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Camus the Jew

Albert Camus, who died an atheist at 46, had surprisingly deep ties to Judaism in his life, his political activity, and his philosophical thought

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Albert Camus, 1957. (Robert Edwards/Wikimedia Commons)

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.

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Jesse Kamphuijs says:

The evidence presented here is circumstantial and incomplete. To properly assess Camus, one needs to study his l’Homme Revolte (1953, translated as The Rebel) which is an answer to his own absurdist philosophy, initiated by the question of political murder. Moreover, he considered this work his main work. To assess Camus without this, admittetly, philosophically challenging work, is doing Camus injustice.
In the Rebel Camus states that murder, like suicide, is the denial of value. The difference is that where the suicide implicitly uphols the value of life in others by only taking his own life (which renders his argument absurd) the murderer only upholds the value of his own life (which again renders the argument absurd). It is this nihilism that Camus attacks. About his so-called Judaism a more nuanced conclusion needs to be made; Camus’ version of judaism appears to be influenced by Simone Weil. This can be understood in his remark at the end of
The Rebel that ‘Plato was right, Mozes and Nietzsche were wrong’, thereby attacking the idea of the absolutist lawgiver of humanity. That Camus was appalled by the Nazi’s follows from his clear moral position that totalitarianism in any form is reprehensible. That he therefore sympathized with the Jews is obvious. Also his assessment of the early Israeli state would follow from this logic. To conclude from this that he was a ‘Jewish thinker’ however is absurd.
We could add to this argumentation that Judaism has the contents to be (rightly) viewed as the source of much contemporary morality. However, Jewish law is not a prerequisite for morality. Clear and honest moral thinking requires more, which is freedom of consciousness and conscientious argumentation that suppression, totalitarianism and political murder for ideological reasons have their source in nihilism, which is the negation of values. That is the plight of modernity, to which we all must adhere, whether we consider ourselves religious or, as Camus, atheist.

Dan T. Wallace says:

Damned good piece, Zaretsky! While an atheistic response appears rational, it lacks depth. A sensate response to the world, to the universe indicates an undercurrent of “dynamism,” but it is indifferent to man’s notion of morality, of good and evil.

Shalom Freedman says:

Camus hero in ‘The Plague’ Dr.Rieux finds the evil of the world with courage and caring for others. His heroism is not on the level of ideology but of action. It is ethical decency his devoting himself to curing others and risking his own life at time of ‘The Plague’ which defines him.
Perhaps there is in this – worldly stress on courageously showing compassion and goodness which makes Camus close to Judaism. For it is the walking in the world in goodness and caring for others which is Judaism’s basic teaching.

Michael Edgar says:

“There is just one truly important philosophical question: suicide. To decide whether life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question of philosophy.”
Jesus Christ gave us the answer, but in this day and age it is not politically correct to say so. Yes, I am just another religious nutter…but I know the answer and so did your stupid Christian parents and grandparents.


Holocaust and pogrom all was bad I agree.
But I think it has given too much publicity .
There are many people lets say in tribal Sudan who faces existential threat like that of Jews years ago. Why then is too much Jewification of Media .
I think there are too much articles on this and I question isn’t it waste of time by thinking all time about bad old past.
I think you people need to move on ….

As usual, Camus is ten times the mensch that Sartre was.


Please note that tablet is a JEWISH publication. Do you also complain when Christianity Today runs a lot of stories about Christians? I do agree with you that it is horrible the way Arabs have killed so many black Africans in Sudan. However, given the latest news about Iran, I think it is fair to say that the Jewish People still suffers its share of existential threats.

Ramesh Raghuvanshi says:

It is absurd to compare story of Job and Camus idea of meaning to life.Camus `s lifelong struggle how can we give meaning to life.Story of Job is state forward, very very simple credilous GOD appear on doomsday and punished who are sinners and send them in hell and to righteous awarded them heaven.Camus also don’t understand that only death is giving meaning to life.Man from birth to at the end life struggle to overcome the fear of death.That is only meaning to life other meaning are illusion even story of JOB

Bryan Aitchison says:

….actually Camus was a couple months short of 47 when he died…

Matthew Fishbane says:

You are correct, Bryan. Our mistake. The copy has been changed accordingly.

Jacob.Arnon says:

“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.”

Gee this isn’t even remotely true.

Did you read Proust a half Jew who pointed out that very few people took Jews fro granted.

