Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) – whose work has strongly influenced sociology, critical theory, and literary studies – was a playwright, novelist, political activist, and literary critic best known as a key figure in existentialist philosophy and 20th-century French philosophy and Marxism. He was also noted for his open relationship with prominent feminist and fellow existentialist philosopher and writer Simone de Beauvoir (see discussion about her below).

Together they challenged prevailing cultural and social assumptions and societal expectations. The conflict between oppressive, spiritually destructive conformity and an “authentic way of being” became the dominant theme of Sartre’s early work, an idea he expressed in his principal philosophical masterpiece, Being and Nothingness.


Exhibited here is a remarkable document, the half-title page of Sartre’s Réflexions sur la Question Juive (Reflections on the Jewish Question) on which the author has inscribed “A. M. Fortin, En souvenir d’une tres agréable promenade en taxi, J. Sartre” (“In memory of a very pleasant taxi ride”).

Toward the end of World War II, Sartre observed that there seemed to be no discussion about the potential return to France of French Jews who had been deported by the Nazis. In Reflections on the Jewish Question, written shortly after the liberation of Paris, he sought to analyze the causes and effects of French anti-Semitism. This ambitious work, which incorporates existentialist psychoanalysis into what had always been viewed as a social and cultural problem, is one of the first works in which he evidences his Marxist views. It is also one of the first examples of the strengthening of his philosophy of freedom and metaphysical ontology within the framework of contemporary social, political, and economic realities.

Sartre considers four basic character types: the anti-Semite, the democrat, the authentic Jew, and the inauthentic Jew. He explains that the anti-Semite represents the most reactionary tendencies of a French cultural nationalist, who hates modernity and sees the Jew as the representative of all that is new and mysterious. (This is a particularly strange and ironic idea, given the fierce dedication of the Jews to a 3,500-year-old tradition.) In this way, the anti-Semite creates for himself a Jew who represents all that he loathes, and the mere presence of the Jew, the object of his hatred, provides the anti-Semite with his very raison d’etre. In what is perhaps the most famous and oft-cited passage of the work, Sartre declares that if the Jew did not exist, the anti-Semite would have to invent him.

Sartre next focuses on the hypocrisy of the democrat who, though he proudly upholds the Enlightenment and believes in reason and in the natural equality of man, is blind to the true effects of anti-Semitism; while he supports universal human rights, he simultaneously denies them to Jews by denying them their Jewish identity. Sartre’s famous contempt for all things bourgeois is manifest in his analysis of the democrat, as is his rejection of the Enlightenment as humanity’s ultimate savior.

Finally, he discusses the Jews themselves, whom he divides into two groups, the authentic and inauthentic Jews, who employ slightly different ways of confronting and dealing with anti-Semitism and contemporary society. Sartre sees all Jews as lacking their own independent civilization – a people without history, except for a tradition of martyrdom and suffering, and thus the perfect candidates for assimilation anywhere across the Diaspora. As Sartre sees it, the anti-Semite lives in the past, the democrat inhabits the future, and the Jew alone live in the present because the anti-Semite has so firmly placed him there. He concludes that anti-Semitism is best understood as a criminal passion rather than an actual idea.

Despite its general brilliance, Sartre makes some notable errors in Reflections, and his ignorance regarding traditional Judaism is stunning. For example, his claim that Jews lack a national identity was demonstrably false even before the establishment of Israel, and his argument that Jews lack a cohesive religious identity blatantly ignores the primacy and centrality of the Torah. Sartre’s ignorance may be attributable, at least in part, to the fact that he did not personally know any Orthodox Jews, and his deep-rooted Marxism may explain his ludicrous statement that anti-Semitism is unknown amongst the working class.

Sartre’s position on Israel fluctuated throughout his life, ranging from seeing it as a philosophical concept, as a potential political entity and, finally, after publishing Reflections, as an ethical imperative. The Jewish struggle for a Jewish state became one of the first national liberation movements earning his support.

In Situation of the Writer (1947), Sartre concluded that: “The writer’s duty is to take sides against all injustices wherever they come from…. From this point of view, we must denounce British policies in Palestine.” In a message sent to the French League for A Free Palestine shortly before Israel’s formal declaration of independence, he urged the United Nations to arm Israel after the British withdrawal from Eretz Yisrael, arguing that, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, “we cannot disassociate ourselves from the cause of the Hebrews.”

He even manifested some support for militant Zionism when, serving in early 1948 as a character witness for a former student accused of hiding explosives for the Stern Gang, he applauded the student as “a defender of liberty” no different than “we ourselves, Free French, prevailed upon in combatting the Nazi occupier.”

After the birth of Israel, Sartre commented:

I have always wanted the Jewish problem to find a definitive solution within the framework of humanity, and still do, but since no social evolution can avoid the stage of national independence, we must rejoice that an autonomous Israeli state has legitimated the hopes and combats of Jews throughout the world. And since the Jewish problem is a particularly alarming expression of the contradictions tearing at contemporary society, the formation of the Palestinian state [by this, Sartre means Israel] must be considered one of the most important events of our era, one of the few that allows us today to preserve hope. For the Jews, it is the crowning of their sufferings and their heroic struggle; for all of us it signifies a concrete progress towards a humanity where man will be the future of man.

