In France’s ‘Antisemitic Moment,’ Lessons for Today?

A Social History of the Dreyfus Affair’s Aftermath Seeks To Illuminate the Republic’s Traditions of Tolerance

By David A. Bell

Published February 21, 2003, issue of February 21, 2003.
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The Anti-Semitic Moment: A Tour of France in 1898

By Pierre Birnbaum

Translated by Jane Marie Todd

Hill and Wang, 352 pages, $30.

* * *

Imagine that an impartial observer had tried, in the year 1900, to predict which European country would attempt to exterminate the Jews during the coming century. The most likely choice would not have been Germany but France, where, for two decades, a vicious strain of antisemitism had circulated freely within the body politic. Édouard Drumont’s ferocious 1886 tract, “La France Juive” (“Jewish France”), had been one of the great sellers of the fin de siècle. Public figures from across class and party lines routinely resorted to the worst sort of antisemitic stereotypes. With the hideously mistaken 1894 conviction of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer, for treason, an unprecedented antisemitic frenzy took hold — one that until that point had no parallel across the Rhine. One result was to persuade the young Austrian-Jewish journalist Theodor Herzl that Jews had no future in Europe and needed a homeland of their own.

The story of French antisemitism in this period still has much relevance, given the second-place finish of an open antisemite, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in France’s recent presidential election, and the wave of antisemitic vandalism carried out in the country over the past two years (mostly by young French Arabs). Revelations about French involvement in the Holocaust continue to trickle out, and certain French institutions still have difficulty confronting their difficult past (despite a mountain of evidence, the French army did not officially acknowledge Dreyfus’s innocence until 1995). Yet the fin de siècle story has been told so often and so well, including by Americans such as Yale University’s Paula Hyman, that finding a new angle on it is no easy task.

The French political scientist Pierre Birnbaum, the leading expert on contemporary French Jewry and author, most recently, of “Jewish Destinies: Citizenship, State, and Community in Modern France” (2000), has found such an angle in his compelling but problematic new book, “The Anti-Semitic Moment: A Tour of France in 1898.” It is not a conventional work of history. Instead, Birnbaum takes his readers on a vivid, impressionistic “tour of France,” proceeding region by region and illustrating the extent of antisemitism in each one over the course of a single year. He has chosen the year when antisemitic convulsions reached their height in the wake of the Dreyfus affair — an “anti-Semitic moment” that was “subsequently erased from historical consciousness.” Dreyfus’s innocence had become apparent, yet the French courts refused to acknowledge it. In response the novelist Emile Zola had published his brilliant, incendiary tract “J’Accuse.” It was met by a flood tide of hatred.

Birnbaum’s achievement is to show the intensity and pervasiveness of this hatred. Indeed, his evidence is horrifying. In city after city, in demonstrations, leaflets, newspapers and street posters, Jews were denounced as conspirators, traitors, bloodsuckers and murderers. The Anti-Semitic League, founded by Drumont in 1888, had hundreds of branches. It warned gentile citizens about the Kahal, a rabbinic association that supposedly controlled the entire world from behind the scenes. Even radicals and socialists, whom historians usually associate with Dreyfus’s supporters, condemned Jews as exploitative capitalists.

Birnbaum goes so far as to claim that, in 1898, nearly the entire French nation turned against the Jews. But this is immoderate, surely. Impressionistic evidence can demonstrate that antisemitism was widespread, not that it was universal. To prove such a point would demand a more systematic approach, and the sort of public opinion data that is simply not available for the period. It is also significant that in mainland France, despite the countless threats and insults and a large number of smashed windows, not a single Jew lost his life to antisemitic violence in 1898. Only in the French territory of Algeria (which elected Drumont to parliament), did antisemitic rhetoric lead to two antisemitic killings. Curiously, Birnbaum leaves Algeria out of his story, despite its legal status as part of France and its large settler population.

It must also be said that Birnbaum’s “tour of France” soon becomes exhaustingly repetitive. French readers, at least, will have the shock of reading about antisemitism in localities they know well (as Americans can be shocked by reading about slave auctions taking place around the corner from where they live). But most Americans will quickly find the French place names blurring into one another, along with the endless litany of unimaginative invective directed against Jews that Birnbaum quotes ad nauseam.

Most American readers will not easily perceive that Birnbaum has a more specific agenda than simply exposing the past. For a generation now, a lively debate has taken place within the French Jewish community about its relation to the French nation. Traditionally, the community’s leaders preached that Jews should not participate in French public life as a community, but only as individual citizens. They should exhibit unwavering loyalty to the state that had emancipated them during the Revolution, and work both with and within official institutions to advance their interests and respond to prejudice. Yet particularly since the Six-Day War, when French President Charles de Gaulle angrily turned against Israel (and called Jews a “domineering and overconfident people”), an increasing number of French Jews have questioned this stance. They have called for a broader, more assertive role for Jewish communal organizations, and for the development of a French-Jewish sense of identity more akin to the American-Jewish one. This has earned them sharp attacks as bearers of American-style identity politics. Birnbaum, one of the most prominent Jews in French academia, has made his reputation as a moderate, intelligent defender of the older tradition, and an acute critic of what he calls French Jewry’s “communitarization.”

“The Anti-Semitic Moment” actively advances his point of view. At the end of the book, Birnbaum tellingly breaks off his “tour” to recount two stories and discuss two general themes. The first case involves a gentile police officer who, at risk to his own life, stepped in to protect Jews from antisemitic rioters in Paris in 1898. Birnbaum uses the incident to argue that, despite the pervasiveness of antisemitism, and despite the complicity of many within the French government, in the end the institutions of the Republic held firm and preserved order. The antisemites did not take power (except, to a limited extent, in Algeria). They did not translate their hatred into legislation. Instead, France remained true to its revolutionary traditions of toleration and equality before the law.

Secondly, Birnbaum discusses a rabbi who protested loudly against an antisemitic outbreak in the town of Bar-le-Duc the same year. His actions, Birnbaum suggests, show that the Jews did not remain passive in the face of danger. Although they did not themselves resort to violence, they demanded that the Republic live up to its principles.

Birnbaum is convincing on these examples — but what relevance should they have for the present? In the short term, the French Republic did effectively protect the Jews. But later it proved a feeble ally. It collapsed morally during the 1930s, unable to resist ideological extremism, and then collapsed physically during the Nazi blitzkrieg, leaving the Jews fatefully exposed. With Nazi help, the antisemites of 1898 finally came into power in the collaborationist Vichy regime and deported 76,000 Jews to the death camps. Today, meanwhile, the Republic no longer inspires the sort of devotion it once did, and French Jews and gentiles alike face new and different challenges, notably the radical Islam that is rapidly spreading in the country’s miserable slums. France may be facing a new “Anti-Semitic Moment,” but it is hardly the same as that of 1898, and it will call for vastly different solutions.

David A. Bell is a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University and the author of “The Cult of the Nation in France” (Harvard University).

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