The Jew as Citizen:
Raymond Aron & Civic Nationalism, Part 2
Part 2 of 3
“Talmudic Ratiocinations”: Explaining Judeophobia, 1951
Aron’s early writings on the Jewish Question are remarkable for their weakness. He makes obviously false or self-contradictory statements, relies on then-fashionable and self-serving Jewish ideologies to discredit antisemitism (psychoanalysis, the Khazar theory . . .), and generally lacks insight. He no doubt would have benefited from reading Kevin MacDonald’s Culture of Critique trilogy, particularly the chapters on self-deception and Jewish-gentile conflicts of interests.
Emblematic of this is the first piece of the Essais, a lecture given to the French B’nai B’rith on February 21, 1951 on “the economic causes of antisemitism.” It is painful for me even to repeat the “pearls” Aron pronounced. I honestly cannot say whether Aron sincerely argued these points at face value or whether he was trying, surreptitiously and perhaps subconsciously, to slip some self-critical points into his talk to the leading lights of French Jewry. At bottom, he gives a confused account of antisemitism and advocates essentially ignoring the phenomenon, addressing it by being race-blind and good citizens.
I will then merely repeat some of his more notable statements, letting them speak for themselves, without excessive commentary. Aron begins by denying the economic causes of antisemitism are worthy of comment: “I have nothing original, new or even interesting on the subject . . . I do not even think that the subject is really interesting” (Essais, p. 27). He goes on to say that even collecting statistics on Jewish over-representation is suspect: “the very fact that one establishes this statistic already shows that one considers Jews to be an exceptional category, or a separate group” (Essais, 27). Aron here seemingly had no sense at all of legitimate interests such as:
- Non-Jews wanting equal access to such top positions.
- Ethnic bias in culture and policymaking, most notably in the infamous tendencies towards liberal-leftist critique of culture and of agitation on behalf of co-ethnics abroad.
Aron, having set these spurious foundations, goes on:
As a consequence, the real cause isn’t these statistics which you can find more or less everywhere, and which by looking hard enough you can also find here [France] but which interest no one, but the inner, implicit sentiment, most often latent: The Jewish group, in the French, German or American national community, shows characteristics such that, if one were to less them enter or infiltrate a certain profession, one should in any case limit this infiltration. A homeopathic dose is bearable, but if the does is not homeopathic, it becomes unbearable. Yet, this is precisely the problem, the belief which creates antisemitism, the rest is but an pretext of little interest. (Essais, 28)
Aron recognizes Jewish over-representation in finance, liberal professions, doctors, lawyers, intellectuals, professors, writers, artists (Essais, 30) and, unremarkably, attributes this “in large part . . . to the surrounding society,” namely a ban on Jews “being peasants” and “owning land.” He goes on to say that because of their intermediary professions “one of the constant tragedies of most Jews is to occupy functions where they cannot not [sic] want an attitude of equality, of comprehension.” The Jew wants love.
Aron irrationalizes antisemitism. He argues that “[t]he concentration in certain milieux did not create . . . the cause [of antisemitism], but a good opportunity or good justification” (Essais, 31). On German antisemitism he writes:
The proximate cause was the very personality of Hitler or of the National Socialist Party, but the essential phenomenon is that the German community, going through a period of crisis and misery, decreed, by a psychoanalytic phenomenon, that the minority of Jews was essentially responsible of its ills. (Essais, p. 28)
No word of the Jews who ran Creditanstalt or the various Communist subversions which threatened Germans’ livelihood and freedom.
Aron rejects Werner Sombart’s thesis that Jews played an innovating role in the development of financial capitalism. He also rejects the association of abstract, speculative capitalism with Jews as “a myth” even though “one finds Jews who have, up to a certain point, accepted this myth as a reality” (Essais, 35). He also notes of “another equally powerful myth which is: the Jew as revolutionary par excellence,” going on:
In France today, one would gladly criticize him [the Jew] for being communist. To not fall into [French] politics, let us say that in the Soviet Union, they would call them cosmopolitans and that this would amount to the same thing because, in both cases, there is the reproach of the non-rooted Jew, of the Jew as being of abstraction who is always ready to sacrifice his concrete and carnal community for an abstract dream – let us say here the revolutionary dream of a classless society – in Russia they would say: the cosmopolitan dream of a liberation from the particularity of the national culture. (Essais, 35)
Aron adds: “In appearance, these are two contradictory themes and I would say that they are giving us too much credit, because we cannot at the same time be the agents of capitalism and the agents of the revolution!” (Essais, 35–6). Although, obviously, Jewish over-representation among both financial speculators and communist subversives is not merely a possibility, but in many cases an established fact.
