On Nationalism, Sarkozysm, Zionism, Leftism, the European Memory of the Shoah, and the Legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish only state

French philosopher Alain Badiou gave this interview to Le Monde last week. The original title was about the crisis of the intellectual Left. While the first two questions focused on why the unreformed present day French Left is defending Sarkozysm (the latter being anti-left, combining the most brutal forms of neoliberalism and populism), most of the interview was about the particularisms lying at the foundations of Israel as a Jewish only state.

Le Monde: How do you interpret the recent political and electoral changes in France ?
Alain Badiou: We are witnessing the end of French Politics as it emerged from the second world war: a Left-Right, Gaullo-Communist system that endorsed a common assessment of the second world war; Pétainism (France's Pétain collaborated with the Nazis) on one hand, and resistance on the other. Chirac was the Brejnev of Gaullism, the guardian of a crumbling party, whose cautiousness dictated immobilism. The election of Sarkozy, and the fact that some from the left have joined his government, mark the end of the political system that was born after the war. Meanwhile, one can ask who is this new Right in France ? Not Gaullist but successful among the extreme Right voters. Let's say what is evidence by now: This new Right is a decomplexified Capitalism reinstating Nationalism in an artificial and agressive manner .

The 'reactions' we hear today about this new capitalism or Sarkozysm are taken from old adages like "It is perfectly O.K. to be rich" or "We want the poor to work more and to obey us". Any other content or positive significance in Sarkozysm are still uncertain while its negative content is certain and well known:
Persecution of foreigners, especially if they are workers and/or poor;
Special ministry "to deal with" these immigrant workers;
Repressive clamp down on lower classes' youth;
The real campaigning Sarkozy has done to woo France's voters wasn't through his election campaign but rather through his actions as interior minister. His law on immigrants which is criminal and little known to the public, his open support for a police control of the French society and his boasting about it, have officialised Lepénism (Le Pen is the leader of the extreme right party le Front National) as a policy for the state and buried the "French exception". Therefore we are witnessing the total collapse of the left, and the extreme left, who are still holding on to the old political scheme built in France after the second world war.

Le Monde: What are the consequences of these changes on intellectuals and their work ?
Alain Badiou: The rallying of some intellectuals to Sarkozy symbolises the possibility for these intellectuals and philosophers to become some sort of traditional reactionnaries "without hesitation nor complaint", as in military rule. With this rallying comes the mingling with the Rich and Powerful, the xenophobia against poor and ordinary people, and the adoration of US Politics. Being an intellectual from the Right used to bear some sort of embarrassment in France. Even Raymond Aron (a famous French political philosopher) was embarrassed to declare himself an intellectual from the political Right ! The after war context in France was tailored to intellectuals from the Left. We are going to witness- and I am awaiting this moment- the demise of the leftist intellectual who will go down with the whole Left, before coming back to life again from its ashes like the phoenix ! This renewal of the Left will be possible only as an opposition to the actual reactionnary rallying of the Left to Sarkozy or any other extreme Right political movement disguised as the new Right. There will not be a middle of the road option for the Left, it will have to choose between a new radicalism in Politic or a reactionnary rallying to the new Right.

On Israel, Zionism and the Memory of the Shoah

Le Monde: You are, since the publication of Circonstance 3, Portées du mot "Juif" (The Uses of the word "Jew"), at the heart of an intellectual controversy because of your position on Israel, a position some believe is favourable to the disappearance of Israel as a state. What is your opinion on this ?
Alain Badiou: I believe this controversy, if taken at its highest and most coherent level, is about the existence of universals. What is the relation between the word "Jew", in its entire extension, its historical and intellectual resonance, and the liberating and emancipating effect of Universalism (Badiou means by Universalism the universal truth) ? Universalism is attacked from the Right, which maintains that we should return to the values of Nations, Traditions, Religion, Family values, etc. Universalism is also under attack from the Left which maintains that abstract Universalism is a form of intellectual Imperialism or an abstraction of the global market (or global economy) against which sexual, racial, and communautarian identities should be defended. In this debate, I stand in the middle, even if I am considered as a radical. I oppose the traditionalist defence of moral, national, and religious identities, but I oppose the modernist position on this matter which pretends to defend identities by making them the center and the principal player in the political opposition to international Capitalism. It is in this context that I consider the word "Jew".

Le Monde: Why reduce the whole question to a word ? Isn't a reality ?
Alain Badiou: Certainly ! It is the same with the word "French"... However "being French" does not prevent me from being from a Moroccan origin, or a hereditary aristocrat, or half German, having this or this idea about my country, inheriting the French revolution or on the contrary a fetichistic vision of the land... Under a word, of variable value, we can find an infinite multiplicity. My problem is that I am against those who think that "Jew" is a name, and not a word, those who insist that this word forms a homogenous and unified assembly non reductible to something else. In my opinion, their position can only be tenable in the case of divine transcendance. In this case, and in this case alone, we can argue that "Jew" is a name and not a word, because it is bound to an elective space: "Jew" is the name of the alliance. I argue, as Lévinas did before me in a coherent way, that it is impossible to maintain this nominal exception without the support of religion.
My target in this critique is not Zionism, neither the existence of Israel, not even a certain type of relation between the identity and the state. My target is the ideological manipulation of the word "Jew" in the intellectual controversy you mentioned, especially in France where it serves some goals linked to the reactionary wave in which we have been immersed for about thirty years now.
It would be terrible for the Jews, this living multiplicity, to let the word that defines them - which has a close relationship, going on for so many years before, with the formidable question of the universals and the adventures of universalism - to become the symbol of modernised Capitalism, anti-Arab or anti-African xenophobia, and US wars. I notice, with a real sorrow, that many people to whom I was close, sometimes dear friends, who in the 70s used to gravitate around revolutionary Maoism (he is talking probably about André Glucksman, staunch supporter now of Sarkozy), have started slowly using the reference to the word "Jew" and to Israel as a support for something politically and intellectually more large, that can be identified as an attempt to reintegrate the West. By "West" I mean the group of developped and "democratic" countries, their power, their way of life, which are judged superior. The unprecedented trauma that was the extermination of Europe's Jews in the Nazis gaz chambers has rendered this manipulation powerful and fearsome because it strikes the thought and immobilises it in a conservative memory.

