Pierre Goldman Affair 1979

Goldman the Foreigner

Source: Le Monde, September 30, 1979;
Translated: for marxists.org by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) marxists.org 2007.

Interview by Catherine Chaine

Being a Jew today...This was the theme of a discussion that Catherine Chaine recently had with Pierre Goldman, assassinated September 20. He also spoke about nationalism, violence, his childhood, of his death. At times excessive, unfair. But true to himself...

What does being a Jew mean to you today?

I can’t really explain it to you. I have always felt myself to be a Jew, but I never asked myself the question: what is a Jew? One day I’ll ask this question; I’ll write a book in two years, or ten years, or twenty years, or never. I have always considered the Jewish condition as a fact that I felt, and this feeling is very important. I don’t want to treat it the way we treat feeling in philosophy. I don’t think it’s subjective, illusory. Up to now the only thing of which I am certain – and this is true – is my feeling of being Jewish. I think this is part of Jewish reality, and I’ve always had it.

You already had it during your childhood?

Yes, because I was the son of Jews – Jews according to the universally recognized criteria. My father was raised by rabbis in Warsaw; my step-mother told me Bible stories to put me to sleep and, most importantly, when I was very little I spoke Yiddish. I started school in 1946 and two years after the war the Jews were truly perceived as Jews.

This feeling of being Jewish, could you define it a little more?

To be a Jew is perhaps simply coming from a family that was marked by Jewish mores and culture. My life isn’t full of a conscious Jewish culture, or of Jewish music, or Jewish books, or the Jewish religion. There are many things in me that have nothing to do with Jewishness, but they are those of a Jew. For me being a Jew is not a content, it’s a condition. But not even that. It’s a frame that I existentially fill with this and that. My books aren’t Jewish, but in each of them there is the presence of the Jewish past. Being a Jew means transporting the Jewish past. Why is this so important? Because of anti-Semitism. Because of hatred. The only answer is Auschwitz. The Holocaust renewed Jewish identity for centuries.

The Holocaust ended 33 years ago and you are 34.

Yes, but the French political tissue is still, at certain interstices, marked by Vichyism and we today discover that the Maurras of the land, of regions is present in current political themes. In part because Marxist thought was incapable of understanding certain things, like the sensual attachment of men and women born in France to their land. You ask me why it’s important to be Jewish; I repeat, it’s important because there is still hatred. Because hatred remains. At the time of De Gaulle, between the extreme right and the right there was blood. The blood of the purges and the blood of the OAS. Today the Resistance is no longer there like a bloody ghost planted in the middle of the right. A shift has occurred, and the extreme right has returned to the right’s breast.

You speak like Sartre in his “Reflection on the Jewish Question,” that it’s anti-Semitism that creates the Jew.

No I don’t think that it’s the other’s gaze that makes the Jew, but I believe in fact that anti-Semitism contributed, still contributes to maintaining Jewish reality. And all nationalisms – capitalist or communist – have hated the Jew because the Jew is stateless. It is consequently natural that the extreme nationalisms, i.e, the fascists, take him as the ultimate target. Anti-Semitism was all the stronger because the Jews were in a way “gifted” at capitalism as well as at communism, because they were “gifted” in all that is international. I went to Poland several times to see my mother. And anti-Semitsm was even worse there due to the number of Jews who belonged to the Stalinist apparatus. It’s true that the Stalinists went further than the rest of the world in the assimilation of the Jews. In Poland the minister of the Interior during Stalin’s time was a Jew, and in Romania, in Czechoslovakia, in Hungary, the number of Jewish higher dignitaries was absolutely enormous.

Why were the Jews so implicated in the Stalinist regimes?

I can’t help feeling a certain tenderness for the great Stalinists, because I think that they believed in it. Deep down within them there was the persistence of the dream that one day all men would be brothers. I remember my father being moved by a play that showed Jewish Communists in Poland carrying “Long Live Communism!” Long Live the International!” “Long Live the Jewish people!” The Jews knew full well why they became Communists: as workers and as Jews. The messianic dream is very strong among the Jews.

How is this expressed today?

It’s not by chance that the number of Jews in the organizations of the extreme left is “abnormally” high.

I pass now from Jewish messianism to the Bible. You are the people of the Bible.

For me Jewishness is not at all the Bible, but a certain relation to the Bible. The Jews are the People of the Book, but their Jewishness was constructed in a special dialectic with the Book: a constant disrespect tied to a respect.

