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On the eternal return of anti-Semitism: A dialogue between Danielle Cohen-Levinas and Stéphane Habib




5 February 2023

On the eternal return of anti-Semitism: A dialogue between Danielle Cohen-Levinas and Stéphane Habib

Danielle Cohen-Levinas ; crédite d’image : République des savoirs

This dialogue unlocks "with a metaphorical hammer" what Jean-Luc Nancy calls "foundation", the origin of the “western” civilization. He extracts it from the alloy of Christian Europe, Jewish monotheism, Greek logos and Latin technique. In the movement of the Heideggerian gesture he enacts, by the work of his thought, the deconstruction of Christianity. Daniele Cohen Levinas underlines the contours of this gesture in Jean Luc Nancy when he questions the phenomenon of anti-Semitism beyond its movement of displacement, in its institutionalization. She explains the necessity that philosophy think through and against anti-semitism.

Stéphane Habib : While reading The Hatred of the Jews, and while I was thinking about our interview, I had a discussion one morning with Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur which I would like to mention very quickly so that you might follow upon or connect with them. Horvilleur was talking about the incipit of Romain Gary's Promise of the Dawn. In fact, this incipit – I would like to comment on it taking pages – is composed of three very simple-looking words: "It's over". So the beginning – supposedly? – of Gary's novel is a "it's over."

It occurred to me, and this opened up a number of questions between us, that the incipit of Louis-Ferdinand Céline's very famous Journey to the End of the Night is certainly more than a beginning, the beginning of the beginning: "It began like this.”

Is there not in the folds of these two incipits, in their abysmal difference, all the vertigo of the history of antisemitism? Questions of origin, of desiring origin to the point of death, to the necessary death of those who would testify to the impossibility of any original affirmation that is not fantastical or delusional? 

I quote at some length from the end of the decisive interview: 

Anti-Judaism and Anti-Semitism", but how could I not? Christian Europe is far from designating a particular and provisional quality of Europe and its Western expansion: Christianity is its soil, even its vital substance. An entire culture carries within it a need to denounce an internal threat or defilement – precisely because it knows itself to be deprived of purity: its origin remains obscure, being represented as the coming of the infinite into the finite. A figure is invented for the 'bad' infinite: the wandering Jew, the cursed face of humanist and capitalist blessing. One more step and the wanderer is exterminated. Then one also eliminates that which was alive in Christianity: the non-foundation, the non-membership in the world, the opening into the world of the infinite in act. Nazi anti-Semitism is at the same time anti-Christian: it knows only good conscience, or, which amounts to the same thing, pure fantasy. But this anti-Christianity had incubated within Christianity. 

Isn't your book in two voices – La Haine des juifs with Jean-Luc Nancy – made up of four variations on this same theme of the relationship to the origin? Doesn't all antisemitism have to do with a question revolving around the origin and the impossible origin?

Danielle Cohen-Levinas : "It's over", "it began like this": the two expressions with which you begin the interview open up an abyss. On the one hand, the vertigo of a beginning that is ultimately a restart, and on the other, the attention paid to the barely perceptible neuralgic moment when this beginning starts again.

At what point do we know, or sense, that the spectre of antisemitism is lurking again; that it is somewhere lurking in perfidious symptoms that we are afraid to name? These symptoms are not always identifiable at the precise moment they manifest themselves. But if the expression "It's over", which Romain Gary placed in the opening of The Promise of the Dawn, resonates across and within the problematic that we are dealing with, there is something in anti-Semitism that distances us considerably from this announced Promise. With the hatred of the Jews, we are rather in the nightmare of a dawn that will bring with it the haunting of what is coming back, of what has never ceased to be there, in one form or another. In other words, and to continue your reasoning, it starts again because it will never have stopped starting. This is also the theme of your beautiful book, Il y a l'antisémitisme, in which you give voice to the language of anti-Semitism, in other words, the political dimension that weaves the phenomena of remanence.