Judaism was never just a religion and even if one gave up his faith he was still considered a Jew.

Read also Bernard Lazare who came to Dreyfus defense as a Jew even though he was an anarchist and a non-believer.

Jews are a people and not just a religion.

Jacob.Arnon says:

As for Camus he was a good man but his philosophy was hedonistic and hardly had much in common with Judaism.

If you claim too much for Judaism you en up diminishing it.

Jacob.Arnon says:

NILESH SALPE, the persecution in tribal Sudan and in other parts of the world are horrendous, but Jews have been persecuted first for their belief and then for the fact that they were Jews for more than two thousand years.

Jack Larsen says:

The author throws the word “absurd” around as if Camus had stumbled upon a new lounge act. Absurdism is only a name given to the philosophy, not a description. Camus’ absurdism is centerd on the irreconcilable space between our need for Unity and the Meaninglessness we get instead. The author’s loose use of the word “absurd” has more in kind with The Marz Bros.than Camus.

To add a bit more nuance one might read: Albert Camus and the Minister.

Janet Stevenson says:

I understand that only 4% of people complain about any issue.

Who would not agree with Camus that if we all banded together to complain/protest then terrible injustices would probably be averted.

Excellent article -it is good to realise that a person you admire as an author is also to be admired for their moral fortitude.

Randy Waldron says:

The death of Existentialism as a living philosophy is largely a result of the fact that Camus died too young and Sarte lived too long. Thank you for showing me a side of Camus with which I was unfamiliar. I’m not convinced, however, that his concern for the surfering and the injustices inflicted upon the Jews was the inspiration for his understanding of the Absurd. Apparently this concern was quite real. It’s also undisputable that he did indeed write The Myth of Sisyphus. Yet, it’s not clear that one resulted in the other. I’ve read his wartime notebooks. Camus found much to inspire a sense of the absurd, but the surfering of Jews did not seem to stand out especially in his daily jottings.

“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.”
Sure, now Israel is covered with canons. Their treatment of the Palestinians is an indication of their precious Judaism.
This article is silly and self serving.
Camus was an atheist, a man with humanity.
Humanity is not based on any religion.

David Sitbon says:

As a long-time fan of Albert Camus I would like to add two pieces of information:

1. During the war years Camus was requested by the publisher and he did accept to wipe off one page of his book “Le mythe de Sisyphe” where he mentioned the name of Kafka which was forbidden by the censor nazi legislation in Paris at that time. He replaced it by a page mentioning another non jewish philosopher

2. In 1947 at the invitation of his Spanish friends he participated at a meeting where he made very clear his “soutien” to the creation of a state for the jews.

For both citations I can provide the precise references to whoever request them

Binyamin in Orangeburg says:

While France delivered up its Jewish citizens to the Nazis (uniquely among the Nazi-occupied nations of Europe), and while some brave French men and women were being tortured in Klaus Barbie’s prison for their resistance, Mr. Camus was laid up with TB in a picturesque mountain village. How convenient.

When France unleashed a savage reign of terror to suppress the FLN resistance to French colonization of Algeria, Mr. Camus interceded to tell everybody to make nice.

And this is the most precious of his philosophical discoveries: “The Arab people, he declared, wished for deserts covered with olive trees, not canons. Let Israel show the way.” With nearly 50,000 dead Arabs under its belt since the Zionists first set foot in Palestine, there is no end in sight to their “showing them the way.” And dead Arabs are not enough; now its on to the Persians.

David Sitbon says:

One more point to precise that it is not the nazis who killed the French republic in 1940 but the French Parliamentitself. They voted full power to Pétain both left and right except 80 brave members.

Tarara Boumdier says:

Is “Elsewhere on the Web” paid advertising masquerading as news?

Mr. Binyamin in Orangeburg obviously missed the Holocaust in Europe. Too bad, or he would have understood the need for a Jewish homeland, and the need to defend that homeland against Arabs who have given Jews no rest since the founding of Israel. I can assure him that if Arabs had not attacked Israel, there would be no question of West Bank settlements, as the West Bank would still be a Jordanian holding, and Gaza and its Arabs would still belong to Egypt. And if these same Arabs stopped murdering Jews, all would be quiet in the Middle East.
All this is far from Camus and his morality, but the author makes too much of the story of Job, which is only tangential to the Old Testament and Judaism, depicting as it does a cruel god playing with human suffering.

