The Right to Difference: French Universalism and the Jews

The Right to Difference: French Universalism and the Jews

by Maurice Samuels


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Universal equality is a treasured political concept in France, but recent anxiety over the country’s Muslim minority has led to an emphasis on a new form of universalism, one promoting loyalty to the nation at the expense of all ethnic and religious affiliations. This timely book offers a fresh perspective on the debate by showing that French equality has not always demanded an erasure of differences. Through close and contextualized readings of the way that major novelists, philosophers, filmmakers, and political figures have struggled with the question of integrating Jews into French society, Maurice Samuels draws lessons about how the French have often understood the universal in relation to the particular.

Samuels demonstrates that Jewish difference has always been essential to the elaboration of French universalism, whether as its foil or as proof of its reach. He traces the development of this discourse through key moments in French history, from debates over granting Jews civil rights during the Revolution, through the Dreyfus Affair and Vichy, and up to the rise of a “new antisemitism” in recent years. By recovering the forgotten history of a more open, pluralistic form of French universalism, Samuels points toward new ways of moving beyond current ethnic and religious dilemmas and argues for a more inclusive view of what constitutes political discourse in France.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226397054
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/02/2016
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Maurice Samuels is the Betty Jane Anlyan Professor of French and director of the Yale Program for the Study of Antisemitism at Yale University. He is the author of The Spectacular Past: Popular History and the Novel in Nineteenth-Century France and Inventing the Israelite: Jewish Fiction in Nineteenth-Century France.

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The Right to Difference

French Universalism and the Jews

By Maurice Samuels

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-39932-4


The Revolution Reconsidered

The French Revolution granted the Jews full civil rights. But what did it ask of them in return? According to generations of historians, the answer is simple: assimilation, the disappearance of some or all of what made the Jews distinct as a people. When Count Stanislas de Clermont-Tonnerre famously declared to his fellow Revolutionaries, "To the Jews as a nation, nothing; to the Jews as individuals, everything," he seemed to describe a bargain by which Jews would surrender their traditional identity, defined by membership in a semiautonomous community, in order to be treated like every other citizen of France. And for the Revolutionaries, it has long been assumed, equality meant homogeneity. Like the drive to eliminate the privileges of the nobles and clergy, and the effort to suppress local languages, the emancipation of the Jews seemed to serve the Revolution's aim to create a nation of abstract and identical individuals, loyal to nobody but the state.

In the century following emancipation, this bargain appeared only natural. It went without saying that the Jews should shed the trappings of their former ghettoized existence in order to embrace the equality that France had been the first European nation to offer them. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Jewish nationalist historians began to believe the bargain had been a bad one, but they did not doubt that the Revolution had required the Jews to assimilate. They merely faulted the Revolution's emancipation decree for entailing the loss of Jewish identity, and for leaving France's Jews woefully unprepared to cope with the rise of antisemitism as a result. During the bicentennial commemoration of the French Revolution in 1989, as historians such as François Furet began to criticize the Jacobin tradition for its supposedly totalitarian tendencies, Jewish emancipation was viewed as one more example of the Revolution's eradication of the right to difference. Even the Revolution's defenders, however, assumed that emancipation entailed assimilation.

But did the Revolution really demand assimilation of the Jews as a quid pro quo? In this chapter, I will show that the Jews' defenders at the end of the eighteenth century argued for emancipation with a range of results in mind. Their answers to what would later come to be known as the "Jewish Question," which asked whether Jews belonged in the modern nation-state and if so on what terms, can be plotted on the continuum between the opposing poles of assimilation and pluralism that I described in the introduction. Some advocates of emancipation, especially before the Revolution broke out, did indeed want the Jews to change in a variety of ways — politically, economically, culturally, and religiously — in exchange for citizenship. Others, however — including some of the main architects of Jewish emancipation, such as Clermont-Tonnerre and even the future Jacobin leader Maximilien Robespierre himself — were far more accepting of what they referred to as Jewish "difference." It will be my contention here that if the pre-Revolutionary defenders of the Jews were largely assimilationist, the Revolution itself was closer to the pluralist pole than has previously been assumed.

