Ours is a moment of crisis. Short of abolition-grade change, liberal democracy, so-called Western civilization, and/or homo sapiens are likely done. Hoarded wealth may furnish some with a temporary buffer, but as Houria Bouteldja promises white people with delusions otherwise: “The barbarism to come won’t spare us, but it won’t spare you either.”
Whites, Jews, and Us: Toward a Politics of Revolutionary Love is a Hail Mary attempt to eke out an alternative future. In form, Bouteldja’s book offers a volley of addresses and declarations, laying out who “you” are, who “we” are, how we all got this way, and what we must become if we are to survive. The theoretical rules of this game are vital. For Bouteldja, neither self nor other is unitary or discrete. As stipulated in a prefatory note, categories of identity “are social and political . . . the product[s] of modern history.” These categories matter—tremendously—but they are not determinative, and “[i]n no way do they bear on the subjectivity . . . of individuals.” If that claim seems unnecessarily strong, it is unnecessarily strong for a reason. For Bouteldja, though boundaries of identity are real and significant, they are also porous, and they must be made ever more so. In the event that “we” and “you” cannot get it together together, each of us is dead.
The name Bouteldja gives to the possible convergence point between “we” and “you” is “revolutionary love.” Revolutionary love is not a doctrine but a mood, a moment, a way of collective being and a way of becoming a collective. Revolutionary love is not Christian love. When one is oppressed, an ethics that dictates love categorically is both idiotic and impossible. In the spirit of Malcolm X, “the We of revolutionary love” congeals at “that moment right before hatred.” This love runs hot, and met with injustice, it will burn things; but if confronted with respect, if afforded dignity, revolutionary love will not discriminate. Revolutionary love is humanistic and universalistic, albeit only in the conditional. The conditions for this love’s realization require massive transfers of wealth—reparations—from imperialist to indigenous, from white to black and brown. “War and peace have a price,” Bouteldja writes, glossing Baldwin. “It must be paid.”
Do not be misled, however. Overwhelmingly revolutionary love is made of much less dour stuff, and it is this joyful spirit that animates Bouteldja’s prose. It is not by accident that Whites, Jews, and Us shows the reader an exceedingly good time. In characteristically mischievous fashion, Bouteldja’s clearest articulation of revolutionary love’s affect is found only in the acknowledgements, where she credits the book’s existence to three “mad” radical activists. These people “act on their ideals without thinking too much about the consequences of their actions, who take risks without worrying too much about their immediate interests, and who make life lighter because when you’re with them, to be an activist is also to laugh.” The time of revolutionary love is now. Radical redistribution and human survival may be revolutionary love’s ends, but immanence, jouissance, and righteous and holy stupidity are its means.
Bouteldja’s primary mode for communicating this mood is self-declaration. It represents a sort of testimony. By repeatedly and differently declaring who she is, Bouteldja bears witness to the process by which individuals and groups can cease to become merely what history has made us and embrace instead the exuberant and life-saving possibilities of revolutionary love. Traditions are not to be jettisoned; they are to be weaponized. Wish as she might that it was not so, Bouteldja is, intellectually at least, foremost a Frenchwoman. She is haunted by René Descartes (whom she loves to hate) and she is haunted by Jean-Paul Sartre (whom she hates to love). As is true for us all, what Bouteldja is she did not choose: “I belong to my family, my clan, my neighborhood, my race; I belong to Algeria, to Islam. I belong to my history, and God willing, I will belong to my descendants.” This personal terrain is of course political. In sum, as a colonial subject living at the imperial hub—“an indigenous of the Republic”—Bouteldja’s kind schizophrenically constitutes “the wretched of the interior, at once victims and exploiters.” But this is only her collective’s precondition. Identity precedes essence, and we are bound and obligated to shape ourselves differently. How we navigate this process will prove who we are. “The past is no longer. We are the sum of our acts of cowardice and resistance. We will be what we deserved to be.”
While her inability to unthink Sartre’s existentialism no doubt irritates Bouteldja, it does help her bury Descartes’s essentialism. Irreducibly, Cartesian self-declaration—cogito ergo sum—relates one to the world in the manner of a white male conqueror. Before this gaze “we,” the indigenous, can only be objects. “Wimps or monsters, servants or executioners, show-shiners or kamikazes. These are our only options.” In the fulfillment and abolition of her French imperial selfhood, Bouteldja shatters the Cartesian cage. As she declares in the book’s final paragraph: “I think therefore I am. I am . . . a khoroto.” Weirdly (flirtatiously? as an act of exclusion?) the term is left untranslated, but from what I can gather from the internet, it is French-Algerian slang for a crazy person. It may sound catty to say, but I don’t mean it that way: echoing at the heart of Bouteldja’s argument is a generation-old assertion of another indigenous of the republic, albeit seemingly not one in Bouteldja’s canon: We’re never gonna survive/ unless we get a little crazy.
The practice of semi-mad self-declaration can be transformative. “Our words have magical qualities,” Bouteldja writes. “They dehypnotize us and deliver us venomous heritages.” Rather than backward-looking or diagnostic, to declare corporate selfhood is to exert sovereignty over our being. It makes us who and what we are. With Sartre and against Descartes, the governing faculty here is not reason but will. So please don’t bother trying to convince Bouteldja otherwise: “[A]fter all,” she writes, “I don’t care, because I’m decided on optimism and triumph of revolutionary love.”
