Pierre Vidal-Naquet
Pierre Vidal-Naquet; drawing by David Levine

On the cover of Les Juifs, la mémoire et le présent II (1991) Pierre Vidal-Naquet is identified as, among other things, “the author of numerous books on ancient Greece and contemporary history.” This brief description covers a remarkable (and still continuing) literary career. He is, in his own words, “by training…a historian and a specialist in the study of the ancient Greek world,” and the author of many brilliant studies of ancient Greek politics, mythology, ideology, and literature, but he also published, between 1958 and 1989, a series of books exposing and indicting the role of the French army in the Algerian War,1 and, beginning in 1981, three collections of essays, reviews, and prefaces devoted to the past and present of the Jews, as well as Les assassins de la mémoire (1987), a merciless analysis of the claims of Faurisson and other deniers of the Holocaust.2 The book under review is a selection, made by the author, from the three volumes on the Jews, memory, and the present.

“I came to Jewish studies late in life,” he remarks in the preface to this volume. He dates his engagement in the field to 1976, when he wrote a long (and fascinating) introduction to a French translation of Flavius Josephus’ History of the Jewish War. Josephus was an important participant in the Jewish rebellion against Roman rule that began in 66 AD and culminated in the capture of Jerusalem in 70 AD, an event commemorated on the Arch of Titus in Rome, where the tourist can still see the Roman legionaries carrying the seven-branched candlestick from the Temple in the Emperor’s triumph. For this work, Vidal-Naquet remarks, “it certainly was not entirely unavailing that I had devoted much time to working on Greek tragedy (which helped me to understand certain modern tragedies) and on mythology (which taught me not to take contemporary myths literally, no matter who had developed them).”

One of the contemporary myths on which he casts a skeptical eye is the story of the last stand of the Jewish rebels on the rock fortress of Masada three years after the fall of Jerusalem. According to Josephus, our only authority, the last survivors of the defenders, three hundred in number, killed their wives and children and then killed each other, the last man committing suicide, just before the Romans delivered their final assault. The site of Masada was excavated between 1963 and 1965 by Yigael Yadin, a professional soldier who had been chief of operations in the 1948 war and later Israel’s chief of staff before becoming an archaeologist. Masada has since become an Israeli pilgrimage site, a monument epitomizing Israel’s determination never to surrender; Yadin’s book on Masada contains photographs of Israeli tank crews taking their oath of loyalty there. The site, he wrote, has been “elevated… to an undying symbol of desperate courage, a symbol which has stirred hearts throughout the last nineteen centuries.” The last words of this sentence, however, as Vidal-Naquet points out, have no relation to reality. For nearly nineteen centuries Masada was just “one rock among others”; in fact it was first identified by two American travelers, Edward Robinson and E. Smith, in 1838. “Before it could be endowed with the symbolic quality it has since acquired, the advent of Zionism and the formation of the modern State of Israel were required.”

Quite apart, however, from the late twentieth-century canonization of the Masada martyrs, the story itself, for which Josephus is our only authority, is not without its problems. Its author, Joseph ben Matthias, was opposed to the rebellion in the first place, but once it started, he reluctantly accepted a command in Galilee, where, after an unsuccessful defense of the city of Jotapata, he surrendered to the Romans. Later, when the Roman general Vespasian left for Rome to become Emperor, Josephus followed the campaign in the entourage of Vespasian’s son Titus and was present at the fall of Jerusalem to the Roman army. Josephus had, in effect, changed sides, and later changed his name, adopting the Roman name Flavius, one of the names borne also by Vespasian, Titus, and Flavius Silva, the Roman general who stormed Masada. Josephus has little good to say of any of the leaders of the rebellion but is particularly virulent in his denunciation of the leaders of the resistance at Masada, who belonged to a hard-line sect known as Sicarii, the Roman word for assassins (sica means “dagger”). He indicts them as the “first to begin this lawlessness and this barbarity to kinsmen,” as men “who left no word unspoken, no deed untried, to insult and destroy the objects of their foul plots.”

