Michel Houellebecq expected wave of solidarity with Jews but none came

One of the world’s greatest writers says now more than ever he believes Israel's existence is vital and events in Europe and the U.S. are proof that there must be a safe place for Jews
Tamar Sebok|
Michel Houellebecq watches with concern as I burst into the corridor as his elevator door nearly crushes me to death. “It’s crooked. You should have taken the stairs” he says as he shakes my hand. It’s a rather ungraceful, funny and very Houellebecq introduction to my meeting with the fragile French author waiting for me on the doorstep to his Parisian writing studio.
<< Follow Ynetnews on Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | TikTok >>
More stories:
Dressed in a brown checked flannel shirt, faded black pajama pants and a pair of old slippers, Houellebecq pours us a generous glass of port (“not bad for port from the supermarket”), and then goes back to lie on his bed. The pillow case is ridden with cigarette holes. It looks a bit like a therapy session.
3 View gallery
מישל וולבק
מישל וולבק
Michel Houellebecq
(Photo: AP)
On the bookcase are Scandinavian thrillers, a selection of the letters of William S. Burroughs, and a book titled “How to Quit Smoking Using Hypnosis.” This must reflect some kind of sense of humor considering the ashtray was bursting its banks by the end of the interview. This is Houellebecq – a blend of serious intellectual and easygoing, entertaining, sensitive and polite nonconformist - a provocateur by nature, and primarily a man eluding any definition.
Houellebecq, one of the world’s greatest writers and most sought after for interviews, has no interest in talking about literature right now. He’s completely engrossed in the massacre Hamas carried out in Israel on October 7th. “I’m still shocked by the reactions in France to the horrors they committed” he says. It’s so hard for me to get over it, but I have to try.”
Are you thinking of writing something about antisemitism in France?
“It’s not easy to build a book around something you don’t understand. And no one’s asked me to write an article on the matter. I’ve been a clear supporter of Israel in the past, so people rightly have the impression they know what I’d say.”
The enormity of the horror?
“I’m supposed to be a depressed, depressing, disillusioned writer. That’s what I’ve read the critics say about me. Eventually I believed it myself. But this time, I was really way off with my illusions. I was certain that even the worst leftists, the ones that unreservedly support the Palestinians and always criticize Israeli politics, would say they can’t stand behind what happened this time. I was sure there’d be a wave of sympathy and solidarity for the Jews. The very opposite happened – antisemitic attacks skyrocketed. It’s been two months, and I still find it hard to believe that it’s happened.“
Do you talk to acquaintances about their feelings about the reactions in France?
No, because the inexplicable reactions are coming from people I don’t know, people younger than myself. And that worries me even more. There are entire parts of the French population I no longer understand. When I was younger, I was even rather fond of some of the leftists I knew. The historic leftist leaders from the time I was in high school would never have supported Hamas. If they had, the leftists in my class wouldn’t have supported them. The extreme left has undergone an irreparable mutation.
Do these young leftists read your books?
Perhaps some of them do. I’m sure some Mélenchon supporters read my books.“ Mélenchon is a radical left-wing leader known for his anti-Israel views that border on antisemitism. “But I feel dialogue is becoming less and less possible. Jean-Luc Mélenchon is a nightmare. He’s a genuinely dangerous man.”
Do you think that France, as a country, could do more to support Israel? It took President Macron a long time to get himself to Israel. 40 French citizens were murdered. That’s a huge number compared to other attacks
What Macron says doesn’t mean anything anymore. We’ve gotten used to terrorist attacks. No one’s surprised anymore when a priest’s throat is slit. The best metaphor for the Jewish Question – and I don’t know who came up with it – is the canary in the coalmine. When a Jew is persecuted because he’s a Jew, a Christian should worry. He’s next in line. The narrative in French news outlets bothers me: The Palestinians are nice and Hamas uses them as human shields. I find this hard to believe. They keep coming back to “don’t confuse the two’.” It’s just so tiresome.”
Is the support for the Palestinians in France political or sociological?
