Liberation Utopias: Houria Bouteldja on Feminism, Anti-Semitism, and the Politics of Decolonization

IN MAY 1943, black Surrealist writer and activist Suzanne Césaire made a request for a paper ration from the wartime Vichy government administering Martinique. She needed the paper to print the next issue of Tropiques, a journal devoted to the intersection of Surrealism and anticolonial politics in the Caribbean. The government denied her request; in a dizzying display of doublespeak, the Nazi-collaborationist regime claimed that Césaire’s journal was too racist and sectarian in its brazen engagement with blackness and its literary revolt against French civilization. It is both troubling and illuminating to find a nearly identical discourse surrounding the recent publication of Houria Bouteldja’s Whites, Jews, and Us: Toward a Politics of Revolutionary Love. When the book appeared in France in 2016, a veritable lynching ensued in the media. The uniquely French estate of public intellectuals, both right and left, leaped to discipline this Arab woman who had dared to demystify the fairy tales France tells about itself. Ugly epithets were bandied about: Bouteldja was a racist anti-racist! a neo-Nazi! a homophobe! Not much has changed since Césaire requested the paper ration in Martinique. The Republic doth protest too much.

Bouteldja’s short manifesto continues the tradition of Césaire’s own Surrealist polemic and, most obviously, her husband Aimé Césaire’s groundbreaking Discourse on Colonialism (1950). Artfully and sensitively rendered into English by Rachel Valinsky, Whites, Jews, and Us offers a passionate and poetic manifesto that takes aim at the imperial metropole and its myths of innocence. The book is shot through with a bracing optimism, making a magnificent appeal for a metropolitan decolonial movement as a political force for liberation. Bouteldja tackles issues of Eurocentrism, imperialism, and globalization and experiments with a form of political organizing that, in the words of her comrade Sadri Khiari, attempts “to think unity and division together and accept convergence and antagonism as paradoxical paths” to liberation.

The first chapter identifies a contradiction that will frame the book’s address to whites, Jews, and indigenous people: Jean-Paul Sartre’s unrepentant Zionism. On the one hand, Sartre defended anticolonial militancy in Algeria and the Middle East; on the other hand, he supported the formation of a Jewish nation-state in Palestine. Bouteldja contends that Sartre’s simultaneous embrace of anticolonialism and Zionism was due, essentially, to his whiteness. Whiteness, in short, marked the insufficiency of his politics. In a provocative passage, Bouteldja writes: “He who declared ‘It is the anti-Semite who makes the Jew’ now prolonged the anti-Semitic project in its Zionist form and participated in the construction of the greatest prison for Jews. In a rush to bury Auschwitz and to save the white man’s soul, he dug the Jew’s grave.” In other words, Sartre both comprehended anti-Semitism as a European mechanism of exclusion and participated in this very mechanism by excluding Jewish futures from Europe in favor of a separate nation-state. For Bouteldja, Sartre’s Zionism becomes symbolic of both the white left’s refusal to abandon the nation-state and its dogged recuperation of European innocence.

Sartre’s foil in the book is the white bard of Parisian degeneracy, Jean Genet. Genet remained both profoundly indifferent to France’s routine defeats — in Paris, in Algeria, in Indochina — and keenly aware that “any indigenous person who rises up against the white man grants him, in the same movement, the chance to save himself.” It is at this crossroads of confrontation and struggle, Bouteldja argues, that revolutionary love becomes possible. Citing C. L. R. James’s comment, “These are my ancestors, these are my people. They are yours too if you want them,” she says: “James offers you [white Europeans] the memory of his negro ancestors who rose against you and who, by freeing him, freed you. In essence, James says, change the Pantheon.” It is haunting to read these words after the recent events in Charlottesville, where the removal of a statue — an effort to change the American pantheon — mobilized a deadly coalition of white nationalists and neo-fascists. Revolutionary love comes at a cost, and the price of betraying whiteness may be too steep for some to bear.

