Anti-Semitism or Censorship

Source: The Wall Street Journal, New York, August 7, 2000

Anti-Semitism or Censorship?

“Pointing out that he also wrote in his book that the persecution of the Jews by the Nazis was the most
reprehensible crime in the history of mankind didn’t exculpate Mr. Camus [of the charge of anti-Semitism].”

by Vendeline von Bredow

FRANCE’S latest literary scandal is winding down after months of acrimonious public debate, a high-profile row between the the philosopher Alain Finkielkraut and the director of the epic Holocaust film “Shoah,” Claude Lanzmann, and, finally, the removal of anti-Semitic remarks from a contentious book. Renaud Camus’ Journal de 1994, Campagne de France, which accused Jews of dominating French culture, was withdrawn from shops soon after its publication in April. Last month the book returned to bookstore shelves in an edition that has 10 blank pages where the inflammatory passages used to be.

Who is Mr. Camus and what did he write to ruffle so many feathers? The author, who is not related to Albert Camus, is a writer who lives grandly in a castle in the South of France. His book “Tricks,” published in 1979, is a collection of 33 autobiographical short stories, a sort of manifesto of an out-of-the-closet homosexual. It also marks the beginning of his self-proclaimed ambition to create a “sculpture of the self.” To let readers share in the shaping of his self-image, he became a diarist, recording in the manner of 18th-century aristocrats every detail of his life, however minute.

Until now, interest in Mr. Camus’ study of himself has been limited to a select group; his earlier diaries sold to the tune of 2,000 to 3,000 copies. Then came the publication of his 1994 diary this spring. The hefty tome of more than 800 pages attracted widespread attention for statements that Catherine Tasca, France’s minister for culture, described as “shocking” and “deeply disturbing.” Mr. Camus talks, for instance, about “Jewish collaborators” on the staff of the popular France Culture radio program and claims that Jews “are over-represented as an ethnic and religious group.” He finds it irritating that in many cases the main spokespeople for French culture are Jews, who have often only been French citizens for one or two generations. And he wonders why Jews dominate the French debate on immigration.

Mr. Camus’ publisher of many years, POL, refused to publish the text, so the publishing house Fayard took on the job. The intensity of the public debate that ensued took Fayard’s management by surprise. Leading public figures signed petitions and counterpetitions condemning and supporting the book. Mr. Lanzmann and Mr. Finkielkraut emerged as unofficial spokesmen for the opposing camps. Mr. Lanzmann scolded Mr. Finkielkraut for his defense of Mr. Camus in an article in Le Monde with the headline “They Are Everywhere,” the leitmotif of anti-Semites. Mr. Finkielkraut’s riposte was another article in Le Monde, titled “I Admit Everything,” in which he made the startling revelation that he, Mr. Finkielkraut, is an anti-Semite.

The Camus controversy has also been felt in the U.S. When Mr. Camus spoke at a colloquium at Yale University at the end of April, the French department, organizer of the event, hastened to distance itself from a man suspected of anti-Semitic views. Pointing out that he also wrote in his book that the persecution of the Jews by the Nazis was the most reprehensible crime in the history of mankind didn’t exculpate Mr. Camus.

Yet the debate remains mainly a French polemique intellectuelle about a perennially sensitive issue. France is host to about 600,000 Jews, Western Europe’s biggest Jewish community. But the French have an ambivalent attitude toward their relations, past and present, with the Jews.

The record isn’t stellar. Until the French Revolution in 1789, Jews had been persecuted in France, as in many other places. French historian Michel Winock identifies three broad chronological sequences of anti-Semitism after the Revolution.

  • According to anti-Semitic lore, Jews were the main beneficiaries of the revolutionaries’ emancipating zeal — they were granted religious and civic rights in 1791 — so they must have been the driving force behind the destruction of the ancien regime.
  • Then came the industrial revolution. It wasn’t quite as brutal a change in France as in England, but again, anti-Semites claimed that Jews profited from the transformation of the economy more than their fellow non-Jewish Frenchmen did. Indeed, economic crises in France tended to go hand-in-hand with particularly vitriolic anti-Semitic outbursts.
  • Finally, the Bolshevik revolution gave anti-Semites a pretext to portray the Jew as a subversive revolutionary. Some radically nationalistic publications in France re-hashed the theme of a Judeo-Marxist or Judeo-Bolshevik revolution, even when Stalin started to persecute and “liquidate” Communist Jews.

The period from 1933 to 1945, and in particular the years under the Vichy regime, saw various forms of anti-Semitism re-emerge in their nastiest manifestations. Under Vichy, Jews suffered systematic persecution due to the government’s collaboration with Nazi Germany. Some 76,000 people were rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Only about 2,600 survived.

After the war, the French were slow in coming to terms with their history. The 1971 film “Le Chagrin et la Pitie” by Marcel Ophuls was banned for years in France because it showed all too clearly how many Frenchmen collaborated with the German occupation forces under the Vichy regime. Only in 1995 did Jacques Chirac become the first French president to admit the French state’s role in the fate of the Jews under Vichy. Until then, many French citizens had stuck to the more comfortable reading of history advanced by Gen. Charles de Gaulle, who had proclaimed Vichy an illegal “parenthesis” in French history.

Despite these painful episodes, the chief executive of Fayard, Claude Durand, remains unapologetic. In his foreword of more than 30 pages to the book’s censored version, Mr. Durand lambastes the “moralizing” of the left, in particular the radical left. It demands “always more proof for ideological conformity, antifascist purity and antiracist radicalism.” Mr. Durand considers it somewhat absurd to erase 10 pages of text that has been reprinted ad nauseam in various French publications over the last few months. “They were taken out of context. Now here’s the context without the text,” he writes.

In all this, Mr. Camus has remained silent. He says he wishes to express himself only in his diaries. Considering that it took six years for his 1994 diary to make its way into print, it will probably be some time before the author’s view of the controversy is known.

Miss von Bredow writes for the Economist.