Wednesday, February 22, 2012

"If liberalism is the religion of secularized American Jews, is it possible that illiberalism will become the religion of greater numbers of secularized French Jews?"

I of course read historian Robert Zaretsky's article about the rightward shift of French Jewry with great interest. Zaretsky makes a key point, noting that French Jews today come from different parts of the world than do American Jews, have different histories and cultural traditions, and thus vote differently. If you're voting for Sarkozy for a convoluted mix of reasons it would require a class on French colonialism in North Africa to understand, you're not in quite the same situation as an Ashkenazi-American Commentary/Weekly Standard reader.

Zaretsky looks at how French Jews differ from American ones, but not at how Sarkozy differs from, for example, Santorum. And the difference there is huge. What I kept waiting to see, and never did, was something about the role of religion in all of this. The right, in the States, is all about Christianity. Even American Jews who aren't that socially liberal, who aren't that concerned with social issues, can't help but notice that social conservatives are laying on the this-is-a-Christian-country rather thick. The "Real America" rhetoric has a nifty way of canceling out any (mistaken, in my opinion that I will not further go into in this post, but that I've gone into elsewhere) sense that it's better for Israel to vote Republican.

With France... I know we're accustomed to thinking of the extreme-right as the home of anti-Semitism, but the reality is somewhat more complicated. I suspect that even many American-Jewish Republicans would be horrified to imagine European Jews voting for their countries' right-wing parties, because, you know, Nazis. These same folks would probably be horrified to imagine that Jews live in Europe, period. And if this all sounds straw-mannish, it's because I'm not citing individual conversations that arise whenever I tell people I study French.

If there's good reason for French Jews to be wary of the right, it's not as if the left has an unblemished record, good-for-the-Jews-wise. Anti-Semitism in France originated on the left (mid-19th-C socialists not lurving those Rothschilds, and not understanding until the Dreyfus Affair, if ever, that hating Jews-as-such wasn't the answer), and the particular anti-Semitism everyone has in mind - the strains that led up to Vichy - had roots all over the place. If you're French and voting for a political strain that kinda-sorta comes out of the Resistance, but that is also center-right, you're not exactly casting your vote for neo-Nazism.

That background is for WWPD readers, who may not be as neck-deep in all this as I am, although I'll confess to being much more familiar this month with 1840s and perhaps even medieval European Jews than with the contemporary political climate. I'm 150% sure Zaretsky, a professor in this area, knows what I do and far more about the difference between what "left" and "right" mean and have meant in the States vs. France. The question, then, is why he doesn't include that point in his article.

My best guess is that, this being in the Forward, he's looking at this in terms of Jews' historical attraction to the left, coming out of social-justice concerns. He's less interested (not entirely uninterested, but less) in the tendency of some but not other right-wing (and, as I've mentioned, left-wing) traditions to be utterly inhospitable to Jews.

Aside from where the essay appears, there's his closing question: "If liberalism is the religion of secularized American Jews, is it possible that illiberalism will become the religion of greater numbers of secularized French Jews?" This is, I suppose, about a left-right economic divide, in which case Sarkozy and Santorum probably are a bit closer than one might otherwise think.


Britta said...

Yeah. Sarkozy is left of Obama in some ways, and the French moderate right is the party of liberalism (with a little l) "we're all the same/daughters and sons of the republic blah blah" rhetoric and also anti-Muslim, so it's not really surprising that French Jews would be supportive of Sarkozy. (Also, fyi, Sarkozy as education minister was responsible for pushing those plaques on Parisian schools about Jewish children killed in the war and the study of the holocaust and Vichy France in school curriculum, because pretty much everyone in Europe who's not a fascist/neo-nazi can agree that WW2 and the holocaust is/are a Very Bad Thing, and (I have argued), as spun by the French moderate right, teaching the holocaust is used as a rebuke of multiculturalism, in that "once we recognize that ethnic or cultural differences can be meaningful OMG VICHY FRANCE AND THE HOLOCAUST HAPPEN" (as seen in the not infrequent reference to multiculturalism as 'ghettoisation,' or the rather pointed juxtaposition between the plaques commemorating children killed in the holocaust and the plaques with Charles DeGaulle's speech about liberty.)) A vast majority of Jews in the US support the Democratic party, which again, is pretty much the moderate right party (or would be anywhere else in the world), and not the Republicans, which would pretty much be considered fascist/far right anywhere else in the world. The question "why do French Jews support Sarkozy over Le Pen" is a no-brainer, and this seems to be the same situation.

Britta said...

Just in case the syntax is a little weird, to clarify I personally think learning about Vichy France and the holocaust in French schools is a very GOOD thing, but I'm a little cynical of the timing and (at least some of) the motivations of the French right in pushing this. I don't doubt that there were good motives as well, but it also seems to have been mobilized in a certain political way to attack the immigrant left that I find suspect.

Phoebe said...


I agree with most of that. But I think that France and the U.S. have different approaches to anti-racism, and that the "colorblind" French approach isn't so awful, or is at least comprehensible given their history. If the French are less enthusiastic about/more wary of racial box-checking self-identification, it might be that they hate affirmative action and love keeping things white-only. Or, it might be that the categorization by "race" has more negative connotations in France (Holocaust) than in the U.S. (necessary reparations for slavery and Jim Crow). I mean, in reality it's a mix, some of the pseudo-colorblindness coming out of a sneaky desire to be racist, other of it coming out of a genuine sense that identification/self-identification as hyphenated, esp. "racially" so, is incredibly dangerous.

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