Emmanuel Levinas, in one of his Talmudic lessons, asks the Jews: “Are we right to cast ourselves into history?” For many centuries was there not a certain refusal on the part of many Jews to enter history?

Ah, but we must understand! They were told: “Dissolve yourselves, we hold the truth.” I, for example, will never assimilate. Primarily for this reason: why must I recognize the superiority of one system of values over another? Deep down I despise all revolutionary nationalisms, including Israeli nationalism. All of them. Deep down I understand them; I support some of them because I think they are necessary on the road to humanity’s emancipation. I support others because I think they are the only solution, but I despise all of them.

In “Dim Memories...” you say: “At Evreux I had the definitive transparence that I wasn’t French...” To be assimilated or not to be, what does that mean to you?

Not much. In a sense I am assimilated. My culture is French. I read “Le Monde” every day but I identify myself as a Jew. Not only of Jewish origin. I don’t say:” I’m French like the others. In the first place, it’s not true. I am of French nationality, I am a French citizen even if I’ve been stripped of my civic rights, but that’s normal, I have nothing to complain about [1]. But why don’t I say that I’m a Frenchman like the others? Because that would mean that I favor Frenchness. But Frenchness is neither more nor less valuable than Jewishness. Nationalism is always the valorization of a national fact, so for the Frenchman its “la douce France,” literature, camembert, wine, etc...

You told me in speaking of your childhood: “My father very early broke with religion because he very early accused the rabbis of having taught the Jewish people passivity.” What do you think of that “passivity” that certain people have spoken of a propos of the Jewish people?

I now no longer hold that passivity in contempt. It was not at all cowardice. My father himself, who hates that attitude, explained this to me. This passivity flows from a grandeur: it was the absolute belief in the Bible’s discourse. The rabbis taught the Jews not to rebel against their lot because God knew what he was doing. And I can tell you that for the great dogmatic rabbis, the Holocaust must have been very difficult to explain. And at that moment some Jews became mad because, normally, the rabbinic thesis had to be that the Holocaust was God’s punishment. But the general tendency of the Jews was to see in Auschwitz the failure of the Jewish religion.

How did the Jews of the Bible, who were warriors – look at the Maccabees – become gentle?

In Havana I was shocked, disgusted to read a declaration from one of the leaders of the Black Panthers saying: “We won’t allow ourselves to be massacred like sheep like the Jews were.” In the first place, there was a whole generation of Jewish Communist partisans, most of the militants of the special sections of the Comintern were Jews and there were many of them in the International Brigades. The Jews did not at all allow themselves to be exterminated, but defense and insurrection are very difficult for a minority. A people with a national structure can defend itself – this by the way is the preferred discourse of the Zionists – but not a minority. Among the Jews the degree of passing to the act, to combat activity, was the same as among other peoples. But the book, the handling of ideas, had become their fatherland. And what’s more the Jews were non-violent, perhaps by negation of the war-like image ceaselessly put forth by other nations. And doubtless also for another more profound reason, and in this Maurras was right, not in his conclusions but in his analyses. In order for a people to be warlike it must be rooted in a land. It is true that there are no adventurer peoples. An adventurer can take up the sword and risk his life for aesthetic, psychological or mythological reasons. But not an entire people. You know, risking your life is something terrible. The infantries of Stalingrad and Verdun were not only drunk on propaganda. They were infantries of peoples who were defending their land.

Yes, but you speak of the rabbinic revulsion for violence in “Dim memories...”

I can tell you exactly how my grandfather was killed in Poland. He was praying when the fascists came to get him. He refused to get up and interrupt his prayers so they killed him. I think that somewhere within me there remains that attitude of my ancestors, that is, in my relationship to violence, which can be that of a political partisan to violence. Deep down there has always been within me that hatred of violence, that hatred of violence and suffering, and also the sadness that violence produces in me. And I think that in the Diaspora the Jews had a special relationship to violence. Jews never beat their wives. It was truly a crime, the morality of the “goyim,” that is of Polish peasants or Cossacks. Perhaps there are battered women in Israel, but despite it all the power of the Diasporic mentality is still present in Europe. Unfortunately, with begin things will very quickly move towards negative Gentilism, i.e., stupidity.

Again in “Dim Memories...” you write; “I hate humiliation and insult,’ and you speak of your ancestors, humiliated rabbis and tailors.

Yes I hate humiliation. I was wrong in speaking about humiliated rabbis. My father explained to me that the bearded Jew, dedicated to intellectual labor, who was whipped by a Cossack was not at all humiliated. He profoundly hated the Cossack. He was conscious of being superior to him. In the Jewish religion , it must be said, there is such contempt for others.