Binyamin in Orangeburg says:

To my neighbor Alex: No doubt the Shoah was one of the worst crimes in all human history, maybe the worst. Why does that fact justify the dispossession of the Palestinians and their continuing oppression?

BTW, the Arabs of Palestine only did what we would do if a foreign group came upon our territory claiming their persecution in Europe justified their establishing a “state” within the borders of our country. (Even if a British Lord and the UN say its OK.)

I am sure, as an American patriot, you would fight such an invader, even if they happened to be Zionists. The Palestinians were not “murdering Jews”, they were killing invaders.

But you’re right about one thing, that history is irrelevant now. I don’t support an Arab ethnic cleansing of the Jews any more than I support Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians. What these idiots need is a bi-national state where all have equal rights.

Binyamin in Orangeburg says:

The foregoing is (slightly) relevant to the esteemed Mr. Camus, because, like a lot of Frenchmen, he thought supporting Israel could expiate the shame for what France did to its Jews.

Part of the Zionist hasbara here in the U.S. is that we “did nothing” (in the words of Shimon Peres) to stop the Shoah. A damnable lie.

Jacob.Arnon says:

Binyamin is wrong.

Wrong from the standpoint of history; wrong from the standpoint of morality.

The poster who calls himself Binyamin is not Jewish he is an antisemite who posts on many Jewish websites anti-Jewish comments.

Jacob.Arnon says:

Camus understood that unless there was compromise in Algeria with the French speaking population that Algeria would descend into violence and dictatorship.

He was right, after the French left, Algeria became a military dictatorship and then in 1980’s and 1990’s a ferocious civil war broke out.

Jacob.Arnon says:

Everyone oppresses a little demented paranoid toad like you:

Blacks, Hispanics, Chinese, Jews, homosexuals, even people who ride bicycles oppress you.

Camus oppresses you to, doesn’t he?

Great article, Dr. Zaretsky.

I question one sentence you wrote: 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.

Though you obviously are a scholar and excellent writer on Camus, as demonstrated in this piece, I doubt that you have a direct line to his soul, the soul of an atheist, to let us know what he would say on current matters.

Matthew Fishbane says:

An inappropriate comment exchange that appeared here over the weekend has been removed.

JamesPhiladelphia says:

To Tablet Magazine.

Thank you very much for removing the very inappropriate and sickening comments.

This site has been always a very enjoyable, honest place for wide ranging discussions. Also is extremely user friendly and superb information. And quite free for access.

Thank you for keep it this way .

JamesPhiladelphia says:

To Binyamin.

Israel ha 20% of their population Arabs mostly Muslim, these are Israeli citizens with equal rights to Jews Christians agnostics atheists gays, etcetera etcetera etcetera.

Thus the national state with all having equal rights already exists. It is Israel .

Your comment is wrong misleading and very ill informed.

But after fighting the removed mad blogger. I am tired of correcting biased tendencious and dishonest bloggers. But I am not giving up.

As the saying goes. Anti Israel bloggers with destructive dishonest comments are dime a dozen.

A bien tot mes enfants.

JamesPhiladelphia says:

It is clear that Binyamin in Orangeburg is not only anti Israel but is also anti Jewish. And like others he is a paid Iranian blogger. Methodology is to plant tendencios lies with anger against Israel against the Jews. this is combined with personal attacks.

Palestinians are oppressed by their corrupt leaders. The Arab Spring proof this statement of mine.

Israel defends itself against Palestinian terrorists. Thus, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, al aqza martyrs are all terrorist Palestinians with the agenda of killing Jews. Iran has planted thousands of missiles in Syria, Lebanon-Hizbollah, Hamas-Gaza. All these terrorists headed by Iran are saying loud and clear that they want to destroy Israel. And they have actively attacked Israel. For you to come and turn over the omelet is the hight of
childlish posting. Who are you trying to convince, your inner hatred indeed.

And read my lips. Iran will not be allowed to go nuclear.

And yes the West did nothing to stop the Shoa.

Binyamin in Orangeburg says:

My dear James: The West “did nothing”? Please go to the U.S. armed forces cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy, France. Look over those 9,387 graves (not a few with Jewish stars above them) and then tell me America “did nothing.” When you are done, go visit the graves of the other 250,000 U.S. soldiers who died in the North Africa/ETO (about twice the number lost in the Pacific).

It was this nudnick Camus who “did nothing.”

JamesPhiladelphia says:

Binyamin in Orangeburg.

