Jean Daniel
Jean Daniel; drawing by David Levine


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.”

It’s a fair point: the Zionist movement, he observes, accepted the UN partition plan, endorsed by both the United States and the Soviet Union, thus establishing what Daniel calls the “legality” of their enterprise; the Arab states, viewing Jewish sovereignty in any part of Palestine as illegitimate, rejected partition and invaded the new state. But were things as simple as that, with the expulsions of Palestinians and the razing of their villages, and the seizure of more land than allotted under the partition plan in 1948, Israel’s collusion with France and Great Britain against Nasser at Suez in 1956, and its bloody reprisal raids in Jordan, Egypt, and Syria from the early Fifties through the mid-Sixties—to say nothing of the draconian military rule to which “Israeli Arabs” were subject between 1948 and 1965? Even at the time, Daniel had his doubts, confessing in The Jewish Prison that “I had a strong suspicion I was searching for compromises with my ideal principles.”

What made him a critic of the Israeli government, he says, was its refusal to allow for the creation of a workable Palestinian state in the occupied territories, its systematic settlement of Palestinian land, and the eclipse of secular Zionism by an increasingly religious one. How this came to pass Daniel does not say, and reading him one might imagine that prior to 1967 Israel exhibited no strong expansionist or messianic tendencies, a myth demolished by Israel’s own “new historians.”3 Does he still view Israel partly from within the walls of the Jewish prison? Perhaps, and he would probably admit as much; yet his belief that only a two-state solution can bring peace to Israel-Palestine—and move the Jewish state “from legality to legitimacy”—can be seen as a reflection of political sobriety and of his abhorrence of violence: a radical revolution along Algerian lines, in his view, would inevitably lead to more slaughter, if not the expulsion of Israeli Jews who have no other home.


Daniel was inspired to write The Jewish Prison, he says, by the second intifada, starting in the autumn of 2000. What had been a struggle over land with a religious dimension had come to resemble “a real war of religions,” waged by the “idolaters in both camps”—Palestine’s suicide bombers and Israel’s settlers and their political allies. And like most wars of religion, this one had no respect for geographical boundaries, spilling over into Europe and providing a focus for Muslim and Jewish rage. No country in Europe was more affected by the second intifada than France, which has the continent’s largest Jewish population (600,000) and its largest Muslim population (between six and seven million). In a wave of violence beginning in 2001, after the outbreak of the uprising, and peaking in the spring of 2002, with Israel’s invasion of the Jenin refugee camp, young Beurs, or North African Muslims, attacked Jewish citizens, most of them working-class Jews of North African origin, desecrated cemeteries, and set fire to synagogues; in a development scarcely noted in the American press, young North African Jews, some affiliated with right-wing paramilitary groups like the Betar and the Jewish Defense League, avenged themselves against Arabs and their ostensible supporters on the French left, attacking Arab pedestrians, journalists, and policemen during pro-Israel rallies, and assaulting pro-Palestinian activists and members of the liberal Jewish group Peace Now.

Caught off guard, the French government was slow to respond, and some Jews charged that it viewed them as an impediment to their efforts to placate a restive and growing Arab population and to maintain France’s standing in the Middle East. The left, while denouncing the violence, shied away from identifying those who committed it, since most of them were not the usual hotheads on the far right, but young, unemployed, alienated Muslims in slums, the children of immigrants from France’s former North African colonies—victims of racism who needed to be protected from an already pervasive stigma.

Panic gripped the Jewish community. Roger Cukierman, the president of the CRIF—the Conseil Représentatif des Institutions juives de France, an umbrella group of Jewish organizations to which roughly one in seven French Jews belongs—invoked the menace of a “red-brown-green alliance” comprised of leftists, neofascists, and Islamists with nothing in common except an incendiary hatred of Jews and Israel.4 Alain Finkielkraut, who in his widely praised 1982 essay The Imaginary Jew had argued that “the contemporary period has nothing in common with the repugnant violence of the 1930s,” declared 2002 the “Year of Crystal,” alluding to the Nazis’ Kristallnacht of November 9, 1938.5 In Le Monde, the prominent Nazi-hunter Serge Klarsfeld went so far as to propose “a divorce” between France and the Jews.

