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Les Juifs

Obstinate Hebrews: Representations of Jews in France, 1715-1815

By Ronald Schechter

University of California Press, 368 pages, $60.

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Has France become Europe’s most antisemitic country? Many American Jews seem to think so, at least if my own circle of relatives and friends is any indication. They cite France’s recent wave of antisemitic violence, French hostility to Israel and, of course, the second-place finish of the openly antisemitic Jean-Marie Le Pen in last year’s French presidential election. They also point to the deep historical roots of French antisemitism, from the Dreyfus Affair a century ago — in which the prosecution of a Jewish army officer for treason provoked huge demonstrations against the Jews — to the willing collaboration between Vichy France and the Nazis, which resulted in the deportation of more than 76,000 French Jews to the death camps. Some even go back to the French Enlightenment. Did not Voltaire, that self-proclaimed prophet of reason and toleration, call the Jews “the most detestable people on earth”?

In truth, the indictment is largely unfair, for it ignores another, far more admirable France. This other France granted Jews full civil rights long before any other European state did. It protested Alfred Dreyfus’s prosecution, fought his tormentors and ultimately won his exoneration. This other France sheltered thousands of Jews from the Nazis and most recently has taken to the street in the millions to protest antisemitic violence and Le Pen’s success. For all his sound and fury, Le Pen has never received more than 20% of the vote. This other France has not always prevailed, but in the European context, its very existence is notable.

But what about Voltaire? Wasn’t modern French thought poisoned by antisemitism at its very source? This is the charge leveled a generation ago by Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, a major figure in the contemporary Zionist movement, in an influential book titled “The French Enlightenment and the Jews.” Reading through the works of the 18th-century philosophes and histories of the French Revolution, Hertzberg found a deep and pervasive hostility to the Jews, even among their self-declared emancipators. While few of the French called for the physical elimination of Jews, many demanded an end to their existence as a distinct people. The road to Auschwitz, Hertzberg concluded, began in Paris.

Was he right? For a generation, his book set the terms of the discussion, but now a young historian at the College of William and Mary, Ronald Schechter, has come along, not to refute Hertzberg, but to offer a different, more subtle and more convincing analysis of the same material. Schechter cares less about drawing connections across time between the Enlightenment and modern antisemitism than about putting Enlightenment attitudes firmly into their 18th-century context — to understand where the philosophes and revolutionaries were coming from. To this end, he begins the book with a provocative reversal of the traditional Jewish injunction to memory. “Shachoch!” he tells his readers: “Forget!” Forget what came afterwards, he argues, at least for a time. First and foremost, we need to understand historical periods on their own terms.

Instead of starting with the question of whether the Enlightenment and French Revolution were good or bad for the Jews, Schechter asks, more originally, why French thinkers of the period cared about the Jews in the first place. There was no obvious reason for them to do so. French Jews constituted barely one-tenth of one percent of the French population in 1789, and most of them lived in the far east and far south of the country. Paris, a city of 650,000 souls, had only 500 Jewish residents. Jews had little economic or social prominence. And yet the philosophes wrote compulsively about Jews and Judaism.

The reason, Schechter suggests, has to do less with the Jews themselves than with Enlightenment beliefs about human nature in general. The philosophes hoped humanity would soon throw off the shackles of tradition and superstition, and live according to standards of pure reason and utility. Seen from this perspective, the Jews presented a particular puzzle, and challenge, for they seemed to cling with remarkable obstinacy to what the Enlightenment thinkers saw as irrational beliefs and practices. Indeed, they had done so even through 1,700 years of exile from their ancestral homeland. The Jews, Schechter concludes, borrowing a famous phrase from Claude Lévi-Strauss, were “good to think” — the subjects of useful thought experiments. If they could be “regenerated” and made into useful citizens, the philosophes believed, then anyone could.

Even Voltaire’s particular obsession with the Jews (who crop up literally thousands of times in his writings) ultimately arose out of philosophical curiosity: For him, “the Jews provided the best test for the hypothesis of human perfectibility.” Schechter adds that Voltaire, unlike many other European antisemites of the period, did not consider Jewish “barbarism” and “fanaticism” to be inborn traits, but rather the twisted product of unjust Christian persecution.

While these philosophical attitudes ultimately turned hateful and contemptuous under Voltaire’s pen, with the French revolutionaries of 1789 they prompted far more constructive action. To become useful French citizens, the revolutionaries decided, the Jews first needed to be freed from debilitating laws and restrictions, such as the infamous tax levied on Jews and heads of cattle entering the city of Colmar. Jews needed to be treated as equal to humans, not to cows.

By 1791, the revolutionary National Assembly had granted French Jews full civil rights. Yet the revolutionaries remained hostile to Jewish particularity. They first emancipated the more assimilated Sephardic Jews of the southwest, and only later, and more reluctantly, the larger number of Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazic Jews living on the borders of Germany. A revolutionary legislator declared: “Everything must be refused to the Jews as a Nation… and everything granted to the Jews as individuals.” Hertzberg saw in such a refusal of Jewish nationalism the ideological origins of modern persecutions. Schechter, more attentive to context, sees complexity and contradiction.

In his richest and most fascinating pages, Schechter traces the Jewish response to these gentile attitudes. He finds that some spokesmen for the Jews reflected the contradictions of the larger society, even agreeing with their emancipators that Jewish society had “degenerated,” both morally and physically, during long centuries of gentile persecution. But the most talented of them, such as Isaiah Bing Berr and Zalkind Hourwitz, instead tried to prove to gentile readers that the Jewish people, from biblical times to the present, did not deserve the slurs heaped upon them. Far from representing an example of ancient barbarism that had unaccountably survived into modern times, they insisted, Judaism had for centuries cultivated such recognizably “modern” values as equality, civic virtue and respect for nature. As for the Jews’ fabled obstinacy, it should be seen rather as steadfastness and fidelity. Jewish congregations throughout France reinforced this last message through the fulsome prayers they devised — in Hebrew! — for the health and welfare of France’s kings. After 1789, they revised the liturgy so as to sing the praises of the new, revolutionary regime, inventing new Hebrew words where necessary (for example, moledetenu for patrie, or fatherland). Jews even sang a Hebrew version of the La Marseillaise, the French national anthem. The Jews, in short, sought to redefine their differences from gentiles as an advantage to France, not a threat. Unfortunately, most of the French failed to listen.

In the final analysis, Schechter does not absolve the philosophes and revolutionaries of antisemitism. But unlike Hertzberg, he sees their antisemitism arising out of a fundamental tension at the heart of modern Western civilization, between a belief in universal human values and the belief in toleration for peoples with different values. Ultimately, Schechter argues, 18th-century French antisemitism derived from a failure of universalism. Having obsessed for so long about the Jews as a symbol of radical “difference,” French observers could no longer recognize their common humanity.

These same tensions have visibly persisted throughout modern history, with emancipation and antisemitism frequently forming two sides of the same coin. And nowhere have these tensions expressed themselves more piercingly than in France, with its simultaneously inspiring and horrifying treatment of the Jews. Schechter’s impressively learned book helps us see this story more clearly, and therefore illuminates not just the history of the Jews in 18th-century France, but the place of the Jews in Western culture today.

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