Ronald Schechter. Obstinate Hebrews: Representations of Jews in France, 1715-1815. Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 2003. viii + 331 pp. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-520-23557-1.
Reviewed by Lee Shai Weissbach (Department of History, University of Louisville)
Published on H-Judaic (November, 2003)
As Ronald Schechter acknowledges, his book Obstinate Hebrews is not the first to take up the subject of France and its Jews in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. But previous discussions of this topic, Schechter contends, have been overly focused on whether what transpired in France during the period of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the Napoleonic Empire was good or bad for the Jews. This approach tends to be not only unproductive, he argues (debates about matters such as Voltaire's Judeophobia or the costs of Jewish emancipation will always remain open), but also much too narrow, missing a sense of historical context. Thus, the central question posed in Schechter's volume is a different one. The author is interested not so much in the consequences of what French Gentiles said and did as far as Jews were concerned, but rather in why French philosophes of various stripes, French revolutionaries, and even Napoleon himself paid so much attention to Jews in the period from 1715 to 1815, when Jews constituted such a small and quite powerless element of France's population.
The basic answer to this question, Schechter asserts, is that by reflecting on the condition of the Jews and proposing policies to deal with them (that is, by addressing the "Jewish question"), French thinkers, activists, and politicians were able to wrestle with some of the most fundamental philosophical and political questions of their day. In other words, to use a phrase that Schechter borrows from Claude Levi-Strauss, the Jews were "good to think" when it came to concepts such as spirituality, tolerance, sincerity, civilization, modernity, and national identity. Because Jews were often associated with commerce and especially with its abuses, for example, those who were concerned about the relative merits of trade, industry, and agriculture could engage their debate in terms of policy toward the Jews. Similarly, because Jews were so often viewed as a people who were bound to ancient rituals and "obstinate," those who wanted to ponder the possibility of human malleability and perfectibility could do so by considering the possibility of reforming the Jews.
To be sure, as Schechter points out, all of this was complicated by the fact that many of the stereotypes applied to Jews were contradictory. While some associated the commercial role of the Jews with corruption, for instance, others associated it with progress; while some associated the obstinacy of the Jews with incorrigibility, other associated it with faithfulness and loyalty. All in all, however, as Schechter understands it, Jews "were far more important to Gentiles for what they symbolized than for who they were" (p. 10).
Schechter's study is divided into six chapters. In the first of these, "A Nation within the Nation?" the author provides an admirable synopsis of the state of French Jewry under the Old Regime, helpfully focusing attention not only on what differentiated the Ashkenazic Jews of northeastern France from the Sephardic Jews of the southwest but also on what these groups had in common. So too, in this chapter Schechter makes the point that most people in France had very little opportunity to become acquainted with "real" Jews and he thus reinforces the idea that what they thought and said about Jews was likely to be informed by age-old stereotypes rather than by the realities of Jewish life.
In chapter 2, "Jews and Philosophes," Schechter considers the way Jews were viewed by various Enlightenment thinkers, among them Montesquieu, Voltaire, and the Encyclopedists. In doing so, he demonstrates how useful the Jews were for thinking about matters such as the evils of fanaticism (where the Jews were often seen as victims but also sometimes as perpetrators), or the merits of "natural religion" (where the Hebrew Bible could be understood as an edifying source and the Talmud as a corrupting one), or human perfectibility (where Jews were sometimes considered subject to improvement in a more friendly environment and sometimes seen as much too set in their ways).
In chapter 3, "Jews and Citizens," Schechter turns his attention to how the Jewish question helped French writers address issues of citizenship and nationhood, matters that were becoming increasingly urgent as various constitutional and political questions came to the fore in the years leading up to the French Revolution. Again, Schechter shows, Jews were "good to think" when it came to these questions, whether they were seen as prototypical models of people unfit for citizenship, or as examples of unfairly marginalized people who deserved to be included in an ideal French republic. By assessing the degree to which Jews were or (more to the point) could be rendered selfless, useful, courageous, and knowable, French thinkers were, in effect, creating a catalogue of the attributes of proper citizens.
Because Schechter is concerned with the self-representation of Jews as much as with their representation by others, chapter 4 of Obstinate Hebrews, titled "Contrapuntal Readings," is devoted to how Jews in the pre-Revolutionary era presented themselves to the public, and also to themselves. In order to explore this topic, Schechter examines not only the writings of Jews who were defending their people against various charges of duplicity and other moral ills, but also a body of prayers, poems, and other sacred texts composed by Jews, and descriptions of ceremonies and festivals in which Jews took part. In all these sources, Schechter finds the same kinds of contradictory messages that are found in the writings of the Gentile thinkers of the period. Some Jewish writers praised their co-religionists for being at the forefront of commerce and civilization, for example, while others emphasized the pastoral simplicity of the Jews' Biblical origins. But Schechter posits that the complex nature of Jewish self-representation contains a lesson in itself, revealing as it does the way Jews engaged with the often-conflicting values and beliefs of the Enlightenment in general.
