- Francophone Jewish Writers: Imagining Israel by Lucille Cairns
In an age when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict spills over into discourses on French Islam, laïcité, and antisemitism, Lucille Cairns offers a unique view of the visceral relationship between writers from the French colonial space in North Africa and metropolitan France itself and Israel. Cairns focuses on the ways Francophone Jewish texts, both fictional and essayistic, autobiographical and romanced, register the affect of Israel; how they respond to the utopian aspirations of its founding, Jewish identity after 1948 in relation to messianism, both secular and religious, to the unequal treatment of immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East, and the Jewish state’s ongoing entanglement with Palestinians’ national aspirations.
The book draws on a large corpus, which includes well-known literary and cultural figures in France, such as Eliette Abécassis, Valérie Zenatti, and Paula Jacques. Many of the authors in the corpus lived in Israel or have spent a great deal of time with family there. Nevertheless, as the book makes clear, these writers’ literal (as well as literary) adhesion to secular Zionism “was neither total nor definitive” (14). Cairns’s organization echoes the evolving nature of the authors’ relation to Israel, demonstrating that the same author can reevaluate an aspect of her engagement with religion, the responsibility of the Palestinians in the conflict or Jewish settlements in the occupied territories from one text to the next.
While Cairns addresses a range of areas of Israel that provoke affect from French-speaking Jews, from compulsory military service, the crucible of Israeli nationhood, to the longstanding hierarchies of Jewish immigrants from Europe and those from outside, her fairly exclusive focus on literary discourse sometimes obscures the political dimensions of migration. For instance, highlighting the back and forth between Israel and France and the Americas would show the incredible mobility, both physical and social, of the Francophone Jewish diaspora. Many of the writers engage in global diasporic jet-setting, operating between Paris, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem, as well as American cities like New York and Los Angeles. The choice to write in French and not Hebrew also deserves more attention, as voting with one’s feet and pen reveals another dimension beyond explicit proclamations about identity.
Cairns’s “supplement” (in place of a conclusion), including her interviews with several of the authors, points to the structurally ambivalent relationship between the authors’ affective relationship with the idea of Israel, their “inability to scotomize,” to erase the mark it leaves on them, body and soul. Yet her book also reveals the inability to leave the equally strong claims of French language and culture on the writers. As Eliette Abécassis puts it, Israel is both “the place to which I belong deeply” and a homeland “that maybe I’ll never get to” (291). In between these equally deeply-held positions, Cairns has made a powerful case for thinking of Israel, in all its complexity, as an integral part of Francophone literature. [End Page 136]