The West fought Nazi Germany, because England was in peril. Preventing the Shoa was a low to non priority for the West.

President Roosevelt did nothing to prevent the Shoa, he knew quite well what was going on and looked the other way. General Eisenhower as head of the coalition refused to bomb the railway tracks carrying people to the concentration camps. And to add insult to injury Great Britain blocked survivors to come into Israel (then called Palestine), and the
USA and Britain send back Shoa survivors to camps in Europe.

I am talking about the Shoa.

The soldiers that died defending the West from Nazi Germany are to be admired and revered.

I am talking about the leaders like Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Churchill and the infamous Pope Pious XII who is being made a Saint by the
Catholic Church in Rome.

Deepesh Faucheux says:

Insightful and intriguing article about one of my favorite people. The final paragraphs (however) call to mind a Cuban proverb: “Who spits at God is always downwind.”

Binyamin in Orangeburg says:

Mr. James: Please read: “Saving the Jews: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Holocaust”, by Robert Rosen (Basic Books, 2007)

Interesting piece, though I would take issue with the suggetion that the French left was overwhelmingly ‘anti-zionist’ by 1957. Sartre for instance, was still defendng Israel at this point.

The blog post is worth reading. The uniqueness and structure that reflects from this article. Now-a-days blogs are used everywhere. The idea that we recieve from them are unevitable. The attribute needed is the power of creativity within yourself through learning, thinking, creating and rigorous study. Therefore the blog post is immensely helpful for the readers. Thanks a lot for writing such an awesome article. I will wait for your future article with great curiosity

Is Camus really scornful? This sounds like Zaretsky’s one attitude forced into the silent mouth of the deceased Camus. “Some biblical scholars” is an irresponsible, near-meaningless statement. Who? Experts on Job and other Wisdom literature?

David Stevens says:

Randy wrote [above]: “The death of Existentialism as a living philosophy…”

Although I sympathize with what Randy might’ve meant by this, I think it would be more accurate to say that Existentialism’s only real death was thankfully its death as a fad. Withal, post-Sartrean existential thought rightly transcends mere academia; it is, now more than ever especially, a living-breathing ‘thing’. If you’re alive, then the underpin of Everything–including even mathematics, and physics even more so–is necessarily existential.

When your alarm clock brutally wakes you in the early fog of dawn’s unnatural misery to be on time for your meaningless job, your first major decision is NEITHER to brew a cup of coffee to clear out the cobwebs, NOR is it to press on with the day’s obligations. No, there is one implicit, key decision that PRECEDED even all of that–viz., you first decided NOT to commit suicide (by default), to put off until a hopefully much further date down the road the inevitability that confronts our human condition at every moment: death.

So, perhaps Existentialism “as a living philosophy” has indeed died, but it certainly has not withered whatsoever as a mode of ‘being’, ‘doing’, and ‘deciding’. If Universal Human Freedom is the point–and when is Freedom NOT the point?–then existential thought is everywhere all of the time. Whatever one may think of Sartre’s faults, his truism that “existence precedes essence” still has applications across the board (albeit Camus in his Notebooks disagreed with it).


Suzanne Fabrège says:

It is not surprising that the Protestant village that saved Jews was in the Cévennes. This mountainous area has long been a hotbed of religious non-conformism: first with the Albigenses, who were crushed by a murderous crusade in the Middle Ages, later during the reign of Louis XIV, who repelled earlier laws enacted by his Protestant-born grandfather (Henry IV) giving Protestants (who were many in France at the time) freedom of religion. This freedom was not just a matter of personal belief: for instance, non-Catholic marriages not being recognized by the Church, the children were illegitimate and therefore could not inherit from their parents. Many wealthy Protestants were able to leave the country and settle in England, Holland, Germany, the American colonies and even South Africa, but poor peasants in the mountains of Southern France did not have the means to emigrate and were subjected to ruthless persecution by soldiers sent to live with Protestant families with orders to harass them in every way into giving up their religion. In spite of the persecutions, many resisted forced conversion, but their only means of escape was to seek refuge ever higher in the mountains, where a number of all-Protestant villages still exist to this day but where it was very difficult to earn a living from the meager soil and cold climate. From these bitter experiences, Southern French Protestants in particular have kept alive a hatred of all religious or racial discrimination.


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Camus the Jew

Albert Camus, who died an atheist at 46, had surprisingly deep ties to Judaism in his life, his political activity, and his philosophical thought

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