“Political. There is no support for the Palestinians on the street. And the recent right-wing declarations on the matter are wrong. I saw a TV commentator, who usually gets it right but this time I didn’t agree with his reaction to the pro-Palestinian demonstrations – and there’ve been a lot recently, at least twice a week since October 7th. Like everyone, he said ‘Mélenchon relies on the young suburban electorate’. This is likely true, but I’m not sure it’ll work for Mélenchon. When I watched the demonstrations on TV, I didn’t see a lot of north African faces. There were a few women in hijabs, and no Blacks, not a single one. That said, I wasn’t looking at a typical picture of young suburbia either. They looked like middle class leftists – the kind you see at extremist demonstrations about the environment.“
This isn’t just a French thing
“I think the worst part is that these are demonstrations in support of Hamas and the antisemitic attacks sweeping Germany. I would never have believed it was possible. But here we are.“
When I talk to French Jews, they ask me: Where are the non-Jews who supported us?
“The Left’s antisemitism is flourishing as a result of the monstrous mutation I mentioned before. It’s irritating every time when we get to the second rounds of elections in France and everyone feels that Le Pen’s National Front party is about to win, someone from the government will visit Yad Vashem, and they have time – will top it off with a visit to the site of some other Second World War massacre.”
Doesn’t it irritate you that you agree with Marine Le Pen?
Not anymore, but that’s taken time. The hardcore of the National Front that Marine Le Pen’s father founded was built on people who looked back nostalgically at Second World War Vichy France. Most were also nostalgic about French rule in Algeria. That war of independence is the source of the modern far right. When the Algerians told the French colonialists they had to choose between ‘The suitcase or the coffin’, they were also addressing the French Jews. Unpleasant as it was for both sides, the far right and the Jews left found themselves in the same camp. Sometimes, the enemy chooses you, you don’t choose him. We have to be honest: The National Front bases itself far more on anti-Arab, anti-Muslim sentiment than on antisemitism.”
Houellebecq, 68, broke out 29 years ago with “The Art of Struggle.” He later also wrote “Platform”, “The Elementary Particles”, “The Map and the Territory” (for which he won the 2010 Goncourt Prize), and “Submission” – that creates an alternative reality in which a Muslim Brotherhood party comes to power in France. Coincidentally, the book hit the bookshops on 7th January, 2015 - the day of the terrorist attack on satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo. His latest book, “Anéantir” (To Struggle), was published in Hebrew a year ago, and like all his books translated into Hebrew, by Babel Publishers. He regards the publishing house’s owners, Sharon and Amit Rotbard, as close friends.
But it’s not just literature that makes him one the most intriguing people not only in France, but all over the world. He has been associated with numerous scandals – from not-so-politically-correct comments about sex, gender and religion, through to a libel trial against a porn director who claimed that Houellebecq had agreed to take part in one of his films, and then another libel suit, this time against him: A Muslim organization sued him and lost, after Houellebecq claimed in 2001 that Islam was “the most stupid religion.” The Houellebecq legend only grew with his appearance in an experimental film with Gerard Depardieu, secret musical performances in small venues that people were willing to get into fistfights to watch, and an exhibition of video installations at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris.
"I have a hard time understanding antisemitism,"
He often uses elements from his own life to create characters in his books - and not everyone immortalized in the book is happy with the noxious portraits he paints. Perhaps this is the secret to his creations. He’s viewed by many as a supporter of the far right. He really doesn’t care. What really bothered him was having to walk around with bodyguards for a year following the publication of “Submission.”
You’ll hardly hear him interviewed for the publication of his new book, but the events of October 7th brought out the reluctant author. Three weeks ago, Houellebecq gave an interview to Goel Pinto on Yuval Avivi and Maya Sela’s “Underground” program on “Kan Tarbut Radio.“ He feels that now is the time it’s important to make his voice heard, especially to Israeli audiences, that he prefers to French ones.
“I have a hard time understanding antisemitism” he says in a moment of reflection.“
What don’t you understand?
“Racism is easy to understand. You see a black person, and you say to yourself ‘I don’t like black people.’ You see a white person, and you say ‘I don’t like white people.’ It’s basic, animalistic and immediate. Antisemitism is stranger. Do you remember the film ‘Monsieur Klein? “
This classic 1976 French film, directed by Jospeh Josey, portrays Klien, played by Alain Delon (my enthusiasm for his name earned me a reproachful glance from Houellebecq) as an art dealer living in Paris. Through the winter of 1942, he has to prove that, despite his name, he isn’t Jewish. He’s eventually sent to an extermination camp anyway. Michel Houellebecq tells me he saw the film at the age of 18.
