Saturday, April 15, 2006

1898 in France

According to Pierre Birnbaum's book, "The Anti-Semitic Moment," the riots that shook France during the Dreyfus Affair were essentially a violence-free anti-Jewish pogrom. Much like today's French riots, and those of earlier years, these brought out the students, from high school through to law and medical school. Also like today's riots, seemingly reasonable demands--better conditions for workers, better living standards for all--are in fact a cover for all manner of nonsense. In 1898, it was about the Jews, whereas today, it's possibly about the Muslims, possibly about all sorts of economic factors.

When the French riot, the question is always, what's behind it this time? Why the unrest? I took courses in college on the 1968 riots and the 1848 revolution, but could not explain, in one sentence, why either of those took place, which side was in the right, and how France was improved or worsened from either. But in 1898, it was the Jews. When I studied in Paris in 2003, I saw "Mort Aux Juifs" etched into a commuter train window, and overheard (almost certainly non-Arab) diners at an upscale restaurant discussing how this and that is "the fault of the Jews"--while I realized that during the Dreyfus Affair such ideas and slogans were prevalent, before reading Birnbaum's book I had no idea that they were ever quite so central, that "the Jews" was what that particular fuss was all about.

One thing I find interesting is the idea of "Jewish stores," stores that sell whatever but are called "Goldberg's" or similar. In Fitzgerald's "The Beautiful and Damned," Anthony, late in his downfall, passes various Jewish stores in NYC, and notes how the Jews sure seem to be taking over. In what sounds not so different from Kristallnacht, Jewish stores were targetted by the 1898 French mobs, as were stores thought to be Jewish. Another I find interesting is Jewish self-defense in the pre-WWII Diaspora--in Fitzgerald's novel, near the end, a fallen Anthony gets his faced punched in by the progressively more successful Black (nee Bloeckman), after calling him a "goddamn Jew." Which I found fascinating when I first read the novel, because of the physicality of it--this was no meek declaration of the rights he (Black/Bloeckman) holds as an American, Jewish or otherwise, but a straightforward, manly reaction of the sort Max "Jewry of muscle" Nordau would surely have approved. Birnbaum seeks to disprove the myth of passivity among French Jews at the time of the Dreyfus Affair largely by offering examples of how this or that Jewish victim filed a report or tried to elicit the help of the police. Is it wrong that this still strikes me as passivity? Understandable passivity, and I would make no claim that I'd have been "better" and done otherwise, but still passivity. Not passivity from the perspective of today, now that we know about the Holocaust, and so forth, but passivity compared, well, to a pre-WWII fictional character. Is Black/Bloeckman's act a Zionist one, just because of the Nordau connection? Not exactly--he has changed his name to make it sound less Jewish, and it seems part of what is upsetting him is not the obscenity but that he has been revealed to be a Jew--not that anyone necessarily believed otherwise, but "Jew" on its own is clearly enough of an insult. And so on.

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