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

 

Jerusalem’s Economic Crisis, Its Arabs, and Its Future

Oct. 18 2018

The population of Israel’s capital city is 38-percent Arab, making Arab eastern Jerusalem the largest Arab community in the country. Connected to this fact is Jerusalem’s 46-percent poverty rate—the highest of any Israeli municipality. The city’s economic condition stems in part from its large ultra-Orthodox population, but there is also rampant poverty among its Arab residents, whose legal status is different from that of both Arab Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank. Haviv Rettig Gur explains:

Jerusalem’s Arab inhabitants are not Israeli citizens—in part because Palestinian society views acceptance of Israeli citizenship, [available to any Arab Jerusalemite who desires it], as acceptance of Israeli claims of sovereignty over the city, and in part because Israel is not eager to accept them, even as it formally views itself as having annexed the area. Nevertheless, they have a form of permanent residency that, unlike West Bank Palestinians, allows them unimpeded access to the rest of Israel. . . .

There are good reasons for this poverty among eastern Jerusalem’s Arabs, rooted in the political trap that has ensnared the Arab half of the city and with it the rest of the city as well. Right-wing Israeli political leaders have avoided investing in Arab eastern Jerusalem, fearing that such investments would increase the flow of Palestinians into the city. Left-wing leaders have done the same on the grounds that the Arab half would be given away in a future peace deal.

Meanwhile, eastern Jerusalem’s complicated situation, suspended between the Israeli and Palestinian worlds, means residents cannot take full advantage of their access to the Israeli economy. For example, while most Arab women elsewhere in Israel learn usable Hebrew in school, most Arab schools in eastern Jerusalem teach from the Palestinian curriculum, which does not offer students the Hebrew they will need to find work in the western half of the city. . . .

It is not unreasonable to argue that Jerusalem cannot really be divided, not for political reasons but for economic ones. If Jerusalem remains a solely Israeli capital, it will have to integrate better its disparate parts and massively develop its weaker communities if it hopes ever to become solvent and prosperous. Arabs must be able to find more and better work in Jewish Jerusalem—and in Arab Jerusalem, too. Conversely, if the city is divided into two capitals, that of a Jewish state and that of a Palestinian one, that won’t change the underlying economic reality that its prosperity, its capacity to accommodate tourism and develop efficient infrastructure, and its ability to ensure access for all religions to their many holy sites, will still require a unified urban space.

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More about: Israel & Zionism, Israeli Arabs, Israeli economy, Jerusalem