French Jews today get a bad rap. Why on earth do they stay put, everyone always wants to know. They so enjoy being French (and come on, that’s totally understandable) that they fail to see how much better things would be if they moved to Israel, or at least America. These accusations are nothing new.
I wrote my BA paper on the French Jewish response to the Dreyfus Affair, and upon graduating, found that every book or article I read on the subject made clear just how little I knew when writing the thing. That’s what happens when you go to a party school. In any case, when I saw that the ever-fabulous European Jewish Press had an interview with French scholar Pascal Ory, entitled “Historian: ‘French Jewry was falsely accused of abandoning Dreyfus,” I was prepared to be proven wrong once again. I was one of those who “falsely accused” French Jewry of this lapse, but I was just citing what I’d read. How off was I? Here’s Ory’s take:
EJP: Several Jews were among those who defended Captain Dreyfus but some historians accuse French Jewry of remaining silent and not defending the Jewish officer. Did 19th century Jews stand up for him or did they stay mute?
Pascal Ory: French Jewry was falsely accused of abandoning Dreyfus. Mobilisation was progressive and it led to victory.
You can’t judge events and attitudes retrospectively, knowing what we know today, knowing what happened later with the Shoah. It’s easy to give moral lessons. In a hundred years people will judge us on what happened in 2006. What kind of judgement will they have on us? We have to keep our calm.
Some may say that French Jewry waited before it started battling for Dreyfus but you have to remember the context. France was a model of assimilation and Jews reacted as assimilated people. To them Zionism was certainly not the answer. They were discrete and trusted the authorities. They appealed to the Deputy Chairman of the Senate Scheurer-Kestner, which was originally from the Alsace region as was Dreyfus. They reasoned as inhabitants of Alsace rather than as Jews. In a global way, the Jews defended Dreyfus by relying on the republic. This strategy was discrete but it was also efficient. Those who opposed Dreyfus were opposed to the republic. They were looking for a profound reform. This led to an attempted coup in 1899. In 19th century France there couldn’t be 10,000 people such as Bernard Lazare, his first advocate. Lazare was a man of a rare kind. He was an anarchist and even among anarchists he was isolated. France was obviously not filled with anarchists and the Jewish community wasn’t either. Everyone fought at his own level.
Calls to “remember the context” abound, and rightly so, when one is studying pre-Holocaust European Jewish history. Things had never been as bad as they would soon become, so responses to anti-Semitism that would today seem passive may, in the 19th century, have been anything but. As is mentioned in seemingly every book on these subjects, not even Theodor Herzl knew what was coming.
The end of the Dreyfus Affair was a victory for justice; French Jews had reason to believe, once the Affair had ended, that anti-liberal, anti-Semitic ideas had briefly resurfaced only to disappear once and for all. But the situation for French Jews deteriorated enough during the Affair, in new and unexpected ways, that Zionism was the answer for some. French historian Pierre Birnbaum’s book about the 1898 anti-Jewish riots, whose participants included not Islamic fundamentalists outside of the French mainstream but white, Christian law and medical students, reveals the terror French Jews experienced during this major yet mostly non-violent conflict. French politicians were running campaigns not just on platforms with anti-Semitic leanings, but as official anti-Semites. Unlike today, when blatant anti-Semitism is invariably denied or euphemistically termed “anti-Zionism,” this was a time when politicians competed to be most anti-Jewish.
Ory’s point about French Jews being wrongly accused of passivity by those who are taking the Holocaust into account makes sense if he’s referring to contemporary or other postwar historians. But what of the fact that some of their contemporaries also accused French Jews of being pathetic? Bernard Lazare was certainly extraordinary, but there’s no way he was comparing his French coreligionists to the ADL, let alone the IDF, in 2006, when he accused them of inexcusable silence. He saw their response as unimpressive knowing full well, one would imagine, what might have been expected of them. I’d like to know what Ory makes of Lazare’s negative review of his peers’ response to the Affair– did Lazare himself, according to Ory, have unrealistic expectations? Could be–plenty of visionaries simply don’t understand why the rest of society is unable see their point.
And while Lazare’s anarchism may have helped him to see that obeying authority wouldn’t solve the Jewish Question, anarchism was hardly a prerequisite to having his reaction to the Affair. Herzl– who as far as I know was no anarchist– claimed to have founded modern political Zionism as a result of seeing the officer’s degradation, making it the Affair, or at least the era of the Affair, and not the Holocaust, that inspired Zionism in particular and Jewish nationalism (or secular anti-assimilationism) in general.
In my paper, I argued that the French Jewish response was weak, but more out of fear than out of a belief that the Affair wasn’t such a big deal, or, as Ory argues, out of a rational faith in the Republic. Ory says, “I should remind you what a comedian said once: ‘There is an optimistic side of the Dreyfus affair: It reveals that in 19th century France there were Jewish captains in the high military authorities.’ In many countries this was not the case.” The events of the Affair were shocking precisely because France had been so good for the Jews… and then all of a sudden that stopped. That is why it was a comedian who made that remark.
Perhaps it wasn’t so much that French Jews at that time would not have thought to mobilize, but that things deteriorated so quickly and unexpectedly that there was hardly time to unite and fix the situation. Their “discretion” came not from a belief that the Republic would bring about justice, but from a lack of wherewithall to respond if that didn’t turn out to be the case. So yes, it’s unfair to judge the French Jewish reaction to the Affair by post-Holocaust standards, or by Lazarian ones, not because these men and women didn’t know how bad things would get, but because they were shocked by how terrible the situation had already become.
So how off was I? A good amount–I absolutely failed to take into account how different it was to be “assimilated” in 19th century France than in a 21st century world which includes (for the moment, at least, argh) a Jewish state. But I’m still not quite convinced, from this interview, that the French Jews did all that much for Dreyfus. Ory argues well that not much could have been expected of them, but beyond that, I’m not sure what relying on the Republic did for either the French Jews in general or Dreyfus in particular, since had it not been for Lazare, Zola, and other outspoken exceptions, the Affair would have had quite different results. It could be that elsewhere Ory gives a longer explanation of what the French Jewish response consisted of, and relying on the interview alone is somewhat useless.