The Jewish Question has always been, for me, a European question

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the French leftist leader who I was hoping would beat Macron in the last election, really sullies himself with this comment about French collaboration with the Holocaust. Responding to Macron’s speech in which Macron said France needed to take responsibility for its role in the roundup and extermination of the Jews (for decades, a touchy subject in France), Mélenchon resorts to the worst nationalist tropes to defend the honor of the French nation.

Never, at any moment, did the French choose murder and anti-Semitic criminality. Those who were not Jewish were not all, and as French people, guilty of the crime that was carried out at the time! On the contrary, through its resistance, its fight against the [German] invader and through the reestablishment of the republic when the [Germans] were driven out of the territory, the French people, the French people proved which side they were actually on.

There’s an argument to be had (and one could see why in republican France some would want it to be had) about the relationship of the people to a collaborationist government under foreign occupation. Had Mélenchon simply said, look, the French people were divided, it’s hard to generalize, many collaborated, some resisted, Vichy wasn’t the official representative of the French people, let’s have a more textured understanding of history—that would be one thing. But that’s not simply what he says. (I’m not a reader of French, so I’m relying on the translations here. I’m also an outsider to French politics, and by no means an expert on all the local nuances and subtleties of this engagement. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.) He goes further. With that last line in particular, he does more than try to remove the stain of collective guilt. He tries to claim collective innocence: what the Resistance did, that was France. What Vichy did, that wasn’t France. That was those evil ministers, forever betraying the French nation and the French people, who proved by the actions of the resisters who they really are.

Not only is what Mélenchon said an offense against the historical record, but it evinces all the worst features of nationalism that I loathe: the special pleading, the knee-jerk impulse to defend one’s own (with the implicit acknowledgment that the Jews aren’t thought of as one’s own), the retrograde identity politics (one might say the original form of identity politics), the offshoring of evil (though in this regard, Mélenchon ties himself in knots, saying, according to that Haaretz report, that Vichy wasn’t really France; France was off in London), the tribalism and groupiness. Even worse, this desire to assert and insist upon the purity of one’s group: deep down, we’re really good, it was those evil politicians, who weren’t really French in their hearts, who did the bad things. That kind of thinking is just the flip side of Bush-style axis of evil talk. The left should defend collectives, yes, but for God’s sake, let them be collectives based on justice rather than purity, and let them be collectives other than the French—or any other—nation.

This whole episode brings me back to a moment more than 25 years ago.

It was after my first year in grad school. I was spending the summer in Freiburg, learning German. At the language school where I was studying, I made a group of friends from Italy, France, Britain, and elsewhere. One guy, Pascal, and I really hit it off. He was from France, the south of France I think, and a hardcore leftist. Super sweet guy, with a German girlfriend named Claudia. I really liked them both.

One night, around the end of the summer, Pascal and Claudia had me over to dinner. They lived pretty far outside of the city, in the country. It was a lovely evening. We all spoke German (our one common language), with Claudia gently helping Pascal and me along when we needed help. There was a lot of wine.

Toward the end of the evening, the topic turned to French politics. Mitterrand in particular. This must have been some time around his second term as President. I don’t remember what prompted this, but at some point in the discussion, through my wine-sodden haze, I heard Pascal hissing that Mitterrand was a Jew. Everything bad that Mitterrand did—and Pascal really hated Mitterrand, from the left—was because Mitterrand was a Jew. It was a tirade: Jew this, Jew that. I think Pascal even began slipping into French: Juif, Juif.

(Mitterrand, incidentally, also liked to pull this line that France wasn’t responsible for the roundup of the Jews, that it was this alien, un-French presence called Vichy that did that.)

After a few minutes of this, I gathered myself, and said, as calm and composed as I could be (why is it so hard to assert one’s dignity in these situations?): Mitterrand is not a Jew, but I am.

It was a terrible moment: a wonderful summer’s friendship, across the barriers of language and nation, poisoned by this sudden extrusion of anti-Semitism. From the left.

