The Arty Semite

From the Tribe of Prophets: Swiss Jewish Philosopher Jeanne Hersch at 100

By Benjamin Ivry

  • Print
  • Share Share

Although her centenary is not until July 13, the Swiss Jewish philosopher Jeanne Hersch (1910-2000) is already being remembered as a gimlet-eyed defender of freedom.

Born in Geneva to a Polish Jewish statistics professor and his doctor wife, Hersch studied with the philosopher Karl Jaspers, whose career suffered in Germany after 1933 because his own wife was Jewish. Hersch and a fellow student, Hannah Arendt, were among Jasper’s most devoted disciples. Hersch later taught philosophy and worked at UNESCO, and though she remained less famous than Arendt outside of academic circles, she could make waves.

This was demonstrated last July when an exhibit was named in her honor in a Geneva park near the office of the controversial U.N. official Jean Ziegler, who Hersch derided as early as the 1970s, opposing his appointment to the University of Geneva sociology faculty: “Ziegler owes his entire university career to political pressures—going almost to the point of blackmail…he is interested neither in accuracy nor truth,” Hersch wrote. Hersch’s well-founded fears later came back to haunt observers of world politics.

Beyond her writings, mostly untranslated, like “Philosophical Astonishment: a history of philosophy” (“L’Étonnement philosophique: Une histoire de la philosophie”) and “Total Requirement of Freedom: Texts on Human Rights” (“L’exigence absolue de la liberté, Textes sur les droits humains (1973-1995),”) Hersch is esteemed as a literary muse. As her biographer Emmanuel Dufour-Kowalski notes in “Jeanne Hersch,” she had an especial influence on Nobel prize-winning poet Czesław Miłosz, who shared Corsican holidays as Hersch’s sometime lover.

Miłosz’s poem “What I Learned from Jeanne Hersch”, in his “New and Collected Poems” enumerates a dozen lessons, including “7. That intellectuals in the twentieth century were afflicted with the habit of baratin, i.e., irresponsible jabber.” In “The Year of the Hunter” Miłosz (who also wrote a poem “A Conversation With Jeanne”) further describes Hersch, who disapproved of the poet’s drinking and partying: “It would not be easy today to find another person as consumed by moral passion as she was. From the tribe of prophets… I was afraid of her… Jeanne was doomed to isolation, because everyone was afraid of her. That air was so morally pure it couldn’t be breathed.”

On Jeanne Hersch’s centenary, we may all be grateful for that pure air.

To see what Czesław Miłosz was afraid of, watch a Swiss TV interview about philosophy with Jeanne Hersch here.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Hannah Arendt, Czesław Miłosz, Jean Ziegler, Jeanne Hersch, Karl Jaspers, Philosophy, University of Geneva, mmanuel Dufour-Kowalski

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • For Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover means Mimouna. Terbhou ou Tse'dou! (good luck) How do you celebrate?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.