Memory Does Not Belong to the Victors

On 16 February, in Paris, the French philosopher and public intellectual Alain Finkielkraut was subject to violent verbal attack by a number of gilets jaunes (yellow vest) protesters, who hurled insults such as “Get lost, dirty Zionist shit!”, “We are the people, France belongs to us!” and “Go back to Tel Aviv!”. Four days later, President Macron declared that “Anti-Zionism is one of the modern forms of anti-Semitism. … I can confirm that France will implement the definition of anti-Semitism adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Association".

Dear Alain Finkielkraut,

Allow me to begin by saying “salamtak”, the word we use in Arabic to wish the best to someone who has suffered an accident, or, as in your case, an attack. The violence and hatred directed at you inspire my indignation; it pains me inwardly. Things being as they are, shall I succeed in finding the words that will convey to you not only my solidarity but what I truly think ? I shall try. For in addressing you, I address too, through you, those who wish for peace.

Perhaps you remember. We met in the early 1980s, at the Seuil publishing house in Paris, and carefully avoided each other thereafter. When Lebanon was invaded by Israel, you found it intolerable to hear me say that a building had collapsed like a house of cards when struck by an Israeli fragmentation bomb. That truth did too much violence to your own to get a hearing. It was the unexpected arrival of the Israeli historian Saul Friedländer in the office where we were that allowed truth to prevail. He knew the facts. I could breathe again. You left without giving room to my anger. There was no place in you for any but your own. Over the decades since, the syndrome has intensified. You might well love Levinas, that unequalled thinker of the Other, but it has become increasingly difficult, if not indeed impossible, for you to cede an inch to those whom you feel to be a threat. Perfectly understandable given the history that is yours, this degree of obduracy would not have posed a problem had it not turned into an intellectual crusade. This way you have of getting carried away in the face of the slightest disagreement has never failed to inspire in me, on hearing you, both empathy and exasperation. Empathy, for I know you to be sincere, and exasperation because your intelligence is decidedly more devoted to making yourself heard than to listening to the other.

The most lucid of your thought is repeatedly overtaken by your aversion to anything that might hinder it or cast it into doubt. Thus the existence of Salafism, our common enemy – though by reason of life experience rather mine before yours – has more than once led you to confuse two billion Muslims and an age-old culture with a book, a verse, a slogan. For you, time stopped when Nazism decapitated humanity. There was no longer any future, no road but back, in a return to a civilisation such as a European might have imagined it before the catastrophe. That is all the easier for me to understand for my sharing your attachment to the great intellectual ventures of the early 20th century. But you have allowed yourself to so fuse thought and nostalgia as to put the former at the service of the latter, at the expense of lucidity. More worryingly, you have given up, of “the world of yesterday”, all that was most attractive in it: the cosmopolitanism, the mixing. Colours, languages, faces and memories from elsewhere sully for you the world of your regrets; you would prefer to see them vanish or fall into oblivion. You say that two threats weigh on France, judeophobia and francophobia. Why do you obstinately refuse to register islamophobia among your anxieties? Giving room to Muslims does not mean giving way to Islamic fundamentalism. In your unwillingness or inability to see that your concerns are shared by a very great many French Muslims, you are doing what Zionism did at its beginnings, when it claimed that the land of Israel was “a land without a people for a people without a land”. You are denying part of reality to usher another into existence. Without troubling yourself to imagine the frustration, the silent rage of those your language conjures away.

You have given in to what Canetti so brilliantly warned us against in Crowds and Power. You have developed the fear of contact that prompts a community, folded in on itself like a clenched fist, to strike a blindly defensive attitude, with no eyes for anything other than itself. Typical of a certain Israeli politics rather than of the tradition of Jewish thought, this stance makes for an intractability that goes beyond your own case to become one of the chief obstacles to peace. This is all the sadder seeing that the world that you mourn has its counterpart in the experience of so many who live in Arab countries in thrall to corrupt and/or fundamentalist regimes. Why do they count for so little in your eyes? Why do you stake all on attacking enemies, rather than cultivate potential friends? The renunciation of the ideal, the necessity of which I discuss at length in my recent book on Edward Said, is a step you are unwilling to take. By ideal, here, I mean self-projection made into a collective project. Yet the only viable political dream, utopia we could call it, is one that takes cognizance of reality, proposing to make the best of it, rather than seeking to have reality dance to the tune of fantasy. It is precisely the opposite of the self-enclosure of the ideal, which operates in the mode of infantile fixation only then to suddenly discover in some bruising encounter that it provokes the hatred of those who have not the means not to hate. This man who insulted you insulted the world, injuring you, the Jews and all those disgusted by such ignominy. Yet it is not enough to say that, if what we want to do is to fight it, even less is it all to be said on the subject. In that connection, I would thank you for having declared on the radio that antisemitism and anti-Zionism are not simply to be conflated.