I said I wanted to leave. They drove me home (as I said, we were way out of town). Claudia, the German, was scandalized by what her boyfriend, the Frenchman, had said and told him so. She couldn’t stop apologizing to me, up until the minute I got out of the car. He just drove, silently. That was the last I ever saw of them.

I’ve traveled a lot, have lived abroad, and have been friends with people from all across the globe. I’ve been involved in all kinds of anti-Zionist politics here in the US, with Jews, Muslims, Christians, Arabs, and atheists. But it’s only been among Europeans—I talked about my experiences in Britain here—that I’ve ever felt someone look at me and see: Jew Jew Jew.

The Jewish Question has always been, for me, a European question.


  1. s.wallerstein July 20, 2017 at 10:22 am | #

    Spend some time in South America and I can assure you that you’ll run into those who look at you (and at me) and see Jew Jew Jew.

    A few days ago I glanced at a street bookseller’s wares and I noticed not only Mein Kampf and another tome by Hitler, but also the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. A kid with purple hair and not entirely white skin was pondering over which of the Hitler’s masterpieces to buy, and I thought of
    reminding him that Hitler would have had him gassed for the color of his skin and his purple hair, but I realized that he and the street bookseller (angry because he lost a sale) would just see me as a an evil Jew and insult me to a crowd who would not sympathize with me.

    Mein Kampf and the Protocols are standard merchandise in street book sales here in Santiago de Chile. Once upon a time they sold cheap editions of Marx and Lenin, but those days are gone, which says something about how the world progresses.

    • CH July 20, 2017 at 12:56 pm | #

      It’s in some ways similar in India. Mein Kampf is one of the most common books I saw at booksellers there. Though in India, I don’t think it has as much to do with Anti-Semitism, but rather a generation that grew up thinking that Indira and Rajiv Gandhi represented social liberalism, so they just whiplashed backwards into fascism. That’s just my best guess, though.

      • Ruchira Paul July 20, 2017 at 4:28 pm | #

        You are right. Indians of all religions and class have rampant prejudices based on religion, class, caste and even color of skin but antisemitism is not one of them. During my school years, history books rarely mentioned Hitler’s antisemitism because the narrative was focused on anti-colonialism and the exit of the Brits. India has had a small Jewish presence in parts of the country and even though Indian Jews did not assimilate with the local population and most left for England, America, Australia or Israel in 1947 after India’s independence, there was no hostility towards the community. And as you may know S.C. Bose, one of India’s celebrated freedom fighters sought help from Germany and Japan in order to throw the British out – “enemy of my enemy etc.” Most ordinary Indians know very little world history and the implications of various political philosophies. For them, Hitler and Mein Kampf indicate “strong leadership” to counter what they see as chaotic and corrupt in their own government. India also has its own brand of fascism in the RSS and its offshoots. India’s current BJP government is the public face of the same. But their targets are Muslims. In fact they see Israel as their natural ally and the sentiment is reciprocated by Netanyahu & Co.

        • s.wallerstein July 20, 2017 at 7:01 pm | #

          In Chile the readers of Mein Kampf are more likely to want to gas immigrants (Chile has a substantial immigration from other Latin American countries, many of who have darker skin than most Chileans) and gays than Jews, but Jews are seen as the masterminds behind “evils” such as gay liberation, feminism, tolerance towards immigrants, etc. The Jewish community in Chile is small compared to that in Argentina, where, as far as I know, open anti- semitism is more prevalent than in Chile.

      • Ruchira Paul July 20, 2017 at 5:52 pm | #

        I thought I wrote a comment here. But it seems to have disappeared.

        • Corey Robin July 20, 2017 at 6:10 pm | #

          It just took a while to come out of moderation. My apologies.

  2. Chris Morlock July 20, 2017 at 10:27 am | #

    Difficult for any society, at any time, to collectively acknowledge guilt and even more difficult to take responsibility. It might actually be impossible.

