Home today to the largest population of both Muslims and Jews in Western Europe, France has recently seen questions of minority and religious identity come to the fore, often in violent ways. Journalists and other commentators have frequently condemned assertions of minority identity as a violation of France's vaunted tradition of universalism, inherited from the Revolution. And yet, as Lisa Moses Leff shows in her fascinating and meticulously researched book, during the century that followed the Revolution, French Jews attempted to reconcile their particular identity with the claims of the universal.
At the core of the book lies a conundrum that has long puzzled historians: why did French Jews found the first international Jewish aid organization – the Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU) – in 1860? The first European Jews to receive full civil rights (in 1790–91), French Jews have long been viewed as paragons of assimilation, as having gladly renounced their particular identity as Jews for an entrance ticket to French culture. Moreover, it has long been assumed that the Jacobin political legacy in France discouraged group affiliations in the political arena. Why, then, would nineteenth-century French Jews risk asserting their Jewishness in such a public way by reaching out to less fortunate Jews abroad?
Leff provides a series of innovative answers to this question that shed new light not only on the history of Jews in France but also more broadly on nineteenth-century French political history. Building on the work of Jewish historians such as Phyllis Cohen Albert, Jay Berkovitz, and Paula Hyman, she shows first that while French Jews achieved unparalleled social integration in the nineteenth century, they did not assimilate to the point of renouncing their group identity. She then goes on to argue that French Jews reached out to foreign Jews as a way of affirming political commitments within France. As Leff convincingly demonstrates, they used solidarity strategically to counter reactionary Catholic interests in both domestic and foreign policy and to forge bonds with liberals engaged in the struggle for secularism.
The first half of this lucidly written book examines the early history of Jewish solidarity, and of Jewish self-assertion in the public sphere, from the emancipation period to the July Monarchy. Chapter one discusses how French Jews came to identify closely [End Page 320] with a secularized state thanks to the Revolution's granting of citizenship and the creation of the consistory system, which made Judaism a state religion, during the Napoleonic period. Chapter two shows that French Jews during the Restoration allied with liberals to oppose the reactionary policies of the Catholic ultras and to free themselves from the last vestiges of political inequality. Significantly, Leff reveals how adherence to the ideology of secularism did not necessitate the privatization of religion, but rather led French Jews to assert their religious identity in the public sphere in order to claim equality with Catholics and Protestants. In chapter three, she traces the itineraries of a group of French Jews born around 1800 – including the writer Eugénie Foa, the composer Fromenthal Halévy, the Saint-Simonian Gustave D'Eichtal, and the actress Rachel – who asserted their Jewishness theatrically to remind a receptive French public of the Revolution's promise to liberate all peoples.
The second half of the book then charts the rise and fall of the Jewish solidarity movement in nineteenth-century France, adding a new perspective to the accounts of the rise of the AIU by Aron Rodrigue and Michael Graetz. Chapter four discusses efforts by French Jews to help their coreligionists in such places as Syria, Algeria, and the Crimea during the 1840s and 50s. Their passionate defense of minority rights in these foreign locales offered an alternative to the Catholic orientation of much Second Empire foreign policy. In chapter five, Leff shows how the founders of the AIU allied with the exponents of France's mission civilisatrice to export the values of the Revolution to Jews abroad during the later years of the Second Empire...