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Sartre, Dead at 74, Fought on Behalf of Persecuted Jews

April 17, 1980
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Jean-Paul Sartre, the French philosopher who dominated the Western intellectual world for several decodes, died here last night at the age of 74. A humanist, a liberal and a political activist, he had always been keenly interested in Judaism and fought some of the battles in favor of persecuted Jews. In recent years, however, and especially since his trip to Israel on the eve of the Six-Day War, he also backed Palestinian demands for self-determination.

There were three people at his bedside when he died last night as a result of pulmonary edema; his companion Simone de Beauvoir, his adopted daughter Arlette Elkhayam, and a close friend and favorite biographer, Liliane Siegal. The fact that two out of three, his daughter and Ms. Siegal, are Jews is symbolic of his life long preoccupation — some say obsession — with the Jewish problem. Sartre was a Protestant.

Drafted into the French army in 1940 as a private, he spent several years as a POW in Germany. He eventually escaped with forged papers and joined the French resistance movement. While in the POW camp, he spent his time reading the works of German philosophers but also managed to obtain a first hand knowledge of Nazism and its methods.


Shortly after the war, in 1946, he published “Thoughts on the Jewish Problem” which he later summed up by quoting the Black American writer Richard Wright who said “There is no Black problem in the States. There is a white one.” According to Sartre, the same applied to Jews. It was not they who were a problem but those who were against them. In his book Sartre went one step further claiming that a Jew is someone considered as such by anti-Semites.

Sartre’s interest with everything concerning Jews continued. In most of his books or plays, the Jewish theme was somewhere present even if only hinted at. By the late 1950s, his interest spread to Israel. He backed Israel to the hilt and even after his visit to Israel in early 1967 he supported Israel’s pre-emptive strike. “Each country has the right to defend itself in the way it thinks best suitable,” he told friends at the time.

He denounced Soviet anti-Semitism in spite of his leftist leanings. Throughout the years both Sartre and de Beauvoir were active in all campaigns on behalf of persecuted Jews whether in the Soviet Union, Syria or Ethiopia. A few years ago, while already half-blind and plagued by various serious diseases, he was still always ready to personally demonstrate in favor of human and Jewish rights wherever they might be in danger.


Simultaneously, and some say paradoxically, Sartre drew nearer to the Palestinian cause. A special 400-page issue of his review, “Modern Times,” devoted to the Israeli-Arab conflict, presented a bright image of Israel but also pleaded for Palestinian rights. In recent years, while avoiding public statements on this subject–with de Beauvoir squarely backing Israel — he privately told friends and admirers that Israel should recognize Palestinian rights to self-determination.

During these last few years, Sartre regularly met with Arab intellectuals but also kept in contact with many Jews and many Zionists. A prolific writer of novels, plays, cinema scripts, philosophic essays and newspaper articles, Sartre was best known as the father of Existentialism — a fame which he abhorred and which he always stressed had nothing in common with his actual teachings. He also loathed public honors and recognition and in 1964 turned down the Nobel Prize for Literature. He will be buried Friday at the Pere Lachaise Cemetery with no pomp, no honors and no speeches.

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