I am here for all this: the diagnosis of the stakes, the demand for radical redistribution, the allure of revolutionary love as a mode of being, and the invitation to conscientiously wild collective shape-shifting. That is not to claim that I am yet, in the ways that matter, a revolutionary lover. Unhaunted by Sartre, I do not generally feel called to live this ethos quite so vehemently, but perhaps with practice, I will get there. Up to this point I stand unreservedly with Bouteldja and her “we. Where I get tripped up however—and what I have been wrestling with in the writing of this essay—is the function of the text’s two yous: the “you” that is whites, and the “you” that is Jews.
Of these yous, Bouteldja seems to demand two contradictory things. On the one hand, she wants and needs your solidarity. But this is largely aspirational, perhaps even eschatological. In the identitarian meantime, the salient solidarity of her “we” is forged not with you, but rather at your expense. I do not fault Bouteldja for this. The friend/enemy distinctions that run the spine of her text are not of her making. The lines between Bouteldja’s “we” and her two yous is real—history has seen to that. Nor do I fault Bouteldja for saying that “I have never been able to say “we” and include you.” This is only fair, and likely also just. Bouteldja’s indigenous gaze that objectivizes the white “you” is but the resentful return of the Cartesian prototype. The problem, however, is as follows. At the unresolved moment right before hatred, “you” remain in a quantum state: necessary friend, but equally necessary enemy.
Read with maximal generosity, Bouteldja’s engagements with the white and Jewish yous are invitations. She borrows her attitude toward her revolutionary forbears from C. L. R. James:
These are my ancestors, these are my people
They are yours too if you want them
Desperately I do. But if I did not want them already, would Bouteldja’s invitation be appealing? I doubt it. My judgment here stems from my own experience as a reader of this text. I am white, I am a Jew, and yet, try as I might, I had a hard time feeling properly hailed by Bouteldja’s characterizations. The problem here might be mine. I am not a Frenchman. I am also a secular person for whom group-feeling does not come easily, and I am no stranger to bad-faith evasions. But I do not believe my failure to feel “called out” is a function of any of those things. Rather, I fault the form.
Perhaps the interpellative move has more vitality in the French context, but in the American, the genre has run its course. I understand the gambit. The hailing of white people as white people is a gesture of counter-hegemonic power. It is intended to force embodiment, school race-awareness, and engender responsibility. By now, however, the move feels pat. It is an address with many authors but no recipients. To heed the call is to establish one’s bona fides as the exception to the rule. Those who embrace these objectifications find absolution in their confession, and thereby exempt themselves from the charge. The relevant white people are always to be found elsewhere. To put it crudely: for years now, my social media feeds have been full of white people railing against “white people.”
The Jewish case is weirder, and quite honestly, makes me a bit uncomfortable. Bouteldja hates Jews, she playfully asserts, because in their obsequiousness to white power, their zeal for trading authentic traditions for imperialist substitutes, Jews painfully remind her of her own people, the Arabs. Both are “dhimmis of the Republic”—internal others, coerced patrons who are taxed mightily for their provisional and tenuous integration. For Bouteldja, the most obvious symptom of this tax is Zionism, a European ideology that has gobbled up so much of the Jewish tradition. But as Jews know full well, according to Bouteldja, even this massive concession cannot assure security, and so they doubt, and worry, and rightly feel unsafe.
I can recognize the type of Jew Bouteldja is describing, and it is not me. A secular dupe, perhaps, but I am not Zionist; I am not a Jew who worries that acknowledging Roma, gay, and communist victims of Nazism somehow erodes the Holocaust’s Jewish sanctity; and, emphatically, I am not worried that the anti-Semites are coming for my children. When the occasion arises, and I can convince myself that the exercise is not futile, I try to confront these painfully ascendant species of Jewish anti-humanism. Perhaps I represent a kind of outlier, but am I truly so rare? Outliers like me—Bertold Brecht, Rosa Luxembourg, George Perec—pepper Bouteldja’s citations. She knows we exist. And so, my question: If, in addressing the Jewish other, Bouteldja is hoping to steer Jews away from Zionism and toward revolutionary love, then why, in conjuring her Jewish other, does she play up the facets of contemporary Judaism she abhors and play down the very tendencies she hopes to activate? Would not the opposite tack be more fruitful?
“[B]etween us, everything is still possible,” Bouteldja pleads. “We potentially have a common future. This will depend on what part of your personality, fashioned by ‘modernity’ will win out: Zionism and the comfort of dhimmitude or the consciousness of your eternal deferment.” I do not understand exactly what “eternal deferment” means, but in it I can hear whispers of a messianism that embraces immanence, a cosmopolitan ethics, and a principled refusal of imperialist projects. Instead of surrendering Judaism to Holocaust covetousness, Zionism, and ADL-style paranoia, if Bouteldja truly wants Jews to go in for revolutionary love, she would be better served by signal boosting the righteous and crazy alternative.
For one of two reasons, my demand here is likely foolish. If Jews are to be Bouteldja’s enemy, then the address of Jews is essentially a quote tweet—an inscribed you fashioned in the semblance of a discursive engagement but only for building solidary among one’s friends. Such boundary-crossing addresses are designed to fail, and when they do, the inability of you to hear what we are saying feels clarifying. Address is subsumed under declaration, and the struggle continues.
Alternatively, if Bouteldja truly wants Jews not merely as friends but as revolutionary lovers, then the exhortation I am looking for is best sought elsewhere. Not as hailed by a French-Algerian polemicist are we, as Jews, to become what we must become if we are all to survive. If Bouteldja has something to teach us, it may be that no one else can show us the way. Necessary craziness can only begin at home, in self-declaration: of who we are, of what we stand for, of the suffering we refuse to abide.