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Ron Radosh

The Latest Outrage from France: The Screed from Stephane Hessel

March 14th, 2011 - 10:54 am

The new “publishing phenomenon” in France, as Elaine Sciolino calls it in The New York Times, is Stephane Hessel’s manifesto, Indignez-Vous, or as it is called in the new American publication, A Time for Outrage. A scant 14 pages of text, the pamphlet — a more accurate name for it than a book — has sold 600,000 copies in France in a three month period that began last October.  One can also read it in a recent issue of The Nation, although the magazine has it behind a firewall. The introduction to the book by Charles Glass, however, is available at their website.

Indeed, the book has become a world-wide phenomenon. It has sold a total of 1.5 million copies by now in France, and has been translated in many countries including Spain, Italy, Portugal, Greece, Korea, Japan and Sweden. Why has it been such a success?  Sciolono answers that it was a popular Christmas gift among “left-leaning intellectuals, [and] parents struggling to inject political activism into their children.” It also resonated in France because Hessel has a bona fide history as one of the remaining heroes of the World War II era — he is now 93 years old, and was not only an opponent of the pro-Nazi Vichy regime during the war, he fled France to work with Charles De Gaulle and his government in exile in London. Then, he parachuted into occupied France in 1944 to help the underground Resistance. Caught by the Gestapo, he was tortured and sent to two different concentration camps, and sentenced to hang. He switched identities with an inmate who had died, and escaped while being sent to yet a third camp.

After the war, Hessel became a diplomat, worked with Eleanor Roosevelt at the UN to draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and eventually became a writer. Thus, all of his life’s work allows him to write as a legitimate hero of France, passing down his wisdom to the new generations from one of the last survivors of the war years. As he told the Times, he knows that people say “he’s the old man who has been in the Resistance and who has joined General De Gaulle. So obviously that was part of the success.”

Critics have been harsh. One critic wrote that the tract is “repetitive, unoriginal, simplistic and frustratingly short.” Perhaps something that takes ten minutes of one’s time is about on the level of what today’s young people can read; or perhaps its virulent nature and self-indulgent call to action is what appeals to many of those activists who proclaim anarchism as their ideology.

What the pamphlet reminds me of is not Zola’s J ’Accuse, as some have said, but more appropriately, the kind of article attacked so powerfully in the 1920s by Julien Benda, in his now classic La Trahison des Clercs, published in America as The Treason of the Intellectuals. Benda wrote about the pro-fascist arguments of earlier French intellectuals such as Charles Maurras. Despite his insistence that he is modernizing the anti-fascism of his generation to face new threats today, Hessel resembles Maurras more than he does a modern French anti-totalitarian such as Bernard Henri-Levy.

Let me then take up some of his facile arguments. First, Hessel argues for a domestic commitment to social-democracy. After  all, the manifesto of The Resistance in 1944 called for “a rational organization of the economy” in which the individual interest was subordinated to the public interest. That means, he writes, “a social safety net” in which everyone is guaranteed a living if they cannot get a job and full retirement benefits. It also, he argues, includes nationalization of the major industries and the banks. In other words, a rather outdated old fashioned Marxist vision that has long been abandoned by most of Europe’s social-democrats. He does not believe that “the state can no longer cover the cost of these social programs,” and believes that claim is nothing less than propaganda. Hessel suffers then, from an inability to acknowledge the reality of the problems besetting the European welfare states. The claim, he says, is due to one force: “the power of money,” which he and his comrades fought against decades earlier. The Resistance’s motivation was outrage: hence it should be the motivation for today’s young as well. As Hessel writes: “We say to you: take over, keep going, get angry!” These slogans are the substitute for reason in Hessel’s vocabulary.

Hessel believes he is a Hegelian. Of course Hegel in his day believed that man had reached the final stage of history in the dialectically evolved Prussian State and monarchy; Hessel’s variation is that man advanced liberty step by step until at the end, it “may achieve a democratic state in some ideal form”; i.e., the form of social democracy he has previously outlined.

As he turns to the world at large, Hessel claims he wants a world that adheres to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights he helped draft, in which no crimes against humanity are allowed. There is, of course, much to be upset about in today’s world. I could list many such things, particularly singling out regimes that commit crimes against their own peoples. These include regimes like Iran, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Gaddafi’s Libya in the current days, scores of  Arab regimes including Saudi Arabia, Gaza under the control of Hamas, or Kim Jong-Il’s North Korea. The list is large. One might hope that today, Hessel would be singing the praises of the Arab revolutions, as does Natan Sharansky. “A historical page has at least begun to turn,” writes Sharansky. The citizens now taking to the streets are opposing their own authoritarian dictators, and not protesting against the supposed enemy of Zionism and Israel. Thus the once imprisoned Soviet dissident now sees “the region’s democratic dissidents as our real partners.”

