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The Good Conscience of French Intellectuals: the case of Thomas Guénolé and the French left of Jean-Luc Mélenchon

The case of Thomas Guénolé concerns us as antiracist and anticolonialist Jews because he represents a worrying tendency in leftist political thought, particularly in France.

15 December 2017

Thomas Guénolé, November 2017. via YouTube.

First published at OpenDemocracy.

Jews like us find ourselves in an interesting predicament these days. On the one hand, we fear the return of overt antisemitism, as witnessed in Charlottesville, Virginia, when a mob of white supremacists marched, torches blazing, chanting, "Jews will not replace us." On the other hand, the very thing that threatens our safety as Jews — the white Christian tradition of Jew hatred — is used against us when we argue that the colonial occupier, Israel, does not represent us.

Anti-Zionist Jews from France, where calling for boycott, divestment, or sanctions against Israel has been made an offence, to the US, where our colleagues have been hounded out of universities for daring to speak about the crimes of Israeli colonialism, are under threat. The Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu dared to tell all Jews that he went to Paris after the Charlie Hebdo attack "as a representative of the entire Jewish people." Our right to live freely in the Diaspora is under attack, from both Christian and Zionist supremacism. 

There has always been a right and a wrong way to be a Jew in the Diaspora. The historian Enzo Traverso put it well when he wrote in 1996 that the "emancipation" of the Jews of France was a "revolution from above." For those Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews, revolutionary emancipation did not equate with freedom. Forced to assimilate, the Jews were the objects not the subjects of their emancipation.

Today, there is still a right and a wrong way to be a Jew and it is still dictated to us by the agents of white supremacy. Jews must side with the state, forget that antisemitism is foundational to the birth of European modernity, and identify it exclusively with Muslims and the Islamic world. But the only way to understand antisemitism is in terms of its place in the racial archipelago. How antisemitism relates to antiblackness, racial colonialism, and Islamophobia is integral to understanding both its ability to shapeshift over time and its cooptation by white elites in the furtherance of racial domination.  

These problems are not dissociable from the case of Thomas Guénolé, a member of la France Insoumise, the main left party of oppostion in France. Guénolé has accused Houria Bouteldja — member of the decolonial movement, the Party of the Indigenous of the Republic (PIR) — of  racism and antisemitism. For anyone who has read Boutledja’s book, Whites, Jews and Us : Towards a Politics of Revolutionary Love, published in English by Semiotexte(s), these are outrageous accusations.

The case of Thomas Guénolé concerns us as antiracist and anticolonialist Jews because he represents a worrying tendency in leftist political thought, particularly in France. Guénolé’s self-righteous attitude reveals that the French public intellectual understands neither racism nor antisemitism. He is a hindrance to the aim of defining and struggling against antisemitism and to the broader antiracism to which we are committed.

Guénolé chooses, like many other proponents of France’s imperious brand of "universalist antiracism," to misread Houria Bouteldja’s book, Les Blancs, les juifs et nous and, in particular, to ignore her call for a "politics of revolutionary love." This is because his interest in racism and antiracism appears to be merely academic. He seems to have the facts and figures at his fingertips but his lack of understanding, or willingness to know, what it means to be made abject is clear in his recourse to the discourse of inclusion as a panacea to discrimination, or what he calls in his Ted talk, "unfairness."

Boutledja’s book, like no other text, gets to the heart of the deep rupture between Jews and other racialized people created in the aftermath of the Shoah, and cemented with the birth of the Zionist state of Israel, to whiten the history of European Jew hatred. Why does the West insist on the Shoah as being the epitome of racist crimes, to the detriment of recognizing its placement within an ecology of racial colonialism with which it was consistent? While the crimes of colonialism could be externalized, due to both geography and to the non-human status accorded to those "nativised" by the great "discoverers," the Shoah happened on European home soil, to people with whom white Christians dined and danced, whose books they read and on whose couches they lay.

Of course, the very discourse of European Jewry’s urbanity is one based on racialized divisiveness between East and West; secular and religious. It is the same logic that propels Thomas Guénolé to entreat French society to calm down in its attitude to young people in the French banlieues. In the well-established tradition of white sociology of "race relations," that we can trace back to the Chicago School, Guénolé wants us to know that the grand majority of Muslims are ordinary people "just like us" who just want to be given an equal chance in life. 85% of Muslim women, he tells us, in the aim of bringing comfort, do not wear the veil. We should all listen to rap because it is real poetry, of a piece with that of Rimbaud no less.