In your opinion, does he have something specific to give the world today?

I think that Judaism has absolutely nothing to give. Neither more nor less than the other religions which, for me, have nothing to give for a good long while. I think that the Jewish religion is completely worn out and that apart from Shmuel Trigano, who is a brilliant young Talmudist, there are very few great Jewish thinkers who refer to religion. What Jews can bring to civilization is stateless wandering, the feeling of non-belonging. I believe in the Jewish values that the anti-Semites hate. I believe in nihilism, in negativity. I believe in the libertarian Jew who exists as a dissolvent principle of positive values, because he is neither the man of one land nor the man of one country, nor the man of one nation.

You’re speaking of yourself?


Are there certain Jewish customs you respect?

If I have a son I’ll have him circumcised... It’ll be moiré symbolic than anything else. But I respect absolutely no Jewish customs, even if on Yom Kippur I spend the day reflecting. That’s the day when the Jews ask forgiveness for their crimes and other infractions of the law. I don’t ask forgiveness of God, since I don’t recognizes any sins, and then because I don’t believe in God, and finally because I am not at all in agreement with the Mosaic commandments. But that day I live in a kind of gravity because I know it’s a very important day for the Jews, the day when man has direct dialogue with God. In prison I fasted on Yom Kippur because I was in a place where I wanted to show my identity. But this is the only concession I make to custom.

You married a woman who isn’t Jewish? Is this important to you?

For Jews the problem of marriage is very serious because in the absence of national structures, if we marry outside the community Judaism is at risk of dissolving. But for my part I’m profoundly libertarian. So I lived exogamous marriage very simply; I married the woman I love be she Chinese, Antillean, etc. That said, it’s true that deep down I had a dream, a fantasy: I would marry a Jewish woman. Why? So as not to disappear. But when I think about it I hate myself, because I am profoundly disgusted by Jewish families that prevent their children from marrying a non-Jew.

Do you feel yourself to be a foreigner everywhere?

Oh yes! But I also feel myself to be a foreigner among Jews. It’s metaphysical. I have several levels of “extraterritoriality.” There’s the fact that I’m a Jew, but there’s also the fact that I am what I am, that is, that I’m conscious of my singularity. I’ve always refused to dissolve my singularity, that is, my finiteness, that is, my mortality, in groups. I know that neither the couple, nor the family, nor the country, nor the music I love, nor any people can save me from the fact of being a person, that is from the fact that when I’m dead I’ll be dead.

In your books death reoccurs as a leitmotif. Do you think that this obsession is connected to your Jewishness?

I don’t know where it comes from. I don’t think it’s connected to Judaism; on the contrary, the Jewish people have always been wounded by death, but they have an extraordinarily strong attachment to life.

How do you feel this?

Since my childhood, around me... the word “chaim” – you see, I even know the Hebrew word – is very very strong. For the Jews life always takes the upper hand. Despite all. Even after Auschwitz. When I spoke to my father of my fear of mortality he was more or less confused that the problem could upset me, and yet he is 69, an age when people often turn away from their atheism. I believe there is a relationship to life and death among Jews which isn’t the same as among Christians. Life has a sacred value for the Jews. But not for me. Not at all.

Sartre said, again in “Reflections on the Jewish Question,” that Jewish disquiet is not metaphysical. You are stating the contrary.

Yes, but it’s also true that among the Jews one must live, no matter what happens. Widows are supposed to remarry.

There is no Jewish metaphysical despair, and yet the Archibald of your novel (L’Ordinaire mesaventure d’Archiblad Rappoport) is without hope.

I don’t know that there is no metaphysical despair. Personally... but perhaps there is in the depths of the Jewish unconscious the belief that, despite all, God is there, He belongs to us as we belong to him, and that God is Jewish. Perhaps even for atheist Jews this is true. Perhaps for me, too, I don’t know. For a long time I wanted to believe in God, but I’m not able to. I don’t believe in him. But it isn’t completely idiotic to say that no Jew is completely atheist. Freud said: “Deep down, no man believes in his won death.” But perhaps at the same time Freud said: “No Jew believes in his own death,” because Freud was very Jewish.

1. This civil degradation was a result of Pierre Goldman’s sentencing on May 4, 1976 by the Assize Court of the Somme – which acquitted him of the double murder on the Boulevard Richard Lenoir – to twelve years imprisonment for three armed burglaries he had admitted to. This degradation is automatic when an accused is sentenced to a criminal penalty (article 28 of the Penal Code).