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

While Pursuing a Thaw with Israel, Saudi Arabia Foments Anti-Semitism at Home

July 18 2018

For the better part of this century, Jerusalem and Riyadh have cooperated clandestinely to contain Iran’s growing power. The kingdom has also increasingly aimed its diplomatic and propaganda efforts against Qatar, whose funding of Islamist groups—including Hamas—has damaged both Saudi Arabia and Israel. But, writes Edy Cohen, there’s a dark side to Riyadh’s efforts against the enemies of the Jewish state:

The [Saudi cyberwarfare agency’s] Twitter account tweets daily, mostly against Qatar and Iran. It uses anti-Semitic terminology, referring to Qatar as “Qatariel,” a portmanteau of Qatar and Israel, and claiming the [Qatar-sponsored] Al Jazeera network “belongs to the Israeli Mossad.”

“‘The deal of the century’ is a Qatari scheme to sell Palestine to the Zionist entity,’” one tweet reads, while another alleges that the “Zionist” Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the father of [Qatar’s ruler] Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, is scheming to divide the Arab states to fulfill the dreams of the “Zionist entity” and Iran. Yet another tweet alleges that Qatar is “trying to destroy the Arab world to serve the enemies of the Muslim world: Israel and Iran.” These statements penetrate deep into the Arab consciousness and increase existing hatred toward Jews and Israel.

The Saudis, then, are playing a double game. Behind the scenes, they send the Israelis the message that Iran is a common enemy and goad them to fight Iran and Hizballah. At home, however, they say the enemy is first and foremost the state of Israel, followed by Iran. Their formula is clear: covert ties with Israel coupled with overt hostility to the Jewish state to satisfy the people, a majority of whom hate Israel.

The Saudi double game is reminiscent of the Egyptian model under President Gamal Abdel Nasser in that dozens of anti-Semitic articles are published daily, while the Israeli populace is not exposed to the phenomenon and the politicians close their ears. Following the signing of the 1994 Oslo Accords, the Palestinians asked Israel for permission to incite “moderately” against the Jewish state for “domestic needs.” This incitement turned deadly and was used as live ammunition for the boycott, sanctions, and divestment movement (BDS). We must not give in and accept the incitement against us, and that is also true when Saudi Arabia is concerned. Incitement translates into action, and that action comes at a price.

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More about: Iran, Israel & Zionism, Qatar, Saudi Arabia