Bernie Sanders, presidential candidate, is Jewish. Does anyone care? We hear nothing of it in the campaign, and voters are indifferent. Things would have been different a generation ago. Remember that, up to the 1960s, American universities imposed a quota on Jewish students. In France, Laurent Fabius, the new President of the Constitutional Council, the nation’s highest court, is of Jewish origin, a fact that has escaped notice. The new Minister of Culture, Audrey Azoulay, is Jewish — could this have been imagined in the country of the Dreyfus affair and of Marshal Pétain, the Nazis’ most enthusiastic collaborator? In Spain, the descendants of Jews expelled in 1492 can now have their original nationality restored, if they request it. Some will object, especially in France, where the Jewish community is mostly of North African decent, Jews are victims of criminal acts. But these are very rare, and are committed by young persons who re-enact the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in their sections of Paris or Marseille. And one must not confuse anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism.
Anti-Zionism is based on a real situation. The Palestinians are not a mythical people, nor are their demands mythical, however difficult they may be to satisfy. Anti-Semitism, on the other hand, is entirely mythical. The Jew was not a real person, but a mystical and political construction. The extermination of Jewish communities, which began in France and in Germany around A.D. 1000, and then in the wake of the Crusades, is almost always set off by an accusation of ritual crime: A Christian child was supposed to have had his throat slit in order to mix his blood in the ingredients of bread for the Jewish Passover feast. The ultimate pogroms, in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century, similarly take off from this myth. For 1000 years, the Jew was, in the West, the standard scapegoat for explaining bad harvests, economic crises, and bank failures. For thousand years, the Jews, who were all thought to be rich when almost all lived in poverty, were expelled, massacred, and stripped of what they did not possess. Ordinary anti-Semitism was based on the accusation of “deicide,” until Vatican II erased this reference from the Easter liturgy. The mythic character of anti-Semitism is attested by the absence of any relation between the number of Jews and the virulence of anti-Semitism: when the Dreyfus affair broke out, there were not 60,000 Jews in France, and they held a mediocre rank in society. Dreyfus himself was only a modest colonel. When Hitler seized power in 1933, there were not 500,000 Jews in Germany. In Poland, where one still finds a mild anti-Semite current on certain radio stations and in certain newspapers, the Jews themselves have almost disappeared. Jews are not necessary to anti-Semitism.
A new objection that one hears in France, and that is taken up by the vigilant New York press, holds that the emigration of 7,000 French Jews in 2014 proves that being a Jew in France is unbearable. But this figure, about 1,5 % of the French Jewish population, is misleading, since it mixes together economic exiles — who are not only Jews — with those who, for religious reasons, wish to pursue their life in Israel.
It is time to admit that Jews are no longer scapegoats; in fact, they are hardly distinguishable from the non-Jewish population. Is this because Jews have been assimilated? This is not an explanation, for Jews have always shown a surprising patriotism wherever they lived in exile. In 1914, my ancestors, Austrian Jews, fought in the Austrian army, and my Russian ancestors in the Army of the Czar. I did not yet have French ancestors, but there is no doubt that they would have rushed to the front just as Dreyfus did. It is not Jews who have changed, but Western society. Of course the discovery of the Shoah in 1945 made it forever clear that anti-Semitism is diabolical, but this is not the only explanation for the end of anti-Semitism; in any case it has persisted in Poland, as it did in Stalinist Russia, and even in France in the immediate aftermath of the war. I can testify of this: some of my high school teachers were openly anti-Semitic. I would instead date the end of anti-Semitism from the trial of Eichmann in 1961, which revealed the mediocrity of this ideology. This “banality of evil,” according to the philosopher Hannah Arendt, made it so that after this trial no bureaucrat (I am a bureaucrat who “obeyed orders,” Eichmann said in his defense) and no intellectual can call himself an anti-Semite. Anti-Semitism, which had been an elegant position in Europe among Christian intellectuals on the right and anti-capitalists on the left became grotesque after Eichmann. Then, in 1962, there was Vatican II, which I have already mentioned, and whose influence remains fundamental: the Church became sincerely philo-Semitic.
For those who, in France, in Belgium and in the Netherlands consider me too optimistic, because of attacks that mix old-fashioned anti-Semitism with contemporary anti-Zionism, I reply that in 1940 the French police deported my family; now they protect them. To conclude on a less optimistic note, we must admit that nations seem unable to do without a scapegoat. In this tragic role, has not the Arab replaced the Jew? This is conceivable, and it invites us to fight against Islamophobia without waiting for another Shoah or Dreyfus affair. And I am well aware of “Islamic radicalism,” but that is another subject.