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Obstinate Hebrews

Obstinate Hebrews: Representations of Jews in France, 1715-1815

Ronald Schechter
Copyright Date: 2003
Edition: 1
Pages: 339
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1pnvn3
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  • Book Info
    Obstinate Hebrews
    Book Description:

    Enlightenment writers, revolutionaries, and even Napoleon discussed and wrote about France's tiny Jewish population at great length. Why was there so much thinking about Jews when they were a minority of less than one percent and had little economic and virtually no political power? In this unusually wide-ranging study of representations of Jews in eighteenth-century France-both by Gentiles and Jews themselves-Ronald Schechteroffers fresh perspectives on the Enlightenment and French Revolution, on Jewish history, and on the nature of racism and intolerance. Informed by the latest historical scholarship and by the insights of cultural theory,Obstinate Hebrewsis a fascinating tale of cultural appropriation cast in the light of modern society's preoccupation with the "other." Schechter argues that the French paid attention to the Jews because thinking about the Jews helped them reflect on general issues of the day. These included the role of tradition in religion, the perfectibility of human nature, national identity, and the nature of citizenship. In a conclusion comparing and contrasting the "Jewish question" in France with discourses about women, blacks, and Native Americans, Schechter provocatively widens his inquiry, calling for a more historically precise approach to these important questions of difference.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-92935-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-17)

    InZakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory,Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi reminds us that the biblical command “Remember!” (“Zakhor”) and the Jewish traditions of remembrance paradoxically conflict with the requirements of modern historiography, despite their common attention to the past. Thus the moral imperative to remember Egyptian bondage, the destruction of Jerusalem, the martyrs to the faith, and so many other aspects and events of the Jewish past is at cross-purposes with the critical scrutiny of the historical record that the intellectual progeny of Ranke, Jewish and otherwise, have adopted as their professional credo.¹ Similarly, the memory of (often traumatic) events...

  5. CHAPTER 1 A Nation within the Nation? The Jews of Old Regime France
    (pp. 18-34)

    This book is above all about representations. One might say that it is more concerned with imaginary than with real Jews, though it would be naïve to draw a strict dichotomy between representations and hard facts, myths and realities, discourses and practices, history as it was imagined andwie es eigentlich gewesen.The principal subject matter is what people in France thought, wrote, and said about the Jews. In order for these representations to make sense, it is necessary to have a minimum of contextual knowledge about who the Jews were according to the law, how many of them lived...

  6. CHAPTER 2 Jews and Philosophes
    (pp. 35-65)

    Historians concerned with the relationship between the Enlightenment and the Jews have tended to ask whether the philosophes were anti-Semitic or philo-Semitic, whether their plans for the integration of Jews into Gentile society were a positive or negative development, and whether those Jews who embraced the Enlightenment were liberating themselves or shamefully casting aside their ancient identity. These are all variations on a single question, namely, whether the Enlightenment was good or bad for the Jews.¹ They have been debated since the time of the Enlightenment itself, though some of the terms (such as anti-Semitic and philo-Semitic) are specific to...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Jews and Citizens
    (pp. 66-109)

    By the time Louis XVI took the throne in 1775, the period of the High Enlightenment was nearly over. Of the writers examined in the last chapter, Montesquieu was twenty years dead, and d’Argens had died in 1771. Voltaire had only three years to live, and Diderot was beginning his last decade of life. Already at the end of Louis XV’s reign the attention of readers began to shift from the anticlerical and philosophically speculative works of the philosophes to the protests of judicial magistrates against the despotism of the absolute monarchy. The taboo against discussions of legal or “constitutional”...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Contrapuntal Readings: Jewish Self-Representation in Prerevolutionary France
    (pp. 110-149)

    The previous two chapters demonstrated that Jews played a disproportionately important role in the writings of philosophers, reformers, and social commentators in eighteenth-century France. This chapter aims to show how Jews responded to this mountain of literature in which French authors claimed to describe them. It examines Jewish strategies of self-representation as revealed in three types of texts. The first consists of standard apologies for the Jews and their religion; the second comprises “patriotic liturgy,” or the religious devotions performed on occasions of state importance; and the third is made up of symbolic actions with which Jews attempted to convey...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Constituting Differences: The French Revolution and the Jews
    (pp. 150-193)

    As with historical writing on the Enlightenment and the Jews, commentary on the Jews and the Revolution has tended to derive from the question of whether the “emancipation” that the Revolution enacted was good or bad for the Jews. Historians have repeatedly asked, implicitly or explicitly, whether the National Assembly’s famous decree of September 27, 1791, was the origin of a long tradition, tragically interrupted by the Dreyfus Affair and the Vichy regime, of hospitality toward the Jews, whom the French thenceforth regarded as compatriots; or rather the prelude to assimilation, the death sentence for a traditional Jewish identity and...

  10. CHAPTER 6 Familiar Strangers: Napoleon and the Jews
    (pp. 194-235)

    Between 1792 and Napoleon’s rise to power at the very end of the decade, public discussion of the Jews waned significantly. The September 1791 legislation removing all legal distinctions between Jews and non-Jews, combined with the prior decree of religious freedom in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, made it difficult to speak of “the Jews” as a discrete group. At the same time, the abolition of the former Jewish corporations made it difficult for the Jews to register any collective grievances, or indeed to make any collective statements about themselves whatsoever. No officially recognized rabbis or...

  11. Conclusion: Jews and Other “Others”
    (pp. 236-255)

    What can one conclude from the evidence put forth in this book about representations of Jews in France between 1715 and 1815? It is possible to see these findings as merely confirming the failure, willful or otherwise, of European writers and political actors truly to perceive the Other. The story of such failures has of course been told countless times. Tamise Van Pelt has traced the problem of the Other to Plato’sSophist,“in which the Stranger participates in a dialogue on the ontological problems of being and non-being, of the One and the Other.”¹ If reflection on alterity has...

  12. Epilogue
    (pp. 256-262)

    At the beginning of this book I asked my readers to “forget” what they knew about the Jews from the late nineteenth century to the present day. I made this request in order to restore the sense of strangeness to an eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century “Jewish question” that subsequently appeared the inevitable prologue to an equally inevitable future. By problematizing that question, I believe, I have revealed aspects of eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century French history that a teleological approach to the subject would have obscured. Having engaged the historical subject in this manner, I would now like to venture some...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 263-296)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 297-318)
  15. Index
    (pp. 319-332)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 333-335)