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The Jewish Question


Jean Daniel, who turned eighty-five in early July, has a strong claim to being France’s most eminent journalist. The editorial director of Le Nouvel Observateur, the center-left weekly he founded in 1964, Daniel has played a role in French political society that has no equivalent in American letters, with the possible exception of Walter Lippmann. He has not only reported on some of the major conflicts of his time—the French-Algerian war, the Congo, the cold war, the question of Israel-Palestine—he has earned the trust and respect of statesmen from Pierre Mendès-France and François Mitterrand to David Ben-Gurion and Ahmed Ben Bella, without sacrificing his independence as a commentator.

Indeed, it is as a commentator that Daniel has achieved his greatest distinction. His weekly editorials in Le Nouvel Observateur, which range across politics, literature, theology, and philosophy, are a reminder of a time when journalists were expected not merely to chronicle events but to interpret them in the light of history. Daniel has also published two novels, influenced by the work of his close friend Albert Camus, and a Bildungsroman disguised as a memoir, Le Temps Qui Reste; thousands of pages of journals, collected in several volumes; and over a dozen book-length historical essays on decolonization, nationalism, communism, and religion. Together, they offer an account—by turns introspective and impassioned, somber and hopeful—of the last half-century, as seen by one of its most incisive witnesses.

As a witness, he has offered not only illumination but a moral example as well. As a correspondent in Algiers for L’Express, he was a precocious supporter of Algerian independence; yet unlike Sartre and other French followers of the FLN, he never wrote in praise of anti-colonial violence or third-worldist ideology; as an Algerian-born Jew, he also understood that the aim of Algeria’s rebels was not to establish a revolutionary socialist republic but to resurrect the country’s long-repressed Arab and Muslim identity. He has deplored the brutal treatment by the FLN of the Harkis, the Algerian troops who fought alongside the French; many were left by the French to die after independence, and those who fled to France were coldly received, settled in isolated camps, their children ostracized.

On the French left, Daniel was also an early anti-Communist, repudiating the Soviet Union not in 1956 or in 1968 but in 1939, over the Hitler–Stalin pact. Unlike the former Maoist “new philosophers” of the 1970s, however, he refused to draw an equivalence between Soviet and Nazi totalitarianism or to make a tactical alliance with the right. (Having been close to his housekeeper’s son, Vincent Perez, a young Communist who died in Spain fighting fascism, “I could never bring myself to completely hate Communists.”) And in his longest-running political commitment, Daniel has been both a friend to Israel and a defender of Palestinian rights for nearly a half-century, a trapeze act that he has managed with extraordinary grace.

Daniel’s new book, The Jewish Prison, is subtitled A Rebellious Meditation on the State of Judaism. “State” refers to the condition of Jews in the world today, but it could just as well refer to France and Israel, the countries that concern him most deeply. (In France, it was published alongside his collected writings on the Middle East, La Guerre et la Paix: Israël-Palestine, Chroniques 1956–2003.) The Jewish Prison is not a work of journalism but rather a probing essay. Its most obvious precursor is Sartre’s 1946 essay Anti-Semite and Jew, which Daniel cites admiringly. It has become fashionable, he writes, to disparage Sartre’s thesis that the “anti-Semite creates the Jew,” for “emptying Judaism of all its positivity, of all its content, of all its richness.” But for many French Jews, including Daniel and the late metaphysician Emmanuel Levinas, whose influence is also acutely felt in The Jewish Prison, Sartre’s book was tremendously liberating, since it captured the reality of their own lives—that almost nothing set them apart from other French people; that their “difference” had to be invented by anti-Semites.

Daniel, however, is less interested in anti-Semitic attitudes than in the way Jews view themselves—a view that has, he argues, become a kind of perceptual prison. This prison, he believes, “is in the minds of [Jews], even unbelievers, who act as if their jailer could be none other than God, whether it’s in the Holy Land or in the diaspora.” It is a prison with three “invisible walls”: the “Election,” the biblical idea that Jews are God’s Chosen People; the Holocaust, whose commemoration has taken on an obsessive, all but sacred air; and Israel, which, he suggests, has undermined the ability of Jews to be “witnesses and priests,” the role assigned to them in their sacred texts. From inside the prison, Jewish identity, for those who accept it, appears as a form of belonging to which one is “condemned,” even—or perhaps especially—if one is not a practicing Jew, as a pact with God that cannot be disavowed. Anti-Semitism, from this perspective, is an eternal curse that Jews are helpless to combat, and may even be God’s punishment for infidelity to the Covenant. And Israel provides the only reliable defense against another Holocaust—a Messiah, one could say, in the improbable form of a state, demanding not only love but unwavering loyalty.

Daniel often skips without warning from politics to theology; at one point, he asks, “Ought I say here that I believe none of this?” The answer is “yes.” Despite his insistence that he “is, in every point, hostile to theological thought,” one could easily be fooled by his lyrical disquisitions on Jewish theology. For those who know him as an ardent Républicain, an unapologetic believer in assimilation (or intégration), a critic of Israel’s occupation, this uninhibited immersion in Jewish texts may come as a surprise. Yet as his friend the writer Jacques Juillard has observed, Daniel is “the most religious of agnostics,” a nonbeliever enchanted by the power of faith. Moreover, he admits that he has not quite escaped the prison himself. Like all rebels, Daniel cannot help being defined—and to some extent confined—by that which he rebels against.