    Best thing to do is concentrate on the objective history, and let people intellectually discover truthfulness. I can understand how Mélenchon’s comments are from a good place- appealing to a better nature theory,. I can also see how it is disturbing and unacceptable to excuse French culture from antisemitism.

  3. ronp July 20, 2017 at 10:29 am | #

    what a horrible experience. the latent hatred of the other in humanity at the individual and social level is something we need to always work on, certainly making life less of struggle via progressive social safety nets will help but if your parents are jerks and teach you hate that will not help much and Trump politicians that win with hatred and racism just reinforce that

  4. Brenda Teese (@brenda11831) July 20, 2017 at 11:14 am | #

    I saw Macron’s speech. It was perfect, I thought. I’m not Jewish, but it struck me as perfect. An acceptance of one’s nation, the entire history – its crimes, for which one makes reparation as far as possible, along with the glories & the benefits for which one is grateful (paraphrasing Alasdair MacIntyre here) The same thing applies to the United States, which has many, many crimes to do reparation for – maybe not as many as France, this debatable…

    Ironic it was the French leftist who completely whiffed it. As well as the French student, not the German. But there ya’ go. Doesn’t do to make a judgement on a person based on his politics, nationality, race or ethnicity.

  5. Howard Swerdloff July 20, 2017 at 11:19 am | #

    I had similar poisonous experiences with French leftist friends (and ex-friends) in the 60s and 70s. “Petit-bourgeois,” as I recall, was one of the coded terms for Jew. Their children, on the other hand don’t seem to have inherited this malaise (or at least not to the same extent). Have you noticed that?

  6. Tom Shapiro July 20, 2017 at 11:54 am | #

    Tribalism is a natural attribute of the human genome. Environment and history of the tribe determines the intensity of race ratred of the alien-other. Since we evolved from our aboriginal ancestors the Apes, tribal fear of the other is manifest as hate and must originally have had Darwinian survival value. Since the Roman conquest and the Diaspora, for Europeans, that hated alien “inside the walls” has been the Jew. A millenium of “civilization in Europe has failed to eliminate the primal fear and loathing of the Jew among European tribes just as a half-millennium of American history has not eliminated our inherent fear of the African Negro and other non European immigrants. History suggests that civilization can hide anti-Semitism but social instability will quickly bring it to the surface. The peak of American Anti-Semitism occured in the decade of the Depression between two world wars.

    • WLGR July 20, 2017 at 2:37 pm | #

      Tom Shapiro, sorry to say it but your comment is more or less completely pseudointellectual gibberish. If modern anthropology to be believed, the idea that paranoid and xenophobic small-group nonstate societies are a natural or primordial mode of human existence is 100% backwards — if anything, paranoid and xenophobic small-group nonstate societies historically tend to develop alongside the development of nearby large state societies as an adaptive response to state societies’ own xenophobic aggression toward their neighbors. And as Corey so rightly highlights, this kind of behavior within large state societies isn’t some innate expression of the xenophobic essence in the human genome, but a conscious choice to avert a sociopolitically constructed ideological trauma: specifically because attributing French fascist tendencies to an inner antagonism within the French nation would damage his standing in a French election, Mélenchon’s gambit is to displace this antagonism onto a figure that isn’t “really” French at all. Much like Le Pen and her ilk displacing the inner antagonisms that lead to European economic crisis onto the external figure of the non-European migrant; much like Napoleon displacing the inner antagonisms that led to the Jacobin Terror onto the external figure of the French Empire’s foreign military foes; much like US liberals displacing the inner antagonisms that led to the election Trump onto the external figure of “Russian meddling”; much like the Nazis displacing the inner antagonisms that led to German military and economic defeat onto the external figure of the Jew.

  7. mark July 20, 2017 at 11:54 am | #

    ‘His year at Oxford University’s Jesus College (1987-88) served as a kind of Jewish awakening for Robin. It was then that he began to simultaneously have doubts about Israel and to become more interested in Judaism as a religion. It was, according to Robin, when he lost interest in the cultural Jewishness of “bagels” and “Woody Allen.”

