Updating Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew for the Twenty-First Century USA

Seventy years ago, this year, Jean Paul Sartre began writing Anti-Semite and Jew; a post war reflection on the plague of anti-Semitism and its effects on European society. The work is brilliant, unique and most likely could not have been written today. Sartre wrote on behalf of Jews; but more importantly, he demonstrated why anti-Semitism was a problem for Europeans generally, not just Jews. With anti-Muslim rhetoric well within the mainstream of American society, it is useful for us to look back to Sartre’s work for insight into the causes of racism.

Anti-Semite and Jew is audaciously organized around four almost dramatic figures: The Anti-Semite, the Democrat, the Jew and the “inauthentic” Jew. Anti-Semitism is not merely an idea, according to Sartre, “it is first of all a passion.” The anti-Semite measures all things against the Jew that he has imagined. The Jew is crass, rancorous, duplicitous yet brilliant – in that dangerous sort of way. The anti-Semite is the opposite: civilized, amicable, sincere yet mediocre in intellect – in that innocuous sort of way (more on that later). But this Jew is a figment of the anti-Semite’s imagination; a creation that reflects everything the anti-Semite imagines he is not, thus becoming his very reason for being. Sartre states, “if the Jew did not exist, the anti-Semite would have to invent him.”

The psychology of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and Euro-centrism are all related. Edward Said famously observed that the East is one of the West’s “deepest and most recurring images of the Other. In addition, the Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience.” In order for us to project an unadulterated Enlightenment, the Other (the Muslim today) is made out to be purely barbaric. The world is made of disparate but absolute parts. This is how anti-Muslim advocates like Bill Maher can make useless pronouncements such as “our civilization is better than theirs” and make sense. The audience, in a country of tremendous social and economic inequity, complies with the straw man argument. “I may not have health care or education, but damn it, I’m an American!”

American civility or superiority is a cornerstone of the capitalist system, by which all of the antagonisms in our society between people of different social strata and ideological bent are reconciled. Progressives in the United States are relatively a-revolutionary; for to be a Progressive in America usually means you read the Times and support certain cultural and civil positions. The moment culture becomes your organizing principle, you have to define it, which involves demarcating it from other cultures. The Islamic culture imagined by Islamophobes is the negation of American culture: It is either the religion that denies Christianity or Liberalism. John Adams famously remarked that America was “in no way founded on the Christian religion,” but hating Muslims allows the Conservative to imagine that it was, while allowing the Progressive to find common cause with the Conservative on the basis of culture and race. Real progressives see the world in terms of class, not culture and race. Left/Right unity is based on a necessary generalization – the Muslim is not us, “we” are us and “we” are white (this is one reason why there was no effective counter-war movement in 2002-3).

Few arguments are more demonstrably false than generalizations. The purpose of a stereotype is to create a macro understanding by which to measure a micro occurrence. According to the logic of Islamophobes, if I meet a Muslim on the street, I should presume she or he wants to “kill non-Muslims;” if they do not, then they are “nominal” Muslims. But what happens when I meet countless Muslims over many years and find they do not correspond to the stereotype? Shouldn’t the macro claim fall apart? It rarely does for, as Sartre says of the anti-Semite, the Islamophobe is “impervious to reason and to experience, it is not because his conviction is strong. Rather his conviction is strong because he has chosen first of all to be impervious.” We can think of countless times where Islamophobes have been confronted with the vacuity of their claims, yet they persist, unencumbered by facts or data.

But I wish to take Sartre’s argument beyond the individual bigot. We as a society openly sustain forms of bigotry, most notably against Muslims today, pursuant to an inequitable social order. When we tolerate mainstream media bigotry, we collectively presume a hierarchical humanity. Whites are to be thought of as individuals, blacks and Arabs, en masse. Whites can debate the dangers posed by the Other while the Other is burdened with proving their innocence to whites – positive presumptions are never extended to the Other, justifying the division of society in terms of privilege. In the American south, segregation pinned poor whites against poor blacks. We can see from our own past, a white man will vote against his own interests if he can have the privilege to sit in the front of the bus over other poor people. And today, many Americans will acquiesce to an extreme surveillance state, if they presume the targets of surveillance are primarily Arab and Muslim.

But the more common privilege is of the soft variety. Today, inexcusable racist rants against Arabs and Muslims are not only tolerated on television, but disseminated and discussed. The Muslim’s humanity is subject to debate in our society. We now collectively condemn racism against Jews because of the potential dangers it poses – holocausts, internment camps, jingoism, ghettos, ignorance. But against the Muslim, the privilege of “free speech” is activated and actualized. In fact, being able to talk about Muslims in such a way is proof of free speech and its status as privilege rather than right. Over a decade ago, comedian Bill Maher called Americans “cowards” for the way they conducted war – within weeks his show was cancelled. For years now, the same comedian has made grossly racist remarks against Muslims and his newer show has remained strong; the lesson is free speech is a privilege – so choose your words wisely.

