Anti-Semitism and extermination in the Réflexions sur la question juive by Sartre

The relationship between Sartre and anti-Semitism seems to be reduced, in recent years, to the discussion around the attitude adopted by the philosopher against the collaboration regime of Vichy1. This, however, is not where we intend to begin our investigation. We will, on the contrary, attempt to critically question ourselves starting from the theoretical analysis of the phenomenon of anti-Semitism that Sartre developed in the pages of an essay published in the mid-Forties: Réflexions sur la question juiveAnalysis of the profound reasons behind anti-Jewish prejudice conducted by Sartre, appears to be of important interest for at least two orders of reason. First of all because, as Traverso has underlined, the silence regarding the topic of the extermination that characterizes these pages, makes their author, the European postwar intellectual ideal type who is incapable of taking in the historical break-up represented by the Jewish genocide2. Sartre represents, indeed, the difficulty in understanding, differently from that which rare “fire wardens” had done, the caesura represented by Auschwitz, which opened up the discussion on the very concept of civilisation and after which, as Adorno wrote about, writing a poem would have been an act of barbarism. By way of these pages, therefore, even though unconsciously, we are offered again a whole cultural and intellectual climate that dominated Europe immediately following WW II, marked by the incomprehension of the epochal dimensions of the massacre.

Secondly, the analyses contained in the Réflexions are worthy of attention especially for their capacity of sketching a faithful portrait of anti-Semitism and, in particular, of the anti-Semite. Here, a phenomenology of anti-Jewish racism is indeed sketched where, not only confirmation can be found of the classic explicative models used in historical analysis of prejudice against the Jews, like those of the “scapegoat” and “communizing the guilt”, but these become paradigmatic of more general mechanisms of the non-acknowledgement of the otherness, making the Réflexions sur la question juive a work of great modernity.

The Réflexions sur la question juive and Jewish genocide

According to Traverso, the reaction that European intellectuals had with Jewish genocide might schematically bring us to catalogue them into four distinct categories: the collaborators, those who actively supported anti-Semite policies; the saved, the writers-witnesses who narrated all the events of the deportation and of the concentration camps (this is the case of Primo Levi and Jean Améry) in the first person; the fire wardens, that is those German-Jewish immigrants who had the lucidity to understand, already during the period of the war, that which was going on, keeping the theme of genocide at the centre of their thoughts (like Adorno and Arendt); finally, that vast grey area, defined by the short-sighted clergy, where we can place both uninvolved intellectuals who preferred to take refuge in literature and who were able to make a political choice just towards the end of the conflict, as well as those anti-Fascist intellectuals who, even though they had matured a certain political conscience which led them to participate, in certain cases, in the struggle of Resistance, remained blind when faced with the genocide3.

Sartre, with his Réflexions sur la question juive, written in the Autumn of 1944 and published in 1946, would come under the last category. Not only, but this work would represent, according to Traverso’s reading of it, a type of paradigm of the most general attitude of short-sightedness of those European intellectuals who were unable to gather the historical break-up represented by the gas chambers. The fact of the extermination is, indeed, quoted in the essay by Sartre in just one passage and almost in a marginal way:


Today, those the Germans didn’t deport and assassinate can go back to their homeland. Many took part in the resistance from the very start: others have a child, a cousin in Leclerc’s army. All France is rejoicing or is fraternizing on the streets, social struggles seem to be temporarily forgotten; the newspapers dedicate whole columns to war prisoners, deportees. Will they mention the Jews? Will the return among us of the survivors be greeted, will a wee thought for those who died in the Lublin gas chambers be spared? Not a word. Not a line in the newspapers. We mustn’t upset the anti-Semites. France needs union now, more than ever4.