I find it very interesting to link "promise" and "haunting", two occurrences that basically hold hands. Every promise carries a risk: that of not being kept, of failing in its task, or in its desire, or in the sense of history which would like us to move towards the peace of nations and the sovereignty of peoples every day, every dawn. A lesson learned, as you know, from Jacques Derrida. The promise is always untimely. It is an insurrection against which we must rise. We always promise too much, or not enough. The promise is therefore based on the structure of the "already-not-yet", because there is no promise without the risk of it being fulfilled too soon or too late. And then, what to do, what response to formulate today, what political and ethical action to initiate if one day, one fine morning, as in the story of Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis where Gregor Samsa wakes up in the skin of a cockroach, we were to wake up with the haunting feeling in our stomachs that we are not finished with antisemitism? This haunting, even obsessive scene is no longer a hypothesis. It is now our daily life.  What to do with antisemitism, as Delphine Horvilleur shows very well in Réflexions sur la question antisémite, by shifting the cursor, not on the Jews, but on the antisemites themselves? La Haine des Juif s (The hatred of Jews) is one more stone to be added to this inconstructible edifice because it has already been built at the very heart of the origin, with the ambition to hold the course of philosophical reflection. Nietzsche would have said that anti-Semitism must be ended with a hammer, not with reasoning. But the metaphorical hammer we hold in our hands has led us not to yield to the temptation of speculative or ideological invective.

You are right, The Hatred of Jews is a book written in the form of variations: Theme and variations (what is specific antisemitism aimed at?). Of course, it is written in two voices, but there are also, as you have perfectly well heard, mute voices: that of the origin of our civilisation, of course, but also that which speaks of the obscure background of this origin – what Jean-Luc Nancy calls foundation. This obscure background can be said to be "unthinkable", "historic", the negation of radical otherness, self-hatred, and absolute dislike, all of which recur like incantations. The idea was not to question what is unfortunately an obvious fact that some people are doing their best to trivialise. These interviews with Jean-Luc Nancy sought to elucidate, not the phenomenon of antisemitism, but its relentless repetition, as well as what Jean-François Lyotard called in 1988, in his book entitled Heidegger and the Jews, the "foreclosure” (forclusion). This is a completely different approach, for it was not a question of capturing or describing the symptoms that have not failed to reappear in recent years. Rather, it was to question the way in which antisemitism moves on the chessboard of history, taking on different profiles and masks each time, while still holding on to what you call the origin, the foundation.  There are root causes of antisemitism, which are rooted in a past that Levinas would say is immemorial. We have tried to explore the crests and thresholds of this immemorial past. It is enough to make you dizzy! What seems to me to be exemplary in Nancy's approach is the way in which he tirelessly digs into the same motif, the same theme, by varying his answers or rather his questioning. On the one hand, the tireless repetition, the obsessive scene of the eternal return of antisemitism, in the quasi-Nietzschean sense of the term; on the other hand, the forclusion, the idea that the phenomenon of remanence rests on an exclusive logic of exclusion: to put an end, not to the antisemitic question, but to the Jewish question. 

Stéphane Habib: To you, who has regularly and extensively written with and about Jean-Luc Nancy, I would like to ask how you conceive this insistence, in recent years, on anti-Semitism. I say in recent years, but in truth, I have the idea that one could find in him the motive, or even the disturbance in thought caused by this unremovable thing, in the background, for a very long time. On reading it, one might have the impression of a philosophical decision taken by the author of Exclu le juif en nous (Excluded the Jew in Us) to open up something like an uncompromising struggle, without any possible compromise, up to and including language, against the murderous hatred of the Jews that he insists on naming, whatever its variations: anti-Semitism.

Did you get this same impression, or is it something else in the general economy of Jean-Luc Nancy's philosophical work? Two other questions come to mind here:

a) In this "deconstruction of Christianity" (can you, for those readers who are not familiar with Jean-Luc Nancy's work, say what it is about?) that he was engaged in, was the attack anti-Semitism inevitable? So that one might think that there is no deconstruction of Christianity possible that does not involve the analysis of anti-Semitism?

b) As a philosopher who, moreover, has just published an entire book on anti-Semitism with the powerful title L'impardonnable (The Unforgivable), I want to ask you a question: why is philosophy interested in anti-Semitism? Why can or should it be interested in it? What does it mean for philosophy to take on anti-Semitism? And philosophy – but what is it anyway and in this sense? – what does philosophy bring to the table (if you think it does bring anything) not only in the analysis, in the study, but also in the fight against antisemitism? 

As I ask you these questions, I am reminded that J.-L. Nancy is one of the thinkers who argued that thinking is already acting. In support of this last sentence, which is a little too quick, I would have to quote hundreds of passages from his texts on the subject of politics... I have in mind this one in Que faire?: 

What to do? It seems to me that there are, without hesitation, two answers that are necessary and that complement each other. The first is that we must change the question. The second: we are already doing it. Yes, doing it, right here. In writing. Not the writing of a speech, but the practice of a work of thought that is action (I emphasise), that is even the action that we most urgently need – and which, moreover, is already being done in several places, in several writings or several voices.