Sartre and de Beauvoir traveled to Israel in 1967, arriving on March 14th shortly before the outbreak of the Six-Day War, where they were greeted by Israel’s President Zalman Shazar, and later met with Yigal Allon, then Minister of Labor. Sartre infuriated the Arabs (many Arab states went on to censure his books) by describing Israel’s deep desire for peace, and he strongly supported Israel during the war. He told friends that “each country has the right to defend itself in the way it thinks best suitable,” and explained that “I will never abandon this constantly threatened country whose existence ought not to be put in question.”

However, in the aftermath of the Six-Day War, Sartre adopted an approach to the Israeli-Palestinian question that he characterized as that of a “universal intellectual.” He tried to walk the line of neutrality and even-handedness and, in the process, seemed to abandon any coherent position on the issue.

On one hand, he became a strong supporter of Soviet Jewry, making several personal appeals to the Soviet Embassy on behalf of dissident Jews seeking to emigrate to Israel, and he continued to support worldwide Jewry and Israel’s existence. In 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, he blamed the war on Arab aggression and their criminal desire to destroy Israel.

Though he declined to accept his Nobel Prize in Literature in 1964 because “a writer should not allow himself to be turned into an institution,” Sartre, accompanied by de Beauvoir and his adopted Jewish daughter, Arlette Elkaim, traveled to the Israeli embassy in Paris to accept an honorary doctorate from Hebrew University in 1976. He characterized his acceptance as a “political decision” designed to exhibit his sensitivity to the unique problems of the Jewish people; to reaffirm his friendship toward Israel; and to denounce those who identified Zionism as racism, whom he unambiguously characterized as anti-Semites.

Yet he argued that while Zionism was an important cause in the aftermath of the Holocaust, it had become irrelevant – indeed, it was now a “regressive ideology” – because, he claimed, there was no longer any foreseeable threat of anti-Semitism. He exhibited sensitivity to the “plight” of the Palestinians and claimed that Israeli territorial expansion and its “subjugation” of Palestinians were the problem.

In an almost unbelievable article he published in a Maoist journal in 1972, he defended the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics and, characterizing the terrorists as “freedom fighters,” justified his position by arguing that a state of war existed between the Palestinians and the Israeli “establishment” and that, though terrorism is abominable, it remains the only tool available to this “poor and oppressed people.”

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Simone Beauvoir (1908-1986) was a preeminent French existentialist philosopher and writer who, working alongside other famous existentialists, such as Sartre (her partner and paramour) and Albert Camus, produced a rich body of writings emphasizing freedom and responsibility, including works on ethics, feminism, fiction, and politics. Her most famous and influential philosophical work was undoubtedly The Second Sex (1949), which examined the role of women in society, heralded a feminist revolution, established her as the voice of feminism, and remains to this day a central text in the investigation of women’s oppression and liberation.

Pierre Victor, alias Benny Levy, was a Sephardic Jew who had fled Egypt as a child during the 1957 Suez crisis and who, though a committed Maoist, was also a practicing observant Jew who studied Hebrew with Sartre’s daughter, Arlette. In 1979, he organized an Israeli-Palestinian conference in Paris under the aegis of Les Temps Modernes, a leftist journal jointly established post-World War II by de Beauvoir and Sartre. Two of the more interesting attendees were Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said, who was infuriated by Sartre’s passivity and lethargy and by his refusal to take a strong pro-Palestinian position, and Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, who became renowned for his English and Hebrew translations of the Talmud.

In this January 9, 1979 correspondence on Les Temps Modernes letterhead shown here, Beauvoir and Sartre write to Elie Ben Gal in Tel-Aviv:

Per the agreement we had, both in Jerusalem and Paris, with Nafez Nazal and Elie Ben Gal to hold a symposium with Arab and Israeli intellectuals for which we had approached you, we are able to now inform you of its dates. It could be held in Paris this coming 22 and 23 of February. Please remember that the symposium is to be part of a special issue of Les Temps Modernes devoted to Arab-Israeli peace….

Though de Beauvoir, like Sartre, was a powerful supporter of the birth of Israel as a Jewish state in 1948, the 1967 Arab-Israeli War was one of the few subjects on which they diverged. They both firmly believed that the Jews had a right to their own nation, but while Sartre was sharply critical of what he characterized as Israel’s “expansionism,” as discussed above, Beauvoir was convinced that Palestinian leaders would never accept anything short of Israel’s destruction, and she remained far more sympathetic to Israel.

She signed an appeal demanding that Russian Jews be permitted to emigrate to Israel and, characterizing UNESCO as “stupid and discriminatory,” she signed a manifesto accusing it of trying to exclude Israel’s participation. As chair of the International Conference for the Liberation of Israeli Prisoners of War in Syria, which she helped to organize, she publicly spoke out at a 1974 press conference on behalf of the 130 Israeli POWs who had been captured during the Yom Kippur War. At a ceremony awarding her the Jerusalem Prize in 1975, an award deeply meaningful to her, de Beauvoir maintained that to re-divide Jerusalem would be unthinkable, and that no solution to the “Palestinian problem” that involves the destruction of Israel’s political sovereignty is possible.

Finally, in Israel Solidarity: Critical Support, she concluded that “the idea of the annihilation of Israel is an idea that fills me with horror…. This country must continue to exist, that is a certainty for me,” and, in an under-appreciated lecture she gave in Paris in 1975, this leftist existential philosopher made one of the most eloquent and spot-on definitions of Zionism of all time: “The Jews must live on this land, and no longer as a more or less oppressed minority, but feeling at home, living on a land that belongs to them.”