Political officials and representatives of Jewish organizations in Israel and the United States, whose governments were clashing with France over Iraq and Palestine, exacerbated the sense of crisis. “France 1942–2002” read an advertisement by the American Jewish Congress, urging Hollywood to boycott the 2002 Cannes Film Festival. Acutely concerned about Israel’s “demographic problem,” and perhaps eager to embarrass a country that has challenged the American-Israeli agenda for a “new Middle East,” Ariel Sharon denounced France as awash in “the wildest anti-Semitism” and urged French Jews to settle in Israel. But even the Israeli prime minister’s greatest defenders in France were outraged by his invitation: Cukierman, who, shortly after September 11, had advised Sharon to find “a minister of propaganda, like Goebbels,” threatened to picket the Israeli embassy in Paris.

In protesting Sharon’s speech, Cukierman and other Jewish leaders implicitly acknowledged what French-Jewish critics of Israel’s siege in the West Bank had been saying all along: that Israel—which officially defines itself as the “state of the Jewish people”—might be fanning the flames of anti-Jewish prejudice in France. Yet those Jews who, like Daniel, dared to link the rise in attacks to Israeli repression in the occupied territories found themselves harshly reprimanded, and in some cases physically threatened, by other Jews. Daniel’s paper, Le Nouvel Observateur, was threatened with a boycott. Claude Lanzmann, the maker of “Shoah,” called Rony Brauman, the Israeli-born former President of MÌ©decins sans Fronti̬res, a “traitor” on television, while Eyal Sivan, a left-wing Israeli filmmaker based in Paris, received a letter containing a .22 caliber bullet, with a note: “The next one will not arrive by mail.” Richard Wagman, president of the French-Jewish Union for Peace, and Charles Enderlin, a veteran French-Israeli correspondent in Jerusalem for the television station France 2, both received death threats.

Though anti-Jewish violence has declined since 2002, it remains of grave concern. Yet, as Daniel underscores in his book, the French public has overwhelmingly reacted in horror at anti-Semitic attacks on Jews, while the French government, after initially dragging its feet, has acted decisively, and with increasing success, to curb anti-Semitic violence and protect Jews, in a display of vigilance that has not been extended to Arabs, who suffer from racism and discrimination as well as from hate crimes, including attacks by neofascists and mosque burnings.6

“By whatever criteria one uses, classical anti-Semitic prejudice has been in rapid decline” in France, the former Israeli ambassador to France, Elie Barnavi, writes in his Lettre ouverte aux Juifs de France, adding that “the immense majority of French people are ready to elect a Jew as president of the Republic”—something that cannot be said of voters in the United States, where much of the organized Jewish community has painted France in the darkest hues. (In an interview in the Jewish journal L’Arche, Barnavi predicted that the situation in France would “calm down when we’ve resolved our conflict with the Palestinians.”) Dramatically retreating from his shrill denunciations of French anti-Semitism, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon recently accepted President Jacques Chirac’s invitation to Paris, where he enjoyed a warm reception; in turn, French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy praised Sharon’s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip as a “courageous and historic decision.” As Daniel insists, the popular account of anti-Jewish violence in France, especially in the American press, is no more than a cartoon of an extremely complicated, fraught, and volatile situation, whose causes deserve far more subtle consideration. It is not simply a matter of hate crimes by Arabs against Jews, but of a clash between two groups whose passionate identification with the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy threatens to eclipse their commitment to the Republic that is their home.