This short-sightedness when faced with the Holocaust, writes Traverso, has to be explained, put into context and historicized, if we want to avoid falling into two opposing, yet complimentary, dangers of apologetic historicization, that justifies everything in the name of historical context, and that of summary denunciation pronounced in the name of a belated retrospective wisdom5. Putting the judgement on the Sartre reflection into context means remembering how Auschwitz occupied, in postwar culture, a marginal place. «In un continente in rovine, pochi si preoccupano dello sterminio degli ebrei […] I superstiti dello sterminio nazista sono una piccola minoranza tra milioni di displaced persons, in mezzo a paesi devastati, in preda a profonde trasformazioni socioeconomiche […]» (Within a continent in ruins, few worry about the extermination of the Jews […] The survivors of Nazi extermination are but a small minority among millions of displaced persons, throughout devastated countries, prey to profound socio-economic transformation […])6. In après guerre France, the re-found climate of national unity was, moreover, an obstacle to recognizing the specificity of the Jewish tragedy7. Not least, as remembered, the Sartre essay was the expression of an anti-Fascist culture for which the symbol of Nazi barbarity was not Auschwitz but Buchenwald, in that symbolic place of the detention of those who opposed Nazism, for political reasons8.

How should we relate ourselves, therefore, to the contents of Sartre’s thinking? As for Traverso, even if the specificity of elements such as racial biologism, eugenics, social Darwinism – which represented the break-up factors of the extermination project – remain outside the phenomenology of the Réflexions (all centered, instead, around the analysis of that which is defined as the anti-Semitic «passion»), Sartre has, nevertheless, the merit for having been one of the rare authors to have, at least, evoked the Holocaust, especially within a cultural and political context which was dominated by other preoccupations9. But – and it is here that it will be worth it to reflect upon – Sartre’s essay presents a further element of interest, that given by the possibility of tracing, in the pages of the work, themes that would have become, in the historiography of the postwar years, recurring models in the reading of the genesis of the fear of Jewry. Conducting careful analysis, they indeed still maintain all their topicality, not just as regards close scrutiny of anti-Jewish prejudice, but especially for their capacity to decipher mechanisms via which the most general non-acknowledgment of otherness continues to operate. It is, therefore, on these that we will predominantly linger over.


The Jew as scapegoat

Right at the beginning of the essay, Sartre writes:


If a man attributes every or a part of the disasters of the country and of his own ones to the presence of Jewish elements within the community, if he proposes to remedy this situation by depriving the Jews of certain rights or excluding them from some economic and social roles or else by expelling them from their land or by exterminating them all, we say that he has anti-Semitic opinions10.


He has, therefore, to turn to the mechanism of scapegoat in the attempt of clarifying what must be meant by “anti-Semitic opinions” The anti-Semite is, according to Sartre, whoever is convinced that one’s own disasters, or those of the community they belong to, depend upon the presence of Jewish elements which have to, therefore, be pushed away if they wish to avoid similar calamities happening again. Further on, he writes:


A colleague at the grammar school tells me the Jews “irritate him” […] “A Jew passed the selection exam in the year that I failed and you won’t have me believe that that individual, whose father came from Kraków or Lviv, understood anything about a work by Virgil any better than I did […]”. Though, he does confess, on the other hand, that he despises the selection exam which is about a “three-line win in the lotto” and that he had not studied for the exam11.


In this case as well, the anti-Semite makes the Jew out to be the reason for all his ills, all his failings, all his existential frustrations. Instead of attributing the failed passing of the entrance exam to his own unpreparedness and inability, the school colleague prefers to attribute the responsibility to a presumed plot that the Jews would have hatched against him.

That, however, which we have to underline here is that Sartre resorts, yet again, to the category of scapegoat to interpret these manifestations of anti-Semitism. In this way, he announces in advance some analyses which would have looked for, right in this conceptual scheme, one of the fundamental reasons of anti-Jewish racism. To reading the phenomenon of anti-Semitism through the lens of the scapegoat, various authors have referred, indeed, who have partially traced back the history of discrimination against Jews to the periodic reproduction of these mechanics of prejudice.

