; we don’t have to embrace everything someone says to appreciate the good in him, etc.

These new congressional Democrats [including Omar and her fellow anti-Israel congresswoman Rashida Tlaib] were celebrated far and wide when they were elected. They’re young, outspoken, and many are female. But that just makes them extraordinarily effective ambassadors for a poisonous ideology.

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More about: Anti-Semitism, BDS, Congress, Democrats, Nation of Islam, Politics & Current Affairs