Review: Pierre Birnbaum, ‘French State Jews, Between Integration and Anti-Semitism’

How strong is the relationship between Anti-Semitism today and its historical antecedents? This question is the focus of the Oxford seminars in Advanced Jewish studies: ‘Jews, Liberalism, Anti-Semitism: The Dialectics of Inclusion (1780-1950)’, for which Pierre Birnbaum delivered a talk at Brasenose College. Birnbaum, born in 1940, is a French historian and sociologist at the Sorbonne and Sciences Po, whose work focuses on the history of French Jews. He sought to show how the emancipation of French Jews over time was achieved through the modern French state, a product of the French Revolution. In turn, their integration gave rise to a new form of Anti-Semitism in France, which was no longer exclusively social, but also political. Overall, he argues, the fate of the Jewish presence within France’s public administration was parallel to the wider development of the French State.    

Unlike the integration of Jews into British society, which drew on evolving ideas of multiculturalism, the integration of French Jews took place within a more assimilationist framework. Justly, Birnbaum reminded us that Montesquieu’s doux commerce (sweet trade – the belief in classical free-market economics) constituted an exception in the French cultural landscape of the modern era. The French model, in reality, was based on a strong and highly centralised government. The vote of the Constituent Assembly in 1791 granted the Jews a full equality of rights. Nevertheless at the time of the Revolution, for Jew, becoming a citizen implied a renunciation of their Jewishness. The title that Abbé Grégoire chose for his essay (1789) is revealing: “On the physical, moral and political regeneration of Jews”. The concept of regeneration was understood not as a forced conversion as such, but still as a complete assimilation of Jews to the newly born Nation. By comparison, Jews in Britain attained prominence in banking, finance, and trade while remaining a relatively distinct community.

Was this concept of regeneration embraced by French Jews? By and large, the answer was no, according to Birnbaum. Most of them asserted their commitment to Judaism, to their daily observance of Jewish religious practices — notably to the Kashrut, the dietary laws — and would choose their wedding partners within the Jewish community. Despite commonly-held ideas that the French Revolution led to the dechristianization of French society, the Jewish community’s response suggests a stronger, not weaker attachment to their religious and cultural identity.   

At the same time, the Republic was also a symbol of hope and emancipation for Jews since France was the first country in Europe to grant them rights. Hence, many were committed to the New French Republic and became the first to defend it against anti-Republican forces. Many eventually became high-ranking civil servants (E. Hendlé), judges (R. Cassin), members of Parliament (L. Javal), Ministers (L. Gambetta) or even head of government (L. Blum). Birnbaum, however, failed to elaborate on this point: were they serving their country as French Jews or Jewish Frenchmen? In other words, to what extent did such extensive political involvement represent complete assimilation?

In any case, as Birnbaum went on to argue, this opening of the French political and administrative apparatus to Jews gave rise to a new form of Anti-semitism. There existed, in Britain, a social Anti-semitism, but not a political one, since there were simply no Jews within the British political realm. France was different, where the myth of a Jewish Republic spread rapidly. In his book La France Juive, Pierre Drumont was the herald of a fierce and violent Anti-Semitism, which was born from his perception of the judaisation of the French State.  Here, Birnbaum, adopted an original – and convincing – approach to Drumont, by agreeing with him: not on the conclusions of Drumont’s argumentation, but on his diagnostic of the French administration, which became a space for the inclusion of Jews.  

A striking element of Birnbaum’s talk was an overall pessimistic note about our times. He argued that nowadays we are facing the withdrawal of the French State from the running of public affairs, due to the pressure of liberal forces and of globalization, in a country where the State has historically been very strong. This withdrawal of the State is accompanied by a decreasing number of Jews within Parliament and public administration. Birnbaum then added that, due to this decreased number, French Jews might be seen progressively by the non-Jews as less French, in favour of a purportedly affiliation and loyalty to the State of Israel. One is able to follow Birnbaum’s broad idea, but a more quantitative analysis would have been more persuasive.  

Birnbaum could also be criticised for a certain methodological approximation and lack of scientific rigour in his analysis of the withdrawal of the State and the decrease of the number Jews within the public administration today. Regarding the State, perhaps would it be more relevant to refer to a decentralisation and deconcentration of power, at least in terms of personnel, rather than a “withdrawal”. Regarding the ratio of Jews in the French public administration, the law of 6th January 1978, which forbids the collection of ethnic or religious data, raises the issue of the gathering of empirical data necessary to corroborate such a statement. With regard to the real or imagined relationship of the French Jews to Israel, it could be interesting to explore the heterogeneity of the French Jewish community. The ‘Jewish memory’ and the sense of belonging of an Ashkenazi Jew of European roots are certainly very different from a Sephardic Jew who came to Europe after the independence of Morocco and Tunisia in 1956. However, these few floating points do not detract from the relevance, audacity and accuracy of the analysis of the major trends on which Pierre Birnbaum shed light. This inspiring talk confirmed his place amongst the leading scholars on the topic.

Cyrille Amand

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