In February, the prominent French intellectual Alain Finkielkraut, an outspoken defender of the Jews and persistent critic of radical Islam, found himself recognized and then attacked by a small mob of Yellow Vest protestors, who shouted anti-Semitic epithets at him along with generic insults. Considering this incident as well as Finkielkraut’s work and thought, Paul Berman compares him with the turn-of-the-20th-century poet and essayist Charles Péguy, another man of the moderate left who stood up for the Jews. Péguy was simultaneously a devout Catholic, a defender of Alfred Dreyfus’s innocence, and a nationalist:
In Péguy’s view, the spiritual qualities of France—its mystique—arose from the entire history of the country, beginning with the kings and reaching a grand culmination in the French Revolution, with its principle of human rights and its aspiration for universal justice, which are the spiritual glories of the French republic. The glories in question, as applied to Captain Dreyfus, left no doubt as to his innocence. And the glories left no doubt that every good republican in France needed to defend the wronged and martyred victim; in sum, a patriotic love of France made Péguy a Dreyfusard.
He also sympathized with the Jews as a whole, and this was unusual. He knew that, during the dozen years of the Affair, the wave of hatred for the Jews in France was intense, and Jews of all economic classes, and especially the lower class, went through terrible experiences—lives and fortunes destroyed, careers ruined. . . .
He wrote: “I know this people well. There is not a spot on their skin that is not painful, where there is not an old bruise, an old contusion, a deaf pain, the memory of a deaf pain, a scar, a wound, a bruise from the East or the West.” He also noted that, in the eyes of the anti-Semites, Jews were powerful people who controlled the destiny of the world; and this belief made it impossible for a great many people to see the scars and the wounds. The Jewish suffering was wide and ancient and deep; and it was invisible. . . .
Péguy’s observation about the invisibility of Jewish suffering circa 1900 turned out to be applicable, as well, to Jewish experiences circa 2000. The persecutions expanded, and, for a good many years, they remained invisible to the national journalists in France, the government, the intellectuals, and even to the august notables in the Jewish elite, who, exactly as in the Dreyfus Affair, ought to have known better. The persecutions were visible to Finkielkraut, though, . . . and a few others.