Friday, January 30, 2009

In which I announce, ashamed, gaps in my knowledge

“Comme un Juif en France” portrays a country that, despite having the largest Jewish population of any country in Western Europe, has been, and continues to be, little short of catastrophic for Jews. Yet there may be surprising reasons for hope, in the form of French-Jewish comedians who are vastly more popular and influential than Dieudonné. -Benjamin Ivry, The Forward.

Ivry's is a very interesting article, but "little short of catastrophic" sounds... I still have to see the new documentary Ivry refers to, but what he's describing sounds like the now-classic American take on life for Jews in France, one French Jews might not agree with (although for all I know, Ivry is French), and one that ignores the existence of anti-Semitism in the States, largely inspired by various readings of a 'political science' book that shall not be named. (Not going to have the discussion again--if you want my take on why the book's anti-Semitic, you can see previous posts or the Doublethink article.) Also, I'm never sure what to make of reports of anti-Semitism as 'worse' in France than elsewhere in Europe. There may be more anti-Semitic incidents, but how would a yarmulke-wearer fare walking down the street in a mid-size town in France versus one in any other European country? At this point, having been lost somewhere in the nineteenth century for a while, I don't know how to answer any of this, so, Bad Francophilic Zionist! I'd better get on that...

17 comments:

Petey said...

Random US geographical note on this topic:

When I was living in the Midwest and told folks about my interest in France, I got a startling number of queries along the lines of "but how would you deal with the anti-semitism there?"

I've never had anyone bring this up on the East Coast.

-----

I think the concern is all a bit of a canard based on the fact that there is a large Arab population in France.

And I think Midwesterners are a bit less accustomed to diversity and cosmopolitanism than East Coast types.

Phoebe said...

It's not totally a canard--the chances of being attacked or having a slur yelled at you if you are (visibly) Jewish are probably a whole lot greater in/around Paris than in/around NYC. So says this Jewish East Coaster who's lived (briefly) in Paris, and so says what I've seen in the press.

And it's not just about France's Arab population-- there are anti-Semites of the old school who use 'the plight of the Palestinians' as a pretext for anti-Jewish this or that, even while these same anti-Semites may also hate Arabs, Muslims, etc.

Andrew Stevens said...

Living in the Midwest myself, I was inclined at first to dismiss Petey's complaint (for one thing, I'd be hard pressed to name more than a half dozen people here who are even aware of stories of French anti-semitism). But then I reflected that one of my coworkers is Jewish and his wife and daughter are visiting France this summer and he seemed to be almost unduly concerned with their safety. (He told me that he has instructed his daughter to claim that she is of half Lebanese ancestry and half Italian.) So I have to assume that Petey is referring to Midwestern Jews, who for all I know may very well be more prone to fear French anti-semitism than East Coast Jews would.

Jacob T. Levy said...

"largely inspired by various readings of a 'political science' book that shall not be named. "

The idea that anti-Semitism in the United States is largely inspired by the book-- as opposed to long predating it and providing a comfortable framework into which it fits-- seems strange to me.

Phoebe said...

AS,

I didn't get the sense Petey meant East Coast versus Midwestern Jews, but who knows.

JTL,

You're right. What I should have said was that they've inspired a new wave, which I believe they have, of Jew-hatred having a certain respectability. The underlying ideas were hardly their invention.

Matt said...

On the topic of your old article (if I found the right one), and to question from a direction you might not expect here:

You note that today there aren't any respectable politicians who will claim to be antisemites. This is in contrast to fin-de-siecle France when there were open and proud antisemites all over the place. What I find odd about the comparison is that in Germany, at least, antisemitism was reasonably respectable, but Judenhass was thoroughly disrespectable. All the open antisemites protested furiously at being labelled with Judenhass. It seems to me a more precise analogue and less an improvement than you suggest. Was France unlike Germany in that way?

Petey said...

"I didn't get the sense Petey meant East Coast versus Midwestern Jews, but who knows."

You intuited correctly, and without a whole lot of surrounding context to help you.

I always appreciate close readers.

-----

"It's not totally a canard--the chances of being attacked or having a slur yelled at you if you are (visibly) Jewish are probably a whole lot greater in/around Paris than in/around NYC. So says this Jewish East Coaster who's lived (briefly) in Paris, and so says what I've seen in the press."

Sure.

But I'm a Hellenized Jew, not a beanie-wearing Jew, so I'd guess that would significantly lessen the risk of being randomly insulted in public.

And while my risk in Paris would definitely be higher than it would be in NYC, it's just never seemed like a big deal to me.

(But I've never spent enough time there in a single stretch to consider myself as having lived in France, though I have been there a few times, and I do follow it closely via the writings of others...)

Phoebe said...

Matt,

If we're talking gaps in my knowledge, my reading on German Jewry is well behind where I'd like it to be, although I've been reading more about it recently. What I'm getting at is, I can't answer your question.

My guess, though, would be that 'Jew-hatred' meant a non-theorized knee-jerk low-class emotional response that people, even anti-Semites, wanted to steer clear of, while anti-Semitism meant a political argument against certain aspects of modernity, with Jews as modernity's main symbol. Also, one does find in early French anti-Semitism few references to anyone saying openly that they hate Jews, as simple as that. They're always fighting against oppression they feel is inflicted upon them by Jews. In other words, plus ca change. But also, the point is that anti-Semitism has always, at least in modern times, been presented not as 'Hey, I'm a bigot and I'm proud', but as 'Look, the Jews have caused all my problems, help me defend myself against them.'