Bouteldja’s inclusion of Genet invokes a global itinerary of anticolonial letters. It was Genet who wrote the introduction to Soledad Brother (1970), the collected prison writings of black American Marxist and activist George Jackson; a year later, after guards murdered him, handwritten copies of Palestinian poetry were found in his cell. Bouteldja situates her book within this transnational network of texts. Indeed, its translation into English (with a new foreword by Cornel West) itself represents an important new node in this network. Bouteldja’s mobilization of black American and Francophone ancestors underscores the continuities between American racism and French colonialism. Richard Wright had suggested as much when he titled his militant elegy to black American manhood Native Son (1940), thus evoking the impoverished urban black man as America’s indigène.

For her part, Bouteldja is France’s native daughter. Building upon the political writing and agitation that marked her entry into French media during the hijab debates, Bouteldja mounts a blistering critique of white feminism. The indigenous woman, she argues, is trapped between a white patriarchy that wants to save her from her primitive family only to consume her body and an indigenous patriarchy that makes her bear the brunt of the indigenous man’s emasculation. The white man imagines the indigenous man as his feminine foil — passive and docile. When the indigenous man revolts, confusing the white man’s paternalistic assumptions, his unexpected virility shocks and disturbs — and must be policed, castrated.

This dynamic amounts to a game of virility Olympics between white and indigenous men, deploying a misogynous homophobia that targets both indigenous women and queer males (the indigenous lesbian is largely absent from Bouteldja’s analysis). Bouteldja’s language of castration reinscribes the phallic masculinity of Western man as the default model for indigenous men as well. Reactionary virility among indigenous populations, however, is not inevitable, and indigenous queerness need not be marginalized in order to fight imperialism. The deployment by Zionists of the figure of the virile, muscular Jew shows that the oppressed’s reactionary virility has dire consequences for us all.

Bouteldja also critiques the romantic, indigenous feminism that indicts masculine violence in the abstract, rather than locating it within the system of Western patriarchy that has penetrated the Global South. Feminism is a luxury, she writes, the luxury of those white enough and European enough and Christian enough to see their womanhood isolated at the center of their subjectivity. The only responsible form of feminism involves communitarian allegiance, a compromise between indigenous resistance to feminism and an understanding of the Western violence faced by indigenous men and women alike.

Such a position can feel somewhat dated, recalling the patriarchal politics of midcentury civil rights movements that subordinated the double oppression faced by black women to the concerns of the black male leadership. Black women have long addressed and critiqued their erasure by both white feminists and black men. Bouteldja cites Assata Shakur of the Black Liberation Army — “We can never be free while our men are oppressed” — but strangely leaves out her subsequent qualification: “But it is imperative to our struggle that we build a strong black women’s movement.” The full quotation reveals the kind of decolonial feminism to which Bouteldja aspires, routed through communitarian allegiance but not stopping there.

The book, perhaps in spite of itself, signals that such a decolonial feminism still remains far on the horizon. The penultimate chapter embraces an allegiance to the political community of the indigenous in general (it is unclear why Bouteldja does not specifically speak to indigenous men, instead permitting them to fade into a genderless norm). The chapter powerfully describes the postcolonial malaise of the French Republic’s immigrants, trapped in what Frantz Fanon termed the Manicheanism of the colonizer — they must either become French or fulfill their preordained role as primitive native. But this choice is a ruse: France is not a melting pot but a quicksand. By integrating into whiteness, the postcolonial immigrant becomes complicit with metropolitan imperialism. As Bouteldja bravely remarks: “Why am I writing this book? Because I am not innocent. I live in France. I live in the West. I am white.” It is in this acknowledgment of integration’s failure that a decolonial political force begins.

