Existential Anti-Semitism


How do you define hate? The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre tried to get at the essence of hatred by looking at an example from a very specific time: Anti-Semitism in France during World War II.

According to Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew (1945), anti-Semitism is not the product of a twisted intellect, but rather an irrational passion on the level of lust or disgust: “an involvement of the mind, but one so deep-seated and complex that it extends to the physiological realm, as happens in cases of hysteria.” He takes examples from his own life–an incident in which a classmate blamed his own low grades on a Jewish boy in their class; the Nazi invasion of France and the hunt for Jews in Sartre’s own neighborhood–and combs them to find emotional truths.

Not everyone agreed with Sartre’s portrait of anti-Semitism. For instance, Marxists argued that Sartre ignored the existing European upper-class, whose anti-Semitism was purely financial. But Sartre’s exploration of raw emotionality turns his examination of anti-Semitism into a broader dissection of the way that people think, and how the darkest parts of people’s brains work. It’s both insightful and terrifying.

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