Petey,

"But I'm a Hellenized Jew, not a beanie-wearing Jew, so I'd guess that would significantly lessen the risk of being randomly insulted in public."

Some non-observant Jews are bothered by being in a country in which their more observant counterparts are targets for attack. Others, I suppose, don't mind it. Takes all kinds.

Petey said...

"Some non-observant Jews are bothered by being in a country in which their more observant counterparts are targets for attack. Others, I suppose, don't mind it. Takes all kinds."

Y'know, I'd guess that the odds of an orthodox Jew being insulted and/or assaulted in Paris aren't too different than the odds of an orthodox Jew being insulted and/or assaulted in certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn at certain times over the past 40 years.

Whether those low risks to certain (odd) co-religionists is of enough import to be worthy of genuinely bothering someone is up for debate, but I don't think it's a particularly solid issue for you to play the "Offended and Outraged by your Flippancy" card on me...

Phoebe said...

Until one of us find numbers on attacks on Jews in Paris versus NYC, this conversation can go nowhere. I've read about far more attacks on Jews in Paris than in New York, and I certainly follow the New York news more closely, so either attacks on Jews in NYC go unreported, or Paris really does have more (open) anti-Semitism. Also, I've taken the train in sketchy and posh parts of both NYC and Paris, and guess which city has the anti-Semitic graffiti.

But your flippancy is, well, flippancy. Even if not that many Jews in France are attacked relative to in the States (which I doubt), you might feel, as a Jew, as an American, as a person, bothered by a place being the sort of place where one can expect to be attacked for one's (visible) religion.

Matt said...

Yes, Judenhass was a knee-jerk, non-theorized sort of hatred. But it was also understood as an anachronistic religious hatred. (There were even anti-racist antisemites back then.)

As you say, "plus ca change," I think we're in agreement. The point being, however, that the lack of open and unambiguous antisemitism isn't necessarily too informative.

As for German Jewry, have you read Shulamit Volkov's Germans, Jews, and Antisemites? I think it's relevant for the problem of reconciling disparate views of the severity of contemporary antisemitism.

Phoebe said...

Matt,

Thanks for the book suggestion.

As for when racial anti-Semitism began... I agree that the term "anti-Semitism" was only coined when it was, but hatred of Jews based on Jewish "blood" dates back to just after the Spanish Inquisition, if not earlier. I've found all kinds of discrimination that could only be described as racial in documents from the decades before racial anti-Semitism supposedly began. I mean, it's clear *something* changed in the decades leading up to WWII, but I don't quite buy the all-encompassing divide between pre-modern and modern anti-Semitism. (See here Sander Gilman's "Jewish Self-Hatred.) 'Race' of course meant something different in 1840, 1890, and 1940, but the idea of Jewish immutability has been around since long before modern rhinoplasty entered the picture.

Petey said...

"I mean, it's clear *something* changed in the decades leading up to WWII, but I don't quite buy the all-encompassing divide between pre-modern and modern anti-Semitism."

Well, I'd argue that *something* was just a great war and great depression along with some deeply unfortunate coincidences.

What really divides pre-modern and modern anti-Semitism is the Holocaust, not the interwar era. The Holocaust delegitimized anti-semitism in all of Christendom in a fundamental way.

Petey said...

"or Paris really does have more (open) anti-Semitism [than NYC]"

I believe this to be the correct assumption.

"Also, I've taken the train in sketchy and posh parts of both NYC and Paris, and guess which city has the anti-Semitic graffiti."

Sure. I employed lots of weasel words in my previous comment on the topic to compare all of current Paris to certain neighborhoods of Brooklyn in certain time periods, say Crown Heights in 1973.

"But your flippancy is, well, flippancy. Even if not that many Jews in France are attacked relative to in the States (which I doubt), you might feel, as a Jew, as an American, as a person, bothered by a place being the sort of place where one can expect to be attacked for one's (visible) religion."

I'm aware of it, but not entirely bothered. At the same time, I'd think twice before moving to Dubai. It's all a matter of degrees.

But taken in its entirety, France seems to me a pretty good place in Europe to be a Hellenized Jew, relative to Europe as a whole.

Phoebe said...

"But taken in its entirety, France seems to me a pretty good place in Europe to be a Hellenized Jew, relative to Europe as a whole."

Perhaps, or perhaps not. There are more Jews in France, yes, but this may well have more to do with the collapse of a French empire with a large Jewish population, including Algerian Jews who were already French citizens, than with France being more Jew-friendly than other European countries.

That said, there are things about France that appeal to secular types regardless of Jewish origin or lack thereof.

alex said...

A while ago I tried to find some concrete statistics on anti-semitism in various countries. There really is not much data out there - the closest I could find was this document, in particular of the chart on page 54.

These numbers are only for a single year, and to do any kind of comparison, one has to manually re-scale them to account for different populations in different countries - eyeballing it, it seems they put France at number 3, after the UK and Canada, which come out on top.

Matt said...

"What really divides pre-modern and modern anti-Semitism is the Holocaust, not the interwar era. The Holocaust delegitimized anti-semitism in all of Christendom in a fundamental way."

I'd imagine this worked about as well as the Inquisition deligitimized antisemitism. Or slavery deligitimized racism in the US.

In fact, the more I've learned about antisemitism of the past, the more I've become convinced this idea that it's a thing of the past has always been a part of it.