In 1967, the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre traveled to Egypt and Israel on a quest to understand the region and its conflicts. The trip would challenge and change him — and lead to accusations of betrayal. Today, 15 Minute History is joined by Yoav Di Capua, author of “No Exit Arab Existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Decolonization.”
- Yoav Di-CapuaProfessor of History, University of Texas at Austin
- Benjamin WrightResearcher and Writer within the UT community
[00:00:00] Benjamin Wright: This is 15 Minute History, a podcast for educators, students, and anyone interested in history, featuring the minds and voices of the University of Texas at Austin.
Hi there, I’m Ben Wright and you’re listening to 15 Minute History, or as it should be called today, 20 Minute History. Let’s be honest, it should be called that often. Welcome to the new season. Over the course of the next few weeks, we’re going to hear from an amazing array of academics based here at UT.
From the fall of the Hapsburg Empire to the damning of the Colorado in the American West, we’re going to delve into topics that resonate, if not quite rhyme, with the world today. This episode is no exception, considering the conflict that is unfolding in the Middle East. It’s heartbreaking and seemingly intractable, yet the past is populated with moments, albeit not very many, where optimism was in the air.
In the mid 1960s, the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre travelled to Egypt and Israel, armed with the optimism of his age. Joining him were Simone de Beauvoir and Claude Landsman, on a quest to understand the region and its conflicts. At the time, Sartre was a hero to the Arab intelligentsia, but the trip would challenge and change him, and later lead to accusations of betrayal.
It’s an amazing story, a historical dead end of sorts, but one that gives us an unlikely lens through which to understand the present conflict. I’m joined today by Yoav de Capua, author of No Exit, Arab Existentialism, Jean Paul Sartre, and Decolonization. Welcome to 15 minute history. Thank you for having me.
So we’re going to get into this fascinating story of Sartre, the bouvoir and landsman going to the Middle East. Before we do, can you explain to our listeners a little bit about what existentialism is?
[00:02:05] Yoav Di-Capua: Well, the question is maybe, uh, what existentialism meant, uh, for the, uh, for Arab intellectuals after World War II.
So we have a generation of Arab intellectuals who are, uh, set to build new societies. out of the rubble of colonialism out of world war two. And they fit their young people and they feel that finally they have a chance to not simply realize sort of, uh, physical liberation of their, uh, of their countries, but also to create a new type of society and a new kind of person and new subject.
And that is a classic project of decolonization, right, that we’re not talking about territory. We’re talking about a new type of person and the new type of person they have imagined was at home in the world and expected the world to be that home for him and for her. That is one set of rules for everyone.
[00:03:04] Benjamin Wright: So there’s a connection here with existentialism and decolonization. Can you walk us through that?
[00:03:10] Yoav Di-Capua: Right. The question is, what does it mean to be after colonialism? Colonialism basically told people of the Middle East that because of the race or the religion, they’re incompatible with reason, incompatible with democracy, they will never be able to, um, become human.
Right. sort of modern entities in the world and would always be inferior. Sort of it locked them up to a set of features and characteristics, right? And hence into a kind of relationship of internalized inferiority. Existentialism provided theoretically an exit. From that, from that situation
[00:03:49] Benjamin Wright: now, one of the things you said is they’re building this new self, this new society, this new culture, this new politics out of the rubble of colonialism.
But of course, Israel is building a society as well, building a new self out of the rubble of World War Two. Is there a connection with existentialism and Zionism?
[00:04:08] Yoav Di-Capua: It’s very interesting. I mean, Sartre becomes, you know, an intellectual hero, the first global intellectuals in the fifties that resonates. with, with young people, um, everywhere.
But Zionists mainly regard him as the philosophers of the Arabs. That’s how they call him because in the Arab world, the existentialist scenes, translations, adaptations, they call it Arab existentialism, in fact, is the largest scene outside of Europe. And in Israel, there is the other things happening as well.
But there is a common denominator that, uh, while the Arab states and, uh, the intelligentsia is trying to articulate and theorize and put to work, the pedagogy that would create the new Arab man and woman. The Zionists are also proud of their new Jewish person, the Israeli, uh, confident, self reliant, non apologetic, and most importantly, can defend himself or herself.
So you have two projects, two modern projects. Both of which are trying to distance themselves from a certain disturbing legacy. One colonial, the other one, the Jew of the ghetto that ended up in Auschwitz. And both of these personas eventually will go to war in 67 right
[00:05:38] Benjamin Wright: now, of course, and. Sartre isn’t aware of this in the early 60s.
