An impending intellectual scandal
By Laurent Cohen | 10/09/2009
André Glucksmann, among the most important modern French philosophers today, was born in France in 1937 to parents who met in pre-Israel Palestine and returned to Europe in order to join the struggle against Fascism. His father was murdered in 1940, while André, his mother and two sisters, both of whom had been born in Palestine, survived the Nazi occupation by remaining in hiding in France.
After the war, Glucksmann studied philosophy, and in 1967, published his first book, “Le Discours de la Guerre” [The Discourse of War]. When the events of May 1968 were set in motion, Glucksmann was one of the leaders of the most radical Maoist faction, one that sought total revolution in France. In an article published in 1972 in Sartre's periodical, “Les Temps Modernes” [Modern Times], Glucksmann defined France as a “fascist dictatorship,” and called for “an uprising – from Portugal to the Soviet Union.” In those days, he devoted most of his research to the phenomenon of Soviet totalitarianism and he publicly supported the struggle of the prisoners of Zion and the Soviet dissident intellectuals, whom the Communist authorities described as “parasites” and would arrest, interrogate, sentence, and in many cases, commit to mental hospitals.
By the late 1970s, Glucksmann was no longer a Maoist, and had become a central figure in the circle of what was known as the “New Philosophers.” Together with others like himself – Bernard-Henri Lévy, Alain Finkielkraut, Christian Jambet and others – Glucksmann supported fighters for human rights and he condemned the Marxist ideology. In their books, the New Philosophers demonstrated that the communist dictatorships were not the result of a distorted or false interpretation of Marx, but that they were the direct outcome of Marx's teachings themselves. Over the years, Glucksmann published about twenty books, which have been translated into numerous languages (his book “Le Discours de la haine” [The Discourse of Hate] will soon be published in Hebrew by Carmel Publishing), granting him a unique status among current European philosophers. In the late 1990s, Glucksmann joined forces with Benny Lévy, Bernard-Henri Lévy and Alain Finkielkraut to establish an institute in Jerusalem dedicated to the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, although, unlike the others, he did not consider himself a disciple of Levinas.
Glucksmann is about to publish an essay on Martin Heidegger's Nazi past and the connection between Heidegger's philosophy and his support for Hitler. The Heidegger controversy split European philosophers into three camps. One camp pooh-poohs Heidegger's Nazi episode, claiming that it was no more than an irrelevant detail that was massively overshadowed by his huge philosophical oeuvre. This is reminiscent of the case of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, the celebrated French writer, whose book “Voyage au bout de la nuit” [Journey to the End of the Night] is a powerful description of the events of the twentieth century, and who also authored the most vicious of anti-Semitic screeds. The second camp, to which Glucksmann belongs, maintains that it is impossible to separate the man from his writings. The position of the third camp, which includes Leo Strauss and even Paul Celan and Emmanuel Levinas, is the most complex. On the one hand, they completely and wholeheartedly condemned Heidegger, who joined the Nazi Party as early as 1933 and never repudiated it; at the same time, they were unable to shake off his influence as a philosopher. And thus, like the writings of Karl Marx in the past, Heidegger is considered to this day by most French schools of philosophy to be a major philosopher without whom they cannot think. “The great problem of the major philosophers of the twentieth century, such as Leo Strauss and Levinas,” Glucksmann told me in this interview, is that they have not been able to free themselves of Heidegger's influence.” This explains the reason for the uproar at the publication of Glucksmann's book about Heidegger.
Hundreds of anti-Semitic events – including serious attacks, fires, threats – took place during the fighting in Gaza. Some speak of pure Judeophobia, and others are convinced that this violence belongs to a broader phenomenon involving new forms of nihilism, of negation of the authorities, and which identifies the Jews (but not only the Jews) with the state and the establishment. What is your opinion?
The early months of the year were indeed filled with anti-Semitic events. Nevertheless, I am not sure that on the qualitative level, they were more serious that those that occurred during the second intifada. For example, no murders occurred, such as the shocking case of Ilan Halimi – the young Jewish man who was abducted in January 2006 and tortured to death over a period of three weeks. It is notable, however, that the media was less aggressive towards Israel during the war in Gaza and French public opinion was more balanced. According to an official CSA survey, 36 percent of French people believed that Hamas was responsible for the war, whereas only 23 percent believed that Israel was at fault. Consequently, I would like to emphasize that we didn't see an atmosphere of an anti-Israel frenzy. However, we have been witness to a terrifying phenomenon, which can be termed a constantly escalating “de-tabooization” of slogans, petitions and anti-Israeli accusations. One example is the Star of David, which is now being displayed as a Nazi swastika on posters hanging in Paris's main squares and at every demonstration, and another example is the liberal use of the word genocide with regard to the Palestinians. The source of this verbal polarization is Islamic, but it has been adopted by large sectors of the secular French public on the left. I consider this a worrying, serious and most dangerous phenomenon.
