Jean-Luc Nancy on Anti-Semitism: “Denying the Unmentionable”


Jean-Luc Nancy left us last year. In an interview with Danielle Cohen Levinas Conducted shortly before his death, the philosopher sought to understand why anti-Semitism remained an irreducible civilizational phenomenon. Faced with the banality of anti-Semitism, the philosopher of deconstruction could only see how much it persists and resists all stigmatization. A clear and disenchanted view that continues an ancient philosophical tradition, embodied, inter alia, by the writings of Jean Paul Sartre and Hannah Arendt

Jean-Luc Nancy has written extensively on anti-Semitism, especially in his book Exclude the Jew in us (Galilee, 2018). In his posthumous book Jew-hatred (Éditions du Cerf, 2022), the philosopher, a central figure in the ‘deconstruction’ movement with Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jacques Derridareturns to the task he set himself: “reject this unnameable” of anti-Semitism. How can we understand that the Jew is the bearer of all imperfections and the author of all evil? How to interpret this fact that the Jew is in a position to be what he calls one? “autoimmune drug” threaten the body of the West, even if it is an essential part of it?

The irreducibility of anti-Semitism

There would be nothing more ordinary, however abject, hatred of the Jews. Outraged by this phenomenon of trivialization, confirmed by the news of our time, Jean-Luc Nancy fundamentally doubted a possible remedy against the anti-Semitic evil. Because in his eyes anti-Semitism remained an irreducible fact of civilization. “It is a many-headed hydra; you cut one off, there will always be another to take over”he responds to Danielle Cohen Levinas

Nancy continues: “Anti-Semitism is our poison, it is as poisonous as our Christianity, our democracy and our science could triumph. † And if anti-Semitism has found new food in the politics of the State of Israel, it is in fact: “just an addition to the same old hatred”† Anti-Semitism “persevere, persevere, resist all criticism and all reproach”Nancy insists, as clear as desperate for the inhumanity of people, no doubt “shaping his humanity”

The term “anti-Judaism”, a screen for anti-Semitism?

Returning to the origin of this hatred, Housed in the history of Christianity and in the constitution of the West, at a time when the Greco-Roman world was almost empty, Nancy emphasizes the contradictory combination of the two responses to the erasure of archaic cultures: “The Greek answer and the Jewish answer meet as two affirmations of a humanity liberated from myth, but are opposed as two ways of understanding autonomy. † By defending its autonomy, Christianity separated from its Jewish tribe.

Beyond the religious archeology of the origins of anti-Semitism, Jean-Luc Nancy is wary of the distinction often made today between: “anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism”“unending” in his view, this distinction fails to clarify the flaws of anti-Judaism: that of serving as “screen for antisemitism” and “the one that can be found in every anti”“The anti never stands alone; one should always ask which “pro” this “anti” comes from”he makes clear.

From Sartre to Arendt, Anti-Semitism as a Philosophical Question

If Nancy considers during the interview Which “Philosophy has never looked at the Jewish fact from a philosophical point of view”we can nevertheless recall how much the issue of anti-Semitism has criss-crossed part of the history of philosophy: SartreArendtadornoJankelevitchBlanchotMilner or today Bruno Karsentic and Danny Trom wrote about it.

The philosophical reflection on anti-Semitism has not dried up; it largely continues today, linked both to the resurgence of hatred against the Jews in our societies and to a concern about preserving a Jewish presence in Europe. A double observation that prompts philosophers today to take up and rethink this question, such as the recent creation of the journal K. The Jews, Europe, the XXIe centurywhich aims “enabling a renewed understanding of current forms of anti-Semitism” and “to intellectually arm political, social and militant actors”. An ambition in which Jean-Luc Nancy’s book also participates.

Jew-hatred. Interviews with Danielle Cohen-Levinas, by Jean-Luc Nancy, has just been published by Éditions du Cerf. 112 p., €14, available here.

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