He’s interested in, uh, the Middle East. Uh, the Middle East are interested in him. How does Sartre get involved, uh, with these issues?
[00:05:53] Yoav Di-Capua: Right. It’s a very good question because he engaged almost everywhere else in the world before he engaged the Middle East. He is mostly discovering the world through the actions of the French states during decolonization, Indochina, Vietnam, and especially Algeria.
Through this, he’s transitioning into British colonialism and all these cold world struggles in Latin America, in Asia, in Africa, with dozens of hot locations. Given the fact that there are thousands of students from the global South in Paris, And that they become interlocutors by virtue of identifying the values of his philosophy.
There’s a wide sort of spectrum of of opportunities to collaborate on an ethical level, but simply on the political level. And we’re talking about the Cold War. The fifties, the sixties, before the era of NGOs, when the press is slow, when you don’t get pictures, photographs in, in, in newspapers. And here is a person that created through his magazine, something of an outlet for all of these, um, intellectuals from the global South to address.
the injustices, uh, that their societies, uh, face. So he’s being involved almost everywhere. And then Egyptian intellectual students in Paris asked him, you know, what about the Middle East, uh, specifically not in Algeria, not in North Africa, but in the Arab East. Um, at that point, he’s going through a project of a process of being reeducated.
And slowly he discovers kind of Arab socialism. What is the Arab project of decolonization? He understands what is authoritarianism. He understand that this is not liberal democracy. Um, but on the other hand, he cannot deny the fruits of this project, um, to the majority of the population, that it’s the way in which it emancipated, um, just normal citizens and gave them what they never had before, which is life with dignity.
Or shot at live dignity at least. So this is how it’s engaging.
[00:08:08] Benjamin Wright: Now obviously the Palestinian case is different from the Egyptian, the Syrian, Lebanese. And so this idea for a trip is born, this idea for a special edition of What’s Sartre hoping to get out of it? So what’s the genesis of this trip?
[00:08:25] Yoav Di-Capua: So the first thing to understand is that he and his circles did not know much about the Middle East.
They need to educate themselves. So the second thing they understood is that there is a very painful conflict here between Israel and the Zionists, who are the others of Europe, and the Palestinians, who are the others of Zionists. Right. So the question is, how do you create some type of ethical hierarchy with relation to rights and demands between two others?
[00:08:56] Benjamin Wright: this is of course, relatively simple problem. One, one side is a colonizer and one side is, is, is seeking independence, but this isn’t the situation that Sartre encounters. It’s
[00:09:08] Yoav Di-Capua: not a problem if we’re talking about the slave and the slave owner, but. In European philosophy, the theorization of the other was predicated on the Jew, but then its application extends beyond them to Palestinians.
So how do you, how do you deal with two others? Can it be solved? Can you, uh, do you treat otherness vertically or horizontally in terms of trying to, uh, assign, uh, rights and blames and culpability? That is something that perhaps today it’s easier to do, but back then, um, not at all. It seems like you have a conversation between, or, uh, conflict between two victims.
What he did was really pioneering because he basically said, listen, nobody knows anything about this conflict. So let my journal be the first journal to figure out what is happening here. We will do a special issue, 1200 pages, enormous 600 pages for Israelis, 600 pages for the Arabs. He basically says, this is not a dialogue.
Don’t talk to each other. You write your own truth. The other side will write their own truth. Both truths will reside side by side in the special issue. He hopes that by me reading your truth and you reading my truth, we find ourselves in a new, in a new position vis a vis each other. In a way he’s proposing a conflict of model resolution that did not exist back then.
But he’s coming to the region to inspect for themselves. to be a witness. He’s not neutral. He says, my position is not neutrality. My position is that of absence. I’m not even here. So I’m going to come as an absent. I’m going to register what I’m going to register. And then I’m going to go home with your 1200 pages.
And I’m right. I’m going to write an introduction. To the special issue. Um, so he sent Claude Lanzmann. Tell
[00:11:14] Benjamin Wright: us a little bit about who
[00:11:15] Yoav Di-Capua: Claude Lanzmann is. Um, he’s a very, he’s a staunch Zionist in the fifties and he also the partner of Simone de Beauvoir for a few years and then managing editor of La Tente Moderne, the journal.