Seeing as Guénolé is an admirer of the spoken word, we encourage him to listen to the words of Muslim slam poet, Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan in her poem, "This Is Not a Humanising Poem." A poem that would make people see that Muslims are people just like them, is not the poem she wants to write; it is "the poem I have been reduced to." Instead she beseeches,

Love us when we’re lazy

Love us when we’re poor…

When we’re wretched


Naked and contributing nothing

Love us then.

That is what a decolonial antiracist politics is about. It is about overturning centuries of injustice, not sitting on a moral high-ground that fails to take account of one’s own complicity in creating the hierarchies of being an antiracist of the right kind (universalist, secular, patriotic) and of the wrong kind (anti-colonial, desiring the abolition of whiteness).

Frantz Fanon, who Guénolé does not seem to think is important for his interpretation of racism, despite the growing resonance of the words he wrote now nearly seventy years ago, foretold the bankruptcy of the white antiracism that Thomas Guénolé represents. And just as Houria Boutledja is accused today, Fanon had his own detractor (disguised as friend) in the figure of Jean Paul Sartre. Sartre accused the advocates of négritude of "an antiracist racism" thus gifting us with the fiction of "universal racism," paving the way for the new cardinal sin: "anti-white racism."

It is quite breathtaking for us to see that, in the aim of defending us from the scourge of antisemitism, Guénolé, relies on the lie of "reverse racism." There are two main forms of antisemitism today and they are becoming rapidly and frighteningly related to each other. The first is the Jew hatred of old, seen in the growing confidence of the extreme right in Europe, North America and Australia. The second is the antisemitism of Zionism which forces all Jews to identify with Israel. The complicity between these two anti-Semitic trends is based, firstly, on their common basis in Islamophobia and racism, (particularly today against refugees). The second is based on the common aim of both the Israeli state and of far-right extremists that all Jews leave the Diaspora to live on occupied Palestinian land.

When Thomas Guénolé seeks to defend us by naming Houria Boutledja an anti-Semite and a racist he makes of us an enemy. Houria Bouteldja’s book is a lament for the lost past in common of Jews and Muslims in her native Algeria; it is a mourning for what could have been had French colonial rule not driven a decisive chasm between these two groups of natives in a strategy of divide and rule.

Despite everything, there has always been a history of Jewish radical struggle, first against the effort to assimilate us by force, later against the effort to annihilate us, to banish us from the Diaspora and to force us to fight those with whom we are nevertheless identified.

This letter is a call not only to Thomas Guénolé to say that you do not stand with us, but to other Jews: freedom does not come through either domination or cooptation. Only by standing with those whose sisterhood and brotherhood was stolen from us do we have a chance of survival.

Alana Lentin (Associate Professor, Western Sydney University), Haim Bresheeth (Professorial Research Fellow, SOAS, London), Ilan Pappe(Historian), Seth Linder (Writer, Rostrevor, Northern Ireland, Member of Jewish Voice for Just Peace Ireland), Adi Ophir (Professor Emeritus, Tel Aviv University, Visiting Professor, The Cogut Institute for the Humanities and the Program for Middle East Studies, Brown University), Sylvere Lotringer (Editor, Sémiotext(e)), Ella Shohat (Professor, New York University), Liliana Cordova-Kaczerginski (Co-founder of IJAN and daughter of a resistant poet from the ghetto of Vilnius), Dr. Laurence Davis (College Lecturer, Cork, Ireland), Hector Grad (Associated Professor in Social Anthropology, Autonomous University of Madrid), Dr Claudia Prestel (Associate Professor, UK), Dr Ronit Lentin(Retired Associate Professor of Sociology, Trinity College Dublin), Sarah Schulman (Distinguished Professor, City University of New York), Mireille Fanon Mendès-France (President of The Frantz Fanon Foundation), Joëlle Marelli (Former Head of Programme at the International College of Philosophy, Paris), Gil Anidjar (Professor, Department of Religion and Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies, Columbia University), Ariella Azoulay (Professor of Modern Culture & Media and Comparative Literature, Brown University), Michelle Sibony (Union Juive Française pour la Paix, France), Eric Hazan (Editor, France), Linda Cooper, Human Rights Activist, DocP-Diensten Onderzoek Centrum Palestina, Netherlands (Services & Research Center for Palestine).

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