Home > Ethics, Philosophy > Implicit Anti-Semitism in Sartre’s Anti-Semite and the Jew and the Potentiality of a Second Holocaust

Implicit Anti-Semitism in Sartre’s Anti-Semite and the Jew and the Potentiality of a Second Holocaust

One does not need to look far into history to see the underpinnings of the modern conception of anti-Semitism. Nazi ideology and the National Socialist German Worker’s Party under Adolf Hitler in the 1930s and 40s embodied anti-Semitism perhaps most fully. Immediately following World War II, Jean-Paul Sartre composed his book, Anti-Semite and the Jew, as a theoretical understanding of the “Jewish problem.” It is Sartre’s application of his existential philosophy in Being and Nothingness to the “Jewish problem,” using the full range of his terms, including freedom, facticity, for-itself, in-itself, etc.

For this reason, however, Anti-Semite and Jew has been criticized as being too narrow in its understanding of the Jewish experience. I intend to broaden this criticism. This paper will begin by outlining Sartre’s argument to combat anti-Semitism, moving to define fundamental philosophical problems with Sartre’s argument, continuing further to point out the implicit anti-Semitism in Sartre’s work, and concluding with the implications of Sartre’s philosophy as it ethically concerns such events as the Holocaust. I argue that Sartre’s philosophy, as it is applied in Anti-Semite and Jew, necessarily opposes individuals and people groups, such as the Jews, who define themselves as separate from society as such and that this conception may be implicitly responsible for such moral travesties as the Holocaust in particular or genocide in general.

We must first define terms key to Sartre’s understanding of the anti-Semite. Sartre defines the Jewish people in a particular way. He uses the concepts from Being and Nothingness and defines the Jewish people as “neither national nor international, neither religious, nor ethnic, nor political:  it is a quasi-historical community” (Sartre 145). The Jewish people are not an established, historical community, according to Sartre. One cannot look into the history books and see the Jewish State, Israel, or the Promised Land. Neither are the Jews an international collection of one ethnic group, e.g. refugees who have fled from an original home to other sovereign states. Sartre makes a bold claim in defining them as a “quasi-historical community,” rather than the traditional understanding of at least a religious, if international, community.

However, this claim fits into Sartre’s philosophical system, as he defines the Jewish consciousness in the same way as my body for myself as known by others. Sartre presupposes two realms of  being:  being-for-itself and being-in-itself. Being-for-itself is embodiment, consciousness; being-in-itself is everything outside of consciousness. Sartre defines embodiment, or consciousness, in three distinct realms:  my body as it is for me; my body as it is for others; and my body for myself as known by others. The first realm is our firsthand experience with the world via our consciousness and unmediated by outside consciousnesses. The second realm is the third-person perspective concerning our bodies; it is the embodiment that we study rather than live.

The third, and final, realm, and the one that I want to define most closely, is our body as we live but as mediated by an outside consciousness. This realm is susceptible to and defined by the opinions of others; this realm is not wholly determined by the individual. This third realm—my body for myself as known by others—is defined by the Other[i]; through stereotypes and imposed obligations and aspirations, this third realm is the realm with which Sartre defines the Jewish people. They are not their own, self-determined people; rather, they are determined at least in part by how the Other perceives them.

Sartre then defines anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism, according to Sartre, is “a passionate effort to realize a national union against the division of society into classes” (Sartre 148). Anti-Semitism is the vigorous effort of men and women against a class-divided society. This “passionate effort” is focused against groups of people which embrace class distinctions and embrace being defined as separate from society. The anti-Semite seeks to assimilate at the cost of individuality, thereby removing from the Jews their distinctive quality of Jewish-ness. The anti-Semite does not allow the Jews to define themselves as separated from society; rather, they must assimilate at the cost of their own identity.

With these two definitions in mind, Sartre defines for us the root of anti-Semitism. He explains, “[I]t is not the Jewish character that provokes anti-Semitism, but, rather, that it is the anti-Semite who creates the Jew” (Sartre 143). Sartre defines the Jewish people as “quasi-historical” and the anti-Semite as one that has a “passionate effort” against class-distinctions, and then he proposes that the anti-Semite creates the Jew. The one opposed to class-distinctions, i.e. the anti-Semite, creates the character that embraces and embodies class-distinctions. This seems paradoxical. However, in Sartre’s defense, this is empirically based on the observation that individuals, or groups, that desire total assimilation often seek out and attack others that seemingly resist this in virtue of their “separate” identity. Therefore, Sartre proposes that, as long  as the anti-Semite exists, total assimilation is impossible, both for the Jew and for the Black, the Muslim, the Female, etc (Sartre 144, 153).

In response to the anti-Semite, Sartre proposes a “concrete liberalism. By that [he means] that all persons who through their work collaborate toward the greatness of a country have the full rights of citizens of that country” (Sartre 146). Sartre suggests not removing the class-distinctions but offering the same rights to all members of a society who facilitate such a collaboration. He refuses to concede that it is their dignity as humans which affords them this right; rather, he claims that it is their “active participation” in that culture (Sartre 146).[ii] The Jew, according to Sartre, because he works for the greatness of France as well as does the Catholic, ought to be afforded the same rights and properties without fear of persecution.

Sartre extends this point, though. Because he claimed earlier that the anti-Semite defines the Jew, it is the anti-Semite, not the Jew, who must be acted against by society at large (Sartre 147). Sartre claims that France must not permit a society wherein the Jews are seen contemptuously for being Jewish and the anti-Semites are free to have this view of the Jew. He offers a resolution:  the freedom and perspective, with which the anti-Semite now decides, should be changed to other foundations, thereby avoiding the anti-Semitic thoughts, motives, and actions (Sartre 148). He explains, “Since he, like all men, exists as a free agent within a situation, it is his situation that must be modified from top to bottom. In short, if we can change the perspective of choice, then the choice [of anti-Semitism] itself will change. Thus we do not attack the freedom, but bring it about that freedom decides on other bases, and in terms of other structures” (Sartre 148). By resituating the perspective of the anti-Semite, Sartre hopes to eliminate anti-Semitism.

Sartre continues with his final solution for anti-Semitism. He claims that “the social revolution is necessary to and sufficient for the suppression of the anti-Semite” (Sartre 150). The dissolution of classes, for Sartre, will eliminate the class-consciousness and class-distinctions that breed anti-Semitism. “It is for the Jew also that we shall make the revolution,” Sartre exclaims (151). Through the social revolution, the perspective and freedom of the anti-Semite is changed, and therefore his freedom to act as an anti-Semite is removed because of the impossibility of a Jewish problematic existent.

Unfortunately for Sartre, his position is inconsistent on several points. The first problem is the problem of perspective. Sartre composed this piece in the immediate shadow of World War II, on the heels of the worldwide discovery of and reflection on the Holocaust. So grand a travesty with such wide implications requires a broader, more extensive philosophical approach that Sartre offers (Sungolowsky 68). One ought not limit his approach to an event such as the Holocaust with self-imposed definitions, themes, and ideas. However, this is not as damning as other inconsistencies.

The second problem Sartre faces is that he changes the Jewish people from an actual, historically existing people to an ethereal ideal. This is more severe. Sartre’s contends that anti-Semitism is not motivated by any outside force but is merely a passion motivated solely by the “idea of the Jew” (Sungolowsky 68). This approach to the Jewish question is naïve at best. Although it fits well within his philosophical framework, the Jew is not an idea. The Jew is a situated individual who defines himself as a Jew. Sartre represents the Jewish people as lacking essential qualities inherent to being Jewish, “Sartre’s representation of the Jew is removed from anything inherently Jewish (Jewish properties), or even subjectively Jewish (as perceived by Jews). His conception of ‘the Jew’ is based on categories he developed in Being and Nothingness” (Morris-Reich 104). He does not allow the Jew to define himself; rather, the ‘Jew’ is a social stigma placed upon him because of the anti-Semite and the anti-Semite alone.

If Sartre limits those with the power to define Jewishness to be the anti-Semite and to the philosopher, he does not allow the Jew an equivalent possibility or freedom in the ‘my body as it is for me’ realm of consciousness, which is the self-definition realm, to define himself. Sungolowsky explains, “One could agree partially with Sartre that the anti-Semite reminds the Jew of his Jewishness, but he certainly does not ‘create’ the Jew who, after all, has a past of his own and a will to maintain himself despite anti-Semitic persecutions” (Sungolowsky 70). The Jew is reminded of his Jewishness by the anti-Semite, but this reminder is not creation. The Jewish people persist despite persecution; they do not exist because of persecution. To deny the Jews everything as a people is to deny the Jews the freedom to determine for themselves who they are, and such a notion is central to Sartrean existentialism.

Third, the insistence that anti-Semitism was born in Nazi ideology is a misunderstanding of history. The Jews have been periodically persecuted for over three thousand years. Whether or not one accepts the historicity of the Jewish people as found in the Torah, one cannot disregard the fact that the Jewish people have existed as a distinct people group since before the Roman Empire. “[F]or it has been shown that anti-Semitism existed before the so-called crime of deicide. Seneca had called the Jews a ‘criminal race’ and those Romans who were landholders despised the economic activities of the Jews” (Sungolowsky 70). We see that the Jews have been a determined, historical people since at least the Roman Empire and certainly well before.

The second and third criticisms are the most revealing concerning Sartre’s presuppositions. Without presupposing the truth behind the Jews’ claim to have a covenant with God, one cannot deny that this claim is what unites the Jews as separate from the outside world, the Other according to Sartre. They established themselves as a separate, distinct, and chosen-from-the-world people group, a group which must oppose assimilation as Sartre puts forth. However, Sartre refuses to acknowledge that the Jews positively determine themselves. In fact, his presupposition that the Jews desire assimilation seems to be assumed for the sake of his argument. Sartre says concerning assimilation, “Certainly they wish to integrate themselves in the nation, but as Jews, and who would dare reproach them for that?” (Sartre 145). He refers to potential policies that would require forced assimilation at the expense of the Jewish people’s cultural doings and religious practices (Sartre 143-4). Yet, he presupposes that the Jews desire to assimilate at all. Certainly, they wish to avoid be stigmatized and persecuted, but does this desire necessarily translate into a desire for assimilation? That seems to be a large leap for Sartre to make.

Further, Sartre refuses the historical situation of the Jews. If Sartre accepts that the Jewish people have a self-determined, historical situation, then his argument concerning the creation of the Jew via the anti-Semite immediately crashes. His solution for the Jewish problem may not change, although it probably will, but his presuppositions must undergo a radical shift. However, this shift is necessary for Sartre to remain historically sound, “In [opposing a portrait of the Jew and seeking to define him], Sartre refuses to consider the Jew as part of a national community because, according to him, that community has been dispersed for the past twenty-five centuries. … Therefore, Jews do not constitute an historical community, and, because of their dispersal, the Jews lack an historical past” (Sungolowsky 69). Because the Jews lack a nation-state, e.g. Israel, and are forced into the Dispersion, they, according to Sartre, lack a historical community and a historical past.[iii] And again, Sartre must account for these inconsistencies in his work, “Harold Rosenberg deplores the fact that Sartre has cut the Jews off from their past and he invites Sartre to ‘indicate at what point the Jews of former times had ceased to exist and a different Jew was born out of anti-Semitism’” (Rosenberg qtd. in Sungolowsky 70). Sartre refuses the Jewish people a positive definition, instead forcing them to be negatively defined by the Other.

Sartre’s blanket refusal to allow the Jewish people a historical community or common thread is implicitly anti-Semitic. Again, Sartre refuses the Jews the same freedom that any other religious, ethnocultural, or historical community has or deserves, which is to define itself. The presupposition that Sartre uses in Anti-Semite and Jew is an implicit anti-Semitic stance,

Sartre employs these distinctions in Anti-Semite and Jew: ‘Jew is one whom other men consider a Jew:  that is the simple truth from which we must start.’ He negates different possibilities for determining the Jew (religion, a historical community of memory, etc.) and claims that ‘if they have a common bond, if all of them deserve the name of Jew, it is because they have in common the situation of a Jew, that is, they live in a community which takes them for Jews.’ (Morris-Reich 105)

It seems odd to suggest that the Jews are Jews because they are in the Jewish situation. Sartre, for whom existence precedes essence[iv], makes a surprising claim. The essence of the Jewish people, while not determined by the Jews themselves, is determined by the Other; and this essence is predetermined by their situation, never by the Jews themselves. To claim that the “Jew is one whom other men consider a Jew” is to render the Jewish people nearly into objects, because they do not have the appropriate consciousness to determine for themselves their own identity. If the anti-Semite creates the Jew, the Jew can never create himself.

