The title of Bruno Chaouat’s Is Theory Good for the Jews? refers to a school of thought—variously dubbed “critical theory,” “postmodern theory,” or simply “Theory”—that dominates philosophy departments in France and literature departments in the U.S., and has infiltrated the humanities everywhere. Articulated by thinkers like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, Theory’s overarching principle is the rejection of absolute truth, linguistic meaning, conventional morality, and the ideals of civilization and progress; its central characteristic is its own obfuscatory jargon. In his book, Chaouat elucidates the troubling tendency of Theory’s leading lights to pay particular attention to the Jews, and to do so in way that is never complimentary, especially where Israel is involved.
Michael Weingrad writes in his review:
Chaouat shows how various postcolonial theorists justify or ignore Muslim anti-Semitism, seen as a legitimate response to European colonialism. Indeed, as Chaouat writes, a number of French writers are less concerned with Muslim attacks on Jews than with the [alleged] political threat posed by those European Jews who decry anti-Semitism even when exhibited by Muslims, and who defend Israel against those who would see the Jewish state destroyed. . . .
Chaouat traces some part of these inversions to Theory’s abstraction of Jews and Jewishness into symbols, fungible moral tokens easily transferred into other bank accounts. It is little surprise that intellectuals who see Jews only as de-territorialized outsiders have little use for actual flesh-and-blood Jews, let alone those with a nation-state. . . . [Today’s] postmodern theorists prefer to support projects of resistance and political violence on behalf of what they see as downtrodden groups. If Jews and Israelis, who are now defined [by most devotees of Theory] as white colonialists or even Nazis, must be thrown under history’s bus as part of this utopian project, so be it.
[But], one might respond, isn’t all this a problem not of Theory but of the radical left more generally? . . . [T]he anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism of postmodern intellectuals, their fetishization of the Palestinians and of violent jihadists, have less to do with new readings of Derrida than with longstanding features of left-wing political ideology. . . . For all his analytical acuity and moral passion, Chaouat leaves the broader historical and philosophical context of Theory’s relation to the left largely unexplored. . . .
While valuable and trenchant Chaouat’s book resembles other recent attempts by left-liberal Jewish academics to push back against their more militantly radical colleagues. . . . One applauds these efforts, but viewed from outside the truncated political system of today’s professoriate they can seem both belated and somewhat pyrrhic: old-fashioned liberals asking their radical colleagues not to march them off the same gangplank as were their conservative colleagues, and faculty who support Israel’s continued existence pleading for Jewish membership in the club of the aggrieved.