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The Anti-Semitic Moment
A Tour of France in 1898
By Pierre Birnbaum
Hill and Wang
HC, 388 pgs. US$35/C$47
ISBN: 0-8090-6501-0

A history of hate

By Steven Martinovich
web posted April 21, 2003

The Anti-Semitic Moment: A Tour of France in 1898The recent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in France have revealed some uncomfortable truths, chief among them that the motto of the Republic, "Liberté, égalité, fraternité", applies to all Frenchmen providing you believe that some are more French than others. Verbal and physical assaults have also reminded people of just a few decades ago when French Jews lived in far more perilous times. The history of French anti-Semitism, unfortunately, stretches back far longer than mere decades.

Until the late 1700s, Jews were not even permitted French citizenship and even afterwards they were referred to as "stateless people" by those unhappy with their presence in the Catholic nation. That resentment slowly built until the Dreyfus affair unleashed wave after wave of ferocious anti-Semitism. All across France in 1898, demonstrations rocked both cities and the countryside as millions seemingly fell grip to an insanity. As the elections of that year proved, political or philosophical distinctions didn't matter, everyone registered their dislike or hatred of Jews.

Pierre Birnbaum's The Anti-Semitic Moment: A Tour of France in 1898, first published in 1998 in France and only recently translated into English, tells the story of that year of hate. The enemies were those who were considered different -- primarily Jews but inclusive enough to include a politically, culturally and religiously disparate list. As one nationalist wrote that year:

"In France, the struggle must be today, and will be tomorrow, between two dominant ideas stemming from two different traditions. On one side, the so-called humanitarian-libertarian cosmopolitans, proceeding from Jewish races and from the Semites of the Mediterranean basin, with their dark and anarchical ideology, their extreme materialism, their rapacity, and their mercantile instinct. On the other, the men of the land, with their religion based on equity and justice, their sense of family, respect for the work of our ancestors, the worship of heroes, the feeling of honour, the probity of work."

The enemy then wasn't simply Jews, but what many took Jews to represent -- capitalism and technology -- things that were considered a direct threat to France's traditional agrarian lifestyle. That perceived threat led anti-Semites to recycle some familiar accusations, that the Jews were controlling the economy and apparatus of government. Reminiscent of language used in Germany under the Third Reich, Jews were compared to animals and described with stereotypical imagery. Couched in patriotic language, arguments were made that Jews simply weren't able to be proper French citizens. Their loyalty to fellow Jews, it was believed, prevented them from considering themselves French.

Yet despite the vitriolic language, demonstrations and violence, not one Jew was killed by anti-Semites in 1898. They were fortunate, in a manner of speaking, because unlike Germany in the 1930s and 40s, the resources of the state were not directly employed against them. As Birnbaum illustrates, although the French government and police may have not been overly sympathetic to the Jews, they nonetheless felt an obligation to protect Jewish communities threatened by the anti-Semites. The future of the Republic depended on the maintenance of order. France did not, to paraphrase Adolph Eichmann's famous declaration during his trial, legalize crime.

The Anti-Semitic Moment is a grand achievement. Birnbaum slowly takes the reader on a journey to every major village and town in France and using the records of the day illustrates the anti-Semitic fervor of 1898. He shows how anti-Semitism brought together people of all political and philosophical stripes in their rejection of the other, "of anyone who persisted in displaying an identity that did not result from a simple cleavage between republic and monarchy, or between clericalism and anti-clericalism." The wealth of detail he brings to bear to spotlight those horrible days is beyond reproach.

As impressive as The Anti-Semitic Moment is, however, it is slightly hobbled by some choices Birnbaum made in telling the story. He divides France into wide swaths, each one he explores separately. While this approach allows him and the reader to concentrate on each area, it also has the effect of slowing down the story as a whole. His storytelling would have perhaps been better served by pulling back a bit and telling the whole nation's story, slowly building as the year 1898 progressed. Oddly Birnbaum also devotes little of his time to exploring the major personalities, leaving them to be simply names to remember.

Those quibbles aside, Birnbaum has performed a valuable service. Times may change but attitudes seemingly never do. The anti-Semitism currently on display in France may not be as widespread as it was in 1898, though more Jews have died in France this year due to anti-Semitic incidents then did that year, but it appears that the roots of the hate are the same. The French have had a long tradition of xenophobia and it seems they cast few others but the Jews of France, despite having resided there for centuries, as the other to be feared and rejected.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.

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