Josephus’ account of the end at Masada offers a striking parallel and a sharp contrast to the story he tells of his own surrender at Jotapata. In both cases the leaders make long speeches to the remnant of the defenders: Eleazar at Masada champions self-destruction as the Romans move in for the final assault; Josephus urges surrender on a group of forty survivors hiding in a cave, where they had been discovered by the Romans, who offered Josephus a pardon. At Masada the men killed their wives and children, and then chose ten men to kill the others; the ten then drew lots to appoint one man to kill the other nine and then himself. At Jotapata, Josephus’ appeal was indignantly rebuffed; his fellow soldiers threatened him with death if he should try to surrender. He suggested a lottery: the man who drew the first number to be killed by number two and so on down the line until the sole survivor would kill himself. Josephus—“shall we put it down” he writes, “to divine providence or just to chance?”—remained alive with just one other man, whom he persuaded to join him in his surrender.


For both these events our only authority is Josephus himself. But how could he know what happened at Masada? “An old woman escaped,” he explains, “along with another who was related to Eleazar, in intelligence and education superior to most women, and five little children.” They had all been hidden in the subterranean water conduits. “Here,” Vidal-Naquet comments,

Josephus uses what Roland Barthes calls “the reality effect”…. What is required, indeed, is not only one survivor, but an exceptionally educated person with a companion and children to serve as that person’s witnesses. Now, even if Josephus leaves the anonymous and educated female relative of Eleazar the time needed to listen to the speeches and the possibility of witnessing the first throat-cuttings before going underground, this suspect narrative tale can hardly be believed.

Vidal-Naquet is not, of course, questioning the reality of the mass suicide itself; that is an action with many parallels in ancient history and is not unexampled in recent times; later in the book, for example, he mentions the military leader of the insurrection in the Warsaw ghetto, Mordecai Anielewicz, who “in a renewal of the gesture of the besieged at Masada… committed suicide on May 8, 1943, along with a number of his comrades and after he had killed his girlfriend.” The men of Masada had no illusions about what would happen to them if they were taken alive; they knew that after the fall of Jerusalem the women and children were enslaved and some 2500 of the men were burned alive or killed in the arena by wild beasts or gladiators. But the speeches of Eleazar can hardly be anything other than products of Josephus’ inventiveness, and the details of the Masada suicide pact may be based on the similar arrangement Josephus proposed at Jotapata and which turned out so luckily for him. He assigns his lucky strike to divine providence or blind chance; but in the Slavonic version of his book,3 which may be a translation of a Greek version of the original Aramaic circulated earlier than the one that came down to us,4 a different explanation is offered. “After saying these things [i.e., proposing the lottery] he counted the numbers cunningly and so deceived them all.” Since we are given no idea of how Josephus’ lottery system worked we can only wonder how he could have rigged it in his favor, but a possible scenario was suggested in a problem posed in a recent French mathematics textbook, which assumes that Josephus was a brilliant mathematician:

[The forty Jews] decided to form a circle and number themselves from 1 to 40. Every seventh man was then to be killed until only one was left; the last man left was to commit suicide…. Josephus…positioned himself so that he would be the last…. Determine the number Flavius Josephus chose.5

Even more suspect than the details of the suicide pacts, Vidal-Naquet writes, are the tenor and content of the speeches attributed to Josephus and Eleazar. The first is inspired by Josephus’ conviction, expressed in his “secret prayer,” that God had visited his wrath on the Jewish people, that all prosperity had passed to the Romans, and that God had chosen him, Josephus, to reveal the things to come, among them Vespasian’s assumption of imperial power. The speeches of Eleazar, on the other hand, derive from an apocalyptic vision of God’s condemnation of the Jewish people and what Vidal-Naquet rightly characterizes as a “pagan encomium to suicide based on the Greek doctrine of the immortality of the soul.” Josephus might have tried to justify the improbable length and detail of these speeches by appeal to his model Thucydides, who explained his procedure in the famous words: “I have…put into the mouth of each speaker the views that in my opinion they would have been most likely to express as the particular occasion demanded….” But Thucydides’ important qualification—“while keeping as nearly as I could to the general purport of what was actually said”—is not applicable for the case of Masada, and the speech Josephus ascribes to himself at Jotapata is an attempt to justify conduct that most of his Jewish readers might well regard as cowardice if not downright treason.


One of the recurring themes of Vidal-Naquet’s discussion of the Jewish War is the fractious disunity of the Jews themselves. “They fought with each other,” says Josephus of the defenders of Jerusalem, “doing everything their besiegers could have desired.” Another is the existence, even before the capture of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple, of a Jewish diaspora. There was, for example, a Jewish population of over one hundred thousand in Egypt as well as Jewish enclaves in Pergamum, Miletus, Sardis, Damascus, Ephesus, Cyprus, and Rome. These Jews were, in varying degrees, Hellenized (it was for the Jews of Egypt that the Greek translation of the sacred books, the Septuagint, was made in the third century BC) and “assimilated” in Greco-Roman society; it was from their ranks that, much later, the first Christian communities emerged. Between them and the Orthodox Jews of the homeland, who after the destruction of the Temple rallied to the new idea of “Judaism as a religion separated from its State” proclaimed by Johanan Ben Zakkai at Yabneh, there was a gulf like that which, many centuries later, separated the Western European Jews, released from the ghetto, enfranchised and increasingly assimilated, from the rural Jewish population of Poland and tsarist Russia.

The second section of Vidal-Naquet’s book—“Emancipation and History”—deals with the “tranquil assimilation,…the impassioned attempt to normalize the Jewish problem,” which was characteristic of France but which extended in some degree to all of Western Europe. It also examines the opposing process, the birth and growth of a project for a new Jewish state—Der Judenstaat was the prophetic title of Theodor Herzl’s pioneering book—that eventually became first the dream and then the ambition of the oppressed and segregated Jews of Eastern Europe and Russia.

Vidal-Naquet discusses Josephus and the Jewish War as a critical historian. He is no less demanding and criti-cal when he turns to the modern era, but this time he writes also as a historian personally involved in the historical processes he analyzes. He belongs to “a Jewish bourgeois family that came from Carpentras via Montpellier and Marseilles” and later moved to Paris; his grandmothers came one from Alsace and one from Odessa. A grandfather and a great-uncle were active in the campaign for the vindication and release of Dreyfus.

Among the articles in this book is an introduction to the journals kept by his father during the Vichy era, before he was deported to Auschwitz. Another is a memoir of his own boyhood in Marseilles which ends with a moving account of his escape, together with two brothers and a sister, from the Gestapo agents who had arrested his parents, an escape made possible only by the presence of mind of his mother and the devoted efforts of the house cook, a schoolmaster, and four of Vidal-Naquet’s fellow students who risked their own arrest as they patrolled the streets on their bicycles to make sure that he did not come home, where the Gestapo officers were waiting for him. His book on the Holocaust, Assassins of Memory, carries the dedication: “In memory of my mother, Marguerite Valabrègue/Marseilles, May 20, 1907-Auschwitz, June 2 (?), 1944/Forever young.”

Though the French philosophes of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, Voltaire especially, expressed contempt for the Jews and, above all, their religion, it was the French Revolution that brought emancipation. And it was in France that during the nineteenth century assimilation proceeded at its fastest pace. By 1831 rabbis were “civil servants paid under the same category as Catholic curés and Protestant pastors.” Jews were admitted to the universities and the officer corps of the army. Progress was slower in Germany, where a military career was denied them, and in England where graduation from Oxford and Cambridge was not permitted until 1871. (It is true that Benjamin Disraeli was prime minister from 1874-1880, but he had been baptized at an early age.) Yet it was in France that, in 1894, the arrest of a Jewish officer, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, on a charge of treason, his conviction by a court-martial on flimsy, hastily concocted evidence, his ceremonial degradation in the courtyard of the Ecole Militaire in Paris, and his four-year imprisonment on Devil’s Island brought the country to the brink of civil war.

A campaign for Dreyfus’s vindication initiated by his brother gathered strength as French intellectuals, Zola prominent among them, anti-Catholic radicals like Clemenceau, and Socialists led by Jaurès rallied to the cause. The Affaire became the focus of the struggle between Catholic, military, and right-wing circles nostalgic for monarchy, and defenders of the newly founded Third Republic, many of whom wished to abolish state support for religion and secularize the educational system. The campaign against Dreyfus (and, after his famous “J’accuse” article of 1898, Zola) was led by the Catholic press; its crude anti-Semitic ferocity, which incited riots and looting of Jewish shops in France and Algeria, seemed, Vidal-Naquet writes, to call into question the validity of assimilation, that inclusion of Jews in la nation that was one of the achievements of the Revolution.

By 1898 the pressure from the left, backed by international press disapproval of the original verdict, forced the government to order a retrial. Dreyfus was brought back from the “dry guillotine” to face a new court-martial at Rennes. In spite of proof that the famous bordereau on which Dreyfus’s conviction was based had been written by Major Esterhazy, and the illegal last-minute presentation to the judges of secret documents proving Dreyfus guilty (they were later exposed as forgeries), the court voted for conviction with recognition of “extenuating circumstances” and a sentence of ten years in prison. This scandalous verdict met with universal disgust abroad; there were demonstrations in Antwerp, London, and New York, as well as calls for a boycott of the great World’s Fair that was to open later in the year in Paris, where its centerpiece, the Eiffel Tower, was already in place. But more frightening for the government, as Vidal-Naquet points out, was the possibility of social chaos or of a military coup if the struggle between the army and the left continued as Dreyfus’s petition for revision of the verdict prolonged the Affaire.

The French premier, Waldeck-Rousseau, who had himself been a Dreyfusard, managed to put an end to the crisis by offering Dreyfus a pardon, which, to the dismay of the Dreyfusards, he accepted. Vidal-Naquet expertly analyzes the complicated maneuvers that produced this result, “an almost perfect example of Machiavellian political practice” that obliged Dreyfus “to put an end to the Affair himself” and, in effect, granted an amnesty to the high-ranking army officers who had gone to such criminal lengths in their efforts to reassert Dreyfus’s guilt. Dreyfus’s acceptance however is understandable. His health had been ruined by the years of confinement on Devil’s Island (he never fully recovered) and in any case he did not see himself as the standard-bearer of the radical left, or even as a Jewish martyr. He remained loyal to the army to which he had devoted his life. He might have adapted for his own case the famous remark of Karl Marx and announced: “All I know is that I am not a Dreyfusard.”

The Affaire was over; eventually, in 1906, the High Court of Appeals annulled the Rennes verdict, declaring that it was pronounced “wrongfully and by error,” and Dreyfus was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur.6 But the obscene fury of the Catholic and right-wing press and the ugly riots it provoked had revealed a flaw in the unity of la nation proclaimed by the Revolution, a flaw that, as Vidal-Naquet writes, was later to reappear in even uglier form as Vichy passed its exclusionary laws and provided full cooperation with the Final Solution that sent first the refugee foreign Jews and then the native French Jews rolling eastward in the freight cars to their deaths.

Vidal-Naquet has already published a collection of essays and articles on the Holocaust. The book under review presents eight more. Among the topics discussed are the insurrection in the Warsaw ghetto, Lanzmann’s film shoah, a French translation of Arno Mayer’s Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? (a question, Vidal-Naquet points out, “borrowed from a Jewish chronicle of the massacres that took place in the Rhineland during the First Crusade”), and an account of life and death in the camps published in 1992 but written in 1946 by a girl who at the age of fifteen had been deported to Auschwitz in the same convoy, Number 75, as Vidal-Naquet’s parents, but who, unlike them, survived to tell the tale. Perhaps the most moving item is the text that closes this section of the book. It is an introduction to the journal kept by his father, Lucien Vidal-Naquet, between September 15, 1942, and February 29, 1944. The last entry, written in Marseilles, ends with the words: “This is where we have decided to wait. Will we be able to carry out our plan?” The answer to that question came on May 15, when the Gestapo took husband and wife “on a one-way trip to Les Baumettes, Drancy [the staging camp for deportation] and then Auschwitz.”