So he, Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre work together.
[00:11:31] Benjamin Wright: And de Beauvoir goes on this
[00:11:32] Yoav Di-Capua: trip as well. They all go. He went ahead to prepare it. Once he goes and arrange the whole thing, they come, they fly, they fly to Athens and then to Cairo. So they tour Egypt. It’s a state tour from place to place. Boulevard doesn’t like it.
She reads through the cracks. She understands what is authoritarianism and she did not buy into state feminism. And she also didn’t have good interviews with, uh, um, the Arab student, the Egyptian students who kept asking her why she’s not married, why she’s not a mother, why she doesn’t have kids. And she is basically, she’s basically thinking that, you know, this is a patriarchal states beyond redemption almost.
[00:12:14] Benjamin Wright: So she, so they finish up in
[00:12:16] Yoav Di-Capua: Egypt. And then they go to Gaza. Gaza is already then a place Uh, the hardest place, the ground zero of this conflict, the place where you have the largest numbers of refugees on the smallest territory between Egypt that doesn’t want them and Israel that doesn’t want them. Uh, the place back then is entirely under Egyptian, uh, rule.
[00:12:46] Benjamin Wright: so at this moment. The Gaza Strip is not controlled by Israel. It’s controlled by Egypt. It was
[00:12:51] Yoav Di-Capua: controlled by Israel four months later. Right. Until 2006, when Hamas takes over, essentially. Um, so Sartre and Beauvoir are being taken to the refugee camps. They go and talk to refugees. He’s appalled. And throughout this whole visits, journalists are trying to get something from him.
But he knows that if he says one thing is being interpreted as counter the other side, and it’s, it is going to, uh, destroy his position of absence. But in Gaza and facing the refugees, he does say something that seems a little bit In support of, or astonished by, you know, the subhuman existence of refugees.
So by the time he comes to Israel, everybody’s already against him. Even Lanzmann is angry. He’s a producer. And
[00:13:47] Benjamin Wright: Sartre isn’t very impressed with Israel. Not
[00:13:49] Yoav Di-Capua: at all. You know, they take him to kind of a state tour. The few locations of which, you know, and end of wars and projects of which they are proud.
[00:13:59] Benjamin Wright: So same deal
[00:13:59] Yoav Di-Capua: that he got in Egypt.
Same deal, except it was not state produced. But, uh, so he goes to the Weizmann Institute to meet scientists, but, you know, they all speak this perfect English. So he said, well, you know, these are, this is not, uh, he doesn’t read it as the best of Zionist science and technology in the service of humanity. He reads it as agents of imperialism.
Uh, coming from American universities, perhaps, uh, and he’s insulting wherever he meets right and left. He cancels meetings with the prime minister. He cancels meeting with, uh, the chief of, uh, staff Robin, uh, and that’s
[00:14:36] Benjamin Wright: future prime minister Robin. He was murdered
[00:14:39] Yoav Di-Capua: in the 95. Yeah. Well, trying to make this, um, so he’s not very nice and, uh, it’s a PR disaster.
Yeah. Yeah. until he spends the night in a kibbutz in the north where he meets holocaust survivors who speak french and here is the other who escaped the nazis they barely survived the nazis building for himself and herself a new type of life. And that impressed him, that kind of resurrection as an existentialist philosopher, that claiming to life, to freedom, uh, to new type of relationship to a new, to a new language, even that impressed him.
So when he leaves Israel, he says something positive about that. So he said two positive things. One about Palestinian refugees. The other about Holocaust survivors, and he goes back to Paris to write introduction.
[00:15:39] Benjamin Wright: How does, how does a
[00:15:40] Yoav Di-Capua: publication go? First of all, he’s writing in late May, 67. It’s almost the war.
Um, when he visited, everybody assured him they are not. They don’t want a war, including president of Egypt, Nasser. Now it’s obvious that there is going to be a war. And there’s a little bit of hysteria because it seems that the, um, that the Arab side is going to win in a second Holocaust is going to be sort of inflicted on, on the Israelis.
So the French Jews are very agitated. And for the first time since the Holocaust, they dare to go to the streets and demonstrate basically saying, you abandoned us. 20 years ago. Now you are gonna bend the Jews again to a second holocaust and that puts a serious burden on him While he’s trying to write it, but there’s also pressure from his Arab interlocutors Everybody’s want something from him.
