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Place in Modern Jewish Culture and Society$

Richard I. Cohen

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9780190912628

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: August 2018

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190912628.001.0001

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Zvi Jonathan Kaplan and Nadia Malinovitch (eds.), The Jews of Modern France: Images and Identities. Leiden: Brill, 2016. 355 pp.

Zvi Jonathan Kaplan and Nadia Malinovitch (eds.), The Jews of Modern France: Images and Identities. Leiden: Brill, 2016. 355 pp.

Chapter:
Zvi Jonathan Kaplan and Nadia Malinovitch (eds.), The Jews of Modern France: Images and Identities. Leiden: Brill, 2016. 355 pp.
Source:
Place in Modern Jewish Culture and Society
Author(s):
Richard I. Cohen
Publisher:
Oxford University Press
DOI:10.1093/oso/9780190912628.003.0046

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter reviews the book The Jews of Modern France: Images and Identities (2016), edited by Zvi Jonathan Kaplan and Nadia Malinovitch. The Jews of Modern France situates the history of French Jews “within a comparative, transnational and post-colonial context.” The book explores the relationship between the Jews of metropolitan France and those of the colonies, and links the history of French Jewry with that of Jews of the colonies. Topics include the construction of synagogues and the central role of the French government in Jewish affairs or the allotment of cemeteries; the distribution of “patriotism” prizes for girls learning in Jewish schools; the status of religious and civil divorce; and the “Jewish Marshall Plan” aimed at strengthening local Jewish communities.

Keywords:   Synagogues, France, French Jews, Jewish affairs, patriotism prizes, divorce, Jewish Marshall Plan

In 1985, following a symposium held at Brandeis University, Frances Malino and Bernard Wasserstein edited a collective volume titled The Jews in Modern France. The book became a major work in the field; among its many merits, it demonstrated that, despite a strong assimilation process stemming from republican ideology, French (p.300) Jews insisted on maintaining their specific connections and untrammeled values. Three decades later, Zvi Jonathan Kaplan and Nadia Malinovitch have published a collection titled The Jews of Modern France: Images and Identities. What meaning ought to be given to the replacement of “in” by “of” in the title? Does it imply that French Jews have distanced themselves from France – that they are less “in” the nation and that they have forged an identity that belongs to them alone? As Kaplan and Malinovitch explain, their approach is to situate French Jewish history “within a comparative, transnational and post-colonial context” (p. 4).

Apart from a few essays on traditional subjects close to those of the 1985 volume, such as the construction of synagogues and the central role of the French government in Jewish affairs or the allotment of cemeteries; the distribution of “patriotism” prizes for girls learning in Jewish schools; the status of religious and civil divorce; or even the “Jewish Marshall Plan” aimed at strengthening local Jewish communities, most of the contributions are informed by a postcolonial perspective that is almost entirely absent in the earlier collection edited by Malino and Wasserman. This significant shift in focus is easily discerned in Daniella Doron’s fine opening essay, where she writes that “the most recent development in French and French Jewish historiography constitutes the embrace of the colonial experience. … [T]he history of North African Jews in France must be first situated in the context of colonialism and decolonization” (p. 26). Thus, this new collective work fits more naturally into the field of “cultural history”; many essays are inspired by the “linguistic turn” and, above all, apply these new theoretical perspectives within the framework of the “imperial turn,” plunging French Jews into the heart of the colonial history of the French empire and linking their history to that of the colonies, and especially to that of Arab Jews. All of this, of course, runs against the republican logic of “assimilation.” While such a shift in perspective seems to be exaggerated at times, given that the concerns and commitments of the Jews of metropolitan France are largely unconnected to those of Algerian Jewry, the “imperial turn” affords fresh inspiration for future research.

The chief merit of this book is its showcasing of recent high-quality scholarship tackling the relationship between the Jews of metropolitan France and those of the colonies, and its coupling of the history of French Jewry with that of Jews of the colonies. In the main, it is English-speaking historians who are sensitive to the zeitgeist that prevails in American universities – which are more attuned than French universities to neocolonialism, orientalism, and cross-culturalism – who undertake to reveal this shift of issues. Thus, Lisa Leff portrays the difficult position of mid-19th-century French Jewry in the face of the Damascus affair of 1840, in which a distinctly negative role was played by the French consul in Syria with respect to Jews who had been accused of ritual murder. Leff extends the scope to a broader region, describing the extent to which French Jews – following their communal efforts on behalf of the Jews in Damascus – were enthused by the effort to “regenerate” the Jews of Turkey, hoping to “civilize” them in the same way that they hoped to civilize Algeria, and in particular, Algerian Jewry.

Ethan Katz and Maud Mandel discuss the conflicting opinions of the Jews of metropolitan France concerning the decolonization of Algeria: some were in favor, while others were made anxious by the prospect of Algeria’s independence. In the wake of independence, Algerian Jews (who, as a result of the Crémieux decree of 1870, enjoyed the status of being French citizens) chose to head en masse to France rather (p.301) than Israel. Their arrival in metropolitan France transformed French Judaism, upending the traditional, Franco-Jewish universalist stance that opposed identity politics within the public space. “In less than a generation,” Katz and Mandel conclude, “French Jews had not only ‘come out’ politically as Jews, but they had begun using the public square as a place in which to debate the contours of that Jewishness” (p. 216).

As Kimberley Arkin points out in an essay titled “Defining France and Defending Israel: Romantic Nationalism and the Paradoxes of French Jewish Belonging,” to some extent we are witnessing the appearance of a distinctive Jewish collective identity that holds itself almost completely apart from the rest of the nation, displaying concern for the defense of Israel and voicing fears of Muslim antisemitism as manifested in the form of frequent violence against Jews, both in urban suburbs and in provincial towns.1 In contrast is the strongly optimistic essay by Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall that offers us a probing study of the relationship between Muslims and Jews in French cinema. She analyzes numerous films in which Jews and Muslims, far from hating each other, manage, despite their political and cultural differences, to forge fragile but enduring relationships, whether between spouses or friends.

At the end, will the “imperial turn” eventually lead to happier outcomes in the France of tomorrow? Sepinwall’s essay provides a fine nuance to the “imperial turn” that often makes Jews the active instruments of colonialism. Above all, and to return to the dominant perspective of the 1985 volume, it offers hope that France will continue, in traditionally logical fashion, to maintain its longstanding values of universalism and civic engagement. Sepinwall’s essay suggests that the logic of integration entails merging the memories of past confrontations with the rejection of laws imposed by colonization. In this sense, the claim noted by Arkin in her essay, that “anti-Semitism no longer comes from the French nationalist far right, it comes from ‘Muslim immigrants’” (p. 326) is difficult to uphold. This oft-repeated, simplistic notion minimizes both the phenomenon of recurrent antisemitism – a product of colonialism – and the fact that, as numerous sociological studies have shown, the antisemitism of French Muslims and their opposition to Israel declines rapidly in accordance with their social and professional advancement, and their integration into the public space of the nation.

PIERRE BIRNBAUM

University Paris 1

Notes:

(1.) Arkin was one of the first to promote the “imperial turn” in research; see her book Rhinestones, Religion and the Republic: Fashioning Jewishness in France (Stanford: 2014).