Anti-Semitism, Judaism, and the “Treason of the Intellectuals”

The Treason of the Intellectuals,” writes Adam Kirsch, “is one of those books that is famous even though almost no one actually reads it.” Its author, Julien Benda, lambasts the people he calls clercs (a word that bears a religious connotation that “intellectuals” does not) for forsaking integrity and truth-seeking in favor of populist fads, and thus failing in their duty to society. Delving into the historical backdrop to the 1927 book, and especially the Dreyfus affair—in which a Jewish army captain was framed on charges of espionage—Kirsch points to its connections to the situation of French Jewry, and the flaws of its argument.

Though David Broder’s new translation keeps the traditional English title The Treason of the Intellectuals, in the text he renders clerc as “scribe,” an inspired choice that captures the association of wisdom, writing, and the sacred, evoking the Biblical sofrim Ezra and Baruch. Benda was mainly interested in the failures of French scribes. His examples included Georges Sorel, who urged the working class to revolt in Reflections on Violence, and Charles Maurras, the founder of the protofascist group Action Française, who would later be convicted of collaborating with the Germans during World War II.

But the name that appears most often in the book is Maurice Barrès, [who] was radicalized by the Dreyfus case. . . . Instead of truth and justice, he glorified la terre et les morts, the earth and the dead, which he saw as the basis of the mystic unity of the French nation. It was on these grounds that Barrès became a fierce anti-Semite, seeing Dreyfus as a representative of a conspiracy of aliens whose earth and dead lay elsewhere.

In The Treason of the Intellectuals, however, anti-Semitism is the dog that doesn’t bark. Benda acknowledges early in the book that “the movement against the Jews” is one of the chief drivers of the political hatred he deplored; later he observes that “the scorn which the likes of Barrès have displayed toward the Jews . . . has brought real damage to the objects of their contempt.” Yet that is the sum total of his discussion of the subject. It would be easy to read Treason without realizing that it is a book by a Jewish writer attacking notorious Jew-haters and that the Jewish question had been bound up with the very issues Benda was writing about since the Dreyfus affair.

[And] as Mark Lilla writes in his probing introduction to this new edition, Benda himself ended up committing exactly the kind of treason he denounced. In the 1930s, he joined many erstwhile liberals in becoming a fellow traveler, defending the Soviet Union despite its blatant crimes against “truth and justice.” The scribe who once believed it was unacceptable for France to imprison one innocent man now defended the right of the Communist party to execute thousands.

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Alfred Dreyfus, Anti-Semitism, Communism, Fascism, France, Intellectuals

How to Save the Universities

To Peter Berkowitz, the rot in American institutions of higher learning exposed by Tuesday’s hearings resembles a disease that in its early stages was easy to cure but difficult to diagnose, and now is so advanced that it is easy to diagnose but difficult to cure. Recent analyses of these problems have now at last made it to the pages of the New York Times but are, he writes, “tardy by several decades,” and their suggested remedies woefully inadequate:

They fail to identify the chief problem. They ignore the principal obstacles to reform. They propose reforms that provide the equivalent of band-aids for gaping wounds and shattered limbs. And they overlook the mainstream media’s complicity in largely ignoring, downplaying, or dismissing repeated warnings extending back a quarter century and more—largely, but not exclusively, from conservatives—that our universities undermine the public interest by attacking free speech, eviscerating due process, and hollowing out and politicizing the curriculum.

The remedy, Berkowitz argues, would be turning universities into places that cultivate, encourage, and teach freedom of thought and speech. But doing so seems unlikely:

Having undermined respect for others and the art of listening by presiding over—or silently acquiescing in—the curtailment of dissenting speech for more than a generation, the current crop of administrators and professors seems ill-suited to fashion and implement free-speech training. Moreover, free speech is best learned not by didactic lectures and seminars but by practicing it in the reasoned consideration of competing ideas with those capable of challenging one’s assumptions and arguments. But where are the professors who can lead such conversations? Which faculty members remain capable of understanding their side of the argument because they understand the other side?

Read more at RealClearPolitics

More about: Academia, Anti-Semitism, Freedom of Speech, Israel on campus