. . . . . . The Uses of the Word "Jew" •

. . . . . . .. .
Alain Badiou
. . . . . . translated by Steve Corcoran

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For the last couple of decades, the intellectual situation in France has been marked by countless discussions about the status to be accorded to the word "Jew" within the divisions of thought.

Undoubtedly, this has to do with the suspicion, based on some indubitable facts and some contrived ones, that anti-Semitism has made a "return". But had it ever disappeared? Or is it not rather crucial to see that a considerable change has taken place in the nature of anti-Semitism's forms, criteria and inscription in discourse over the last thirty years? Recall that in 1980, after the attack on the synagogue in rue Copernic, the prime minister in person, and in all calmness, distinguished between those victims who had gone to worship and the "innocent French" {sic} who were only passing by. Besides distinguishing between Jews and French with a kind of false concern, the good Raymond Barre appeared to mean that a Jew blindly targeted by an attack must be guilty in some way or other. People said it was a slip of the tongue. Instead, this amazing way of looking at the situation disclosed the subsistence of a racialist subconscious directly from the 1930s. Today, as regards the uses of the word Jew', such discriminatory confidence would be inconceivable at the level of the state, and one can only be unreservedly glad of it. Calculated anti-Semitic provocations and false discriminatory naivety, such as denials of the existence of gas chambers or the Nazi destruction of the European Jews, have today been taken in by, or confined to the extreme right. So, although it is quite incorrect to say that anti-Semitism has disappeared, it is fair to maintain that its conditions of possibility have altered, to the extent that it is no longer inscribed in any sort of natural discourse, as was the case during Raymond Barre's time. In this sense, Le Pen, in France, is the somewhat jaded custodian of a historical anti-Semitism that public opinion of the 1930s accepted as entirely commonplace. All in all, it may well be that this new sensitivity to anti-Semitic acts and inscriptions is a basic component of the diagnosis that anti- Semitism has made a 'return'. Thus this return might for a large part be simply an effect of a significant and favorable lowering of the threshold at which public opinion no longer tolerates this sort of racialist provocation.

Below, I shall return to the issue of the birth of a new type of anti-Semitism, one articulated on conflicts in the Middle East and the presence, in France, of large minorities of workers of African extraction and of Muslim persuasion. For now, suffice it to say that the existence of this type of anti-Semitism is not in doubt, and that the zeal with which some deny its existence - generally in the name of supporting the Palestinians or the working-class minorities in France - is extremely harmful. That being the case, it doesn't seem to me that the data, which are freely available, are such that they justify raising a full alert, although it should be clear that, on such questions, the imperative of vigilance admits of no interruption.

What constitutes the point of departure for the present collection, [1] what has sparked its existence, is not the obviousness of anti-Semitisms, old and new. It is a debate with further-reaching consequences, or rather a debate that is to be settled beforehand, including by those who agree that the slightest anti-Semitic allusion is not to be tolerated. Indeed, what is at issue is to know whether or not, in the general field of public intellectual discussion, the word "Jew" constitutes an exceptional signifier, such that it would be legitimate to make it play the role of a final, or even sacred, signifier. It is evident that tackling the eradication of forms of anti-Semitic consciousness is done differently, and with a different subjectivity, depending on whether we consider these forms of consciousness to be essentially different to other forms of racial discrimination (e.g. to anti-Arab sentiments or to the segregating of blacks to their communitarian activities); or whether - given certainly distinct and irreducible historicities - we consider that all forms of racist consciousness alike call for the same egalitarian and universalist reaction. Further, this shared repugnance of anti- Semitism must be distinguished from a certain philo-Semitism which claims not only that attacking Jews as such amounts to criminal baseness but that the word "Jew", and the community claiming to stand for it, must be placed in a paradigmatic position with respect to the field of values, cultural hierarchies, and in evaluating the politics of states.

Suffice it to say that, regarding the question of old and new anti-Semitisms and the process of eradicating them, there are two conflicting approaches, where what is at issue is to know what a contemporary universalism might consist in and whether it is compatible with any kind of nominal or communitarian transcendence.

Today it is evident that a strong intellectual current, featuring bestselling publications and considerable media impact, indeed maintains that the fate of the word "Jew" lies in its communitarian transcendence, in such a way that this destiny cannot be rendered commensurable with those of other names that, within the registers of ideology, or of politics, or even of philosophy, have been subject to conflicting assessments.

