Jewish Destinies: Citizenship, State and Community in Modern France

Article excerpt

by Pierre Birnbaum. New York: Hill & Wang, 2000. 324 pp. $30.00.

American readers unfamiliar with the work of French historian cum political scientist cum sociologist Pierre Birnbaum will find an intellectual treat awaiting them. Author of recently translated works such as his celebrated study of French Jews in the political structures of the Third Republic, The Jews of the Republic: A Political History of State Jews in France from Gambetta to Vichy, as well of his sweeping Anti-Semitism in France: A Political History from Léon Blum to the Present, Birnbaum stands as one of the leading French Jewish thinkers of our day. One of his latest books, Jewish Destinies, collects a series of intriguing, informative, elegantly written and passionate essays on some vital and perennial aspects of Jewish identity. Although these essays set their problems, for the most part, in the context of modern France -- Jewish identity in France, the Dreyfus Affair, the Jewish cemetery desecration in Carpenteras, revolutionary Jacobin attitudes to Jewish particularism, the role and character of antisemitism among Roman Catholics and the military -- their substance will be pertinent to readers everywhere concerned with issues of Jewish identity in the post-Enlightenment world. For example, can the dilemmas of Enlightenment universalism and Jewish particularism be resolved in any felicitous way? How profoundly is Jewish identity still rooted even in "assimilated" Jews, or in those converted to Christianity? What are the conditions for its often stunning and remarkable "reappearance"? Why, in both France and the United States, have Jews historically been drawn to certain academic fields of study, such as sociology? Does this imply that there is a Jewish way of doing sociology -- say one that trades on Jewish experiences of marginalization and rich particularism? But besides forays into these fascinating and important issues, American readers may hopefully come to discover the great value in thinking about our problems within the comparative context of French problems of a parallel sort. Our two countries are remarkably and often maddeningly alike but not alike at all, thus providing the makings of the perfect formula for comparative study. We are at once not alike, because of our dominant Protestantism and France's deep Catholic history, in our tendencies to localism over against French centralization, in our cherishing of religion in public life, but France's fierce history of anti-clericalism, and such. But, we are at the same time perhaps too much alike in our common Enlightenment histories, in our greater traditions of kinds of political diversity, in our common liberationist and revolutionary traditions, in our vivid individualisms, and so on. I believe both are true at the same time, giving us ample reason to "think" the United States by way of "thinking" France.

Birnbaum's intellect so dazzles the reader, and these essays are such a treat to read, that it would be wise, however, occasionally to check their smoothly drawn conclusions against whatever pertinent specialized knowledge one might possess. Of particular interest to this reviewer was Birnbaum's chapter on sociologist Émile Durkheim's involvement in the Dreyfus Affair, here used to establish Durkheim's credentials as Jewish, despite the often anti-Jewish and assimilationist orientation of his life. The chapter collects a remarkable range of data -- some published, some not, but much of it never before assembled in the same publication -- aiming to show how intensely Durkheim was affected by the straggles over the fate of Dreyfus. In this, Pierre Birnbaum has succeeded without qualification in filling in many gaps in the life story of Durkheim and his relation to "the Affair." It seems to this reviewer indisputable that "the Affair" shook many influential French Jews out of a kind of ethical and assimilationist "slumber," causing them in consequence to reassess the wisdom and practical possibility of denying or effacing Jewish identity in hostile antisemitic environments. …