    England was also his first experience “being marked as Jewish” by those around him. “People would want to talk about” his being Jewish, he recalled, remembering a mix of “curiosity” and suspicion.’

    Are you referring to those at the University of Oxford in the late 1980s or more widely in ‘England’, or in ‘Britain’?

    I heard Rebecca Front on radio talking about her time at Oxford University, dancing with a fellow student who said to her something like “I’ve never danced with a Jewess before. What would my parents say!”

    • Corey Robin July 20, 2017 at 12:38 pm | #

      Funny you should mention Rebecca Front. She was the very good friend of my girlfriend at the time; the two of them were in a trio, along with a pianist, called The Bobo Girls. How do you know her? Has she become a thing?

      • TheWitchFromNextDoor July 21, 2017 at 7:25 am | #

        LOL, one of the fascinating – if slightly troubling – upsides of the way that Oxford and Cambridge sweep up so many talented students (strongly skewed towards the rich and upper/upper-middle class of course) is finding out that interesting/successful/famous people from completely different walks of life knew each other. The idea of the young Corey Robin hanging out with the young Rebecca Front in the JCR is delightful.

        Anyway the answer to your question is that Rebecca Front has been a stalwart of British comedy for over two decades now. She’s done amazing work in dozens of shows, from The Day Today to The Thick of It.

  8. freetofu (@freetofu) July 20, 2017 at 11:59 am | #

    I don’t have whole lot of stories like that (excepting online nonsense, of course), but I’ve got a handful involving people from various corners of the planet, mostly involving non-Europeans. So your experience is so different from mine. But then I don’t hang out a lot with The Left, which I take it is what your talking about.

    Of course anti-Semitism originated in Europe, and based on the news I’d say it’ where it’s the biggest problem at present. But my personal anecdotes don’t really back that up.

    • fosforos17 July 20, 2017 at 12:50 pm | #

      “Of course anti-Semitism originated in Europe.” This is, in a sense, true, if we exclude the concept of “antisemitism” from the intense conflicts between jews and Greeks in Alexandria and the Levant. But the origin of antisemitism, the Deicide blood-libel, is “European” only in the sense that the pseudo-religion “Christianity” invented by Saul of Tarsus (who was not a European) was headquartered in Rome, a European city.

      • freetofu (@freetofu) July 20, 2017 at 1:19 pm | #

        Well basically I follow James Parkes’s explanation of the origins of antisemitism as something that developed in Church doctrine and propaganda as they gradually consolidated power during the middle ages. But there were various things interacting.

        I don’t really remember the details offhand about what happened in Alexandria, but I know this has been pushed as evidence of Jews as eternally hated both my antisemites and by ideological Zionists. Parkes wrote about it to debunk the former use and Netanyahu’s dad wrote to promote the latter.

        • freetofu (@freetofu) July 20, 2017 at 1:20 pm | #

          Oh, and I don’t know what a “pseudoreligion” is.

          • fosforos17 July 20, 2017 at 3:21 pm | #

            It’s irrelevant, of course, but I call Xtanity a “pseudo-religion” because in the whole history of humanity there have been many “real” religions but none of them, unlike Xtanity, make their sacred texts entirely out of documents and utterances from “another religion.” Not even close (the Koran adopts some Jewish mythology, and mythological elements are common to many religions. But none of them plagiarize their essential teachings).

        • freetofu (@freetofu) July 20, 2017 at 1:31 pm | #

          Oh, and as I recall during medieval times the European Church was a lot more anti-Jewish than in the Eastern Church, where you’d see collaborations with Jewish scholars a lot later.