But what is meant by a scapegoat? As Chevalier states, the scapegoat consists of an irrational act of believing a person, a group of persons or a thing to be responsible for a multitude of problems12. This symbolic meaning of the term is similar to its historical and religious meaning. The religious meaning finds its origins in the Jewish tradition and it refers to the ritual of the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, where two goats are sacrificed to make amends for the sins of the community13. Its function, therefore, is to prevent or repair, through the sacrifice of an innocent creature, the inauspicious consequences of sins for which a community made itself, or will make itself, responsible. Chevalier underlines that this mechanism may well present itself in two distinct forms: preventative and curative. In the first instance, the scapegoat is seen as a preventative repair for a future and eventual sin in accordance with a given recurrence, annually, or linked to certain feasts. In the second case, instead, it is not regulated by the unrolling of time, but it is conceived as an answer to a specific situation, a catastrophic one, one of emergency, like an epidemic or a calamity14. The mechanism of the scapegoat, especially in its curative form, therefore performs a dual task. On the one hand, via the sacrificing of an innocent creature it consents to a community to immediately identify the guilty party, thus satisfying one’s own urgency in the personification of the causes of the evil; on the other, through this process of summary justice, the community avoids interrogating itself about those which might be the deep-rooted reasons of the events which stroke it, events which not rarely can be retraced to within itself. The mechanism behind the scapegoat, so, operates in two directions: it offers an immediate justification to evil and pain and, at the same time, via identification of an internal enemy consolidates the community onto itself again thus avoiding the explosion of all its own contradictions and its laceration15. If, therefore, the sense of this mechanism lies in the choice of unloading the sins for which others should have been called upon to answer onto an individual or a group of individuals, we may well understand which might be the ideal candidates to take on this role. They will be those, writes Chevalier, who due to: somatic, religious, cultural characteristics, put themselves up as being “different” from the majority:


Only those individuals outside the social system, marginal in comparison to it, may commit such crimes […] The victims find themselves, therefore, chosen not because of what they have done, objectively, but because of what they are, “abnormal” as far as their body and status are concerned, abnormal in the two senses of being ‘too much’ and not being ‘enough’. It is their keeping themselves away from the norm, it is their difference both ‘too large’ – their monstrousness – and ‘too small’ […] which makes them apt to commit undifferentiated crimes […]16.


We may, therefore in this perspective, well understand the reasons for which the Jews were, for centuries, the best candidates for the role of scapegoat. They – in that they represent a human group characterized by the capacity to preserve a cultural, religious tradition and a clear identity of their own – became, more easily than others, victims of this mechanism. Examples offered by history, in this sense, are multiple17.

This brief digression permits us, therefore, to understand how in the Réflexions the reference to one of those explicative models which would have become recurring throughout in the analysis of anti-Jew prejudice may be traced. We should consider, in this sense, the study that Girard will dedicate to this theme in which he will draw upon the history of Judeophobia to develop his thoughts18. Nevertheless, the reference to the scapegoat is not the only one present in Sartre’s work, next to it he seems, indeed, to refer to yet another element which is able to interpret the anti-Semitic passion: that one of the communizing of the guilt.


The communizing of guilt: the Jew as deicide


That which weighs down on him [the Jew], from the outset, is the fact that he is the killer of the Christ. Was the intolerable situation of these men, who are condemned to live right in the heart of a society which adores the God they have killed, ever thought about? In the beginning, therefore, the Jew is a murderer or the child of a murderer – that which, in the eyes of a collectivity that conceives responsibility under prelogical form, is absolutely the same thing – and as such he is taboo19.


