Barbara Cassin, philologist and philosopher -- a very assimilated Jewess – has entered the prestigious French Academy. This is the elected Council for defining the French language which was established in the seventeenth century. Her last name is mainly associated with her granduncle, French Jewish Nobel prize winner Rene Cassin – a jurist and judge -- who drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
As a Jew mainly by last name, there is no plausible reason to obtain Barbara Cassin's viewpoint relative to Jewish issues. Her expertise centers on esoteric issues concerning Sophism and rhetoric and their relation to philosophy.
Another Jewish woman to become an immortal – as the French call Academy members – had a hugely different Jewish experience and involvement than Cassin’s: Simone Veil, a former French minister and Auschwitz survivor.
Thanks to interviews one can obtain more than a rare insight into the mind of a prominent French Jewish intellectual remote from Judaism. Some questions asked or not asked – see below -- tell us also about the mind of an interviewer at the American Jewish Forward publication. Cassin does not deny that she is a Jew, yet does not know whether her Jewishness means anything to her. She self-defines as “rather a pagan,” adding: "Greece interests me more than Christ.”
A French interviewer asked Cassin what link she had kept with the world of Jewish thought. She replied “I have not kept a link with Jewish thought because my parents never transmitted it to me, at least consciously. I have always known that I was Jewish. Yet I am like Hanna Arendt who only became really conscious of it due to an insult, in which case she replied ‘as being a Jew'’”
Cassin continued saying that the philosopher Jean François Lyotard – whose books include Heidegger and the Jews -- had once said to her: “you are interested in the Greeks in order not to take an interest in the Jews.” I was scandalized. Thereafter it made me think. I have always asked myself what it means to be a Jew and in what way I was one, as my mother was a Jewish mother and my father a Jewish father. Their profound identity as well as their current one is due to the Nazi persecution. My mother, a painter told me about it when she drew my portrait. She frequently used me as a model. Yet it is only now -- [Cassin is 72] – that I am interested in the Hebrew of the Bible and that I want to learn it. The movies of Nurith Aviv have an influence there.”
The Forward interviewer asked Cassin about an incident after a seminar she attended together with German philosopher Martin Heidegger, an extreme Nazi: “a man stopped you at the post office and reproached you that being called Cassin and thus Jewish you nevertheless ate breakfast with Heidegger. Then he spat at you.” Cassin replied: “It must have been a Jew who had survived a concentration camp. That’s what I imagine. He was old. We all knew Heidegger had a Nazi past, but thought it was not more than others. [His posthumously published anti-Semitic] ‘Black Notebooks’ were a shock.”
Cassin has written a book jointly with the extreme leftist Alain Badiou -- about Heidegger’s life. Her answer about the German philosopher’s past shows that though being a philosopher she did not have a particularly sharp insight concerning a thinker whose horrible views can be identified by much less scholarly people.
Thereafter came the interviewer’s question: “You have said about the German Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt: ‘I don’t know if she is a “Jewish thinker,” but I know that the State of Israel would benefit from reading her works.’ Some Israelis have certainly read Arendt, but what do you feel that the nation of Israel could learn from her?”
Cassin answered: “They might understand the astonishment of Arendt upon seeing a Jewish nation build itself around religion. The Jewish state could be concerned about the way they treat the Palestinians. There are of course many Israelis who feel this way, but not all, and not those in government. I don’t know what Arendt would say or write about what has happened in Israel in recent years.”
Cassin is known to have much insight in the thought of Arendt. There is however no indication that Cassin's remarks in general terms about her attitude toward Israel are based on anything other than that of the prevailing superficial intellectual mood in France.
Cassin was however not asked the logical follow up question by her interviewer: “Arendt’s fame is to a substantial extent based on her writings about the totalitarian movements. She has also published on the banality of evil. As you have already given your opinion about Arendt and Israel what would she have said about what goes in the Muslim world and among its enemies of Israel and the Jews? This question is in particular interesting in view of the fact that all Jews killed in France in the current century for ideological reasons were murdered by Muslims. Beyond that Muslims have carried out a variety of major terrorist attacks in recent years in your country in the name of their religion. How would Arendt have seen the significant evil currents in parts of the Muslim world?”
One can conclude that the Forward journalist failed abysmally in his interview. And therefore, Cassin was spared the tough question she warranted after her remark about Israel.