Between her comments posed to “White People” and those addressed to indigenous women and men, Bouteldja directly engages “You, the Jews.” Her title evokes colonial law and social structure in French Algeria, with the free white masters on top, the colonized indigenous at the bottom, and the (indigenous) Algerian Jews in the middle, as a privileged buffer. But Bouteldja’s deployment of whites, Jews, and indigenous peoples — social and political categories that, she claims, are the “product of modern history” — involves an uncomfortable erasure. Whiteness and indigeneity are certainly, in their very constitution, categories that emerge from a specific social and political configuration of power and sovereignty. And Jews were definitely thrust into this colonial configuration at pivotal moments: they were expelled from the French colonies in 1685, granted citizenship in the northern departments of French Algeria in 1870, accused of treason to and defilement of the French nation during the belle époque, and so on. But just as Bouteldja cites Abdelkebir Khatibi’s assertion that “Arab essence precedes the existence of Israel,” so too Jewish essence precedes French colonialism. This reality risks being forgotten when “Jews” are merely placed between the colonial categories “Whites” and “Indigenous.”

If Bouteldja relies at times too heavily on this configuration, her polemic also subverts the divisions that sustain it. When she looks at Jews, “she sees us [indigenous]” — both are attracted to and excluded from whiteness, both are demonized and disciplined within Europe, both are dispossessed from one another and yet still familiar. Bouteldja fabulously describes the Jews as “on the one hand, dhimmis of the Republic to satisfy the internal needs of the nation state, and on the other, Senegalese riflemen to satisfy the needs of Western imperialism.” Her phrase “dhimmis of the Republic” paints France with its own Orientalist brush — as pre-modern, religious, oppressive — and suggests that, despite their so-called emancipation, the functional role of Jews in Europe has not changed. At the same time, Jews are made into “Senegalese riflemen,” the colonized colonizers to whom the perpetuation of imperial violence is outsourced. Unlike the offer of love made to whites, for which they must pay the price of revolution, the offer to Jews is self-love — one that rejects Israel’s instrumentalization of the Nazis’ Jewish victims, the dhimmitude of a paternalistic Christian West, and the debilitating, transplanted hierarchy between European and Eastern, secular and religious Jews.

Bouteldja’s vision is thus remarkably inclusive. The struggle, she asserts, will not be against but beside the children of the Harki, those indigenous Algerians who served in the French Army during the country’s war of independence. Bouteldja thus implies affiliation as well with the dhimmis of the Republic and the Senegalese riflemen — with, in essence, Jewish Zionists — whose children too must join the decolonial camp. The white working class must also be engaged, not out of a romantic humanism or color-blind universalism but because the indigenous need to anticipate and combat the reactionary phantasms of nationalism and racism that will inevitably accompany the development of a decolonial force. And finally, the indigenous must assist the anti-racist and anti-imperialist whites who are seeking help in annihilating the white man at the center of their being. This sophisticated balance between autonomy and convergence, which prioritizes the claims of the indigenous while advocating the political organization of white communities, holds tremendous promise for an American left caught between a class-based politics and an identity-obsessed caricature of intersectionality.

Bouteldja ends with a stirring critique of French secularism (laïcité), its collusion with state racism, and the disenchanted white man with which it replaces God. She outlines the ambivalent promise found in non-secular traditions for subduing the hedonistic, consumerist self unleashed by Western culture. In an uncanny reminder of the problem Jews posed to Enlightenment Europe, Bouteldja deftly recognizes that, to enlightened white Frenchmen, their Muslim countrymen are an enigma: despite the generous offer of rationality, liberal democracy, and modernity, they still cling to pre-modern Islamic law and tradition. As a result, they are also a threat, because they “know something that escapes white Reason.”

Secular readers may squirm at Bouteldja’s frank discussion of God and the radical potential of submission before the One. Such a response would only reveal their own submission to the hegemony of the secular, with its dismissive racializing of the religious. Theologies of liberation — liberation utopias, as Bouteldja calls them — elaborate subaltern knowledge that not only critiques the disenchanted white man and his attendant violence, but also offers all those in the Global North — whites, Jews, and indigenous — tools for imagining alternative futures. Whites, Jews, and Us is a challenging text that provokes just as much as it consoles and illuminates. But in order to build a forceful decolonizing coalition that aspires to collective liberation, we must have the patience to listen to, the tenacity to challenge, and the humility to learn from the work of this colonized woman.

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Ben Ratskoff is a Los Angeles-based writer and scholar. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of the new Jewish quarterly Protocols.

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