In this passage, Sartre refers to the classic anti-Semitic theme of the Jewish people as a god-killer people which, as is well known, derived from the version of the judgement and death sentence of Christ given by Gospel according to Matthew. This theme would later be systematized from a theological point of view by Augustine and would arrive to have a decisive influence over the attitude of the Catholic Church regarding the Jews in the following centuries20. According to this interpretation, the Jews were to be considered collectively responsible for the death of Christ, both in a synchronic and diachronic sense. Not just those who materially expressed their opinion in favour of Barabbas over Jesus, that is, were considered to be guilty, rather the whole of Jewry was. Moreover this guilt, because of the passage by Matthew in which they seem to accuse themselves of deicide, would have passed on from generation to generation throughout the later ages. Sartre therefore captures one of the recurring and core themes in anti-Semitic literature which drew its very nourishment from the constant negative characterization of Jewish identity. The collective stigmatization of the Jews being evil beings, attached to money, petty and who had a certain natural predisposition for scheming and plotting things, indeed did feed the prejudice towards them reinforcing the idea of original sin. Augustine, not by chance, will arrive at defining them as “sons of Satan”21.

In his description of anti-Semitism, like a “passion”, does Sartre refer to the theme of the collective identification of the Jewish people. Anti-Semitism, he writes, may be defined a true passion because it excludes real experience, facts do not provide to feed prejudice rather it is the idea of the Jew that counts.


All have understood that we are dealing with a feeling of hate and anger. But usually ‘hate’ and ‘anger’ are provoked: I hate he who made me suffer, he who despises me or who insults me. We have seen that anti-Semitic passion is not of this same character; it anticipates the facts that should have given it birth, it searches for them to nourish itself, rather, it has to interpret them in its own way, so they become truly offensive22.


It is, therefore, this blind passion, impermeable to reason and experience, which permits that collective identification of the Jews founded upon negative qualities such as avidity, miserliness, pettiness, a tendency towards intrigue and plotting, which will hammer them numerous times during the course of history. In other words, Sartre writes, that which is essential in anti-Semitism is not the historical datum, but the idea of the Jew that we have built. «Therefore, it is the idea of the Jew which we have that seems to determine history, not the “historical datum” which gives rise to the idea»23. In this sense, he will be able to affirm that it is the racist who makes the Jew.

The reflections of Sartre, therefore, seem to combine two elements which mutually intertwine, that ancient one of the communization of guilt and that one of the collective identification of the Jewish people. In this sense, anti-Semitic racism appears, to Sartre, like the product of a social construction that draws its arguments from ancient reasons of prejudice, but which constantly feeds itself via the obsessive search for facts which, when observed through the lens of prejudice, have the function of naturalizing characteristics which are, instead, historically determined24. Nevertheless, the racism investigated in the Réflexions seems to find nourishment, not only from certain motivations of a religious kind, but also from being a phenomenon induced by certain social classes which try, through making a distinction between Jews and non-Jews, to repair the social fractures for which they are principally responsible.


Anti-Semitism as exertion of passion against the division of society into classes.

The third, and conclusive, theoretical and interpretative element of anti-Semitism contained in the pages of the Réflexions is, indeed, reading anti-Semitism as economic and social tension release valve. From this point of view, Sartre takes up a topic dear to Marxist literature again. He writes:


We have ascertained that anti-Semitism is an exertion of passion in order to produce a national union against the division of society into classes. We attempt to suppress the fragmentation of the community into groups hostile to one another bringing the common passions to such a temperature as to melt down barriers: and since this, notwithstanding the divisions continue, in that their economic and social causes have not been touched, we try to reunite them all into one: the distinction that exists between rich and poor, between labouring and owner classes, between legal and occult powers, between city men and country men, etc., are all summarized into that one of Jew and non-Jew)25.


Anti-Semitism is therefore a mythical and middle-class representation of the class struggle, which aims at prohibiting the class interests of disadvantaged social groups clot, thus preserving the political and economic hegemony of the middle-class and weakening social conflict26. This reading of Sartre regarding anti-Semitism, as has been said, testifies to the influence which Marxism had begun to exercise on French philosophy and which, in the postwar years, will become a constant point of reference for his thinking.