You yourself once belonged to the most radical camp in the May 1968 movements. What is your response when you see that some of the demonstrators calling for the destruction of the “Zionist entity” consider themselves to be the continuation of the “May people?”
That is an absurd claim. Let me remind you that in May 1968, demonstrators in the streets of Paris shouted, “We are all German Jews.”
Today, it's “Palestinians” instead of “Jews.”
Indeed, but this is not the spirit of the May 1968 movement. I would say of those demonstrators that they are in fact successors of the most extreme disciples of Frantz Fanon [a Martinique-born French black psychiatrist and philosopher, who upon completion of his studies served as a physician in Algeria and joined up with the Algerian FLN liberation front (Front de Libération Nationale), which fought against the French occupation. His writings, including “Peau Noire, Masques Blancs” [Black Skin, White Masks] and “Les Damnés de la Terre” [The Wretched of the Earth], analyze the psychological and cultural mechanisms of oppression in the occupier-occupied relationship, and argue that violence is an inseparable part of the struggle for personal and political freedom. L.C.]
Although, quite surprisingly enough, Fanon was not anti-Zionist…
That's right, but I am speaking about the violent aspect of Fanon's philosophy, the willingness to eradicate the “whites,” as Sartre himself used to say in those times… To that should be added the reality and situation in the French suburbs, where we are witnessing cases of severe violence and the growth of a movement of “enthusiasts” of the kind that Dostoyevsky described so well: I am speaking of the groups of young people who are capable of burning down entire neighborhoods, as has already happened and will continue to happen in France. However, don't forget that revolution is a part of French tradition. It is France's dark side, its deep-rooted nihilism based on the principle of “I destroy, therefore I am.” What has happened in fact is that the young people of the suburbs, most of whom are of Arab extraction, have absorbed this dangerous tradition.
At the same time, the recent waves of anti-Israeli demonstrations have shown that the “anti-Zionist front” is made up of very different people and ideas (neo-Nazism, anarchists, communists, activists for the liberation of Africa and so on), who all speak the same language when it comes to Israel…
As I see it, the anti-Zionist camp is made up of three main camps: the radical left, who replaces the beloved proletarian of the past with the Palestinian of today; radical Islamic fundamentalism, which finds fertile ground for expansion among the North African immigrants; and the “Old France,” that is the classic anti-Israeli, anti-American right wing which believes that Israel is an artificial entity planted in the heart of an ostensibly united Arab world.
You said earlier that the media showed more restraint during the fighting in Gaza. But many Israelis felt that Europe almost completely ignored the main reason for the fighting – the years of terror against the Israeli communities in the south. Do you accept this claim?
Only partially. First, I would like to say that this is not an exclusive characteristic of the French media, but of global media as a whole. Second, the pictures of Gaza under fire are obviously much more powerful than the years of Palestinian rocket fire, which caused very few deaths. So I don't think it is such a good idea to weigh one against the other, and I have written to that effect. We must relate to the essence, and the essence is the fact that Israel's very existence is in danger. True, Hamas does not hide its intentions, but beyond that, a powerful country has declared that Israel should be wiped off the map. In the face of that declaration, the position that says that we must wait until Iran builds a nuclear device and only then respond is completely absurd. When that moment comes, the most probable scenario is not an Iranian attack on Israel; after Iran achieves nuclearization, it will provide Hamas and Hezbollah with non-conventional weapons. I am no military expert and not even an Israeli citizen, but I am convinced that it intolerable for a sovereign state to have to face such an existential threat.
But it is not unusual to hear in the European media as a whole the claim that Israel is exploiting the Iranian matter in order to strengthen the settlements.
In the meanwhile, it is the Iranians who are exploiting and renewing the idea of genocide. The Iranians say certain things quite explicitly. It's not a fantasy, right?