In this mass of, one has to say, rather conceited and self-serving argumentation and obfuscation, Aron lays a few interesting and perhaps surprising points. He recognizes “a grain of truth” in the claim that Jews have, historically, been tempted by both capitalist and communist “abstraction” (“admettons qu’il y ait là une part de vérité,” Essais, 36). He is unsatisfied with Sartre’s (absurd) claim that Jews are entirely defined by antisemites and asks: “What is racial or hereditary predisposition in the specific character of Jews? What is the result of historical particularity?” (Essais, 39). Note this is after having also said: “The answer of the antisemite [on Jewish character] is: the Jew is so, not by historical accidents, but by essence, by race, and that is why he is unassimilable” (Essais, 36–7).
Aron recognizes that a weak Jewish solidarity exists, which can become strong in times of persecution (Essais, 32). He notes that it is “perfectly possible” that Jews are “less integrated” in society and therefore disproportionately involved in black market activities. He then curiously minimizes the comment and goes on with an anecdote on the Jewish writer Henri Bergson:
This is not very interesting [on eventual Jewish over-representation in the black market], but it is a fact that I mention because it evokes in my thinking an expression which Bergson used towards the end of his life, where, speaking in very beautiful terms of his refusal to leave the Jews [Bergson wanted to convert to Catholicism] when they were going to be persecuted, he added: “persecution which the extreme immorality of a certain number of Jews” – I no longer dare use the word he used – “tends to explain,” or “serves as a pretext,” or something of to this effect. (Essais, 33)
Aron is then, in his delicately diplomatic way, all but suggesting to the crème de la crème of French Jewry that the malfeasance of certain Jews has stoked antisemitism against the wider community.
Aron also presents his remarkably low-key and modest personal strategy for dealing with antisemitism. He recalls that while in London (“where the Jewish question was present with a kind of obsession”) he would be criticized both for publishing an article by a Jew (“That’s their solidarity”) and for rejecting one (“the most antisemitic were precisely the Jews”) and so pledged “until the end of my days, to not take into account these sorts of considerations, because if you do, as little as may be, you will never get out of it and you will multiply the daily irritations of existence” (Essais, 32). Aron will, in his personal dealings, be race-blind.
Aron goes on to argue that even though it would “probably shock [his audience] a bit” that “I do not believe that we, personally, us Jews, can do much against antisemitism” (Essais, 39). Only gentiles can reduce antisemitism among gentiles. He adds that “when we explain that one is wrong to be antisemitic, what do we say? That we are good Frenchmen” (p. 40). Aron then, in this confused or perhaps subversive speech (is there an esoteric reading?), sets the tone for what would be his lifelong approach to antisemitism: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. His strategy would entail effectively ignoring the problem, both as an individual and as a group, except in being good French citizens who reject dual loyalty.
“Perhaps it is better not to discuss certain problems”: Aron Encounters Jewry, 1962
Aron’s thinking apparently did not evolve much in the following 10 years. He continues to make some false or absurd statements, as well as a few insightful ones, in a 1960 article entitled “The Jews.”
For example, Aron notes that “perhaps hereditary gifts are not uniformly present throughout the human race” and that it is possible that “the number of those who are talented or not talented for this or that is proportionally higher among Jews than among non-Jews” (Essais, 196). He argues that one can generalize on Jews without necessarily being antisemitic, citing a statement by historian/sociologist André Siegfried that rings remarkably true today still: “When the Jew, indeed, criticizes the society in which he lives, we have already noted that he does not criticize it as he would his mother, one discerns something implacable and merciless” (Essais, p. 206). Aron notes Charles Maurras, a leading light of French antisemitism, would not have advocated the slaughter of Jews en masse.