The journal expresses the sorrow and indignation of a Frenchman faced with his repudiation by the country to which “he devoted a cult of worship,” and with the anti-Semitic laws passed by the Vichy government that had made him “a second-class citizen on the very soil where I was born and where my loved ones sleep.” He was a French patriot who as early as 1940 joined a Resistance group, the Musée de l’Homme network, which counted among its members Marguerite Duras, Robert Anthelme, and, later, François Mitterrand. Like Dreyfus, he did not think of himself primarily as a Jew. “I feel,” he wrote, “as a Frenchman the insult that has been addressed to me as a Jew. Today, I very strongly believe—since the distinction has been made between us and France—that France was us, and it is with a terrible wrenching feeling that I separate myself from her, if, as the sneering masters of the present hour affirm, it is in them and not in us that France is incarnated.” On this passage Jeffrey Mehlman, the translator of Assassins of Memory, remarks in his foreword: “It is perhaps the imperfect tense—the present belief that France was us—which is most wrenching.” Vidal-Nacquet’s interpretation is less despairing. “In reading these lines, I wondered whether there was not here a very distant echo of the ‘remnant of Israel’ that alone is Israel (Isaiah 10:4 and passim). But De Gaulle did not think otherwise, except that the latter experienced no doubts.”7

The Dreyfus affair, the Holocaust, and Vichy’s collaboration in the Nazi genocide might well be thought to justify the Zionist movement (founded in Paris by Theodor Herzl, who, as a reporter for a Viennese newspaper, had watched the degradation of Dreyfus) in its view that “assimilation was impossible, revolution vain, and anti-Semitism perennial.” The movement found its supporters among the Jews living in the ghettos of Eastern Europe and resulted in the creation of a Jewish state where, in Tel Aviv’s Museum of the Jewish Diaspora, “the postemancipatory Jewish condition” is presented “as a gold-plated trap.” The fourth section of Vidal-Naquet’s book is devoted to Israel, to which, by 1982, he had made three visits.

He is of course impressed by the achievements of Israel, the creation, for example, of “a democratic society, infinitely more egalitarian than any Western society…that…closely resembles, in some respects, the pioneer democracy Tocqueville observed in America.” He notes too that “with the aid of American Judaism, Israel is an enormous force for development and modernization, for the integration into the modern world and into ‘industrial society’ of populations that had not penetrated there before….” But, as he goes on to point out, “the Arabs of Israel have themselves ‘benefited’ from these processes only in a quite relative way….” What began as colonization with the cooperation of the British Empire has remained a colonial enterprise which “soon risks becoming caught in an Algerian- or South African-style logic.” And Vidal-Naquet quotes the harsh assessment offered him by an Israeli historian: “We have become the modern Sparta, a nation of two and a half million ‘Equals’ reigning over a million ‘helots.”‘

However, the Helots, the serfs of ancient Sparta, were kept in a state of brutal ignorance; their potential leaders were identified and quickly eliminated,8 whereas “the Palestinian population is, intellectually speaking, the most developed in the Arab world,” numbering in its ranks “more university graduates and students with advanced degrees than any other Middle East country except Israel,” even though “most of these graduates… are forced to live elsewhere,” and “work in the Arab world or as far away as the United States.” Writing in 1982 Vidal-Naquet saw no solution possible that did not “entail the creation of a Palestinian State that, quite naturally, would be free to federate with Jordan, even with Israel,” a development that “presupposes the evacuation of the colonial settlements and a resolution to the problem of Jerusalem.” In the preface to this English translation, written in January 1995, he speaks of the “immense joy” with which he greeted the Oslo accords and their confirmation by the handshake in Washington.”Everything seemed possible.” But it has turned out otherwise. He sees the main obstacle to peace in the “colonial settlements now dotting the Palestinian territory, including those located in the immediate environs of Arab Jerusalem”; only the dismantling of these settlements will make possible “even mere coexistence with Palestine.”

At the beginning of his preface Vidal-Naquet reprints the closing sentences of his introduction to the first French collection, published in 1981. “Stretched between the Israel of the first century and the Israel of today, between the victims and the executioners, between the misfortune of yesterday and the lies of today, this book is a torn fabric.” And he closes the preface with the words: “Perhaps it will be understood that, if this book is indeed a torn fabric, that is because the situation itself is torn—not only torn but heartrending.” Now, since the assassination of Rabin, the election of Netanyahu, the inclusion in the government of the hard-liner Sharon and the religious fundamentalists, and the lethal exchange of gunfire between Palestinian police and Israeli troops, the outlook for repair seems dark; the tear in the fabric may have become irreparable.

This Issue

October 31, 1996