French-Jewish Assimilation Reassessed: A Review of the Recent Literature

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experienced assimilation.

Research remains to be done, however. One area that certainly demands further investigation concerns the political behavior of French Jewry. True, the role of the AIU has recently been reexamined,(28) and Jewish reactions to anti-Semitism during the Dreyfus Affair and the Vichy era have also been reassessed.(29) Nevertheless, the broader theme of Franco-Jewish political behavior has received scant attention. Although it may be true that French Jewry never developed a formal self-defense organization comparable to the Centralverein deutscher Staaatsburger judischen Glaubens, this THE DECADE OF THE 1980S HAS WITNESSED a veritable blossoming of historical writing on the experiences of French Jewry in the post-emancipation period. While the bicentennial celebrations of the French Revolution clearly inspired several of these works, the growing interest in the history of modern French Jewry stems also from the fact that, until relatively recently, the Franco-Jewish experience has been somewhat neglected, especially in comparison to the extensive literature devoted to the history of Central European Jewry. The factors responsible for this neglect are not difficult to fathom: the remarkable ease and swiftness of Jewish assimilation fostered the impression that Jewish integration was a relatively smooth and tension-free process.(1) True, even France experienced periodic bouts of anti-Semitism; nevertheless, in comparison to developments across the Rhine, the obstacles to Jewish emancipation and integration seemed minimal indeed.(2)

Recently, however, historians have begun to reassess the nature of Jewish emancipation and assimilation in France. In the past, assimilation has been depicted as an essentially linear process resulting in a steady diminution of a distinctive sense of Jewish identity. Indeed, it was widely assumed that had it not been for the rise of anti-Semitism, together with the massive influx of East European immigrants beginning at the end of the 19th century, French Jewry, left to its own devices, would probably have disappeared.(3) Recent scholarship, however, rejects this view and shows that the processes of acculturation and integration were, in reality, far more complex. Not only do these works suggest that Jewish religious identity was more vibrant than previously believed, but some of them, influenced by trends in American Jewish historiography, even contend that French Jewry exhibited strong signs of ethnic solidarity. Such views constitute nothing short of a veritable revolution, particularly since French Jews have long been considered the most highly assimilated of all Western Jews and, thus, the most hostile to any notion of Jewish peoplehood or nationality. This essay, therefore, will review the principal books that have been published since 1980 that seek to re-evaluate the themes of emancipation and assimilation.(4) As we will see, these studies illuminate not only issues specific to the French context, but they incorporate methodologies and perspectives that ultimately reshape our understanding of assimilation in Western societies more generally.

To understand the foundations of assimilation, it is useful to re-examine the debates over Jewish emancipation that occurred at the end of the 18th century. To be sure, the French approach to Jewish emancipation is commonly held up as the most clear-cut example of a liberal emancipation model. Immediate, complete, and unconditional in its demands, the French paradigm stands in sharp contrast to the gradualistic and piecemeal Central European approach that demanded assimilation as the price for emancipation.(5) While none of the studies under consideration here contests the essential validity of this dichotomy, Libres et Egaux ... L'Emancipation des Juifs, 1789-1791 (Paris: Fayard, 1989), by Robert Badinter, a prominent French Jewish lawyer who served as Minister of Justice from 1981 to 1986 and as President of the Constitutional Council since 1986, poignantly reminds us that even in France the granting of civil rights to Jews was by no means the straightforward victory of revolutionary ideals that it might seem to be today. …