At stake here is not just what some Jews call “the new anti-Semitism” but the relationship between the Republic and its Jewish citizens. What Daniel calls the “extraordinary alliance” between France and the Jews began in 1791, when the revolutionary Republic became the first country in Europe to accord full citizenship to Jews, on the condition that they integrate into French society. “The Republic must refuse everything to Jews as a nation, and grant them everything as individuals,” Clermont-Tonnerre, a parliamentary champion of the Emancipation, famously declared in the Constituent Assembly. With the exception of some religious leaders, whose authority was threatened, all but a small number of Jews embraced Tonnerre’s vision. “France is our Palestine, its mountains are our Zion, its rivers our Jordan,” said one emancipated Jew, quoted by the historian Michel Winock in his splendidly judicious new history, La France et les juifs.7 “Freedom has only one language, and all men know its alphabet.”

After their emancipation, France’s “Israelites” rapidly rose through the ranks of French society, not only in the professions and in finance, but, in marked contrast to other European countries, in high politics (hence the term “state Jews”) and in the army. In 1842, Archives israélites proclaimed, with poignant certainty, “Fanaticism is in ruins, the persecution of Jews is dead, superstition has vanished.” It was not to be. Yet the alliance endured for nearly two centuries, surviving the traumas of the Dreyfus Affair and the deportations of the Vichy period, as Jews reaffirmed their faith in the Republic that had emancipated them.

In recent years, however, the alliance has come under increasing strain; as Daniel frequently laments, the term “assimilation” has acquired the accusatory connotations of self-hatred and disloyalty in some parts of the organized Jewish community. This shift is reflected in the work of historians for whom the Emancipation itself has assumed a sinister cast. These critics point, for example, to the fact that the Emancipation’s intellectual architect, the Abbé Grégoire, in his “Essay on the Physical, Moral, and Political Regeneration of the Jews” (1789), argued that Jews had to be saved from their own ostensibly atavistic customs, deceitful habits, strange smells, and vices. For French critics of assimilation, such views are proof not just of discomfort with the Jews, but of a plot to rob them of their identity, even to convert them to Christianity. As one American historian sympathetic to this critique puts it, “What was liberal in 1791 is now bigotry.”

There is some truth to this charge. The Jacobins, like most modern revolutionaries, were uneasy with diversity and viewed France’s 40,000 Jews as a potential threat to the unity of France’s 28 million citizens; the Abbé Grégoire raged against rabbis who had “spoiled the nation.” Yet the aims behind emancipation, as Daniel underscores in The Jewish Prison, were largely noble. Although the rhetoric of regeneration strikes the modern ear as hostile to the idea of a Jewish community, the aim of refusing Jews collective privileges as a national minority was to place Jews under French law—in contrast, for example, to the Muslim population of French Algeria, which was a separate community under Islamic law.


Freed not only from segregation and official anti-Semitism, but also from the religious laws to which their own clan had subjected them, France’s Israelites could now claim full rights as citoyens. Assimilation, Daniel notes, was a “passionate liberation of the individual from his community but not,” he adds, “from his identity”; far from seeking to melt Jews into a pot-au-feu, much less convert them, the Republic provided French Judaism with a national stage, in the form of such institutions as the Grand Sanhédrin and the Consistory. Precisely because they were not discouraged from practicing their faith, only seven hundred Jews converted to Christianity between 1800 and 1870, as compared to ten thousand of their German counterparts.

Moreover, French anti-Semites did not regard emancipation as a clever plot to Christianize the Jews but, on the contrary, as a diabolical effort to “Judaize” France. Indeed, the Republic itself became so intertwined with the Jewish emancipation by the mid-nineteenth century that right-wing ideologues saw both as expressions of “La France Juive”—the title of Edouard Drumont’s violently anti-Semitic 1886 manifesto. In depicting France as eternally hostile to Jews, France’s critics betray a curious lack of historical perspective. To be sure, anti-Semitism has hardly been of minor significance in French political life, as Daniel readily concedes; nor has it been the monopoly of the right. (Throughout the nineteenth century, the French left had its own version of anti-Semitism, in which the “rich Jew” figured as the evil, exploiting capitalist. “The Jew is the enemy of mankind,” Proudhon wrote in one of his diaries, in 1883. “This race must be sent to Asia or exterminated.”)

