The Duchess & the Jews

An engraving of the capture of the Duchesse de Berry at Nantes, 1832
An engraving of the capture of the Duchesse de Berry at Nantes, 1832

Two very different stories can be told about the Jews in modern France. The first is one of liberation and opportunity. It begins with the granting of full civil rights to French Jews during the revolution of 1789, after centuries in which the small number who had the right to live in the country suffered from enormous legal discrimination. It continues with the opening up of French society to them in the nineteenth century, the community’s rapid growth, and the rise to prominence of Jews such as the sociologist Émile Durkheim, the actor Rachel Félix, the politician Adolphe Crémieux (who served as minister of justice), and the painter Camille Pissarro (before 1900, few Jews elsewhere had such visibility). It concludes with the undeniable success and prosperity of French Jews today. France in 2020 has the third-largest Jewish population in the world after the United States and Israel. French Jews receive higher education degrees at a rate twice that of the general population. They are disproportionately represented at the top of many fields, from business to entertainment to academia to politics. To take just one example, the showrunner, star, and many lead actors in the most successful French television series of recent years, Le bureau des légendes (released in the US as The Bureau), all have Jewish ancestry.

But there is another, darker story. It begins with the survival of anti-Semitism in France in the revolutionary era, exemplified by the emperor Napoleon’s “infamous decree” of 1808 that accused the Jews of usury and again restricted their rights. It moves on to the explosion of anti-Semitic hatred in the late nineteenth century, culminating in the Dreyfus Affair. In that blatant miscarriage of justice, French courts twice convicted an innocent Jewish army officer, Alfred Dreyfus, of treason, and although he was eventually exonerated, a tsunami of anti-Jewish invective, accompanied by widespread violence, swept across the country. The story reaches its nadir in World War II, when the Vichy government persecuted Jews on its own initiative and willingly collaborated with the Nazis to send more than 77,000 to their deaths. And it persists today with widespread anti-Semitic violence, including terrorist attacks committed by radicalized French Muslims.

Both these stories, of course, are true. The history of modern French Jewry is fraught and paradoxical, at once inspiring and dispiriting. No other Jewish community in the world today is simultaneously so successful and so fragile. In a poll, taken last year, 55 percent of French Jews said they have considered emigrating, and 29 percent think that “Jews should leave France now.”

In recent years, few if any scholars have done more to explore the contradictions of modern French Jewish history than Maurice Samuels. A professor of French…

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