French identity once depended on a Jewish foil

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Orientalizing the Jew: Religion, Culture, and Imperialism in Nineteenth-Century France. By Julie Kalman. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2017. 186 pp. $25

France was the first country in Europe to emancipate its Jewish population and establish full equality for Jews in 1831. With the Napoleonic policy of “careers open to talents,” French Jews entered the world of finance, the professions, government, and the arts and also obtained citizenship. However, a deep paradox remained: Despite the acceptance of Jews into French citizenship, anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish manifestations never disappeared.

After the French Revolution, the divided country sought its modern national identity. In Orientalizing the Jew, Kalman of Monash University, Australia, illustrates how Jews became a foil to formulate and clarify that identity. The ideal French national character was contrasted with what some writers saw as its antithesis: Jewish identity. Kalman identifies three major ways in which the Jew was used: First, France was positioned as a Christian country. Second, secular writers and artists promoted France as the epitome of civilization. Third, government officials, diplomats, and businessmen used the Jew to link to France’s international emergence as a major player in Middle East commerce and governance. The “Orientalized Jew” became a powerful figure created out of a mixture of imagination and realistic encounters.

Libraries are full of works on the Dreyfus affair, anti-Semitism, and the place of Jews in late nineteenth-century France. By comparison, argues Kalman, relatively little has been written on the role of Jews in the earlier part of the nineteenth century. Kalman, a specialist both in modern France and its relationship with Jewish history, has written on these themes in Rethinking Antisemitism in Nineteenth Century France,1 explaining the complicated French attitudes and ambivalence to the presence of Jews in France itself.

In her earlier book, Kalman used political writings, the press, literature, and other sources to make the striking claim that, in the early nineteenth century, Jews faced prejudice in France’s “tranquil” society and the French relationship with Jews was central to the development of French identity. Kalman noted, for example, that Jews living in the East featured prominently in French art, narratives, novels, and plays. But, Jews in France itself faced challenges as the French population became concerned about its own identity.

In her new book, Kalman extends her study to include Jews living in the Middle East and argues that attitudes towards “Oriental” Jews figured prominently in answering the question of what it meant to be French. She analyzes the attitudes of Catholic pilgrims, secular writers and artists, government officials, and businessmen who travelled and lived in the Middle East and North Africa and had contact with Jews.

Kalman centers her argument around four figures: François-René Chateaubriand, a Roman Catholic royalist; Théophile Gautier, author and poet at the center of French intellectual life in the middle of the nineteenth century; and Salomon Bacri and Nephtali Busnach, two Jewish businessmen in Algiers.

 

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Kalman contends that Chateaubriand, for whom France was the idealized Christian nation, created a fantasy of Jews as degraded and subjugated. A visit to Jerusalem reinforced his critical attitude that Jews did not belong in France. He explained that conditions under which Jews lived—in degradation and poverty—were punishment for the death of Christ. However, Chateaubriand also pointed out that the miserable plight of the Jews did not limit their rights in the Land of Israel.

In contrast, Gautier drew on the real Jews he knew in Paris to help create the imagined Jews in his writings. Gauthier and likeminded writers and artists including Eugène Delacroix and Théodore Chasserieu saw themselves as members of an elite intellectual community that was specifically French. For them, the key was the civilization and culture of France. They visited the Middle East and described Jews there as debased while, paradoxically, Jewish women were exotic and lovely, fulfilling the Romantic ideal of female beauty. Gauthier and others were, therefore, ambivalent, especially because they had Jewish friends in Paris. Jews could not be completely sullied if their women were so attractive. Nevertheless, he saw the Jew as “Orientalized,” the “other,” the antithesis of French culture.

Kalman argues further that some writers such as Victor Hugo and artists including Delacroix equated the concepts of Jews and Orientals. Others provided different portrayals, some favorable such as the Oriental Jewess—fascinating, beautiful, sensual, pure. Even Chateaubriand commented on the attractiveness of Jewish women. But portrayals of the masculine Jew were pernicious: money-loving and physically ugly. Somehow, the women seemed to have escaped the curse of their fathers, husbands, and sons.

The author’s third perspective is on the importance of Sephardic Jews to French diplomatic and business relations in the Middle East and hence in dealing with the Ottoman world. Kalman makes the strong claim that encounters in North Africa changed the way the French understand Orientalism. The Jewish trading house, Bacri and Busnach, was central to French ambitions in Algiers and to the political relationship with France as the house served as a go-between in business transactions and provided interpreters to foreign consuls and other diplomats. The Jews were agents in the French experience in Algiers. They were central to the French ambitions and fortunes in Algiers and formed the center of the political relationship between France and Algiers. This involvement eventually led to the takeover of Algiers by France.

In her highly useful book, Kalman contends that the Orient gave French writers and artists the means to express unusual points of view. French interest led to the Orientalizing of the Jew in all sectors of French life, thus providing a foil of “otherness” in which the indigenous Jewish population in France could be placed. The Jew was the inside and outside “Other.” Kalman argues this was not overtly anti-Semitic, but ambivalent, and that the impact of the French relationship with Jews was central to the development of ideas of French national identity.

Michael Curtis is Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Rutgers University, and the author or editor of forty books on comparative government, Middle East politics, and political theory. In 2014, he was named a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor.