A trenchant analysis of the place of minorities in a national culture.
Can members of minority cultures be full and equal citizens of a democratic state? Or do community allegiances override loyalty to the state? And who defines a minority community-its members or the state? Pierre Birnbaum asks these crucial questions about France-a nation where 89 percent of the people feel that racism is widespread and 70 percent agree that there are "too many Arabs." Arabs are today's targets, but racism has also been directed at other groups, including Jews.
Jews became full citizens of France only at the Revolution, and historians have traditionally held that the state, in thus emancipating Jews and allowing them to join French society as individuals, severed the ties that had once bound the Jewish community together. But Birnbaum shows that the history of Jews in France-and of attitudes toward them-is not so linear. Rather, he finds that anti-Semitism has risen and fallen along with other forms of racism and xenophobia, and he argues that Jews in France today are once again viewed as members of an isolated community-no matter what their degree of assimilation. Birnbaum's conclusions about state and community have broad-reaching implications for all societies that struggle to incorporate minority groups-including the United States.
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Pierre Birnbaum, professor of political science at the Sorbonne, is the author of more than a dozen books. Those published in English include Anti-Semitism in France, States and Collective Action, and The Heights of Power.
While France enters the next millennium as an embattled multicultural society, like much of the rest of the West, Birnbaum (Political Science/the Sorbonne; Anti-Semitism in France, not reviewed) ponders the nation's Jews as a weathervane for social change. Although the Jews of France were emancipated by the Revolution, and their position in an ambiguously secular French society advanced further by Napoleon, their place in the nation has always been uncertain, often troubled. Birnbaum begins his series of interlocking essays with an examination of the evolution of the free Franco-Jewish community. Just as the society itself was ambiguous in its secularismafter all, the Jacobins had knocked the Church from its privileged place alongside the Bourbon thronethe status of another religious community was inevitably problematic as well. Jews found that they were able to rise as full participants in French civil society, but that freedom also made them more visible targets of virulent anti-Semitism. Birnbaum is most original and successful in his five pivotal essays on the poisonous atmosphere surrounding the Dreyfus affair. His detailed analysis of the anti-Dreyfusards, their opposition to the Republic, and their open and vicious anti-Semitism presents a different picture of L'Affaire than the one most familiar to Americans. Even more than the final essays on contemporary France, this section is pointedly suggestive about recent history. The Catholic Church's role in the anti-Dreyfus movements makes the post-WWII efforts of some Catholic priests to shield such enemies of France as Klaus Barbie and Marcel Papon less baffling. Regrettably, although his analyses are long on insight and intelligence, Birnbaum is a dry writer, and much of this important volume, despite its many resonances for Americas own multicultural debates, is a hard slog. -- Copyright ©2000, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.
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