Aron is categorical on the dual loyalty problem: “Each of us has a fatherland and a religion, but none could have two fatherlands. The Jew who feels himself politically loyal to Israel has the obligation to put his behavior with accordance with his sentiments, that is to emigrate to the Holy Land. . . . citizenship cannot be shared” (Essais, 198). He asserts that Jews have no genetic kinship: “The legendary phrase ‘our ancestors the Gaulish’ is as likely to apply to young French Jews as their Christian classmates. The ancestry of these Jews is European, not Semitic” (Essais, 191).
Aron’s conclusion is also rather odd. On the one hand, he rejects working with tribalist Jewish organizations: “Never will I be an activist in the leagues against antisemitism. It is not up to us, Jews, to brag about our merits or denounce those who do not like us” (Essais, 201). At the same time, he concludes by quoting Richard Wright and Sartre saying there are no Black/Jewish problems, just White/Gentile problems, an attitude Aron had already rejected as simplistic.
Aron’s Jewishness and civic nationalism come into major conflict with one another for the first time in a lengthy 1962 article arguing that Diaspora Jews should be loyal to their state of citizenship and not to Israel. Aron knew he was treading on sensitive territory as he prefaced his first article saying “I hope it will not hurt any of my of ‘coreligionists’,” an obvious euphemism given his agnosticism (Essais, 211). But sure enough, he received a great deal of critical correspondence, and in a follow-up article said: “I made the mistake of forgetting that perhaps it is better not to discuss certain problems,” a potentially damning concession if Jews are an influential elite (Essais, 231).
Aron again rejects dual loyalty:
None can claim the right to dual citizenship. Modern citizenship entails in its essence obedience to the commands of the state and above all military obligations. . . . If, to avoid a painful conflict (conflit déchirant), I postulate a priori that the interests of these two fatherlands coincide, I am being remiss in my duty as a Frenchman, an Englishman or an American. . . . I risk acting like a bad Frenchman if I use my influence to convince my compatriots to grant Israel a favorable prejudice. (Essais, 212–3)
The most “extreme situation” would be if Jewish citizens of other states would be asked to go to war against Israel.
On religion, he argues that to justify Israel on religious grounds is “to prostitute faith” (Essais, 221) and that faith “degrades miserably if it is not open to all men,” a very un-Judaic sentiment (Essais, 230). He again notes that Jews may be more likely to have certain psychological and physical traits than the general population and semi-skeptically quotes Arnold Toynbee saying that “the Jews have always consistently given priority over other aims of theirs to this aim of preserving their distinctive national identity” (Essais, 217–8).
More generally, Aron is, as when he writes on France, remarkably clinical in his assessment of Israel:
[T]he Israeli enterprise is, in the world of the twentieth century, provincial. In a certain way, Israel will be all the more likely to not degenerate into a Levantine state the less it closes on itself, [and] will remain in communication with Europe and the United States. Let us hope that egoism, necessary for militant nationalism, will not contradict the needs of open borders. [Essais, 229]
Aron seemed to fear Israel would become markedly militaristic and “Middle Eastern.” He added in 1967 that he would not repeat the claim that the Zionist project was “provincial,” apparently regretting this matter-of-fact but dismissive term.
A non-believer (at least in relation to the common understanding of religion), I will not compromise on my sympathy with Israel, but I refuse to grant it a national loyalty which belongs to my fatherland [France]. Though “assimilated,” lost to Jewish culture as such, I have not betrayed what there is best in Judaism’s religious message, if I have, beyond national attachments, conserved the meaning of universal values in knowledge and in action.
What Jews have to say to humanity will never be translated in the language of arms.
Aron apparently suffered a torrent of criticism for what he called in a follow-up article “affirming his sympathy, but refusing commitment [to Israel]” (Essais, 231). He also defended himself from the following charge: “I have in no way recommended assimilation” (Essais, 233). Aron defended “friendship” between Israelis and the Diaspora:
A hostile fanaticism towards Jews who want to be citizens of France or the United States would break this friendship.
I know this fanaticism to be foreign to those who built and who maintain the state of Israel. (Essais, 234)
No doubt this was a rather naïve sentiment.
“More Jewish than he knew”: Aron vs. De Gaulle, 1967
The events of the Israel’s 1967 war against the Arabs, and President Charles de Gaulle’s reaction to it calling the Jews “an elite people, self-confident, and dominating,” brought Aron’s Jewish identity to the fore like never before. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Herschel’s statement that “I had not known how Jewish I was” could equally apply to the self-consciously “assimilated” Jew who thought himself as patriotic as the next Frenchman.