Yet, as Daniel observes, the French past is evoked today in such a man-ner as to suggest that the Dreyfus Affair and World War II ended in a resounding triumph for the anti-Semitic “French ideology,” rather than for the Republic. Thus, as Daniel points out, one hears of Captain Alfred Dreyfus’s persecution, but not of his ultimate exoneration and promotion, or of the energetic defense mounted by Émile Zola, Charles Péguy, and Anatole France. Similarly, he observes, many of the accusatory references to Vichy pass over the fact that two of every three French Jews were saved by their fellow citizens. Not for nothing did only three thousand French Jews (98 percent of them recent arrivals to France) leave for Israel after the war. French Jews did not want to separate much less emigrate from France, but to resume their lives as French citizens.

Jewish separatism (or “communitarianism,” as it is known in France) began to take shape in the 1960s, with the arrival en masse of Sephardic Jews from North Africa, who now account for well over half of France’s Jewish population. Having lived for centuries as a “tolerated” minority, or dimmi, in Muslim societies, Sephardic Jews—especially those from Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt, who unlike their Algerian cousins had never been French citizens—were both more pious and less bashful about publicly asserting their ethnic identity. Where Ashkenazi Jews had largely practiced their faith in private, the Sephardim settled in tight-knit communities, where they established Jewish schools, yeshivas, kosher restaurants, and ritual baths.

Though many North African Jews, particularly those from Algeria, went on to achieve considerable success and prominence in France, a substantial minority have continued to live in a working-class world largely closed in on itself, like the one they had known in North Africa, very often on the edges of neighborhoods inhabited by even poorer North African Muslims. Most North African Jews were uncritical supporters of Israel. The Jewish state represented their last tie to their ancestral region, which they had been pressured to leave by Arab governments; and in its wars with the Arabs, Israel offered a source of vicarious revenge, along with a measure of psychological compensation for the traumas of emigration, including tensions with their Muslim neighbors, who resembled them in many respects, with the notable exception of the side they cheered in the Israel–Palestine conflict.

When the North Africans first arrived in the mid-1950s, nothing stood in the way of Jews’ affirming their loyalty to France and their solidarity with Israel, since the two countries were the closest of allies, developing nuclear weapons in the Israeli desert and joining forces against Nasser at Suez. As Daniel reminds us, “French Jews could feel they were linked to Israel by their French identity as much as by their Jewish one.” In 1967, that special relationship suddenly unraveled, when Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping and massed troops on the border, and De Gaulle sternly warned the Jewish state against a preemptive strike.

“The voice of France was not heard,” De Gaulle thundered at his November 27, 1967, press conference, while most of France’s Jews were still basking in the glow of Israel’s victory in what soon became known as the “Six Day War.” Infuriated that the country he had once regarded as a junior partner had disregarded his advice not to attack Nasser, the General warned presciently that “the occupation…cannot proceed without oppression, repression, expulsions,” and without engendering “resistance that, in turn, [Israel] will call terrorism.” He did not stop there, however; he went on to reprimand not Israel but “the Jews” as “an elite people, sure of itself and domineering.” For De Gaulle’s Jewish admirers, notably Raymond Aron,8 who devoted an entire book to the press conference, and for Daniel, the General’s sweeping condemnation of “the Jews” came as a searing betrayal; and it convinced some French Jews that France had made common cause with Israel’s enemies.

