An obsession called Israel
By Ofri Ilani, Haaretz, 21/05/2008
To the sound of the audience's applause, Francois Heilbronn, the
president of French Friends of Tel Aviv University, stood up and read
off the names of dozens of French intellectuals. The list included
poets, writers, playwrights and philosophers, Catholics and communists,
past and present, who all shared one common denominator: their
enthusiastic attitude toward Zionism and the State of Israel. "A
wonderful list; it is such a pleasure for me to recite these names,"
said Heilbronn and read: Malraux, Camus, Blanchard, Barthes, Aragon, and
many other names that were swallowed up by the applause. "Here, in Tel
Aviv, we salute you," he declared, and concluded with a pro-Israeli
quote from Jean-Paul Sartre, the leading French intellectual of the
It was one of the highlights of a unique conference held at the
university this week on the attitudes of French intellectuals toward
Israel, from its establishment to today. In contrast to Heilbronn's
speech, which was devoted to the pro-Israel intellectuals, the lectures
of most of the speakers radiated flagrant offense at the positions that
French thinkers, especially from the left, have taken toward Israel. One
after another, the speakers described a similar pattern: Excitement over
the establishment of the Jewish state, which swept across the French
intelligentsia after 1948, was replaced after 1967 by increasing
criticism, which in some cases reached the point of completely denying
Israel's right to exist.
It is sometimes surprising to see the intensity with which intellectuals
on the banks of the Seine deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in
dozens of articles and essays, most of which are totally unknown to the
Israeli public. "The topic of Israel was always important in France, but
in the last ten years, it has become the number-one subject for
intellectual debate," said Dr. Denis Charbit of the Open University, a
researcher of French culture, who organized the conference.
Eric Marty, an essayist and lecturer on contemporary literature at the
University of Paris, argued that Israel is a unique obsession in French
intellectual discourse - to the point that the Israeli-Palestinian
question has created conflict among several leading French thinkers. The
close ties between Sartre and the writer Jean Genet, for instance, were
ruptured after Sartre moved closer to Israel and Genet moved closer to
Fatah. The relationship between philosophers Michel Foucault and Gilles
Deleuze also cooled due to Deleuze's support for Palestinian terror
attacks. Today, Marty said, the debate over Israel is so heated that
intense hostility and hatred prevails among disputants on both sides of
As an example, he cited the philosopher Alain Badiou, whom many consider
the leading French philosopher of the current generation. In a series of
recent essays, Badiou (whose book "Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding
of Evil" was published in Hebrew by Resling) argues that Israel must
disappear completely, just like French Algeria. According to Badiou, as
quoted by Marty, the Jew by definition must be foreign to any land, and
therefore Israel is the state with the least number of Jews in the world
today, and its very existence is perceived by him as a crime.
"Badiou is considered the leading intellectual in France," Marty said.
"Derrida bequeathed his place to Badiou. It is necessary to fight to
make him beyond the pale."
Unsurprisingly, the word "anti-Semitism" recurred in several lectures.
Yet some of Israel's harshest critics happen to be Jews. Moreover, said
sociologist Pierre Birnbaum of the Sorbonne, ever since Theodor Herzl's
day, many pro-Zionist intellectuals have actually been anti-Semites. For
example, Edouard Drumont, author of the anti-Semitic book "Jewish
France," congratulated Herzl, saying that France is for the French,
while Palestine is for the Jews. Louis-Ferdinand Celine, the
anti-Semitic pro-Nazi writer, praised the rebirth of the Jewish people
in Israel and said a new person had been created there: He builds, he
farms, he fights.
Charbit noted that several thinkers actually present the denial of
Israel's right to exist as a conclusion drawn from the memory of the
Holocaust. "The Holocaust has never been as present in French discourse
as it has been in recent decades," he said. "But because of the
connection between colonialism and the Holocaust, the victims have
become the main subject of the historical discussion. In such a
situation, there is a split: Either the contemporary Jews are [viewed
as] the heirs of the victims, and then there is support for Israel, or
the approach is to consider all victims in general, and then the
Palestinians are portrayed as the victims of today."
Historian Prof. Elie Barnavi, a former Israeli ambassador to France,
noted at the conference that there is a large gap between the Parisian
intellectuals' position and that of the public at large. When he visited
rural areas of France, he said, he received an almost royal welcome and
Israeli flags were hung in his honor. "We focus on the Parisian
microcosm, which is indeed important, but it isn't representative," said
Barnavi. Many of the speakers noted that Nicolas Sarkozy, the man
sitting in the Elysee Palace, is actually an ardent supporter of Israel.
And indeed, while discussing Israel and the Palestinians is indeed
important to the intellectuals, it is unclear how important the
intellectuals are to France today. Their status does not even come to
close to what it was several decades ago, Marty said, and the field of
French intellectualism is in a truly terminal condition.