Aron writes in his memoirs that he: “(t)ook cognizance of the birth of Israel in 1948, without experiencing a feeling of victory; I was not conscious of an event of world history, weltgeschichtlich, according to the German word” (Mémoires, 506). Indeed, this seems symptomatic of a wider trend in which Jewish consciousness and ethnocentrism did not increase so much with the revelations of the scale of persecution of European Jewry in 1945 as with the victory of the Jewish state in 1967. A rather curious historical development – no doubt related to the broader construction of culture by Jewish elites, the evolution of the expression of ethnocentrism in the “affluent society” and so on – which still needs to be explained.
In any event, De Gaulle gave a famous press conference following the Six Day War touching upon Jewish character and power in influencing events:
Some even worried that the Jews, until then dispersed, but who had remained what they had always been, that is to say an elite people, self-confident, and dominating, might, once reassembled at the site of their former greatness, change into an ardent and conquering ambition the very touching wishes they had expressed for nineteen centuries: Next year, in Jerusalem. (Essais, 45)
The line on the “elite people, self-confident, and dominating,” has become infamous among French Jews as the most prominent statement of all that is unnameable in Franco-Jewish relations. De Gaulle would also express frustration on the support for Israel and opposition to his policies among many French Jews, essentially a criticism of dual loyalty. (He later reportedly, I have not been able to confirm it, told a rabbi: “Our sympathy for the Jews is unquestionable, but some might to not feel more Israeli than French. Their position in favor of the state of Israel is unacceptable.”)
The President also asserts that the Allies supported the creation of the Jewish state because of the Second World War and centuries of antisemitism, and then curiously goes on to mention Jewish influence:
That’s why, independently of the vast support in money, in influence, in propaganda, that the Israelis received from Jewish circles of America and Europe, money countries, including France, saw with satisfaction the establishment of their state on the territory which the Powers had recognized them, all the while wanting them to manage, by using a bit modesty, to find a peaceful modus vivendi with their neighbors.” (Essais, 46)
Aron was so hurt by these statements that he published a pamphlet – really a collection of previously published articles and a prefatory essay – entitled De Gaulle, Israël et les Juifs (Paris: Plon, 1968), which is reprinted in the Essais (all footnotes refer to the Essais version). This was to be the most emotional, the most scathing of Aron’s works. Whereas he was always happy to coolly explain to the Stalinist Communist or the Mitterrandian Socialist the errors of his ways, in the solemn confidence in the strength of his level-headed analyses and in being simply more intelligent, here Aron shows a unusually angry, sarcastic, and even vitriolic side. Aron says he “long hesitated” to write the book, and only did so once it was clear no major Gaullist intellectual such as André Malraux or François Mauriac would speak up (Essais, 51), and apparently later regretted the tone he took.
Ultimately, Aron’s substantive criticism is in De Gaulle having re-opened debate on the Jewish Question:
[Jewish sympathy for Israel] would not have sufficed to relaunch the still-latent antisemitism if General de Gaulle, through half-a-dozen words, charged with resonance, had not solemnly rehabilitated it.
Why did he do it? Out of taste for scandal? To punish the Israelis for disobedience and the Jews for their occasional anti-Gaullism? To solemnly forbid any hint of dual loyalty? To sell a few more Mirages to the Arab countries? Did he aim for the United States in striking the Jews? Did he want to submit to another trial of loyalty some of his devotees, who have suffered under Charles de Gaulle? Is he acting as the descendant of Louis XIV who did not tolerate the Protestants? As the heir to the Jacobins who loved liberty so much that he forbade citizens to feel any other sentiment? I do not know. (Essais, 90)
He later also suggests De Gaulle did it as part of a “settling of scores” with the too-often-critical French press (Essais, 93)
Aron suggests debates will now be allowed as before the holocaust: “antisemites, (and [former Vichy-era Commissioner-General for Jewish Questions Xavier] Vallat did not hesitate one moment) received from the head of the state the solemn authorization to speak again and to use the same language as before the great massacre” (Essais, 61).