Le Monde: You are accused of attacking the memory of the Shoah, or at least its usage. Is it because it served the itinerary you just denounced ?
Alain Badiou: I think that the promotion of massacres and victims as the only interesting contents to History is linked to a profound process of depolitisation. To examine all historical situations exclusively through moral categories results in political impotence. On the other hand, I don't think memory is a good category if we want the non repetition of disasters, because the non repetition assumes a rational judgement about what happened. An emotional memory based on horror and its images is ambivalent. Discerning between what follows from a repulsive emotion and an emotion of fascination is very difficult. Yes, I mistrust memory, the memory of colonial atrocities, or the memory of Stalinism, as much as the memory of Nazism. Political and historical knowledge should universally become the alternatives for doubtful memory that is a designated prey for propaganda.

le Monde: Is it in this same vein that you suggest in Circonstances 3 that we forget the Holocaust ?
Alain Badiou: This sentence, which appeared in an interview I gave to Haaretz, was, as you may suspect, a carefully designed imprudence: it cannot be understood outside the context specific to the conditions of a possible dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis. My next sentence, that you don't cite here, made it clear that the forgetting is, in fact, impossible.

Le Monde: Isn't Israel's legitimacy, at least in the West, tied to the memory of the Shoah ?
Alain Badiou: Things must be clear. I never thought that the destiny of Israelis is to be pushed into the sea. Moreover, I don't think that the question of Israel's frontiers is at the heart of the problem. From the internal perspective of an assumed de facto situation, in other words, the settlement of hundred thousands of Jews in this place being irreversible, I still think that the regulating idea for a future for the region cannot be anything else than a common life and destiny for Palestinians and Jews on the same land. I always thought that the formula of a "Jewish state" is perilous. Today, the politic of emancipation dictate that national identities and states should not be defined exclusively in terms referring to identity and race. We should have a minimal requirement here, the land right against the blood right. Israel will have to deal with the prospect of universalism retaking the places where particularisms used to strive, if it has to deal with its own future.

Le Monde: Does this contribute to put into question the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state ?
Alain Badiou: You see, I have certainly written things against France which are more violent than things I have written against Israel! Zionism can be listed both in the colonialist and the revolutionary dimensions. It combines these two aspects and that what makes it a rare and singular phenomenon. That some people inside European communities who used to designate themselves as a particular minority with a national characteristic - the Jewish minority - wanted a place to achieve their identity, in a territorial way, under the form of a state, is a historic reality that, like any other reality of the sort, is neither legitimate nor illegitimate. But I believe it unreasonable to consider this adventure as an exception, somehow different from other nationalistic adventures.

I personally agree with Badiou's assessment on the French Left but not necessarily with his suggestion for a 'radical' turn as a solution. We are witnessing a very radical Right emerge from the old Right, opposing a radical Left to this new Right is not a solution in my opinion because the international stage is set for this new Right which is not perceived as radical, and Badiou recognises this fact. As Politic is also about perceptions, I don't think the rebirth of the Left should be made with radical ideas set specifically against the political scene created by the new Right. On the contrary, it should be made with ideas that can assemble rather than confront to potentially help rebuild what the new Right is destroying and to emancipate from the framework set for the rest of the world by the new Right.

As for Israel, Badiou is stating the obvious and Israel must confront the obvious if it has to build a future for its citizens, unless international zionism (neoconism)continues to reshape reality to the extent every one of us will forget in the future what truth and facts mean.

P.S. Cross posted in a slightly different content at Sabbah's. Both posts at Sabbah's and Les Politiques can be linked to but not reproduced entirely without the permission of the author.


evanj said...

Good work. especially now that the original has disappeared into subscriber only mode.
Like the (Jewish) Canadian philosopher Michael Neumann, Badiou's training facilitates a cutting through the murk of Zionist hypocrisy in the abusive appropriation of past crimes against Jewry.

Sophia said...

You are right. Philosophy helps to frame such complex questions in simple terms because what matters mainly for Philosophy is Truth. Badiou's recent work is on Truth. Zionism and Neoconism are attacks on Truth.

Sophia said...

I checked the link to the original French version. It is still available to non subscribers as of today thursday July 19th.

Levi9909 said...

sophia - i didn't thank you for linking this on my blog.


Sophia said...

You are most welcome. Thanks for you and for your blog.

Since March 29th 2006