Jewish Destinies: Citizenship, State, and Community in Modern France

Pierre Birnbaum, Author, Arthur Goldhammer, Translator
Pierre Birnbaum, Author, Arthur Goldhammer, Translator Hill & Wang $35 (288p) ISBN 978-0-8090-6101-3
Reviewed on: 01/31/2000
Release date: 02/01/2000
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It's a truism that French Jews, the first granted equal rights in Europe, are less closely tied together than Jews in other lands. After all, one of the main champions of emancipating the Jews during the French Revolution, Abbe Henri Gregoire, did so in the hopes of converting them. In this series of essays, the author, a professor of political science at the Sorbonne, shows that the history and present of French Jews as a minority in relation to the larger community is much more complex. But Birnbaum considers this relationship in a curious, and limited, way: rather than retracing the history of French Jewry, most of the book tracks the history of anti-Semitism. Despite the desire to belong to France, the author notes that when anti-Semitism rears its ugly head, as during the Dreyfus Affair, when a French Jewish army officer was accused of treason, and during WWII, when a Nazi collaborationist regime ruled France, French Jewish intellectuals, despite their universalist leanings, demonstrate an allegiance to other Jews. Nor has the question of anti-Semitism disappeared: the author notes that while a majority of French citizens condemned the 1990 digging up and impaling of a Jewish body in the town of Carpentras, the event also created an anti-Semitic backlash. As the author puts it, for Jews ""it is no small feat to negotiate the arduous path between citizenship and community, assimilation and identity."" But a description of the history of what French Jews have created, rather than what they and their fellow French citizens have reacted to, would have helped readers better understand that path. (Feb.)
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