Nothing of the kind happened. But, as Winock remarks in La France et les juifs, with the 1967 war, “the French– Israeli honeymoon was over. There would no longer be unconditional support for Israel.” Many in France no longer saw Israel as a victim, and came to view its intransigence as an obstacle to peace, if not a danger to European security; insofar as Sharon finds any strong non-Jewish supporters in France today, they are often on the far right, notably National Front leader Jean Marie Le Pen, a former paratrooper (and torturer) in Algeria who, though he notoriously declared the Holocaust a mere “detail” in the history of the Second World War, has always admired Israel for its multiple humiliations of the Arabs on the battlefield.9

Since 1967, French Jews, particularly those from the postwar North African immigration, have identified with Israel with increasing fervor, celebrating each of its military victories. “Contrary to what is being written today,” Daniel points out in The Jewish Prison, “the Jews of France did not rediscover their ancient fears when Israel was weak and isolated, but rather after Israel had become a victor.” In a Jewish community where religious observance was in decline, Israel’s military bravado increasingly “substituted for the coming of the Messiah.” The war also nourished a “worship of the Holocaust” that situated the genocide in a theological framework of catastrophe and redemption.10 Daniel asks: “Memory of scandalous martyrdom, or of a punishment deserved?” The lesson drawn by many, “without admitting, even to themselves,” was that God “had punished us when we were peaceful,” and “protected us when we were warriors.”

The Nazi genocide thus acquired a new meaning, Daniel observes, as a fateful prelude to the “reunification of Jerusalem”—further confirmation of God’s special bond with the Jewish people. And “by making the memory of the Shoah sacred,” Daniel writes, Jews in France “participated a little in the Israeli victories. Jewish sadness had to be present for them for Israeli happiness to be complete—and justified.” Since 1967, the walls of “the Jewish prison” have only grown higher: French Jews, despite the fact that many of them are relatively well-off and integrated into public life, increasingly see themselves as outsiders—not as “Israelites” or “French people of Jewish origin” (Français juifs) but as “French Jews” (juifs français) and, more recently, as “Jews of France” (juifs de France).


Recent demonstrations in Paris have borne tragic witness to the growing allure, among France’s Jews and Arabs, of communitarianism, one of the greatest challenges the Republic now faces. At rallies held in solidarity with Palestinians during the 2002 Israeli siege of the West Bank, some young Beurs shouted “down with the Jews” and “death to the Jews,” the first time these slogans had been heard in the capital since the 1930s. When the Jewish organization CRIF staged a demonstration against anti-Semitism on April 7, 2002—after rejecting the participation of left-leaning, nonreligious groups—marchers waved the Israeli flag and proclaimed their unconditional solidarity with Israel, in a display of nationalist passion that affirmed the very “equation of Jew and Israeli” that the CRIF’s president, Roger Cukierman, had earlier denounced.11 On the edges of the demonstration, young men in the militant right-wing Zionist organizations Betar and the Jewish Defense League, some of them armed with knives and baseball bats, looked for Arabs to beat up, crying “Sale race!” (“Dirty race!”)

Among Jews in France today, Israel is increasingly described as “the Jew among nations,” despite its enormous power, its nuclear weapons, and its status as an occupier. Théo Klein, the widely esteemed former head of the CRIF and one of the Jewish community’s most liberal figures, recently observed that many Jews, far from being troubled, seem to take a “jubilatory comfort” in the idea that Israel is condemned to the world’s hostility, and that it is once again under “existential threat.” In Daniel’s view, this “jubilatory comfort” points to a stark and unsettling divide between reality and perception among Jews in the West today. Although “the Jews are no longer considered victims,” he writes in his Soleils d’hiver, Carnets 1998–2000, “very few of them know this.” For all their power, “Jews preserve a secret feeling of vulnerability.”

