Is There a Future for French Jewry?

By Shmuel Trigano

A changing political culture may leave no room for Europe's largest Jewish community.

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f the countries hardest hit by the current outbreak of anti-Semitism in Europe, France poses a particular dilemma. For contrary to much of what is said today about anti-Jewish sentiment in France, its roots are to be found not in any specific Israeli policy with respect to the Palestinians. Rather, they lie deep within the French body politic. For this reason, it is a profound error to argue, as many have, that the problem will be resolved through a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, or that any of the conventional methods—such as increased law enforcement or public-awareness campaigns—will succeed in defeating it. Indeed, the current outbreak of anti-Semitism in France is little more than a symptom of a far deeper crisis confronting French Jewry.
To understand the problem of Jewish life in France today, we must recall that political Zionism was itself conceived in Paris. As a young reporter covering the Dreyfus Affair in 1894, Theodor Herzl saw clearly how untenable was the condition of the Jew in modern Europe. For the Emancipation, he understood, had been only a partial solution to the Jewish problem: It had granted Jews full civil rights, but did not secure their future as a religious, national, or ethnic collective. In other words, it had made room for the Jewish individual, but not for Jewish peoplehood.
The anti-Semitism that Herzl witnessed in France was thus not the return of a repressed, pre-Enlightenment hatred, but a problem that was intimately connected with the Enlightenment itself. Thus could Alfred Dreyfus, the individual, the loyal French citizen, be suspected of belonging secretly to an international Jewish brotherhood—a collective that had been rejected by the Emancipation. It was, indeed, the Emancipation which had delegitimized the classic communal affiliation of French Jewry. Like the French prelate Abbé Grégoire (1750-1831), a vocal advocate of Jewish emancipation, the emancipators saw in Judaism no more than a “cesspool of human delirium,” “rabbinic mumbo jumbo,” and an “extensive collection of errors and balderdash.”1 Believing themselves compassionate, they went so far as to accuse Europe of the crime of reducing individual Jews to their abject Jewishness: “It is the height of injustice,” wrote one public figure at the time of the French Revolution, “to reproach the Jews for the crime that we force them to commit.”2 The human being in the Jew must be saved, they insisted, because, as Grégoire wrote, “they are men like us; they are this before they are Jews.”3 In reality, then, emancipation as citizens was not emancipation of Jews as such. It was rather the emancipation of the Jew as a human being who had been imprisoned within the Jewish collective, driven through his degradation in Europe to embrace a religion of spiritual and intellectual inferiority. To the Enlightenment thinkers, Jewish peoplehood was a kind of metaphysical ghetto from which the individual Jew must be liberated.
To Herzl, then, the Dreyfus Affair did more than divide France between anti-Semites and anti-racists. It confirmed that the Jewish condition was not merely a humanitarian issue, but also, and perhaps more importantly, a political one. For the legitimacy of Jewish nationhood was itself on trial. Thus Herzl’s politicization of the Jewish problem was in fact his most critical achievement, a much-needed rejoinder to the depoliticization of the Jewish condition brought about by the Emancipation. Herzl understood that without political sovereignty, the survival of the Jewish people would be forever at risk.

Shmuel Trigano is a professor of sociology of religion and politics at Paris University at Nanterre, and a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the Jewish People Public Policy Institute. His numerous works on philosophy, political thought, and Jewish studies include Philosophy of the Law: Origins of the Political in the Tora (Le Cerf, 1991) and, most recently, Auschwitz Borders (Le Livre de Poche, 2005).

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