From the start, Enlightenment debates over the "Jewish Question" were about more than just Jews. Building on Ronald Schechter's insight that the Jews became "good to think" in the eighteenth century, that they served as a proxy for a variety of Enlightenment concerns, I will argue that it was in debating how to incorporate the Jews into French society that the philosophes and Revolutionaries formulated some of the basic tenets of universalism as a political ideology. As the case of the Jews made apparent, there was a wide gulf between contemplating the equality of all men in theory and confronting the often recalcitrant nature of their difference in practice. For some, this difference needed to be dissipated before equality could be extended. For others, however, difference offered proof of universalism's reach. To return to these eighteenth-century debates, therefore, is to understand the origin of French universalism not as the revelation of a definitive doctrine but rather as the site of a conflict, one in which a range of options for dealing with difference were imagined.

Let Us Force Them to Change

I begin this chapter in the years leading up to the Revolution, when the question of what to do with France's Jews took on an increasing urgency. On the surface, this urgency surprises since the Jews represented such a tiny minority of the French population at the end of the eighteenth century — less than 0.2 percent. Moreover, the bulk of the period's theorizing focused on a subset of this minority — not on the relatively acculturated Sephardic Jews of the southwest, or the old community in the Papal States, but on the Ashkenazic Jews of Alsace-Lorraine, a mere 30,000 souls in a nation of 28 million. It was to these largely poor, semirural, traditionally orthodox, Yiddish-speaking Jews that the philosophes turned their attention. At a time when France consisted of a patchwork of vastly different regions, each with its own distinctive culture and patois, the Jews of France's eastern provinces could reasonably claim to be the most different of France's different peoples. And it was this difference that made the Jews so interesting to think about, as the philosophes began to outline the contours of a future society that would be formulated on more egalitarian terms.

One of the first proposals for extending something like equality to the Jews was made in 1775, when the Jews of Metz began to fight back against the laws restricting their occupations and brought suit against the town of Thionville, in Lorraine, and against its merchant guild (corp des marchands), for denying them the right to set up a printing business. To help make their case that a royal decree of August 20, 1767, which allowed both foreign nationals and French subjects the freedom to set up certain businesses, should apply to them as well, the Jews turned to a young, non-Jewish lawyer named Pierre-Louis Lacretelle. Lacretelle's argument on the Jews' behalf is worth examining in detail because it is here that we first see the Jews defended in universalist terms, and first see calls for their assimilation as an extension of this universalism.

Lacretelle argued that since the decree did not specifically exempt the Jews but rather applied to all men — foreign and French — it should necessarily include the Jews irrespective of the more difficult question of whether the Jews should be considered French. "The real question at issue here is to determine whether Jews are men," Lacretelle declared. This represents a significant departure from the mercantilist defenses of the Jews that had been the norm since the sixteenth century. These earlier apologies had stressed that Jews were different from other men but useful because of their unique economic talents. In his petition on behalf of the Jews of Metz, Lacretelle seeks to defend the Jews less because they possess special abilities that might stimulate the economy (although he would make this claim as well) than because they are fundamentally the same as everyone else and deserve to be treated equally. His case for allowing the Jews to set up business in Thionville ultimately rests not on exceptional utility but on the abstract, universalist principle of equality.

Lacretelle's plea reached beyond the deceptively simple reading of a royal decree to take on the larger arguments launched against the Jews by their modern critics. While his argument still emphasizes on the whole that the Jews would help the economy, it also acknowledges the question of Jewish economic "vices," including predatory money lending and financial chicanery, which were increasingly cited by the Jews' many opponents as reasons to banish them from the kingdom or severely restrict their freedom. These tendencies toward chicanery represent, Lacretelle admits, "a lamentable truth" (29). To make his claim that the Jews deserve to be integrated despite their vices, therefore, Lacretelle latches onto a new kind of logic, one that later defenders of the Jews would adopt and expand.

Following two earlier Jewish apologists for the Jews, Isaac de Pinto and Bernard de Valabrègue, Lacretelle lays the blame for the Jews' defects on the way Christians have treated them through the centuries, on the persecutions that forced them to resort to ruse. The opposite point of view, that their economic vices "are inherent to the Jews' very nature; that they are inseparable from their manners, from their beliefs, even from their religion" (29), Lacretelle calls barbaric and ridiculous. And like later defenders of the Jews, Lacretelle marshals history to make his point, tracing the long, sad saga of persecutions that left Jews with no choice but to turn to money lending. This history, he admits, shows the Jews "always in the same occupations, with the same character, in the same state from the time of their decadence" (29), but this he explains by the fact that their history is one of continual disgrace and unhappiness.