Muslims are conspicuously absent from such discussions, which is evidence of their derivative status as people. Muslims, if invited to speak at all, are only welcome because controversy over Islam precedes the invitation. The Muslim is derived from the controversy and thus cannot escape the category placed on them by society. Whites are free of controversy as whites – they may experience controversy only as individuals. But this is another privilege and the privileged always buy into the system more easily. This social epistemology is detrimental to a democratic society.

Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex brilliantly laid out the nature of trenchant discrimination for gender and sex. The woman is conceived of in society as derivative. De Beauvoir says “if I wish to define myself, I must first of all say: ‘I am a woman;’ on this truth rests all further discussion. A man never begins by presenting himself as an individual of a certain sex; it goes without saying that he is a man.” De Beauvoir laments how often she has been told “you think that way because you are a woman,” she could never reply “you think the contrary because you are a man,” and have it be of similar force. But we speak not only of men, but of European men. Your gender, race and religion precede you. As Sartre says “the Jew, the [anti-Semite] says is completely bad, completely a Jew. His virtues, if he has any, turn to vices by reason of the fact that they are his.”

The purpose of the Jew and the Muslim is to make the bigot feel special, regardless of how special or accomplished the Jew or Muslim may be. The mediocre, unaccomplished and uncelebrated American has in common with the most famous and powerful American authentic American-ness, which must be distinguished from inauthentic American-ness, the kind formerly found in the Jew and now found in the Muslim. Sartre says: “his [the Anti-Semite] virtue depends upon the assimilation of the qualities which the work of a hundred generations has lent to the objects which surround him; it depends on property.” Here we hear Marx, but more accurately Proudhon.

Proudhon’s Theory of Surplus Value emphasized the value of labor over capital by taking into account the manner in which society itself enables the Capitalist, the Capitalist did not accomplish anything on his own – he needed society, others. By synthesizing Sartre and Proudhon we have an Episteme of Surplus Value. Western-ness – by virtue of the material success of Western civilization established over many previous generations – has endowed the average Westerner with a sense of superiority that affects our critical thinking about foreign policy and politics. If I may explain by way of anecdote: I was in college in Northeastern Indiana when the US invaded Iraq. As an Iraqi-American I was a very open and vocal opponent to the war and an informed one, one who had spent much time in Iraq, was familiar with Iraqi society and the nuances of Sunnism and Shiism (my father is Sunni and my mother Shii); my opposition was constantly dismissed by Progressive and Conservative professor alike, as naïve at best and anti-American at worst.

“America” did not belong to me nor I to it; I had no right to its media, its platforms, even its debates for I had not inherited them like my white peers. Whatever intelligence I demonstrated was perceived as that of the enemy or the alien.

During the heights of anti-Semitism, the intelligent Jew represented shiftiness. Blacks and Arabs (men in particular) will be referred to as intelligent with great suspicion – in a Lex Lutherish sort of way.

There are social contexts within which we cannot escape our race or gender. As Frantz Fanon earnestly projected, the attitude towards attractive minorities is “oh my, look at how handsome that Negro is!” When we see beauty or intelligence in Arabs or Blacks, it is an aberration. Barack Obama was “clean as a whistle.” He is “well spoken.” It is difficult for an intelligent minority to be intelligent without at the same time being an aberration – but not only that, she or he is also somehow a potential danger to society.

As Fanon says “kiss the handsome Negro’s ass, madame!”

Inlaid in this power dynamic is the grand authority of the arbitrary – and nothing is more obviously powerful than the privilege to act arbitrarily without account. We can arbitrarily create standards that make no sense or are not applied consistently. The virtues of minorities: Passion, intelligence, critique, are turned into vices in media circles; anger, cunning and pessimism (or even anti-Americanism).

There is a contradiction in our American political system. Political philosophies are being encumbered by ethnic loyalties and cultural chauvinisms. Yet we are at a point where the apparent contradiction can be reconciled. Muslims, by nature of the social context from which they cannot escape, can advance a more economically centric Progressive political agenda, as the majority of Muslims are Left on economic issues. And in so doing, Muslims, some of whom are conservative on cultural issues, will move further left culturally. By embracing Muslims on their economic positions regarding healthcare and education, Muslims will embrace Progressives on cultural issues and we restore Progressivism to its core – a philosophy that insists on economic equality in pursuit of social equality.