So where does Mr. Hessel sees today’s major threat emanating from in the world? Is ithe danger of a nuclear Iran something that concerns him? Not a word. Is North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and the danger of the rogue regime using it in actual warfare a concern? Not one word. Does he see any danger in the policies of China, still under Communist Party control, and the fear that rampant nationalism could influence its leaders? Not one word.

Well here, dear readers, is Hessel’s answer: “Today, my strongest feeling of indignation is over Palestine, both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.” In other words, the Israeli Jewish leaders “are forgetting the fundamental human values of Judaism.”  Simply put: Israel is the danger in today’s world. There is no doctrine of radical Islam, and the threat it poses, that has been so amply written about by Paul Berman and by Jeffrey Herf in their various articles and books.

As Hessel sees it, Israel from the start, of which of course he pretends to be a supporter, was guilty of original sin when it drove 750,000 Palestinians from their home in 1948 and 1949. He repeats, in other words, what Sol Stern has called “The Myth of the Nakba.” As for Gaza today, he calls it “an open-air prison for a million and a half Palestinians.”  The Gazans, he writes, are patriots who have “love of the ocean and the beach,” they have “laughing children.” They ingeniously deal with the shortages imposed on them by Israel. They “make bricks” for homes without cement. He advises people to read the notoriously unreliable and biased Goldstone Report to learn of Israel’s many sins.

Of course, Hessel has to deal with Hamas lobbing rockets into Israel week by week, month by month. Why did they do this? For that he has great sympathy. Hessel writes: “I am well aware that Hamas…was unable to avoid the launching of rockets into Israeli villages in response to the situation of isolation and blockade in which the Gazans find themselves.” That too was Israel’s own fault. Yes, he says, “terrorism is unacceptable.” But then, he adds in what is a justification for it: “[W]e must recognize that when a country is occupied by infinitely superior military means, the popular reaction cannot be only nonviolent.”

He is, he assures us, a believer in nonviolence, a follower of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela. Only non-violence promotes hope. He does not excuse terrorists who throw bombs, he writes, but qualifies this with the admonition that “we can understand them.” So he explains this in the following paragraph:

Did it serve Hamas’s interests to launch rockets into the town of Sderot? No. It did not serve their cause, but the gesture can be understood as coming from the exasperation of Gazans. In this notion of “exasperation,” we have to understand violence as a regrettable consequence of an unacceptable situation. Terrorism…is a form of exasperation….It is understandable; I would almost say it is natural.

It is only bad, however, not because it is immoral, but “because it does not allow people to achieve the results that hope can achieve.” Nevertheless, he cannot condemn it. It is regrettable, but if it takes place, it is the fault alone of Israel, not of those who engage in terrorism. Israel is to be condemned for finally, after months of rocket forays into its land, taking action against Hamas for the attacks. But Hamas is to be let off the hook for launching the rockets. And of course, Israel’s response is to be condemned as out of proportion, as if any response Israel made would be proclaimed as anything but that by Hessel or Goldstone.

It is not surprising to find, as Charles Glass reveals, that Hessel, to support those who favor self-determination and independence, “has endorsed the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement to sever economic collaboration with Israeli settlements in the occupied territories.” What the BDS movement favors is not what Glass says, but rather, opposition to the very existence of Israel itself and to the entire concept of a Jewish state, which, in its eyes, is based on the stealing of Palestinian land and hence is completely illegal.

The French expert on antisemitism, Pierre-Andre Taguieff, writes the following in response to Hessel: “Certainly he could have ended his life in a more dignified way, instead of inciting hatred against Israel, thus adding his voice to the worst of anti-Jews. Even old age doesn’t make someone impermeable to vanity, or kill the appetite for applause.” To this Hessel replies : “I feel that I am completely in solidarity with Jews in the world, because I know what it is to be a Jew. I’ve seen what it is, I am myself of Jewish origin, and therefore I can only be fully in support of the idea that the Jews, after all they’ve suffered, need a country where they are at home. I shouted my joy when Israel was founded. I said, ‘At last!’ ”

Sure. That is why he wants to boycott Israel, have investors withdraw their investments or stop investing in it, and have the world to put sanctions on Israel. He claims to have experienced joy when Israel was created — although he repeats myths about its very founding — and now writes in essence that Israel has no legitimacy in today’s world. It is as if he says in one breath: “I favor a Jewish state where the Jews have a home; but they no longer deserve that home, since they are oppressors of the Palestinians, and deserve to be destroyed.”

Only in France, where a previous best seller after 9/11 explained the terrorist attack as the result of a Bush conspiracy, would a screed such as Hessel’s assume such importance and be seen as a fountainhead of wisdom. Only in a world now ganging up against Israel would a book like this find a welcome reception. Shame on The Nation for publishing it here. At least only that puerile leftist rag saw fit to print Hessel, and he did not get the major publisher his backers in France hoped to obtain.

I hope Americans have more sense than to copy the French and make it a best-seller in the United States.

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