The solution to the Jewish problem, for Lacretelle, lies in granting the Jews the freedom to become better. "Let us open our cities to them; let us permit them to spread throughout our land; let us treat them if not as compatriots, then at least as men" (34). This call for liberty would be taken up by many of the Jews' defenders in the following decade. But it was not without limitations: if Lacretelle advocates ending the multiple restrictions preventing the Jews from engaging in honorable trades, he also suggests special laws to prevent Jews from resorting to usury: "But let us also surround them with the vigilance of our Laws; let us force them to change [forçons-les à changer], just as we change their condition; let our rigor on the one point not recede before our kindness on the other" (34, emphasis added). That the Jews can be compelled to improve their economic practices, and their general moral state, represents the foundation of the ideology of "regeneration" that would come to define the approach of the Jews' main defender, the Abbé Grégoire, a few years later. Lacretelle even uses the term "regeneration," a decade before Grégoire, although Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall argues that he does so in a limited, religious sense, rather than as a synonym for assimilation.

Lacretelle's clear goal is to reform the commercial practices of the Jews, or in other words, to assimilate them economically: "Let that lowly greediness for profit, that cowardly insensibility, that cruel caution, that black penchant for deceit and usury be thrust from their heart" (35; Que cette basse âpreté du gain ... sortent de leur coeur), he proclaims in a subjunctive imperative, typical of the advocates of regeneration. And while he mainly confines his vision of Jewish regeneration to the economic plane, Lacretelle also raises the possibility of a more complete cultural transformation: he foresees a day when the Jews will "adopt our manners and our laws, and willingly place themselves beneath their happy yoke" and envisions "in the justice we will have finally rendered to them, the fulfillment of the hopes that still separate them from our religion" (35). Conversion, however, remains a distant goal, not subject to the coercion that Lacretelle sees as a necessity when it comes to the Jews' economic practices.

In Lacretelle's plea on behalf of the Jews of Metz, we find the essence of the regeneration ideology that offers Jews rights but demands, or expects, assimilation in return. We must, however, distinguish among types of assimilation in order to understand precisely where he fits on the continuum between assimilation and pluralism. Lacretelle requires economic assimilation of the Jews and recommends legal measures to "force" the Jews to change their business practices. He expects cultural assimilation (that the Jews will adopt French "moeurs") and political assimilation (that the Jews will adopt French "laws") but does not require them. Finally, he hopes for religious assimilation — that the Jews will one day become Christian — but puts this possibility off into a more distant future and sees it as entirely voluntary on the Jews' part: the Jews might eventually convert out of gratitude for kind treatment. Lacretelle, therefore, is more of an assimilationist than a pluralist, but he stops short of demanding that the Jews change completely as a precondition for gaining rights.

Lacretelle's innovations in arguing for the Jews would inspire two of the most famous defenders of the Jews in the following decade, the Abbé Grégoire and Christian Wilhelm Dohm. Though Dohm wrote in German, and specifically addressed the condition of the Jews in Germany, the motivation for his treatise once again came from eastern France: in 1777, a scandal erupted in Alsace when a local judge named François Hell brazenly admitted to printing false receipts so that peasants could claim they had repaid the Jews to whom they owed money. Despite being the obvious victims of a conspiracy, the Alsatian Jews found themselves on the defensive. Led by the wealthy merchant Cerf Berr, they turned for help to Moses Mendelssohn, their coreligionist who had made a name for himself in philosophical circles in Berlin. Judging that a non-Jew would be better situated to defend the Alsatian Jews, however, Mendelssohn in turn asked Dohm, a Prussian official, to respond to Hell. Dohm's On the Civic Improvement of the Jews (1781) appeared in French translation in 1782.