  9. fosforos17 July 20, 2017 at 12:12 pm | #

    As a Jewish boy of barely seven years, living in New York, I remember the disaster of 1940 very well. It never crossed my mind to identify Pétain and Laval with “France.” There was never from that moment any doubt in my young mind that the FREE French were with deGaulle, the French people were enslaved and resisting, Pétain and Laval were the most contemptible of traitors and murderers. And the Verdict was unequivocal: Pétain and Laval died convicted traitors under universal (except for those Collaborators allowed to survive) contempt. And now this sub-Badinguet, Macron, claims that Pétain was not a traitor, and therefore was wrongly convicted, because he legitimately represented the “French people” rather than the Collaborationist military/police state apparatus responsible for the collapse of 1940. Mélenchon is entirely in the right, and Macron is no better than a Collabo.

    • Larry Houghteling July 20, 2017 at 1:05 pm | #

      Boy, that’s pretty harsh. And, it seems to me, incredibly unhelpful. The first sensible thing one can do in this “Were Vichy French?” discussion is to acknowledge that there are different points of view that make at least some sense. Yes, Petain and his crowd were collaborators. They were tried and found guilty. They did time. Many of them had been nasty anti-Semites before the war, and they were all too happy to play ball with Nazis. But there is also something to be said for keeping something going, lying to the Occupiers, smiling but withholding, and surely there was a lot of that going on, too.

      The French after the war, when I lived there as a little kid, wanted you to think that 95 % of the population had been Resistance, which was bullshit. But understandable. Remember Vonnegut’s line something like “Live by the shameliess lies that make you strong and brave and good”? But the truth of what happened needs to be addressed, and Macron seems to be addressing it more righteously than any American politician ever has. So why treat him with such contempt?

      Get your head out of your butthole, wash out your eyes, and look around. Life is complicated.

      • Graham Clark July 21, 2017 at 3:36 am | #

        “Get your head out of your butthole, wash out your eyes, and look around.” —> “…Macron seems to be addressing it more righteously than any American politician ever has. So why treat him with such contempt?”

        Physician heal thyself.

  10. Ryan July 20, 2017 at 1:33 pm | #

    Wow. Stunning. Thank you

  11. Lauren July 20, 2017 at 2:08 pm | #

    Some people on this thread are confusing Macron with Melanchon.

    The thing that’s always struck me is how the narrative about France has swung from one extreme to the other in my lifetime (I’m 57).

    I grew up hearing all about the French resistance, almost nothing about collaborators. Today, the narrative is that nearly all of France eagerly collaborated with the Nazis and no one resisted.

    Surely the story is much more complex than either.

    I agree entirely that the home of anti-Semitism is European, especially Eastern European. It can certainly be found in the southern part of Latin America but that’s because that part of the continent is heavily white European. The south of Brazil, for example, is heavily represented by descendants of German emigrants–many of whom arrived there during & just after the war years.

    • fosforos17 July 20, 2017 at 2:27 pm | #

      That many French people placed their personal and familial survival ahead of what seemed futile patriotism was exactly what people would have done anywhere and at any time. And it is totally beside the point. The point is that the collapse of 1940 and the Collaboration (even though fostered by Stalin during his love affair with Hitler) was the work of the French Right, the party of Thiers, of the Dreyfus Affair, of the Jaurès assassination, of the Vietnam and Algerian wars. And that is the ruling political force behind Macron. Think for a moment–when he celebrates with that egregious orange buffoon the entry of American troops into the imperialist slaughterhouse he is celebrating the commandment of the murderer of poilus, Maréchal Pétain. Pétain, not by accident acquitted of treason by…Macron.

      • Graham Clark July 21, 2017 at 3:51 am | #

        Your earlier comment is superb (July 20, 2017 at 12:12 pm). This one on the other hand seems to me somewhat incoherent: the collaboration was the work of the French right, but the dictatorship of the French right depended on the support of the conquering German army – circumstances that the Allied (and first of all French) victory in World War I had previously prevented. I submit that the grotesque thing about Macron celebrating the arrival of American soldiers in World War I is that he probably wishes they’d stayed home and Germany had won.

  12. Foppe July 20, 2017 at 3:50 pm | #

    Corey: forgive me, but I really don’t understand how ‘European’ isn’t exactly the type of distraction that you decry, even if ‘Europeans’ aren’t a marginalized (or even really an existing) social group.