“The Nazis had pseudo-scientific theories” Houellebecq continues. “In a scene I remember to this day, they measured the skull and facial features to determine who was and who wasn’t a Jew. According to these rather unclear statistics and calculations, people were supposed to feel or not feel hatred towards a certain person. It’s strange and outrageously warped. Hatred is usually a much simpler emotion. I’m not the first person to not understand the subject. When Satre said ‘Céline was an antisemite because they paid him’, he was expressing doubt as to Céline’s antisemitism. Satre was wrong in one respect: Céline’s payment wasn’t money but respect. He was only too happy to invited to soireés by Nazi dignitaries who were glad to be stationed in Paris with an elite of collaborators. This was his chance to assume the role of genius beggar. He was pleased with himself. So, Satre also struggles to understand the antisemitism.“
You don’t understand the rise in antisemitism, or are you telling yourself that this can’t be the way things are?
“If I were a brave author, I’d go to see the antisemitic leftists and talk to them.”
You don’t want to get beat up?
“That’s not the point. A conversation with Muslim extremists would be more complicated, but I’m still not so sure. My Islamophobia is rather mild. There are fractures in society making it evermore tribal. There are things beyond my understanding that evoke in me fear and disgust - the Woke movement for example. There is no hatred between Blacks and Whites in France. There are people trying to stir it up and create hatred where there is none. It would be a crime if they succeed. But they’re failing. The Blacks don’t believe in this nonsense. They’re not concerned with France’s colonial history. The Blacks in the United States are. In America, slavery and segregation have left their mark. There’s a real problem over there.”
When you say it’s beyond your understanding, does this also ring true for your writing? Does this situation allow you to carry on writing, or is this beyond your understanding for your writing too?
“There can be obstacles, yes. Some parts of today’s youth I don’t understand at all. But I’m not giving up. The reactions to October 7th genuinely took me by surprise. There are people I thought I could talk to, and now I feel that’s not possible… there are group divisions and they’re invariably ethnic. We’ve seen clashes with firearms between Chechens and Moroccans, Gypsies and Algerians. I think this is part of our future: confrontations between various ethnic elements in society. The fact that both sides are Muslim, doesn’t stop the Albanians and Senegalese fighting among themselves in crack turf wars in Paris’s 19th arrondissement.”
“As for the Jews: Well, some are leaving for Israel, but lots are just moving house. If Jewish organizations want to demand effective measures from the authorities, they should to ask for statistical crime data for France.“
You know that ethnic breakdown is forbidden in France
“Crime statistics aren’t ethnic. There are statistics for prostitution, aggravated burglary, sexual assault, region by region, even council by council. They could include antisemitic incidents. It would be just one more line in these reports. It’s sometimes enough to just move a few miles away. People are working from home a lot more now anyway. You don’t need to live so close to the office. Most French Jews don’t want to leave the country. They enjoy some parts of the lifestyle here. But mostly, they’re simply French.“
One could read “Submission” at face value. It’s an enjoyable read. But it can also serve as a gateway to a conversation on the principle of submission. In the book, there’s a conversation between two characters, Robert Rediger, who becomes the rector of a university after converting to Islam, and François, the book’s hero. The subject is human happiness that requires complete submission. This value system dictates that happiness is not contingent on good deeds, but rather on the submission to a simplistic worldview because this is what brings joy. I think this trait is very human and not specifically connected to Islam. Do you think that submission operates in other parts of society?
“In this book…” Houellebecq goes quiet for a few minutes and then looks me straight in the eye. “The Muslim wins because he offers a clear model for marriage. Isn’t this what the West needs right now? After all, this is the center of our lives. What I’m about to say is going to sound unpleasant, but at the end of the day, faith doesn’t interest most people. It’s important to offer a clear marriage model. This is what the Catholics did for years, but it’s not working for them anymore. The Muslim model is possible simply because it allows the men to rest.“
I’m not sure they can really rest when they’re married to three women, like Rediger in “Submission”
“It may well seem complicated to manage, I don’t know. I’ve never had three wives. But you don’t have to have three – you can have just one wife. Either way, when I say ‘men’, I mean humans. Today, most Western humans find themselves with no partners at all – that’s the problem. This is this model’s failure. Islam offers a different solution.“
“I’m not talking about getting down to the nitty gritty like sexual gratification, but rather demography. Anyway, this is what defines a people’s survival. Matchmaking was the most important principle in the old marriage system. Have they found him a wife? Hello Mademoiselle, have they found you a husband? Hello Monsieur. Do you get it? People accept the choice society makes for us and I think this decision is important enough to leave it up to people independently. It’s a system that worked for centuries. It doesn’t work anymore.”