Like Lacretelle, Dohm would stress the Jews' negative qualities, their economic backwardness and social isolation. As Jonathan Karp has shown, Dohm viewed the Jews as an economic liability because they produced nothing. He characterized the Jews as a nation of middlemen whose usurious practices sapped wealth from honest farmers and artisans. This economic backwardness, moreover, had a negative effect on their moral character and prevented the Jews from feeling a sense of civic duty. Like Pinto, Valabrègue, and Lacretelle, however, Dohm blames Christian oppression through the centuries for the Jews' degraded state, and he describes this history of oppression in detail, emphasizing how Jews had been forced to play the roles of moneylender and middleman because of their exclusion from other, more productive professions.

Dohm displays the influence of the physiocrats, a group of economists opposed to mercantilism, who denounced commerce as a nonproductive form of labor. But unlike the physiocrats, who saw agriculture alone as valuable, Dohm believed that artisans and even merchants could contribute usefully to the economy. Only he did not believe that Jews should play this role. Here we see a complete turn against the precepts of the earlier, mercantilist mode of defending the Jews: instead of advocating the inclusion of the Jews in the nation because of their commercial skills, Dohm advocates forcibly preventing the Jews from engaging in commerce and encouraging them to take up agriculture and artisanal crafts instead. Previously forbidden areas of economic endeavor must now be open to Jews: they should be allowed to own land and join guilds. This new freedom, he hoped, would improve the Jews' morality and foster a sense of solidarity with non-Jews. His goal was "civic improvement," which is another way of saying regeneration. But unlike many others who debated the "Jewish Question" at the time, Dohm favored granting the Jews citizenship as a way to hasten their regeneration rather than requiring them first to regenerate in order to prove their worthiness for citizenship.

Significantly, Dohm did not think it necessary for the Jews to abandon their communal autonomy, their separate legal system and governance structures, as part of this bargain. He thus favored economic assimilation but not political assimilation. Nevertheless, as Jonathan Hess has shown, Dohm's project for improving the Jews formed part of a larger project of political modernization for Prussia. Arguing that the Jews could become citizens (even while maintaining separate institutions) allowed him to lay out his plans for a radically new conception of what the state should be, which is to say secular and universalist. In the new society he imagined, "the nobleman, the peasant, the scholar, the artisan, the Christian and the Jew" would all conceive of themselves as Prussians rather than as members of different estates with different privileges. If Dohm's project of reforming the Jews would have the greatest impact on the Abbé Grégoire, his new conception of citizenship would influence the French Revolutionaries, although, as we will see, they would require the kind of political assimilation he deemed unnecessary.

Dohm's ideas would gain exposure in France thanks to Honoré-Gabriel de Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau, who summarized them eloquently in Sur Moses Mendelssohn, sur la réforme politique des juifs (1787). Mirabeau devotes the first part of his work to Mendelssohn, who had asked Dohm to write his essay and who laid out his own ideas about Judaism, first in a preface to a new German translation of Menasseh ben Israel's apology for the Jews and then in his own treatise, Jerusalem. In the latter, Mendelssohn argued forcefully for the separation of churches and state, specifically denying to rabbis any kind of temporal power, including that of excommunication. He also included a defense of Judaism as a rational religion, indeed more rational than Christianity, he argued, and hence more capable of serving as a basis for modern civil society. The implication here is that the Jews are less in need of regeneration, at least in religious matters, than others had supposed.

Mirabeau takes a cautious line in his discussion of the religious question. Although he dismisses the Talmud and Jewish thought as a "mire" out of which Mendelssohn had climbed in order to produce "the most sound philosophy" (4), he also takes pains to defend Judaism against such slanders as that it encourages its adherents to cheat non-Jews. Judaism, he concludes, is moral and rational at its core even if it has been burdened with superstition by centuries of Talmudic obscurantism. The true Mosaic basis of the religion, he maintains, "most certainly does not contain anti-social principles" (62) and enjoins no beliefs that contradict the demands of citizenship. For Mirabeau, then, as for Mendelssohn, the Jews do not require full-scale religious assimilation in order to merit emancipation, even if he thinks a little housecleaning to clear away the Talmudic cobwebs is in order.


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Table of Contents

1          The Revolution Reconsidered
2          France’s Jewish Star
3          Universalism in Algeria
4          Zola and the Dreyfus Affair
5          The Jew in Renoir’s La grande illusion
6          Sartre’s “Jewish Question”
7          Finkielkraut, Badiou, and the “New Antisemitism”
Conclusion: “Je suis juif”


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