French and Jewish: Culture and the Politics of Identity in Early Twentieth Century France

By Gutman, Sanford | Shofar, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview
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French and Jewish: Culture and the Politics of Identity in Early Twentieth Century France


Gutman, Sanford, Shofar


French and Jewish: Culture and the Politics of Identity in Early Twentieth Century France, by Nadia Malinovich. Portland: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2008. 280 pp. $49.50.

Nadia Malinovich takes on some big questions that have interested French Jewish historians for at least a generation. Did Jewish particularism become as important to Franco-Judaism in the 1920s as was the universalisr ethic that had dominated French Jewish identity since the nineteenth century? And was this new particularist identity shared by native French Jewish intellectuals as well as immigrant writers and artists? Was French-Jewish identity substantively different than German-Jewish identity by the late 1920s? Malinovich answers affirmatively to all these questions. I am more skeptical.

Malinovich's French and Jewish focuses on Jewish literary and artistic"ideology" from the Dreyfus Affair to 1932. She restricts herself to this time period because she argues that the ideology of French Jewish intellectuals shifted significantly after World War I when antisemitism in France decreased. She stops her analysis in 1932, presumably, when antisemitism began to rage again in France. Malinovich distinguishes herself from other historians of French Jews who, she maintains, find a continuing synthesis between French and Jewish values from the French Revolution to 1940. Malinovich sees an "awakening" or "renaissance" of Jewish life and identity in the 1920s that amounts to a "unique period" that recognizes a Jewish ethno-cultural self definition alongside a belief in French universalism.

Malinovich sets the stage for her argument by discussing the origins of "Franco-Judaism" in the nineteenth century. In the first part of the century, French Jews saw themselves primarily as loyal Frenchmen who practiced Judaism as their private faith. Judaism was portrayed as a prophetic, rational religion that offered "light upon the nations." Most Jews saw the Third Republic as a final victory for universal principles and legal equality, perfectly in consonance with Judaism even if the actual life of French Jews reflected a more particularist ethnic solidarity. The Dreyfus Affair brought a tension in Jewish identity, but even while many Jewish writers and intellectuals awakened to their Jewish roors, their pro-Dreyfus arguments were still couched in humanitarian, universalist terms.

The period stretching from just after the Dreyfus Affair through World War I was one of transition for Malinovich. Although very different from one another, the rise of French Zionism, Reform Judaism, and a revived traditionalism "all agreed on wanting to create a vibrant, modern Jewisn culture." Malinovich argues that in part because of East European immigration into France and in part because of racial antisemitism, the Jewish ideologies that arose in the pre-war period increasingly portrayed Jews in ethnic terms, while not abandoning the universalist, integrationist arguments. For Zionism, the nationalist ot ethnic perspective of Jewish peoplehood is obvious, but even the new Reform movement and a renewed orthodoxy argued that the French Republic was particularly equipped to understand and appreciate minorities. This neat multicultutal perspective might be wishful thinking, but, according to Malinovich, it was propagated by these new Jewish movements. During the first World War these movements were consolidated as new youth groups, magazines, and educational and literary societies increasingly challenged the relegation of Jewish identity to the private sphere.

The concluding four chapters deal with the main argument of the book. Here, Malinovich traces the definitive shift to a distinctive Jewish cultural identity in the 1920s made possible by the decrease in antisemitism. These chapters, among the most original in terms of research, demonstrate that Jewish writers and intellectuals felt comfortable in writing about Jews and exploring Jewish identity.

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