It seems that his resistance to resistant to these pressures. But in, on May 30th, exactly a week before the war, French intellectuals decide to sign a petition and print it in the daily press whereby they blame the Arab side for the impending aggression, uh, basically taking Israel’s side. Everybody signs it, Picasso signs it, everybody signs it, of course Bouvard and of course Lanzmann, but Sartre agreed to sign reluctantly.
As soon as this being published on May 30th, the Arabs are shocked by Sartre’s betrayal.
[00:17:14] Benjamin Wright: At this point, has the special issue of Le Temps Mardin come out?
[00:17:18] Yoav Di-Capua: No, it arrives to the shops the day of the war, June 5th. This is if, uh, you know, a playwright put this whole scene together, um, you know, what’s the chance you will, you will finish and publish it just as the war, just as the war begins.
And this is the biggest defeat for the Arab side in the modern era. It’s a, it’s a defeat of the new Arab person. That was theorized and put to work in a way it was created with the help of Sartre’s theories. And here, here, uh, the philosopher betrays the Arabs and the new Arab men and women are destroyed in the war.
One important thing that happened about this betrayal, that is specifically a betrayal, betrayal of Palestinians. And… If they had a shot for being emancipated as they saw it, just like Algerians, like anybody else doing their of decolonization here, it was robbed. They were robbed of that opportunity. They were robbed of that promise.
Uh, the rules that apply elsewhere do not apply to them. And that sense of humiliation, but also being a second class. This global citizen, right, um, is, is, is embedded in what is, you know, what would become a traumatic subjectivity.
[00:18:45] Benjamin Wright: So we see in the 1970s, we see in the post six day war era, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.
We see the rise of sort of guerrilla resistance, uh, almost of sort of Che Guevara model of We understand sort of the ontological allure, if you like, of existentialism. What do you think is the allure of resistance and political Islamic fundamentalism?
[00:19:14] Yoav Di-Capua: Well, you put different kinds of resistance in the same bag.
So people in the region would strongly object, object that the project that the Palestinian project after 67 that you said that is almost like Che Guevara is not almost, it’s exactly Che Guevara in the sense that they said, look. Who took sort of, uh, command over the Palestinian issue, Nasser in Egypt, other Arab states as well.
Syria. They failed. They failed to liberate us. You will remain a slave, and this is where existentialism resonates. You will be, you will remain a slave for as long as you’re unwilling to take the cause of your own freedom yourself. and fight for it. And just by fighting for it, and by this we mean with an AK 47 physically fighting for it, you will emancipate yourself.
So resistance and violence, armed violence, become, uh, privatized. It’s not something that the state does anymore. It’s something that anybody wants to, any refugee would like to gain their dignity, regain their dignity is now, uh, not only obliged, but is, uh, encouraged, um, to do if you go to the refugee camps and you had people guns and you train them and they are now.
No longer dust of the earth, subhuman refugees waiting for some flour and oil from a United Nation agency. Now they’re actually people who can take the gun and liberate themselves and maybe claim their fields and their villages and so on. Even if they will fail militarily, which they will, the act of resistance itself is, uh, is a liberating act.
That’s the, that’s the power of these guerrilla movements everywhere in the sixties. And that’s the power in, um, in Palestine as well. And this has nothing to do with Islam, right? But exactly, exactly with all the decolonization literature of the sixties and fifties, which was mediated for them to begin with through Sartre as well.
So now, um, it’s self liberation. Um, and ease with violence. And they become prisoners of this literature, whereby the main vector of of dignity becomes political violence. But political violence, uh, would also deliver you trauma. If you kill someone, what do you get? You get freedom out of it? Or do you get PTSD?
Or do you get both? The same time, One should pose the same ethical questions on the Israeli usage of violence, of state violence. Not only militarized violence, but all sorts of other types of violence. There are dozens of them at play nowadays. So I don’t want the listener to get the impression that violence is not a form of relationship.
It is. Well,
[00:22:22] Benjamin Wright: Yoav, thank you so much for joining 15 Minute History.
[00:22:25] Yoav Di-Capua: Thank you for having me.
[00:22:29] Benjamin Wright: Fifteen Minute History is produced at the University of Texas at Austin in partnership with Not Even Past and Hemispheres in the College of Liberal Arts. It is recorded at the Leitz Development Studio. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, follow us on social media, and visit our website for more information and resources.
See y’all next week.