Stéphane Habib ; crédite d’image :
Stéphane Habib ; crédite d’image :

Danielle Cohen-Levinas: Your questions touch the heart of the matter. I will try to answer them as precisely as possible, starting with what seems to me to be an eloquent starting point as to the fact that Jean-Luc Nancy has given an undeniable philosophical voice to denounce the deep and unacknowledged causes of antisemitism. He has, in a way, summoned the history of philosophy by giving birth to a monster that it had carefully and methodically excluded from its constellations for reasons that remained unthought because they were precisely too rooted in their foundation. If there is a civilisational Leviathan, it is called anti-Semitism. This Leviathan is probably not acting, as in the biblical and Talmudic tradition, in revolt against the creator, but it is acting against creatures, except that, unlike God, we have not yet found the remedy, the pharmakon, that will rid us of this evil. Nancy has shown – and this is an essential point in The Hatred of the Jews – that this monster is always active, insidious, barbaric, ready to pounce on the prey of which anti-Semites would like to remain the eternal victim and scapegoat. Why such an insistence on the work in Nancy's thinking and writing, you ask? I think it would be up to Nancy to answer, although her writings, as you point out very well, bear witness to this insistence, this obstinacy to put the question back on the table, to grapple with it, to not let it have the last word. But I can nevertheless provide an element of response that is not negligible. Jean-Luc Nancy was convinced, in the philosophical sense of the term, that the West is heading for disaster; that if we refuse to face up to its origins, to assume full responsibility for them, to stop relying on magic formulas or irrational forces, or to wait for a salvation that will not come, we will end up excluding ourselves from the very idea of civilisation. The monster will be us! Our becoming Leviathan is in some way underway. But that's not all. Nancy has pushed his analysis very far, and the least we can say is, I really think, that he was right: tragically right. Nancy understood that what was going to destroy the West was anti-Semitism. It's unheard of that a philosopher who was well versed in Augustine, Hegel, Kant, Heidegger, that a Christian philosopher, of a Christianity that is certainly heterodox, even atheistic, with all that this means in terms of its complexity in relation to Judaism, whose first love was theology, was able to formulate such an assertion. It was not his intention, as you will have understood, to activate the fibre of a supposedly repressed guilt – although one can legitimately wonder whether our civilisation is not sick of what it has made itself guilty of without making reparation, on the contrary, by accusing the debt and the malaise. It's a bit like Tartuffe's line to Dorine in Molière's play, if you'll allow me to paraphrase it: "Cover up this anti-Semitism that I can't see, souls are wounded by such things. Our civilisation is full of beautiful souls who would feel offended to be denounced or to be filtered by the philosophical radicalism of Jean-Luc Nancy. 

Danielle Cohen-Levinas et Jean-Luc Nancy , Athens 2015 ; crédite d’image :
Danielle Cohen-Levinas et Jean-Luc Nancy , Athens 2015 ; crédite d’image :

This brings us to the threshold of this origin, of this unthought that must be nailed down before it can even open its mouth. A diversion through Deconstruction of Christianity is necessary. The insistence you speak of was, in my opinion, triggered by the three books that Nancy wrote between 2005 and 2010, namely Deconstruction of Christianity, La Déclosion and L'Adoration. The deconstruction in question is simply the very movement of a Christianity that has generated its own atheism, namely its own reversal. But deconstruction does not mean demolition. Christianity is a monotheism. Here we are at the heart of a performative contradiction that did not escape Nancy's notice, for monotheism is a kind of aleph (as far as I am concerned, I prefer to say beth, as in berechit), from which the history of our civilisation is illuminated, including therefore the history of anti-Semitism. From there, we enter into the depths of the question. You know the rest. By virtue of a systematic hermeneutic, once the nerve of Christianity and Judeo-Christianity had been touched, it was necessary to go back to its source. The advent of Christianity immediately laid the foundations for what would later unfold in forms that some call anti-Judaism and others anti-Semitism. What are these foundations? First of all, the idea, which is very tenacious, that there is a distinctive Jewish trait, compared to other forms of proven hostility. The Jew would have the ability to overcome and integrate obstacles that would resist his survival and technical mastery. This is an old anti-Semitic cliché, which makes the Jew the prototype of an omnipotence, structural to the project of our civilisation, and this, from the beginning. Now, according to Nancy, the West is caught in the ellipse of an alloy between different characteristics, inherited from other civilisations: Greek logos and Latin technique, to which is added of course Jewish monotheism. According to Nancy, this combination became Christianity on the one hand and imperialism on the other.

So, to sum up, you can see how Judaism is an active agent, according to Nancy, through Christianity, in the emergence and constitution of what we call the West, and this, at the very moment when the Greco-Roman world is losing momentum.

Stéphane Habib: To conclude, at least very provisionally, I would like to stress that in your book, a questioning runs through the different interviews more or less explicitly, that of the relationship between anti-Judaism and antisemitism. And it seemed to me that there was perhaps a disagreement between you and JLN. Disagreement is too strong a word, no doubt, but JLN's position is firm: there is no anti-Judaism that is not antisemitism. He doesn't put it that way, and perhaps I'm putting it another way, but you can correct me if necessary. This formula has the advantage of making clear JLN's refusal of the theological, historical and philosophical necessity of a difference between these two words. So much so that the word "antisemitism" alone is sufficient for him, including the idea that the West was founded on the exclusion of the Jews. What is very interesting and what inspires me by this refusal is that, at the same time, the Universal must be re-interrogated, what the history of Western thought will have put forward in the name of the Universal on the one hand, and how this Universal will have been constructed by – to put it mildly – exclusion. This is where I see the urgency of articulating the questions that the history of anti-Semitism, postcolonial studies and gender studies are constantly asking, because there is no reflection on these "questions" that is not at the same time a perfectly concrete political struggle. Can you tell us how you, DCL, are approaching this formidable and enormous mass of work, the extent of which we have not finished measuring?

Exodus, Marc Chagall, 1952- 1966 ; crédite d’image : Artists Rights Society, New York / ADAGP, Paris
Exodus, Marc Chagall, 1952- 1966 ; crédite d’image : Artists Rights Society, New York / ADAGP, Paris

Danielle Cohen-Levinas: Let me take my response to your basic questions a little further, and forgive me for the short cuts. From a philosophical point of view, there is no doubt that there are links between Jewish monotheism and Greek logos. Let's remember Emmanuel Levinas' sentence: "We must translate into Greek principles that Greece did not know." Both, Greek logos and even more so Jewish monotheism, do away with gods and the notion of the sacred, in favour of a kind of transcendent unity, of a single, unique and immeasurable God. But whereas Greek logos tends to favour the emancipation of the subject through knowledge, Jewish monotheism responds to a call and asserts itself as heteronomy. Then came Christianity, which sought to synthesise the Greek and the Jewish, by putting God in man and promising man divine life – a return to the "promise", which is no longer quite the one that the biblical God made to Abraham. In fact, Christianity tries to conciliate (concilier), perhaps even to reconcile (reconcilier), the radical exteriority of the call and the interiority of the emancipatory dynamics of the Greek logos. The stumbling block is there, at this precise point where Christianity stumbles, at each stage of its spiritual and institutional evolution, on this inalienable principle of heteronomy which is the absolute singularity of the Jews. The Jewish exception became not only a problem, but a target that had to be excluded in one way or another. Hence the fact that the philosophical tradition has excluded the Jew in us. It has excluded him from a common belonging without which it would have no legitimacy. The Jew has become the figure of a belonging that does not belong. You can easily imagine the theological-political and geo-political consequences of this supposed non-membership. I believe that it is the movement of the fundamental insecurity raised by the question of belonging and non-belonging, at the very heart of a West that was searching for its full identity, that fascinated Nancy, what he calls "an exclusion included in what thus constitutes itself". This archaeology of Jew-hatred is placed under the sign of the West's internal incompatibility, as much as of its complementarity. Nancy found it necessary to further emphasise the incompatibilities. This is how the Jew ended up taking on all the crimes. This is the huge mass of which you speak, the experience of a world that forcloses identities, peoples, races, religions, the exclusionary thrusts of singularities and minorities, the political and ethical disjunctions. But I must tell you that I am a bit wary of thoughts that make the Jew a figure of non-membership. I think it is urgent to get out of this scheme. Not only is the Jew an integral part of history, but he is a fertile and decisive actor in it.

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