In this wake, those reflections which, on anti-Semitism, the Frankfurt School will develop can be placed. The Frankfurt School will interpret anti-Jewish racism as one of the ways through which to satisfy those impulses that civilisation has repressed, without however being able to delete them27. The injustice produced by the economic system, leading individuals to that which Adorno defines «a state of minority characterized by the lack of autonomy of subjectivity», persuades them to identification with what exists, with what is constituted and with the power as such, creating that totalitarian potential which is the basis for prejudice and anti-democratic aptitudes28. Since reality does not satisfy that possible happiness the concept of democracy points to, Adorno further adds, individuals assume an attitude of indifference as regards democratic issues, if not of downright hate as regards those same issues. In the failed correspondence between issues produced by political organisation and minority induced by the social and economic circumstances, prejudices are born29. For Adorno, anti-Semitism, just like all other types of refusal of otherness, therefore becomes the channel through which the antagonisms of society are expressed which are nothing but the horrible caricature of the right aspiration to a society of free and equal men30.

This brief reference to the thinking of the Frankfurt School permits us to understand how the analysis contained in the Réflexions may be placed within an interpretative thread of the phenomenon of anti-Semitism, which, originating at the end of the 19th Century, has crossed the entire length of the 20th Century, and in which ethnic and religious factors progressively give way to the importance assumed by social and economic ones.



Summing up, what is pressing to highlight, by way of this construction of the reflection of Sartre, necessarily schematic and incomplete, is not so much a sort of “divining capacity” of Sartre in understanding much in advance the future conceptual and interpretative keystones of anti-Semitism. It is, on the other hand, the identification of those “prejudice mechanics” that allow us to understand, even if deduced from a history of Judeophobia, the essence of phenomena of discrimination and racism which go beyond prejudice against Jews and which continue to present themselves again in forms, at times only apparently new. In this sense, it is the entire philosophical thinking of Sartre that constructs a fundamental anchor point against every form of ossification of identities which seems to be the constant presupposition for the non-acknowledgement of otherness.

Into the theme of racism, Memmi writes, the structuring of the relationship between an “us” and a “them” enters into play. It makes sure that the debate is structured on the basis of a relationship between groups, no longer between individuals. The individual ceases to be considered as subject with his own characteristics becoming the member of a social group of which he must, a priori, possess the characters31. Racism, therefore, tends to naturalize social relationships, to decree differences and hierarchies that are rooted to the being of people and not to their doing. Against the diffusion of these dynamics, to which those mechanics of prejudice we have described result to be functional, anti-essentialism which characterizes all the philosophical thinking of Sartre seems to constitute a powerful antidote, especially because of his capacity to assume subjectivity always as being free and irrepressible, and therefore, avoiding that it may be drowned within the all-encompassing and objectifying categories.


1 Cf. Ingrid Galster (sous la direction de), Sartre et les juifs, Paris, La Découverte, 2005.

2 Cf. Enzo Traverso, Auschwitz e gli intellettuali. La Shoah nella cultura del dopoguerra, Bologna, Il Mulino, 2004.

3 Cf. ibidem, pp. 10-11.

4 Jean-Paul Sartre, Réflexions sur la question juive, Paris, Gallimard, 1954; Ital. transl. L’antisemitismo. Riflessioni sulla questione ebraica, Milano, Edizioni di Comunità, 1982, pp. 51-52, my italics.

5 Cf. E. Traverso, Auschwitz e gli intellettuali, op. cit., pp. 204-205.

6 Ibidem, p. 9.

7 «The Jews themselves felt then such a strong need to find a normal life again rather than to claim the uniqueness of the concentration camps», ibidem, p. 205.

8 Cf. ibidem.

9 Cf. ibidem, p. 21.

10 J.P. Sartre, L’antisemitismo. Riflessioni sulla questione ebraica, op. cit., p. 7.

11 Ibidem, pp. 11-12.

12 Cf. Yves Chevalier, L'antisémitisme. Le Juif comme bouc émissaire, Paris, Cerf, 1988; Ital. transl. L’antisemitismo. L’ebreo come capro espiatorio, Milano, Istituto propaganda libraria, 1991, p. 90.