The basic argumentation, of course, refers to the extermination of European Jews by the Nazis and their accomplices. In the victim ideology that constitutes the campaign artillery of contemporary moralism, this unprecedented extermination is held to be paradigmatic. In and of itself the extermination would underpin the political, legal and moral necessity to hold the word Jew above all usual handling of identity predicates and to give it some kind of nominal sacralization. The progressive imposition of the word Shoah to designate what its most eminent historian, Raul Hilberg, named, with sober precision, "the destruction of the Europe an Jews" can be taken as a verbal stage of this sacralizing of victims. By a remarkable irony, one thereby comes to the point of applying to the name "Jew" a claim that the Christians originally directed against the Jews themselves, which was that "Christ" was a worthier name than all others. Today it is not uncommon to read that "Jew" is indeed a name beyond ordinary names. And it seems to be presumed that, like an inverted original sin, the grace of having been an incomparable victim can be passed down not only to descendants and to the descendants of descendants but to all who come under the predicate in question, be they heads of state or armies engaging in the severe oppression of those whose lands they have confiscated.

Another approach to this type of fictive transcendence is historical. It claims to show that the Jewish question' has defined Europe since the Enlightenment era, such that there would be a criminal continuity between the idea Europe has of itself and the Nazi extermination, which is presented as the 'final solution' to the problem. Further, there would be a basic continuity between the extermination and European hostility to the State of Israel, the prime evidence for which would be the constant support - in my view really inconsistent, but let's leave that aside - the European Community gives to the Palestinians. Europe would be enraged by the fact that the "final solution" was defeated in the last act by the sudden appearance, on the balance-sheet of the war, of a Jewish state. As a result, there should be a legitimate distrust of everything Arab, for in starting out from support for the Palestinians we soon come to an undermining of the State of Israel, then from that undermining we come to anti-Semitism, and from this anti-Semitism to extermination - the logic, in short, has to be good.

I would like as far as possible to document a position utterly irreconcilable with the above assertions I will submit a position that is avowedly my own. On such issues, and taking account of the passions that inevitably emerge with every dispute over the power of a collective nomination, it is better to state straight away that one is only speaking for oneself, or, more precisely, in one's own name.

Obviously, the key point is that I cannot accept in any way the victim ideology. I clearly explained my position on this point in my little book Ethics in 1999. That the Nazis and their accomplices exterminated millions of people they called Jews does not to my mind lend any new legitimacy to the identity predicate in question. Of course, for those who, generally for religious reasons, have maintained that this predicate registers a communitarian alliance with the archetypical transcendence of the Other, it is natural to think that Nazi atrocities work in some way to validate in a terrible and striking paradox the election of the "people" that this predicate, so they say, gathers together. Furthermore, it would be necessary to explain how and why the Nazi predicate Jew', such as it was used to organize separation, then deportation and death, coincides with the subjective predicate under which the alliance is sealed. But for anyone who does not enter into the religious fable in question, the extermination brings to hear on the Nazis a judgement that is absolute and without right of appeal, without in any way establishing any supplementary value for the victims, other than a profound compassion. In passing, I submit that veritable compassion does not concern itself in the slightest with the predicates in the name of which the atrocity was committed. As such, it is all the more wrong-headed to think that an atrocity confers a surplus value on a predicate. Neither can an atrocity work to provide any kind of special respect to anybody who today expects to take shelter under such a predicate and demand exceptional status. Instead, from those limitless massacres, we should draw the conclusion that every declamatory introduction of communitarian predicates in the ideological, political or state field, whether criminalizing or sanctifying, leads to the worst.

Let me add something of a more affective note. It is wholly intolerable to be accused of anti-Semitism by anyone for the sole reason that, from the tact of the extermination, one does not conclude as to the predicate "Jew" and its religious and communitarian dimension that it receive some singular valorization - a transcendent annunciation! - nor that Israeli exactions, whose colonial nature is patent and banal, be specially tolerated. I propose that nobody any longer accept, publicly or privately, this type of political blackmail.

An abstract variation of my position consists in pointing out that, from the apostle Paul to Trotsky, including Spinoza, Marx and Freud, Jewish communitarianism has only underpinned creative universalism in so far as there have been new points of rupture with it. It is clear that today's equivalent of Paul's religious rupture with established Judaism, of Spinoza's rationalist rupture with the Synagogue, or of Marx's political rupture with the bourgeois integration of a part of his community of origin, is a subjective rupture with the State of Israel, not with its empirical existence, which is neither more nor less impure than that of all states, but with its exclusive identitarian claim to be a Jewish state, and with the way it draws incessant privileges from this claim, especially when it comes to trampling underfoot what serves us as international law. Truly contemporary states or countries are always cosmopolitan, perfectly indistinct in their identitarian configuration. They assume the total contingency of their historical constitution, and regard the latter as valid only on condition that it does not fall under any racialist, religious, or more generally "cultural", predicate. Indeed, the last time an established state in France believed it should call itself tile "French state" was under Pétain and the German occupation. The Islamic states are certainly no more progressive as models than the various versions of the 'Arab nation' were. Everyone agrees, it seems, on the point that the Taliban do not embody the path of modernity for Afghanistan. A possible of modern democracy then, is that it count everyone, without factoring in predicates. As the Organisation Politique says in relation to France's reactionary laws against undocumented workers; "Whoever is here is from here." There is no acceptable reason to exempt the State of Israel from that rule. The claim is sometimes made that this state is the only 'democratic' state in the region. But the fact that this state presents itself as a Jewish state is directly contradictory. We can say on this point that Israel is a country whose self-representation is still archaic.