Contemporary times seem like a very interesting period for authors.
“Yes, yes. Definitely. Authors aren’t necessarily interested in comfortable situations. If I were to give Israeli readers a friendly suggestion, if they want to hear about Islam in a different context, I’d recommend reading contemporary Indian literature. There’s excellent stuff there. I can’t remember names of Indian authors, but I think Balzac would very much enjoy contemporary India. Surpassing China economically is their national obsession.
"They’re not there yet, but they’re trying very hard. They have their nouveaux riches – and they’re very rich indeed. They have their old caste system. That’s very important to them. They have their problems between Muslims and Hindus. Jews or Christians living in Muslim countries have the choice of converting to Islam or becoming ‘Dhimmi’. A Hindu is considered a polytheist and can only choose between converting to Islam and death. Pakistan was founded so as to expel Muslims from India, but 100 million Muslims still reside within India. Sometimes Hindus carry out terrorist attacks on mosques etc. It’s all very complicated and fascinating. I haven’t yet found the Indian version of Balzac, but they do have excellent authors.”
Do you read Israeli authors?
“I don’t know any.”
Houellebecq ranks among France’s most translated authors. His books have been translated into 42 languages and each new work of his constitutes an international event. Alongside local Nobel Prize winners, he seems like the most respected French author in the world - and his views don’t go down well with French intellectuals.
Are you easy to translate?
“I don’t always get back to journalists, but I always get back to translators – and they almost never write to me. I think I don’t present them with a lot of problems. It’s strange. Ernaux (2022 Nobel Prize in Literature winner) insulted me by saying something along the lines of ‘If they translate him all over the world, it means he’s easy to translate.’ I’ve never tried translating myself, but I don’t understand what’s bad about being an author who’s easy to translate. I don’t know of any author who deliberately tries to be hard to translate or difficult to read.”
Do you know what the secret to your world success is?
“I’m always baffled as to why I do so well in certain countries. I do know where. It’s a rather odd list. It’s unclear to me what the common factors between these countries are. The publishers’ work also makes all the difference. Sharon Rotbard is outstanding. Even the book covers are bold brave and their graphics are beautiful.
There’s something uncanny about the current timing of the book cover for “To Stay Alive.” Houellebecq’s screensaver displays a powerful image of Ido Shamir from Be’eri, who survived the massacre. In the center of the picture, among the ruins of a kibbutz home, lies the book “To Stay Alive and other Essays.” The book survived. Did the home’s residents also survive?
Dorit Shiloh first published the picture and it was sent to Michel Houellebecq by her student, Ram Menachem. Houellebecq thanked him, responding “The first thing I felt looking at the picture was the evil irony in the book’s title. But you can also see it a message of hope.”
Are you sensitive to pictures and images? I remember your photography exhibition
“I’m very sensitive to images. I’m please that, until now at least, they haven’t broadcast the most horrific videos. It’s enough for them to tell me about it, and I’m flooded by horrible visions. But there are definitely people with a less developed visual imagination than myself. Maybe they should watch those videos. If they do decide to broadcast them, they should first give a warning, so I can switch channels.”
The most painful thing in Israel is the hostages
“Right now, you’re accepting the decisions of your leader. I recall reading an interview with Ariel Sharon. One sentence is engrained in my memory: “The hardest job in the world is being prime minister of Israel.” At the time, I felt it was true. I can’t imagine a harder job. You need to manage wars rather often, with everything that entails. Should they abandon the hostages? Should they do everything to save them? These are terrible moral dilemmas where any decision is a bad one, and all this in a very active democracy. To be honest, in France and the countries I know, when there’s a war - democracy is sent to sleep. The prime minster of Israel is always under pressure. I can’t even imagine how much.”