We have seen how Sartre defines both the Jew and the anti-Semite. The Jew is one determined from the outside by the Other’s imposing the Jewish situation onto him, while the anti-Semite is one who seeks to destroy the Jewish people at the expense of their Jewish situation. And yet, Sartre has implicitly fallen into another brand of anti-Semitism, namely a paternalistic and contemptuous anti-Semitism; he refuses to allow the Jews the power to determine for themselves an identity, even going so far as to deny the historicity of the Jewish people without accounting for the point in time that the Jews ceased being the Jews historically. If a self-proclaimed liberator of the Jews is implicitly anti-Semitic, what then results from his philosophy? It becomes inconsistent at points; but, even more so, it becomes dangerous to the targets of its liberation.

When the Other holds the power to define the Jew, the Jews are no longer their own consciousness. To this point, the Jews have become Sartre’s being-in-itself, the world, the objects of consciousness. When a people lose the ability to determine for themselves their own identity—the inherent Sartrean freedom for every consciousness, they become an object. And an object, for all Sartre’s concerns and exhortations to not destroy the Jewish people as such, does not hold a moral obligation from anybody. The in-itself embodiment is strictly an object of another’s consciousness. What greater anti-Semitism is there than to revert a group of people to mere objects–unable to determine their own identity? The Nazis did not see the Jews as people; the Jews were objects, toys; they were not sub-human, for there was nothing human about them. What is to prevent a majority (or even minority) from imposing the same restrictions that Sartre imposed on the Jews onto other ethnocultural groups? To limit it to the Jews seems arbitrary. In fact, Sartre does compare the Jews with all other groups when he explains that, as long as there are anti-Semites, there can be no assimilation of the Female, the Black, the Muslim, etc. If this condition were imposed from the outside by the Other onto the bourgeoisies or the Republicans or the land-owners—with nothing that the imposed upon can do to prevent it, what is to prevent these groups from being treated as mere objects, perhaps deserving of care and sympathy but no more? The implications of Sartre’s philosophy are startling when we keep in his mind his presupposition that the Jew is one defined as others by a Jew. If the same can be said of others, there is nothing to prevent others from suffering the same injustices as the Jews, except for a powerful pity and compassion. But where individuals are diminished to objects of consciousness, there is no moral imperative to treat them as human beings.


Morris-Reich, Amos. “The ‘Negative Jew’ and Individuality.” Jewish Quarterly Review 97.1 (2007):  100-127. Muse. Web. 22 Nov. 2011. <http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/jqr/summary/v097/97.1morris-reich.html&gt;

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Anti-Semite and Jew. USA:  Shocken Books, Inc., 1948. Web. 143-153.

Sungolowsky, Joseph. “Criticism of Anti-Semite and Jew.” Yale French Studies 30 (1963):  68-72. JSTOR. Web. 22 Nov. 2011. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/2929258&gt;

[i] The “Other” is the collection of alien consciousnesses. The Other is each of the foreign consciousnesses, which also play an integral role in actively shaping the world; the Other is not being-in-itself but is being-for-itself, as experienced by other consciousnesses.

[ii] Although I disagree with this utilitarian rendering of the worth of humans, I will assume its veracity for the sake of Sartre’s argument. The trouble with this is that, whenever somebody ceases to become valuable toward the greatness of a society, that person may be eliminated, or killed. At what point does one determine when somebody is no longer useful? What happens when the government or the majority determines that a specific group of people, such as the Jews, are not only useless but actually a danger to the greatness of French society?

[iii] It would be interesting to see how Sartre’s conception of the Jew and anti-Semitism has changed since the creation of the Israel state. Since they have now determined for themselves an identity, are they a self-determining consciousness?

[iv] Simply meaning that an individual is not born into this world with a preconceived destiny or role; rather, they are born and then out of the empty canvass they choose how to live, their essence.


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  1. Sarah
    April 11, 2013 at 4:52 pm


  1. December 7, 2016 at 10:30 am

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