Aron also writes of (self-)censorship on the Jewish Question since 1945, but says he will at least listen to antisemites even if he disagrees with them:
For twenty years, a sort of taboo limited free to speak on this topic. A friend of mine answers that the Jews exert a sort of terror; by evoking or invoking their dead, they ban discussion of a problem which does not cease to exist simply by denying its existence. . . . I believe in all my naïveté that a ‘certain silence’ was explained less by Jewish terrorism than matters of conscience. . . .
Probably I was mistaken. Let us let the dead bury the dead. No Jew must impose silence on antisemites by recalling the misfortune of yesterday, as outrageous as it was. I will not confuse the antisemites of 1967 with Hitler and his devotees to disqualify them without listening. But, writing freely in a free country, I would say that General de Gaulle has knowingly, voluntarily, opened a new period of Jewish history and perhaps of antisemitism. All becomes possible again. There is no question, of course, of persecutions: only of “ill-will” [malveillance]. No question of contempt: the era of suspicion. (Essais, 62)
Of course, we know today that De Gaulle’s words had no effect whatsoever in the medium-term and that ability to speak on the Jewish Question has become increasingly thoroughly circumscribed.
Highly unusually for Aron, his writing is charged with harsh invective, moralistic sarcasm, and melodramatic hyperbole so typical of ethnocentric Jewish writings. He accused De Gaulle of having a “deliberately aggressive intention” (Essais, 57) and of having made “an accusation all the more insidious in that it is camouflaged [. . .] to call the people of the ghettos ‘self-confident and dominating’ strikes me, today still, as derisory as odious” (Essais, 55).
Aron engages in some tendentious reasonings to attack the President. He criticizes De Gaulle for terming Jewish land seizures in colonial Palestine as “more or less justifiable,” considering this statement to be “favoring the Arabs” (Essais, 58) and for his mentioning “the ill-will they [Jews] aroused” (susciter) in various countries (suggesting Jewish behavior influenced attitudes towards Jews . . .), and for using “national stereotypes, racial prejudices . . . which psychologists and psychiatrists analyze tirelessly” (Essais, 59).
Aron’s argumentation is confused on the issue of dual loyalty. One minute he seems to fault De Gaulle for laying “a trap” for French Jews and forcing them to choose between France and Israel, providing “a new foundation for the implicit accusation of dual loyalty” (Essais, 64). Later he recognizes what would indeed be his final word on dual citizenship: “No state can accept dual loyalty” (Essais, 89).
The sarcasms peppered throughout the text include “Let us read together, my Reverend Father” as he goes over De Gaulle’s speech and “Let us admire once more the art of the Prince” (Essais, 59–60). Or again when Aron suggests De Gaulle could have had a positive influence by restraining Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, but preferred to grandstand: “Admittedly, General de Gaulle would not have been able to claim the glory of vain and solitary wisdom. Effective action would have replaced the glorious word” (Essais, 67).
At the same time, Aron says he will not accuse De Gaulle of antisemitism “because the very notion of antisemitism lends itself to indefinite ambivalences. The press conference solemnly authorized a new antisemitism” (emphasis in text, Essais, 56), a rather curious piece of reasoning. He concludes melodramatically on De Gaulle’s pro-Arab, U.S.-skeptical foreign policy:
Communists, by anti-imperialism, Gaullists, by nationalism and anti-Israelism, will act together. The circle of suspicion will close upon those held responsible for the misgivings of public opinion.
Nightmare or near future, I know not. Perhaps other words will erase the fatal worlds. . . .
How many Jews, in France and elsewhere, cried after the press conference, not because they feared persecutions but because they lost their hero! How many hope still to find again what they have lost! (Essais, 91-2)
While he says he is merely a “de-Judaized” Frenchman of Jewish origin (Essais, 78) and that “I am not a Zionist, first and above all because I do not feel Jewish” and because the project would likely lead to permanent conflict with the Arabs (Essais, 83). He also states: “But I feel more clearly than yesterday that the very possibility of the destruction of Israel hurts me in the depths of the soul. In that sense, I have confessed that a Jew can never attain perfect objectivity concerning Israel” (Essais, 83).
