Bintel Blog

Engraved on the Unconscious: French Historian Élisabeth Roudinesco on Antisemitism

By Benjamin Ivry

On a subject where hysteria often seems to reign, a brilliant, well thought-out and balanced new book like “Return to the Jewish Question” (Retour sur la question juive) by the French historian and psychoanalyst Élisabeth Roudinesco is a treasure which urgently deserves translation into English.

Now 65, Roudinesco, niece of the noted French Jewish feminist Louise Weiss, is best known to English readers for such reflective works as “For What Tomorrow… : A Dialogue with Jacques Derrida,” (Stanford University Press); “Philosophy in Turbulent Times” (Columbia University Press) and “Our Dark Side, a History of Perversion” (Wiley). Convinced, as Roudinesco explains in a recent radio interview that antisemitism is “absolute foolishness,” re-fomented by the current crises in the Middle East, she now offers an “historical, critical, dispassionate return, in the spirit of the Age of Light.”

Evoking historical phases of French antisemitism, she prints a revealing, previously unpublished 1952 letter by her friend and colleague Jacques Derrida who notes that paradoxically in France, “as soon as an Antisemite is intelligent, he does not believe in his own antisemitism.” A strongly autobiographic chapter describes how as a temporary teacher of French literature in Algeria at the time of Israel’s Six Day War, Roudinesco found her school’s walls defaced with swastikas by students who knew nothing of Jewish history or the Shoah, proving to her that “antisemitism was engraved on their unconscious.”

Cited with devastatingly restrained scorn are Noam Chomsky’s approving preface to a book by Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson, and the French author Renaud Camus who made headlines in 2002 by fretting that there were too many Jews on French radio. Also dealt with is French media darling Marc-Édouard Nabe Marc-Édouard Nabe who claims that because of Freud, Marx, and Einstein, whom Nabe calls the “Marx Brothers of depression,” Jews have “destroyed humanity.”

Roudinesco also points out when writers manage to find antisemitism where none exists, such American literary critic Jeffrey Mehlman, translator of one of her previous books, who went overboard in claiming that André Gide, who never wrote anything against the Jews, was nevertheless antisemitic, a notion Roudinesco persuasively rejects.

Watch Roudinesco in a November 26 appearance, with simultaneous English translation.

Watch Roudinesco in an October 2009 French TV appearance (no subtitles unfortunately).

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