Taking a different approach, I shall generalize the claim. I shall maintain that the intrusion of any identity predicate into a central role for the determination of a politics leads to disaster. This should be as I've already said, the real lesson to be drawn from Nazism. Since it was above all the Nazis who, before anyone else, and with a rare zeal for following through, drew all the consequences from making the signifier "Jewish" into a radical exception - it was, after all, the only way that they could give some sort of consistency, in their industrial massacre, to the symmetrical predication "Aryan", the particular vacuity of which obsessed them.

A more immediately relevant consequence is that the signifier "Palestinian" or "Arab" should not be glorified any more than is permitted for the signifier 'Jew'. As a result, the legitimate solution to the Middle East conflict is not the dreadful institution of two barbed-wire states. The solution is the creation of a secular and democratic Palestine, one subtracted from all predicates, and which, in the school of Paul who declared that, in view of the universal, "there is no longer Jew nor Greek" and that "circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing" - would show that it is perfectly possible to create a place in these lands where, from a political point of view and regardless of the apolitical continuity of customs, there is "neither Arab nor Jew". This will undoubtedly demand a regional Mandela.

Lastly, there is no question of tolerating the anti-Jewish diatribes, uttered in the name of colonial guilt and the rights of Palestinians, that circulate in a number of organizations and institutions that are more or less dependent on identitarian words such as "Arab", "Muslim", "Islam"... This anti-Semitism could not be passed off with give-and-take for a progressivism that settles for little. Besides, we already know the story. At the end of the nineteenth century in France, certain "Marxist" worker organizations, notably of the school of Jules Guesde, saw nothing wrong with the vulgar anti-Semitism that was very widespread at the time. They thought that anti-Semitic affairs, and notably the Dreyfus affair, did not concern the working class, and that to engage in them would distract from the principal contradiction between bourgeoisie and proletarians. But it soon became obvious what fueled this concern to stick to the "principal contradiction": in 1914, Jules Guesde, in the name of narrow-minded nationalism and a hatred of the Boches entered into the sacred union that organized the military butchery. One dialectic for another, it will be recalled that a correct treatment of the principal contradiction most often consists in publicly assuming responsibility for managing a "secondary" contradiction. Today, some among us are visibly tempted, in the name of the principal character of the contradiction between North and South, or between Arab peoples and American imperialism, to find all sorts of excuses for transforming (legitimate) opposition to the activities of the State of Israel into open and frank anti-Semitism, which is intolerable, and should not he tolerated. All the less so as the actions of progressive Israelis, who constantly show proof of a rare courage, have been crucial to advancing the situation in Palestine.

It's true enough that, to anyone wanting to eradicate such circumstantial anti-Semitism, it would be helpful if the State of Israel were no longer referred to as the "Jewish state", and it everywhere it was agreed that a strict separation should be maintained between, on the one hand, religious, customary and private uses of an identity predicate - the words "Arab" and "Jew" as much as "French" and, on the other, its political usages, which are always harmful.

The Word "Jew" and the Sycophant [2]

One could resist responding. One ought not to, perhaps. Or else, one could respond by looking at things from a bird's-eye view, as a very small symptom of the situation into which France has lapsed in recent times. Circonstances 3 is a book for which Cécile Winter and I alone take responsibility. Yet the violence of the reaction provoked by this book must he placed in its political context. The fact is that the situation in France today is dominated by an unprecedented reactionary offensive against workers of foreign origin, the adolescents of housing estates, children's schooling, the health of the poorest and weakest, women with different customs, workers' hostels, the mentally ill... Every day we have to put up with reading that absolutely criminal legislative measures are being concocted. 'Sarkozy' is the name of a rampant process by which, step by step, and with violence, entire sections of the population are relegated to a status deprived of rights, and are offered up to the police as internal enemies. In this context, it is important to ask the following question: what is the desire of the petty faction that is the self-proclaimed proprietor of the word "Jew" and its usages? What does it hope to achieve when, bolstered by the tripod of the Shoah the State of Israel and the Talmudic Tradition - the SIT - it stigmatizes and exposes to public contempt anyone who contend that it is, in all rigor, possible to subscribe to a universalist and egalitarian sense of this word? I will submit, then, that this is an extremist faction that harbors the same political intent as that dominating French parliamentarism today, one that is oriented towards identifying, separating off and persecuting people that the state itself has constituted as the enemies internal to the consensus. The petty group of which we speak forms the intellectual extreme right wing of this deadly orientation, that is, in so far as it takes a subjective form that, as a rule, is more negative (the anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab element is essential) than positive; in so far as its intellectual mechanism is inevitably obscurantist (primacy of particularities, restricted nationalism, racism, religiosity without God); and in so far as its polemical practices belong to the various established genres of senseless repression. Natacha Michel has already brought to my attention the fact that the procedures of this petty faction accumulate all the known historical genres of public denunciation. Engaging in juridical and statist denunciation, they demand that an end be put to our 'impunity'. Engaging in MacCarthyist-type denunciation, they say we are totalitarian Bolsheviks. Engaging in a latter-day Soviet-style denunciation, they diagnose the manifestation of various psychoses in our writings. Natacha Michel remarks, with a sad humor, 'On all sides, I have passed into the other camp.' Tins accumulation is significant; it leads one to wonder what it is this faction is protecting, what it so fears losing whenever its monopoly over the usage, normativity and correlative associations of the word 'Jew' is undermined.