3 View gallery
כיכר החטופים
כיכר החטופים
Candles lit for hostages held in Gaza
(Photo: Roy Rubinstein)
“That’s not to say I support everything Netanyahu does. Continuing settlements in the West Bank is a bad idea. I’ve nothing against the settlers, but it has to stop. How can you carry on peace negotiations without secure borders? It’s simple logic. For peace, you need secure borders and a stable existence.“
Two things we’ve never had in Israel
“You have to get there one way or another. This is clearly the central issue right now. The countries surrounding Israel need to understand that Israel exists and will continue to exist. I haven’t been following the news as closely as I should, but I understand that a number of Arab countries have reached the conclusion that they can’t eliminate Isarel. So, Hamas must be punished hard enough to surrender. I’m sorry to be so brutal about it. The war rests on the balance of power between the parties.“
Another shocking point is the silence of women’s organizations across the world who, until now, have ignored the cases of rape and sexual abuse on October 7th
“Yes. It already happened in Europe. The famous and very symptomatic story of rape in Cologne, Germany (where 90 women were assaulted, mugged or subjected to threats on New Year’s Eve of 2016 by men ‘of Middle Eastern and North African appearance’). In France and across Europe, rape is clearly classified as a crime. Lots of people of non-European backgrounds rape women in Cologne but then, because they’re not European, they’re forgiven a bit. It’s the same with the Palestinians.”
3 View gallery
נשים מפגינות מחוץ למטה ארגון האו"ם לקידום והעצמת נשים בניו יורק על שתיקת הזוועות שביצעו מחבלי חמאס
נשים מפגינות מחוץ למטה ארגון האו"ם לקידום והעצמת נשים בניו יורק על שתיקת הזוועות שביצעו מחבלי חמאס
Protest of women against the silence of the UN, women's group over Hamas rape
(Photo: Omer Kaplan)
Do you see “Submission” here?
“That’s an understatement. It’s hard to accept that Jewish demonstrators coming to testify about rape carried out by Hamas, were thrown out of a Parisien demonstration about violence against women. This is the rise of European nihilism as described by Nietzsche. My health suffers admitting it. I’ve always been critical of Nietzsche. It would be more correct to talk about the rise of Freud’s death drive or the final victory of Thanatos over Eros. In short, the West is going in a bad direction. But Israel will survive.“
Are you interested in Jewish Philosophy?
“I don’t understand anything about it. I’m not interested in monotheism. As far as I know, I’m not Jewish. I support you for moral reasons. There’s a difference between a bomb blindly placed in a public place and a targeted attack to kill a murderer. A classic example would be the terrorists who took part in the massacre in Munich in 1972, who were assassinated one after the other by the Mossad. These are tools allowing to morally judge the goal you’re trying to achieve, to choose to which camp to belong.“
The northern part of the Gaza Strip is all but destroyed
“You are known as experts in precision attacks, but here the task is super complicated. There’s been damage lots of innocent civilian casualties. I believe you’re doing what you have to do. I don’t see how you could operate any other way.”
"Recent events in France, across Europe and the United States have proven, more than ever, that there needs to be a safe haven for Jews"
You visited Israel for the launch of “The Map and the Territory.” What impression did you get of Israeli people?
I’ve been to Israel three or four times, and I’ve nothing but good things to say about Israel. The first time I visited Israel, I was short of sleep. I was getting up early and going to sleep late – with no siesta. Furthermore, I get the impression you’re always doing something. You’re constantly alert. In a state of war, almost all the time. Then, I realized that one can live like that. It’s exhausting but possible. Another thing that surprised me was the female soldiers. I had a meeting with readers. Two young women showed up and checked their submachine guns at the door. This felt strange for me, I must say. A young female soldier with a submachine gun. It looked rather erotic.“
A lot of people think it’s sexy
“So, I’m not the only one. You’ve made me feel much better. Before visiting Israel, I never imagined I harbored such a fantasy.”
What has the war in Israel clarified for you?
Israel is more essential than ever. Recent events in France, across Europe and the United States have proven, more than ever, that there needs to be a safe haven for Jews. I ask myself whether, as an exception, I might one day be able to emigrate to Israel.”
I think you’d be granted honorary citizenship
“That does make me feel better. The worst part is that I’m not even joking… It’s also important for me to say something about Israel young people. They’re 20, and they must have had plans for their lives other than dying for their country. My patriotism has never been as forceful as theirs. I admire them.”
With or without the submachine gun?
“You can tease me all you like, because I felt better when you told me that a lot people think it’s sexy. And this is the first time I’ve ever been told I’m rather banal.”
The commenter agrees to the privacy policy of Ynet News and agrees not to submit comments that violate the terms of use, including incitement, libel and expressions that exceed the accepted norms of freedom of speech.