The youngest of eleven children, Daniel was born Jean Bensaïd in 1920, in the Algerian town of Blida, where his father, a self-made man named Jules Bensaïd, was a well-to-do flour merchant. “Sephardic to its fingertips” and deeply pious, the Bensaïd family traced their roots back to fifteenth-century Spain. But like all of Algeria’s Jews, they had become French citizens in 1871 thanks to the Crémieux Decree, which Adolphe Crémieux, France’s legendary Jewish minister of justice, had pushed through the legislature. Growing up in Blida, Daniel “didn’t ask the question of what ‘my’ nation was, any more than my parents did. It wasn’t a question, since there was only one”—France. “It was our horizon and our universe, not only because the empire was mistaken for the world… but because France’s project was, we were assured, universal.”

Daniel’s faith in France and its “project” seems never to have been shaken, even after the Vichy government annulled the Crémieux Decree in October 1940, depriving him of his French citizenship: “I couldn’t conceive that a trick of the law could strip me of this ancient baptism.” He has fought for that faith. As a young member of the resistance in Algiers, he helped lay the groundwork for the arrival of the Allies on November 8, 1942. He then rose to the position of chief sergeant in General LeClerc’s prestigious division in Libya, and he served with De Gaulle’s Free French forces, receiving a Croix de Guerre at the war’s end.1

Daniel has often been faulted by his fellow Jews for being “detached” from Judaism, and for insisting on the primacy of his French and Mediterranean identity. In The Jewish Prison, he pleads guilty as charged:

Formed in my youth by André Gide, I have always detested closed milieus. I have always wanted to go see what was behind the walls. At home, in my large house, one could breathe; outside, in the street of the Jews, no…. My feeling of spontaneous, visceral belonging expresses a Mediterranean Frenchness of which Judaism is only one component.

Yet in his writing on the horrors of postwar history—colonial repression, anticolonial terrorism, Stalinism, ethnic cleansing—Daniel has performed the very duties required by the Election: those of the witness and the priest. As he writes in The Jewish Prison, “‘Witness’ means a just man. ‘Priest’ signifies prophesying or preaching. Apart from those two aspects, there is no Judaism.” In this sense, Daniel’s journalism has been marked by a secularized Judaism: an act of moral and, at times, prophetic witness. Yet it has also led him into painful clashes with his own people. In Algeria, where the pied-noir community viewed him as a “secret agent of the FLN” because of his unsparing reporting on settler brutality, he was repudiated by many of his relatives.2 The state of Israel has posed still sharper dilemmas. After his first visit in 1956, Daniel “returned full of enthusiasm from my discovery of the kibbutzim.” He saw no contradiction between this enthusiasm for the young Jewish state and his writings in favor of decolonization in the Arab world; neither did his friends on the left, who were overwhelmingly supportive of Israel, which had given sanctuary to hundreds of thousands of Hitler’s victims. But just after the Algerians achieved independence in 1962, Daniel began to sense the mounting tensions between the third world and Israel—and, ultimately, within himself—on a flight to Cairo with Algeria’s first president, Ahmed Ben Bella:

As we were flying over the desert, he said to me: “I wanted Nasser to win in Suez, and he won; I wanted the independence of Algeria, I got it, and now all that’s left is the liberation of Palestine.” I said to him, “Look at these deserts, don’t you think there’s enough room for everyone?” His answer: “In a desert there’s always room! My nanny was Jewish. That has nothing to do with it, but in Palestine, that’s different. They’re foreigners.”

That is how I discovered the problem of Israel…. I had a sympathy, even a feeling of complicity, for these Muslim victims of colonialism, but when they uttered this kind of statement, it not only offended but worried me.

During the 1967 Arab–Israeli war, Daniel sided with the Jewish state. “Whatever may be the faults of the Israelis—and they are multiple and serious,” he wrote, the defeat of Israel would be “an indelible shame.” But since those fateful six days, he has spoken out tirelessly against the occupation. “Israel thinks time is on its side,” he wrote in 1973. “Militarily, this isn’t false. Morally…it is disastrous. Israel is not South Africa, but it’s going to find itself in the same situation.” Daniel has since made an honorable, though—as he himself admits—not entirely successful effort to reconcile his anti-colonialism with his support for a Jewish state in what he frankly calls “confiscated” land. In The Jewish Prison, he maintains that “the Israeli cause was perfectly justifiable” until 1967, while the “intransigence of the Arab refusal, however, was open to question.”

  1. 1

    When de Gaulle returned to power in May 1958, with the mission of maintaining French control of Algeria, Pierre Mendès-France, Daniel’s political mentor, declared to a group of left-wing supporters: “This power born of rioting will end in the streets.” Daniel replied, “I will never take a position hostile to that of General de Gaulle,” insisting to the disbelief of everyone in the room that de Gaulle would negotiate an end to the war. Four years later, he was vindicated.

  2. 2

    No less agonizing was the breakup of his friendship with Camus over Algeria. “What separated us,” Daniel suggests in Le Temps Qui Reste, is that just as he “began to think like a French intellectual,” Camus “spoke like a pied-noir patriot.”

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