The transformation of the Jews’ position in the world has been staggering enough to lead one historian to call his provocative recent study The Jewish Century.12 Concentrated in Israel, which has one of the world’s most powerful armies, and in a handful of countries in the West, where they enjoy a level of prosperity, acceptance, and power that their ancestors in the shtetls could hardly have dreamed of, Jews now seem masters of their fate. In many countries in the West, anti-Semitism is one of the most taboo of prejudices and anyone who expresses it is publicly shunned—in notable contrast to anti-Arab prejudice. Insofar as Israel attracts frequent criticisms from the left, it is largely because of what the Jewish state does, not because of what it is. If the criticisms seem especially heated, Daniel suggests, it’s a measure of the disappointment experienced by a generation of intellectuals, including Jews like Daniel himself, Edgar Morin, and Pierre Vidal-Naquet, who admired the kibbutznik society of the 1950s, combined with “Judeocentrism”—a sense that the destiny of the Jews is mysteriously linked to that of humankind. This Judeocentrism is not lost on Palestinians. “Do you know why we are so famous?” the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish asked the Israeli writer Helit Yeshurun in a 1996 interview. “It’s because you are our enemy. The interest in the Palestinian question flows from the interest in the Jewish question….It’s you they’re interested in, not me!…So we have the misfortune of having an enemy, Israel, with so many sympathizers in the world, and we have the good fortune that our enemy is Israel, since Jews are the center of the world. You have given us our defeat, our weakness, our renown.”13

Daniel is not suggesting that Israel be held to a higher standard, much less that it be a “witness and priest”: “Isn’t there,” he asks, “besides, a cruel contradiction between granting Israel a land confiscated from others and the requirement for a national holiness?” What he finds troubling and morally unacceptable is that the Israeli government tries to have it both ways, invoking “interests of state” when “it conducts itself as a State should,” and the memory of the Holocaust when “it deviates from behavior condoned by other states.” Israel “cannot, at one and the same time, ask to be treated like all countries at war or in conflict, and then differently from all the other countries.” As for the Jewish people, Daniel believes that “if they still insist on being chosen,” they “have the absolute obligation to be ‘witnesses and priests’ in remembering their history of suffering”—particularly, he implies, when the Jewish state is responsible for atrocities against Palestinians. In the eyes of God—in whom, one must recall, Daniel does not believe—“the chosen people stop being Jewish, and the Jewish people stop being chosen, as soon as it devotes itself to something other than testimony and priesthood.”

This raises a formidable ethical challenge which few are capable of meeting. Thus one wonders whether Daniel is not asking too much of his fellow Jews, both in the diaspora and in Israel, many of whom, by his exacting definition, have long ago ceased to be Jewish in any meaningful sense. The behavior of survivors of other recent violent catastrophes is hardly more encouraging. Consider, for instance, the ethnic cleansing conducted by Albanian Kosovars after their liberation from Serbian domination, or, for that matter, America’s “war on terrorism,” in which Israeli-style methods of repression and interrogation have been applied on a planetary scale. Hell, it would seem, hath no fury like a righteous victim. There is something touching about Daniel’s hope that the Jews might be the exception—and thereby prove worthy of the Election.

Most Jews in the West, however, will continue to regard themselves as Jews while being indifferent to the claim of the Election, by far the flimsiest pillar of the Jewish prison. The Holocaust remains an important reason for this sense of inescapable belonging. But the latent fear of persecution may be less significant, Daniel suggests, than the comfort provided by the Jewish prison. Outside its walls, Jewish identity threatens to become, as the late French novelist Georges Perec, the son of Polish Jews, memorably put it, “a question, a throwing into question, a floating, an anxiety, an anxious certainty.”

The self-confinement of France’s Jews may be distressing, but it is hardly surprising in a nation whose republican ideology has begun to fray, and in a world where narrow doctrines of religious and ethnic identity have violently reasserted themselves since the end of the cold war. As Daniel observes in his 1995 essay “Voyage to the End of the Nation,” “Men want to liberate themselves but they do not want to be free. They are always looking to belong to something,” drawn inexorably to “the prisons of roots,” to an “authenticity” that promises protection from the “supposed aggressions of modernity.” One conclusion that emerges from Jean Daniel’s remarkably perceptive and humane book is that in preferring the security of a prison to the anxieties of life on the outside, tribal loyalty to the universal application of justice, the Chosen People have, alas, revealed themselves to be altogether ordinary.

This Issue

September 22, 2005