French Universalism and Jewish Particularity : French Jewish Identity from Emancipation to WWI
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French Jews saw unprecedented prosperity in 19th century France due to the universalist ideas that led to their emancipation. At the time, they were the only Jews in Europe who could actively participate in the educational, political, and economic institutions of their country. However, the Dreyfus Affair exposed the disadvantages of the rigid French universalist ideals that didn’t align with the Jews’ distinct sense of community and culture. These differing identities among French Jews do not necessarily align with the assimilationist version of universalism that had been subscribed to pre- Dreyfus Affair. Maurice Samuels suggests a spectrum to describe different versions of universalism; on one side of the spectrum would be assimilation and the other side of the spectrum would be pluralism. The far side of the assimilation pole represents the traditional French universalism which would expect Jews to shed any distinction from the majority culture in the political, cultural, economic or religious sense. The pluralist side of the spectrum would be represented by an embracement and acceptance of different minority groups’ distinctions by society and the state, with the acknowledgment that there are still certain universal rights and values among our differences.45 Judaism is deeply rooted in community (e.g. needing ten people to form a minion for certain prayers, the formation of social societies, the celebration of holidays, etc.), but it is not a monolith and each individual must decide for themselves what it means to be Jewish. The endless interpretations of what it means to be Jewish results in many particular Jewish communities, linked together by a common identity; universalism with the acceptance of pluralism. The same holds true for French identity; each Frenchman has their own idea on what it means to be French. Their ideas on what French identity is may differ- as I discussed before, French citizenship and French nationality are not always equated to each other- but they still share a universal identity, whether it be through cultural similarities or just by living in the same country. This pluralistic universalism does not align with the version of assimilationist universalism that the writers of The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen intended. The “French universalism” that Samuels defined is more of a prescriptive idea than a description of how universalism has actually worked in France. No group is a monolith; difference and diversity are inevitable wherever freedom reigns, so France has mostly functioned as a pluralistic universalist society. While each French Jew may articulate their identities differently, they still define themselves the same way: as French Jews. I’ve been using the writing of Maurice Samuels as a base for the definitions of universalism and pluralism, and I think the title of his book perfectly encapsulates what French Jewish identity is all about: The Right to Difference. No matter how differently two French Jews express or relate to their identities, the universal right to difference means that neither is more or less French or Jewish than the other. The ambiguity of these identities can lead to gate keeping and exclusion, as I’ve written about, but it also means that each individual can pick and choose which aspects of these identities that are meaningful to them while still being a part of a shared community; universalism with the acceptance of pluralism.
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