    (And yes, ‘the’ French are sadly provincial. But then, so are my own (Dutch) country-sharers. And so are ‘the’ Americans, when you try to talk to them about US imperialism. That rot still has to be excised, as is every other part of what bell hooks has so aptly named ‘imperialist, white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy’. It takes different forms in different countries, and since these dimensions are frustratingly independent, having decolonized one’s mind further along one of the axes does not guarantee that progress has been made along any of the others — if it did, there wouldn’t be so many ‘woke’ yuppies-who-aren’t.)

  13. Stergios mimidakis July 20, 2017 at 3:59 pm | #

    Mr. Robin,
    Your subjective experience aside, would you say that antisemitism has been more pronounced, according to the historical record, in Europe than in other parts of the world over the last two thousand years, even if we exclude the Holocaust? (I fully appreciate that this is a vague question…)
    Thank you

  14. Roquentin July 20, 2017 at 4:17 pm | #

    The cynical part of me has always believed that, not unlike James Ellroy in the US who portrays the vulgar, cruel racism of the 1950s for what it actually was, the French aversion to Louis-Ferdinand Celine is that he’s a constant reminder just how ordinary his brand of vicious anti-semitism was in the 1930s. We really should read Celine, to get the cold unvarnished truth of what early 20th century France was really like, rather than sentimental nationalist nonsense.

    • Graham Clark July 21, 2017 at 4:07 am | #

      Funny how Vichy is “what France was really like” yet somehow didn’t happen until France was conquered by Germany. (Obviously it would be simplistic to say the Popular Front was the “real” France, but at least that was an internal phenomenon.) Re: Céline, you have it backwards. Céline is from a political minority (thus a more extreme case of, for example, conservative Wallace Stevens writing in New Deal America).

      • Graham Clark July 21, 2017 at 4:23 am | #

        (continuing) Can maybe take it further: analogy of Stevens being a greater artist than Hemingway & Céline being a greater artist than Sartre

  15. Howard July 20, 2017 at 10:34 pm | #

    Little historical thought experiment:
    The Jews of Europe’s fate = the fate of ancient people’s defeated by conquering army, ie, the ban
    In fact, the Jews of Europe had it worse than the Israelites under the sword of Vespasian and under the crushed rebellion of Bar Kochva
    The French who collaborated were worse than the Rabbis who rather than fight quietly started Rabbinical Judaism, because Vichy France victimized others and victimized themselves and did it for no higher cause except ending the pain but not the humiliation- the Rabbis created something that lasted 2000 years of some worth. Vichy was a broken link in a chain, and a stain that the French only look back at with embarrassment when not lying.
    Germany faced her past and Jews like Corey and Israelis with a social conscience are facing their present, not even their past.
    I’d expect the same from the French, especially those on the left who should actually stand for something

  16. Thomas Rossetti July 21, 2017 at 1:51 am | #

    Any fair assessment of Vichy France must take into account the suddeness of the collapse and defeat of the the Third Republic. The occupation by the German Army was of a high order and the Nazis turned the screws gradually. Easy to imagine a more prolonged and violent resistance, but not grounded in the reality the French faced. The sad complexity of Vichy France is that even FDR and Bullitt went too far in their compromises. France seems to be rejecting the xenophobic tribalism of the Right and Macron may have more corporate ties than Cory Robin finds acceptable, but compared to Trump?

    • Graham Clark July 21, 2017 at 3:52 am | #

      “France seems to be rejecting the xenophobic tribalism of the Right” Yes, for the xenophobic pseudo-pluralism of the center.

  17. Paul July 21, 2017 at 2:14 pm | #

    So the “resistance” does X and the occupiers kill 10 people. The “resistance” does Y and the occupiers kill 100 people. Is there an ethical way to adjudicate what the “resistance” accomplishes? What it stands for? Hmmm…and if anyone has seen the film, Seven Beauties, perhaps it is worth considering what war and its terrible realities does to people and what it “makes” them do…

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