Revisiting the Jewish Question

Written by Elisabeth Roudinesco | December 16, 2013
Revisiting the Jewish Question, by Elisabeth Roudinesco, Polity Books, December 2013

Synopsis

What does it mean to be Jewish? What is an anti-Semite? Why does the enigmatic identity of the men who founded the first monotheistic religion arouse such passions?

We need to return to the Jewish question. We need, first, to distinguish between the anti-Judaism of medieval times, which persecuted the Jews, and the anti-Judaism of the Enlightenment, which emancipated them while being critical of their religion. It is a mistake to confuse the two and see everyone from Voltaire to Hitler as anti-Semitic in the same way. Then we need to focus on the development of anti-Semitism in Europe, especially Vienna and Paris, where the Zionist idea was born. Finally, we need to investigate the reception of Zionism both in the Arab countries and within the Diaspora.

Re-examining the Jewish question in the light of these distinctions and investigations, Roudinesco shows that there is a permanent tension between the figures of the ‘universal Jew’ and the ‘territorial Jew’. Freud and Jung split partly over this issue, which gained added intensity after the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 and the Eichmann trial in 1961. Finally, Roudinesco turns to the Holocaust deniers, who started to suggest that the Jews had invented the genocide that befell their people, and to the increasing number of intellectual and literary figures who have been accused of anti-Semitism.

This thorough re-examination of the Jewish question will be of interest to students and scholars of modern history and contemporary thought and to a wide readership interested in anti-Semitism and the history of the Jews.

"If, as Joyce wrote, history is a nightmare from which we are trying to awake, this is even truer of the 'Jewish question' – a nightmare made up of myths and prejudice leading to anti-Semitism and to ancient but persistent wars of religion, such as those opposing Arabs and Israelis. By adopting a French focus when revisiting these issues as treated by Marx, Freud, Sartre and Arendt, Roudinesco brilliantly cleans the picture of its fog of obfuscation. Thanks to her intimate knowledge of the facts and actors, we are shown a path to a new understanding; hopefully, it will lead to an awakening."
Jean-Michel Rabaté, University of Pennsylvania

"Élisabeth Roudinesco probes the toxic topic of Jew-hatred, ancient, mediaeval and newer, and of modern political anti-Semitism, trying to draw a clear distinction between them; adding to this, she analyses the recent phenomenon – of a totally different character – of anti-Zionism and/or the legitimate criticism of the State of Israel and its politics. The outcome is courageous and timely in its argument for universal and enlightened jewishness; it also offers a highly rich and diverse reading which is full of compelling twists and unexpected, refreshing deliberations."
Idith Zertal, University of Basel

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Elisabeth Roudinesco is a French academic historian and psychoanalyst. She is head of research at University of Paris VII - Denis Diderot since 1991.

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