Chapter 5 of Schechter's book, "Constituting Differences," takes up the debate over Jewish emancipation in the National Assembly during the French Revolution and concludes that, once again, arguments about the Jews had a tremendous symbolic value, especially as they facilitated a further consideration of the moral attributes of citizenship. Schechter contends also that most of the National Assembly deputies who favored Jewish emancipation did so in order to mask the fact that much of their agenda was actually rather anti-democratic. Thus, from considerations of the Jewish question we learn a great deal about the political culture of the early Revolutionary period more broadly.
Finally, in chapter 6 of his book, "Familiar Strangers," Schechter turns to Napoleonic policy toward the Jews, focusing a great deal of his attention on the assembly of Jewish notables and the Grand Sanhedrin convened by Napoleon in 1806 and 1807. In this chapter Schechter is again much concerned with the symbolic value with which Jews were invested, and he posits that Napoleon paid so much attention to the Jews primarily because his engagement with them allowed him to enhance his image as a liberator, a legitimate monarch, and the ruler of a vast and diverse empire.
In the course of elaborating his basic thesis, Schechter provides numerous insights that echo throughout his work and are worthy of consideration in their own right. His assertion that the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century concept of regeneration, so often prescribed for the Jews, is a direct descendent of the desire to convert the Jews to Christianity is illuminating, for example. So too is his observation that for many philosophes and late-eighteenth-century political thinkers, the history of the Jews fit ideally with a worldview that posited an idyllic past that had been corrupted but that could be redeemed in the future. Schechter's observation that the way both Jews and revolutionaries addressed themselves to the question of citizenship during the French Revolution looked to the past as much as it looked to the future is also a point well taken.
Throughout this volume, Schechter is very convincing in the way he analyzes and interprets the various texts he reviews, although he is occasionally prone to a bit of over-interpretation. It may be a stretch, for example, to contend that when Jewish writers made reference to the anointing of a French monarch they were not simply invoking a standard image of royalty but rather thinking about the Biblical origins of the practice of anointing kings and thus "authorizing themselves to deem the king worthy of his charge" (p. 140). Similarly, at one point Schechter tells us that "it is not far-fetched to see [Napoleon's] efforts to bring the Jews firmly and publicly under his control as a way of symbolically acquiring those regions of the Near East that he had failed to conquer in 1799" (p. 207). But perhaps it is far-fetched to read this much abstract thinking and intentionality into Napoleon's policy.
All in all, Obstinate Hebrews is an impressive work of scholarship. It reveals not only the author's creative way of approaching important issues of representation, self-representation, and the "Jewish question," but it also reveals his remarkable command of a wide variety of texts in several different languages. The work is also impressive because it not only interrogates the specific subject of the representation of Jews in the period under consideration, but, especially in its conclusion, it also challenges us to think about several broader issues related to the currently hot topics of "otherness" and the nature of "discourse." In a sense, Schechter demonstrates that the representation of Jews in the period 1715-1815 is "good to think" when it comes to these larger topics. By introducing a brief discussion of how representations of Jews compare to representations of Native Americas, of blacks, and of women in late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century France, Schechter warns us against conflating all marginal groups in a sort of uniform "otherness," obscuring their differences from each other and the very different ways in which various "others" have been viewed. In an epilogue, Schechter also raises the matter of how Jews continue to stand for "the other" in some contemporary situations.
Similarly, by considering how French Jewry tended to co-opt many of the values of the Enlightenment, the Revolution, and the Napoleonic system into its own cultural cosmos, that is, to identify dominant French values as inherently Jewish values, Schechter challenges the notion that minority groups generally have a basic choice to make between adopting the ways of the majority or resisting assimilation. Because Jews took a certain control over the terms of reference employed in discussions of their place in France (they frequently characterized Napoleon as an Israelite king, for example), they were able to maintain their separate identity even while becoming a part of the French polity. "Rather than being assimilated into France," Schechter concludes, "they assimilated France into themselves" (p. 13). Clearly, Obstinate Hebrews is a book worthy of the attention not only of students of French history and of Jewish history, but also of those pondering the nature of representation and self-representation in any context.
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Lee Shai Weissbach. Review of Schechter, Ronald, Obstinate Hebrews: Representations of Jews in France, 1715-1815.
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