Aron adds that Judaism held a certain power over even atheist Jews as Israelis had “translated into a secular reality the promises of a religion which many no longer believed in and which all remained mysteriously attached to” (p. 85). He has no cogent explanation for his feelings however and writes confusedly that Jews are not “a people,” but at best “a quasi-people by virtue of a religious tradition and a destiny imposed throughout the centuries . . . The Jew who has ceased to believe or to practice cannot be required to accept very notion of the ‘Jewish people’” (Essais, 87). He goes on: “Why do you accept [this notion]?, responds an interlocutor, French like myself but who listens with irony to this Talmudic ratiocinations. In truth, I myself don’t know with certainty” (Essais, 88). He writes that Jews should be expected to recognize themselves as Jews and be solidary with one another only in the face of antisemitism. In the end, Aron is acknowleding the emotional power of ethno-racial solidarity even over himself in his attachment to Israel, and there is nothing mysterious or surprising about this solidarity from an evolutionary perspective.
Aron acknowledges the apparently growing ethnocentrism of the Jewish community and its increased organization in support of Israel during the war, seemingly defending the activism of Jewish oligarchs:
[T]he Jews of France for the first time gave the impression of forming a kind of community. Of course, many protested against the letter of Edmond de Rothschild, which evoked the old practice of the tax paid by Jews everywhere in order to come to the aid of their brothers in peril in a faraway and unknown land. Left-wing intellectuals felt uncomfortable in the company of the barons of international finance. The role that the Rothschilds and more widely the rich in Jewish organizations is rooted in an age-old tradition [passé séculaire]. Would the Jews denounce or deplore this role accept to give their time to the Consistory (even as they have lost their faith) or to the Unified Jewish Social Fund (to which they send the contribution by human respect)? (Essais, 81–2)
He writes that L’Arche, a Jewish publication, “for perhaps regrettable but intelligible reasons” has “writers belonging to the minority of French Jews passionately attached to Israel,” it indeed being rather typical for any community’s more radical or ethnocentric elements to take the lead in organizing and publicizing (Essais, 80). And on Jewish hostility to (gentile) nationalism: “I only know that any nationalism, pushed beyond a certain proportion, ends up pushing certain Jews (of which I am not but whom I do not want to desert) towards the alternative of refusal or renunciation” (Essais, 90). To be precise, one would need to add that Jews tend to be hostile to non-Jewish nationalism.
All these “Talmudic ratiocinations” aside, the bottom line is likely simply that no self-respecting Jew can be indifferent to a conflict in the Middle East which at times could plausibly lead to the ethnic cleansing of 3 or 6 million co-ethnics. As Aron writes: “Left-wing intellectuals, of Jewish origin, have not given up the ground of universalism for that of Israeli nationalism, as [Jean-Marie] Domenach ungenerously writes. They had the same experience as Camus” (Essais, 86). Indeed, could Albert Camus, having been born and raised among the pieds-noirs European settlers in Algeria, ignore the prospect of 1 million of his compatriots being killed or evicted from their homes in case of an Arab nationalist victory, as was eventually the case, in the name of a claim of moral universalism as a novelist or philosopher? What is universalist moralism in the face of the ethnic cleansing of one’s people?
In any case, one is led to share the conclusions of the self-consciously Jewish Jews Aron cites: “In their eyes, my ‘Jewishness’, long suppressed by my determination to be fully French [français à part entière], suddenly exploded into the daylight, forcing the barrages of reasoning reason” (Essais, 82).
1. Raymond Aron, “Les juifs,” Réalités, September 1960.
2. Raymond Aron, “Les juifs et l’État d’Israël,” Le Figaro littéraire, February 24, 1962.
3. Raymond Aron, “Postscriptum,” Le Figaro littéraire, March 17, 1962.
4. Quoted in Kevin MacDonald, The Culture of Critique (First Books, 2002), p. 56.
5. It appears that a frank assessment of De Gaulle’s attitude towards the Jews also still needs to be made. The General entered history in 1940 as a servant of Anglo-American power, albeit a very independently-minded one, as Marshal Philippe Pétain was to German power. As a Nietzschean raised in a partly Maurrassian French right-wing culture, he could not have been ignorant of Jewish influence and conflicts of interests with gentiles. And indeed, Aron notes that in wartime London “the Jewish question was present with a kind of obsession” (p. 32). Perhaps the most balanced assessment of De Gaulle is Dominique Venner’s “Pétain & De Gaulle: Two Figures of a Tragic Destiny,” translation available here: http://www.counter-currents.com/2010/11/petain-and-de-gaulle/