No, it's not a fantasy, but a lot of people in Paris, London and other world capitals will say that the Iranians are not serious…
I must point out that that is not my opinion, and that I am convinced that there is a genuine danger involved here. And as for those who argue the opposite – we're not talking only about the members of a few radical groups, because in the background, there is always that “Old France,” in other words, the French tradition that has always prevailed in the Quai d'Orsay, even though Sarkozy himself does not support it. For the past fifty years, French policy has been based on the concept that if Israel did not exist, everything would be peaceful in the Middle East and that the relations between the West and what they call the “Arab world” would be harmonious. The central concept, which has always been a recurring theme in this tradition, is this: The Christian kingdom in this region of the world existed for only a hundred years, and there is no reason that the Jewish republic should last any longer. That is the idea. Intellectually speaking, I am convinced that they are fixated on an approach that has no connection to reality, because if the war in Gaza proved anything, it is that there is no “Arab world,” and if it exists at all, it is completely divided. This was the first time in the war between Israel and the Palestinians that numerous Arab voices could be heard to say: It's all Hamas's fault. And this rift in the Arab camp, which is not new, is growing stronger, but the eminent officials of the French foreign ministry are completely blind to it. In the context of French politics, this appears to me to be especially dangerous. The Quai d'Orsay persists in thinking that there is a unified Arab world and that the disagreements heard in it are no more than a passing phase; of course, they are completely wrong, but that is the view among the official representatives from both the right and the left. They are wrong because they are ignoring the fact that the world is divided today between those that support democracy – whom we must always support – and those groups that after the collapse of the great ideologies adopted certain concepts, for example that of jihad, whose goal is to grab power by any means. This is not the first time that I have seen their blindness. In the 1990s, together with philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, I openly supported the intellectuals, feminists and activists who supported democracy in Algeria, in opposition to the armed Islamic forces whom many in France viewed as “freedom fighters.” I am mentioning this because, during that period, the French press hesitated to state that the FIS, the Front Islamique du Salut (Islamic Salvation Front) in Algeria was engaging in terror. As a result, the media wanted to tear Lévy and me to shreds. And one day, Islamic terrorists decided they were no longer satisfied with the murder of secular-Muslim writers, intellectuals and soldiers, and they began to wipe out entire villages because their inhabitants refused to pay or hand over their daughters to the fighters of jihad. For those who don't recall, tens of thousands of people were murdered in Algeria during those years. Later, the Algerian Islamic groups began to fight amongst themselves. That is how it is in the world of Islamic terror. It does not share the united aspect of the Hitlerian or Stalinist totalitarianism, and if we could wait long enough, they would eventually destroy one another. But, we can't wait because too many populations are suffering because of them. And still, Western strategic experts insist on contending that there is a single Arab world, that it is united, and that what they call the clash of civilizations must be prevented.
Your public views often provoke intense criticism in France. As a philosopher, do you sometimes feel alone?
At the beginning of the fighting in Gaza, I wrote an article in La Monde that triggered hundreds of furious responses. They attacked me and asked: “What right does this person have to write what he wrote on the pages of La Monde? Why do you let him speak at all?” Some time earlier, La Monde asked me for a series of articles on Plato, and that did not provoke any negative responses. But here, all of a sudden, the moment Israel is involved, we see the outrage… As for feeling alone: When I supported Solzhenitsyn and came out against Soviet totalitarianism, the right was indifferent and the left was shocked. But fortunately, I live in France, where thinkers who insist on thinking against the current can still ride the Métro and the bus. For the time being, we are here, and France remains a place where people are willing to hear controversial views. I don't know if this will continue, I don't know what the future holds, and in any case, by that time I will be dead… One day, during the second intifada and at the height of the massive anti-Israeli media campaign, I met Natan Sharansky. He said to me, “You are really courageous.” And I responded, “Not at all. I don't live in the Soviet Union, I live in France.”
You are about to publish a book about Heidegger, a very sensitive subject in the French philosophical discourse…
In view of the fact that I am getting old, to some extent, this essay may be considered my last will and testament. In fact, my first writings in philosophy were related to Heidegger. My dilemma was how this man, who had mastered modern philosophy as a whole, and French philosophy in particular, could have been a Nazi? Heidegger was a registered member of the National Socialist party, and on election day, he took his students to vote in the election that Hitler won. I concluded that we cannot deny that Heidegger was a philosopher and a Nazi at the same time. However, in those years, I was unable to resolve this troublesome question, among other reasons because some of Heidegger's letters had not yet been published then. Today, everything has been published. In my book, I show how Heidegger embodies the connection that exists between philosophy and totalitarianism. Not only Nazi totalitarianism, but communist and religious totalitarianism too. Incidentally, I recently heard from Iranian friends that the head of one of Iran's secret services in the period before Khomeini was a great expert on Heidegger! In any case, not only was Heidegger a Nazi, but from 1945 until his death in 1976, he never recanted. He continued to think in the shadow of Auschwitz, and I am convinced that his silence was a form of justification. Once Heidegger had a slip of the tongue, but fortunately for us, his words were recorded. He was speaking about the troubles that technology caused to humanity in the modern age, and by way of example, he mentioned the extermination camps and the mechanization of agriculture. The moment you list the problems caused by the advances of technology and you mention “Auschwitz” and “agricultural machines” in the same breath, you are blurring the monstrous enormity of the Holocaust and obscuring its unique nature.