November 7, 2011
The question of whether Albert Camus was Jewish is, of course, absurd. Born in French Algeria 98 years ago today, he was the second child of Lucien Camus, a farm worker raised in a Protestant orphanage, and Catherine Sintes, the illiterate child of Catholic peasants from Minorca, Spain. He was given communion at the age of 11 and died an atheist at the age of 46.
Camus understood, however, that the absurd reveals deep truths about the world and our own selves. Cradled between the semi-centenary of his death in 1960 and the centenary of his birth in 1913, we might take a moment to consider the question of Camus’ ties to Judaism. They are surprisingly deep and broad, encompassing not just his own life but his political and philosophical thought as well.
Though a number of his childhood friends were Jewish, Camus was as indifferent to their particular faith as they themselves were. In republican France, Jewishness was largely a private matter; it was only when Nazi Germany buried the Republic in 1940 that Jewishness became a public matter and indifference to the fate of Jews was no longer possible—or should not have been possible.
Yet when the authoritarian regime of Vichy passed a salvo of anti-Semitic laws in 1940, most Frenchmen and -women did not blink. One of the few who did blink—in fact, doubled over in shock and revulsion—was Camus. Working for the newspaper Paris-Soir , Camus was stunned when his Jewish colleagues were fired. In a letter to his wife Francine Faure—a native of the city of Oran, Algeria, who was very close to the local Jewish community—Camus said that he could not continue to work at the paper; any job at all in Algeria, even one on a farm, would be preferable. As for the new regime, he was merciless: “Cowardice and senility is all they have to offer. Pro-German policies, a constitution in the style of totalitarian regimes, great fear of a revolution that will not come: all of this to truckle up to an enemy who has already pulverized us and to salvage privileges which are not threatened.”
At the same time, he began to reach out to Jewish friends. To one, Irène Djian, he denounced these “despicable” laws and reassured her: “This wind cannot last if each and every one of us calmly affirmed that the wind smells rotten.” He reminded her he would always stand by her—a remarkable position for a Frenchman to take in 1940, when the vast majority of his compatriots either embraced or accepted the new laws. When he and Francine moved into her parents’ apartment in Oran, they become friends with André Benichou, a professor of philosophy who was born into a Jewish family but made a point of declaring his atheism at a local café every year on Yom Kippur, Good Friday, and the first day of Ramadan. With Benichou, Camus and Faure worked as private tutors for Jewish schoolchildren forced out of the public schools by the anti-Semitic laws.
In 1942, afflicted with tuberculosis, Camus went to the Cévennes, a rugged region in central France, to ease his damaged lungs. Unable to afford a sanatorium, Camus moved into Le Panelier, a farmhouse his in-laws owned just outside the small Protestant village of Chambon-sur-Lignon. Among the few visitors he had was his friend the historian André Chouraqui, a French Algerian Jew whom Camus peppered with questions about the Old Testament, all the while taking notes for the book he was then writing, The Plague .
By then, Chouraqui was already risking his life in the French Resistance, particularly in the critical work of finding homes for Jewish refugee children. Much of this activity centered on Chambon, where the pastor, André Trocmé, had already mobilized the village in the work of welcoming, housing, and hiding these children. By the end of the war, the people of Chambon had saved the lives of at least 3,000 Jewish children and adults.
Was Camus aware of Chouraqui or Trocmé’s activities? There is no record of such knowledge in his notebooks or in accounts of friends and colleagues; on the other hand, this was precisely the sort of knowledge one would deliberately keep from friends or notebooks. Nevertheless, the simultaneity of Camus’ reflections and Chambon’s activity is striking. The French Algerian novelist and Cévenol farmers found common ground in their insistence on the dignity of each and every human being.
Indeed, it is the theme of absurdity that most powerfully underscores Camus’ understanding of Jews, Judaism, and Israel. At the political and existential level, Camus felt a visceral connection with the absurd predicament of the young Jewish state. It was a political bond insofar as many on the French left, from whom Camus was estranged, had grown deeply anti-Zionist in the wake of the Suez War. In 1957, he publicly affirmed his sympathy and support for Israel. His reasons still echo today: Not only must Europe accept Israel’s existence as the only possible response to the continent’s complicity in the Final Solution, but Israel must also exist as a counter-example to the oppressive rule of Arab leaders. The Arab people, he declared, wished for deserts covered with olive trees, not canons. Let Israel show the way.
A naïve hope, certainly, but one that suggests that Camus’ attachment to Israel was existential: His plea for cooperation and collaboration between Jews and Arabs in Israel echoed his pleas to his fellow pied-noirs and Arabs in Algeria. In fact, Camus had flown to Algiers in 1956 to urge a civilian truce between Arabs and French Algerians. His desperate claim that Arabs and European settlers were “condemned to live together” proved wrong, of course. They instead concluded they were condemned to kill one another—a conclusion, were he alive today, he would urge both Israelis and Arabs to avoid while there is still time.
Yet Camus’ deepest and most intriguing bond to Judaism is revealed in his philosophy of the absurd. In early 1941, when Vichy was preparing a second round of anti-Semitic legislation and the papers in France and Algeria were giving free rein to anti-Semitic rhetoric, Camus completed his philosophical essay “The Myth of Sisyphus.” The opening lines are among the best known written by Camus: “There is just one truly important philosophical question: suicide. To decide whether life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question of philosophy. Everything else … is child’s play; we must first of all answer the question.” Of course that question needed to be answered in 1941. How could it be otherwise, given the dire predicament in which the French and French Jews, along with Camus, found themselves?
But if the question persists, it is because it is more than a matter of historical or autobiographical interest. It is perennial. It is the same question that Job confronts when, with his children dead, his possessions gone, his belief in God tested, and he himself crumpled in a mound of dust and ashes, his wife tells him, “Curse God and die.” And it is the same question we all confront when, as Camus wrote in the “Myth,” the stage sets collapse around us—any number of belief and value systems we have lived with our entire lives—and we suddenly confront a stripped and bare world whose strangeness and opacity beggar any effort at comprehension.
Job and Sisyphus, in short, are heaved into a world shorn of transcendence and meaning. In response to their demand for answers, they get only silence. Herein lies the absurdity, Camus writes: It is “the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. The absurd depends as much on man as on the world. For the moment it is all that links them together.”
The silence of the world, in effect, only becomes silence when human beings enter the equation. All too absurdly, Job demands meaning. “Behold, I cry out of wrong, but I am not heard/ I cry aloud, but there is no judgment.” And no less absurdly, Job must ask himself what he must do if meaning is not to be found? What is our next step if meaning fails to show up at our appointed rendezvous? “But where shall wisdom be found?/ And where is the place of understanding?”
We think we know how the story of Job ends: Rewarded by God for his loyalty, Job is paid back with even more children and sheep and property. But is this the ending? A number of biblical scholars suggest the Job we hear in the final chapter, the one who accepts and resigns himself to God’s power play, is not the same Job we hear in the preceding 40 chapters. Instead, he is a throwback to an earlier story that was grafted onto the otherwise perplexing account. Instead, the real Job is Camus’ Job. He is a Job who answers God’s deafening and dismal effort at self-justification with scornful silence.
Robert Zaretsky is professor of history in the Honors College, University of Houston, and the author, most recently, of Albert Camus: Elements of a Life .