On March 24, 85 year old Vel d’Hiv roundup survivor Mireille Knoll was murdered and her body partially burned in her Paris apartment by a Muslim neighbor. Pundits speculate that the neighbor may have been radicalized in jail, although we are still at the very beginning of the investigation. The neighbor knew her since age 7. During the past twenty years her humble apartment remained open to him and to neighbors of all faiths. No one could have anticipated the horrific crime, worthy of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment–the murder of an old, vulnerable woman, just because it is possible, because after the death of God, man is all powerful. In front of such barbarity, one falls speechless, aware that wording will never do justice to such evil. Language, indeed, and forgive the cliché, is inadequate.
The failure of words comes from the failure of theodicy, a word which in Greek means “divine justice.” Man-made atrocities, past a certain degree, can no longer be thought in terms of hidden providence, in terms of making sense of suffering. While Job was tested by God, it would be indecent to explain the torture of Mireille Knoll as God’s and Satan’s plan. French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, in an essay written in the wake of the totalitarianisms of the last century, used the phrase “useless suffering.” He meant that after Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and Cambodia, it is no longer possible to believe that suffering has a purpose, that it is God’s plan, or that, if one does not believe in God, it is a necessary evil that will result in historical progress (think of the millions of victims of Stalinism, in the name of a better humanity and of hastening the end of history.) It is no longer possible to believe that negativity, death, and suffering have a hidden purpose.
With the murder of Mireille Knoll a week before Passover, after the murder of Sarah Halimi in uncannily similar circumstances in 2017, after the cold blooded murder of Jewish children in their schoolyard in Toulouse in 2012, language fails because no meaning is commensurable with the deed. The Ancient Gnostics, Christian heretics, believed that there was such a thing as pure evil–an evil that is not just the “absence of the good” (Augustine) but that is a creative/destructive force in the world. As an agnostic, I have a hard time endorsing this narrative, although I find tempting to see the murderer of Mireille Knoll as the devil’s arm.
The scholar of anti-Semitism must nonetheless respond, as rationally as possible. It’s her job, so to speak, to find words and concepts to explain the monstrous. I believe that what we have witnessed has neither a social nor a political explanation. Since we are faced with a pattern, this atrocity is not the effect of an individual mental pathology either. To try to understand this event, it is my contention that we need the help of psychoanalysis and philosophy.
In an essay entitled “Excluded the Jew Within Oneself” (L’Esprit Créateur, Winter 2017) French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy argues first that the Jews constitute an internal outside, or an external inside, if you prefer, of Europe. In the European unconscious, Jews are an affect, or a principle, that destabilizes the European psyche. That psyche is always already split between a striving for autonomy (to wit, modernity) and the remainder of heteronomy—to wit, an archaic attachment to the call from God. Nancy further suggests a psycho-anthropological theory of sibling rivalry. Built on Judaism, Christianity is yearning for a self-foundation. It strives to be its own origin. The younger does not forgive the elder. In the most compelling part of his argument, Nancy identifies antisemitism as a case of European self-loathing, a phenomenon that pertains to the DNA of European civilization. Nancy argues that European civilization is split between a striving for autonomy and rationality, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, a longing for an ideal and spiritual accomplishment—the sacrifice of power, materiality and wealth to something higher. Nancy is right to see this split at work in the history of the Christian Church (after all, the Catholic Church has built its mundane empire by preaching its rejection of mundane affairs and of worldly considerations). As a result European antisemitism appears as a case of projection. The Jew comes to embody everything that modern Europe hates about itself—money, power, democracy and technique. In fact Nancy’s analysis both in terms of sibling rivalry and in terms of a projection onto the Jews of an anxiety about oneself would apply very well to Islamic anti-Semitism, aka “new anti-Semitism.” Nancy concludes his argument with the metaphor of paranoia—a paranoia at the level of a whole civilization—a threat that originates in oneself is turned into a threat that originates from the other. This remarkable analysis of European anti-Semitism should be extended to the paranoid structure of Islamic anti-Semitism. Indeed, as Avishai Margalit and Ian Buruma have shown, Islamic hatred of the West recycles European self-hatred and the projection on an enemy (the Jew, America) of its anxiety vis-à-vis modernity. Understanding a problem is not solving it. It is, however, our duty as scholars of anti-Semitism to try to shed light with all the theoretical tools at our disposal.
Bruno Chaouat is a professor in the Department of French and Italian, and is also affiliated with the Center for Jewish Studies and the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. He is interested in 19th and 20th century French literature and thought, and has recently published, Is Theory Good for the Jews? French Thought and the Challenge of the New Antisemitism.