I will make the hypothesis that the aggressive promotion of the triplet Shoah - Israel - Tradition, or SIT, as the only acceptable content of the word 'Jew', and the ignorant, stubborn, personalized violence directed against anybody who proposes a different mode of signification and circulation of the word, has to do with protecting a power: the power - very useful to the powers-that-be - of managing to subjugate this word to totally anti-working- class political and statist determinations, i.e., to a system of judicial and police control to which, little by little, everything that shows itself to be heterogeneous to the established consensus is subjugated, whether or not that heterogeneous element is already localized in organizations and actions, or is as yet only at the stage of the circulation of ideas. Further, that, in the constant use of a word that has been reduced to a sort of power of intimidation, it boils down to rallying the largest possible number of intellectuals in the world to the camp led by the Americans. In sum, it is about making the word "Jew" - assumed lo be untouchable because of its Shoah component; statist and pro-American because of its "Israeli" component; and vaguely spiritual because of its "Tradition" component - into the ideological shield and the intellectual referent of a new stage in the counter-revolution mat has been led in France by the nouveaux philosophes since the end of the 1970s, a stage that is now truly oppositional and supported by the services of state. By protecting their monopoly over the word 'Jew', it is hoped to eradicate for ever the very possibility of political universalism, of an equality of all particularist predicates, of a politics practiced by people who are here, irrespective of their origin. As soon as one threatens the stranglehold that the SIT triplet has over the destiny of the word "Jew" in language, in thought, and in historical life, as soon as one revives this word on the side of universal singularity and political emancipation, it constitutes a mortal attack on the faction's power to cause harm.

Once one has the measure of this attempt, one is tempted to disregard the satirical pamphlets of this or that mediocre employee of this faction. The extreme right has always utilized low-level informers in its organization, adventurers in writing who have had to run with the, hare and hunt with the hounds.

I wrote Circonstances 3 as I said before at my own risk, as one must nowadays, because I am disconcerted by seeing the word "Jew" associated - by intellectuals whose feebleness exasperates and misleads with the support that a large part of public opinion lends to odious policies. I know better, a thousand times better than the extremist faction, of the connection between the word "Jew" and the immense history of universal truths. In nullifying all the substantialist and racialist interpretations of it, in liberating it from any necessary connection to religious customs, in giving it a contemporary vivacity independent of fictitious narratives, in de-linking it from a slate which sticks it in the mud of imperial particularities; in sum, in liberating the word "Jew" from the triplet SIT, to which this faction tries to reduce it, I associate myself amicably with the work undertaken by many others, whether or not they lay claim to the predicate "Jew" by which a new force of the word can and will emerge. For the moment, 1 see it hardened, stunted, its flag moth-eaten by the forces of reaction. My profound hope is, as firmly slated in Circonstances 3, notably with respect to Udi Aloni's film Local Angel, that this word shall be reanimated, reinvented, revived in a cycle of truth-procedures. And first of all, without doubt, in Israel, where the implementation of a state or a country that is shared by all the people living there, whatever their customary predicates might be, would constitute the major landmark of such a revival.


[1] This collection was published as Circonstances 3: Portées du mot "juif", Paris: Leo Schéer, 2005.

[2] The complete version of this article of which the above is but an excerpt, appeared in Le monde on 02/02/06. It was written in response to Eric Marty"s "Alain Badiou: le futur d'une négation," in Les temps modernes, 12/05-01/06. A complete version of the article in English, translated by Steve Corcoran, appears in Badiou's Polemics, New York: Verso, 2006.

Alain Badiou's Bibliography

Alain Badiou's Chronology

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