Perhaps you would have the ear of the government were you tell them that they will not succeed in silencing the opponents of the Israeli regime by shutting up such hotheads. One is too inclined in France to take words and minds hostage, to privilege feeling at the expense of reason every time the question of Israel and Palestine is raised. We are now being asked to recognize, without objection, that anti-Zionism is synonymous with antisemitism. Let them then tell us what they mean by Zionism, and thus by anti-Zionism. If to be anti-Zionist means to be against the existence of Israel, I am not an anti-Zionist. If it means to be against a strictly Jewish Israel such as is wished for by Netanyahu and many others, then yes I am anti-Zionist. Just as I am against all ethnic cleansing. Was Mandela antisemitic in championing equal rights for Palestinians and Israelis? Antisemitism and Holocaust-denial are abominations against which I have always battled, as have many other Arab intellectuals. Can we please not be asked now to accept another denial, the denial of our own memory, just because we have been defeated. Yes, the Arab world has died. Yes, every country of the region in which I live is fractured, breaking apart. Yes, the Palestinian resistance has as yet come to naught. Yes, most of the so-called Arab revolutions have been hijacked. But I hadn’t heard that memory belongs only to the victors. As far as I know, it is not yet forbidden to think on ones knees.

A last thought, before leaving you. In Lebanon, I work with women exiled by war, from Syria, Palestine, Iraq. They do embroidery. Some of them are Christian, most of them Muslim. Three have lost a son. All are observant. God, one might say, is all they have, their only reason for living. Gathered around a large table with a broad stretch of hemp fabric lying upon it, some twelve of us were engaged in picturing a ship that carried a country for cargo. Into this, everyone put something of their own. One a rug, another a door, a Roman column, a field of olive trees, a water-wheel, a glimpse of sea, a village on the banks of the Euphrates. When the question arose of putting in a place of worship, the woman who ran the workshop said she would rather not. In the face of the general perplexity, it was then suggested that if such things had to be there, they should be discreet. But when someone proposed adding a synagogue, one of the women immediately declared: “If there are a church and a mosque, you have to put a synagogue so that everyone can go and pray where they want.” She then added, in the vocabulary she had available to her: “We are not antisemites, we are anti-Zionists”. All agreed, remarking that “in the old days” all these people lived side by side.

Dear Mr Finkielkraut, I would ask both you and France’s politicians not to discount these little victories of good sense over stupidity, of the banality of good over the banality of evil. Prefer true adversaries who address you to the false friends who slander you. Help us to help you in the fight against antisemitism: do not limit it to this permanent recourse to enjoinder, threat and ultimatum. Those who are called antisemites without justification have been no less insulted than you. Do not so lightly disregard the lived experience of those who have a different view of the world than yours. If anti-Zionism is now an inappropriate word, then offer us another equal to the occupation, to Israel’s confiscation of lands and homes, and we might be willing to give it up. It is true that many of us have stopped speaking out, but do not trust quiet when it is no more than a passing lack of noise. A forced silence can give birth to monsters. To close, then, I would offer you this Igbo proverb: “The world is like a Mask dancing. If you want to see it well, you do not stand in one place.”

Dominique Eddé is a Lebanese novelist and essayist.

(This letter was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 9th of March. This article was translated from French by Dafydd Roberts)


Author’s Note

Written on 23 February this year, this open letter to Alain Finkielkraut was accepted by the newspaper Le Monde, who asked for it to be made exclusive to them. It was then pulled without notice, nine days later, when it had been readied for the press.

The article that did end up being published that day, with no counterbalancing contribution, was the work of sociologist Pierre-André Taguieff. A historical survey of the question of Zionism, anti-Zionism and “the demonization of the Jewish state”, it accomplished the feat of emptying past and present of any hint of Palestine or Palestinians. For Taguieff, there existed only an innocent Israel imperilled by Hamas. Some months earlier, an article by sociologist Dany Trom (published in on-line journal AOC) had likewise offered a lengthy assessment of 70 years of Israel’s existence without once mentioning the Palestinians, not even by mistake.

This new wave of denial by omission is strangely reminiscent of the one that in 1948 saw Zionism installed in a land it deemed uninhabited. The defective sense of the other that underlies this unilateral fashion of dealing with memory and the past not only fosters injustice but is very dangerous. It is this that prompted me to write the letter. And if, after that curious volte-face by Le Monde, I decided to approach L’Orient-Le Jour in Beirut rather than any French publication, it was because I felt that the moment had come for me to speak up on these matters from the place that is mine, in a land that shelters hundreds and thousands of Palestinian refugees, victims of 1948 and 1967.

As I was writing these lines I learnt that there had been, that very week, an antisemitic manifestation in Belgium, as part of the Carnival parade in the city of Aalst. It’s hard to believe that hatred and stupidity could take so frank and grotesque a form. For myself, I shall not cease to struggle, with the few means at my disposal, against Jew-hatred and Holocaust denial, against dictatorship and Islamist fanaticism, against Israeli colonialism. Yet such efforts seem feeble, so much have brutality and blindness gained ground everywhere.

To be absolutely clear: antisemitism is not for me a racism like any other, for it marks a distinctive breakdown in the psychic economy of the human. To fight it with all our strength is not to weaken Palestine, but to strengthen its cause. And to warn certain intellectual and political circles of the danger of a Zionist monopoly of memory is not only to warn of the grave injustice that it signifies, it is also to draw attention to the disastrous addition of fuel to the antisemitic fire that can result from this occultation of the other.


Dear Alain Finkielkraut,

Allow me to begin by saying “salamtak”, the word we use in Arabic to wish the best to someone who has suffered an accident, or, as in your case, an attack. The violence and hatred directed at you inspire my indignation; it pains me inwardly. Things being as they are, shall I succeed in finding the words that will convey to you not only my solidarity but...

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