13 «[the priest] places both hands on the head (of the goat) and, against it, will confess all the errors of the children of Israel, all their transgressions and all their sins. After having thus covered the head of the goat, he will send it out into the desert under the guidance of a man who will keep himself ready, and the goat will bring all the blame upon himself in an arid place», ibidem, p. 92.

14 Cf. ibidem, p. 93.

15 Cf. ibidem, p. 106.

16 Y. Chevalier, L’antisemitismo, op. cit., p. 110, my italics.

17 As Ghiretti recalls, in Strasbourg, in 1349, the municipality had two thousand Jews burned alive in their cemetery because they, in the absence of any type of medical science that was able to furnish scientific explanations, were held responsible for the spreading of the plague that was decimating the European continent in the mid-1300s. Cf. Maurizio Ghiretti, Storia dell’antigiudaismo e dell’antisemitismo, Milano, Mondadori, p. 111.

18 Cf. René Girard, Le Bouc émissaire, Paris, Grasset, 1982.

19 J.-P. Sartre, L’antisemitismo. Riflessioni sulla questione ebraica, op. cit., p. 49.

20 Cf. M. Ghiretti, Storia dell’antigiudaismo e dell’antisemitismo, op. cit., p. 120.

21 Cf. Augustine, Tractatus adversus Judaeos.

22 J.P. Sartre, L’antisemitismo. Riflessioni sulla questione ebraica, op. cit., p. 14.

23 Ibidem, p. 13.

24 Cf. Alberto Burgio, La guerra delle razze, Roma, Manifestolibri, 2001.

25 Ibidem, p. 106.

26 Even at the end of the 18th Century, the Socialist leader, Babel, condenses his position on anti-Semitism in the following terms: «Anti-Semitism is used today by the most various people and by the various middle-class political parties as escape valve that is fit for distracting attention from their own antipopular activities […]. Hate for the Jews must serve as a cover for all possible shameful acts that they carry out, and that they then attribute particularly to the Jew», Cf. Massimo Massara (ed.), Il marxismo e la questione ebraica, Milano, Edizioni del Calendario, 1972, p. 102.

27 «In keeping with the peculiar nature of that work which is the Dialettica dell’illuminismo […] in it anti-Semitism is therefore interpreted as the expression of a rancour against the renouncements imposed by civilisation that is satisfied by transforming itself into hatred towards that people in whose tradition the memory of the most ancient taboos are conserved, and to which – exactly for this – the most loathed (because they are more secretly desired) transgressions are attributed to the collective imaginary heritage», Stefano Petrucciani, Prefazione to Theodor W. Adorno, Contro l’antisemitismo, Roma, Manifestolibri, 1994, p. 11.

28 Cf. ibidem.

29 Cf. ibidem, p. 32.

30 «[…] anti-Semitism and Fascism are not an issue that may be considered to have been resolved since the roots of totalitarian potential is to be found precisely in the social structures as well as in their basic antagonisms. It is these social structures that produce the sense of impotence, isolation, anxiousness and resentment on which, as soon as certain critical conditions go off, anti-Semitism and authoritarianism, racism and demagogy can set in», ibidem, pp. 13-14.

31 Cf. Albert Memmi, Il razzismo. Paura dell’altro e diritti di differenza, Genova, Costa e Nola, 1989, p. 82.

This article was traslated into English by Mr. Aaron Mary Greenwood.
How to cite: Gianluca Vagnarelli, Anti-Semitism and extermination in the Réflexions sur la question juive by Sartre, in N. Mattucci, C. Santoni (eds), Esclusione, identità e differenza. Riflessioni su diritti e alterità, Bologna, Clueb, 2010, also in Before and Beyond Auschwitz Project - Digital Brochure,〈=it


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