Last Reviewed on February 25, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 796
Pierre Birnbaum’s The Anti-Semitic Moment traces the rise of prejudice and violence against French Jews as a result of the Dreyfus Affair, an international scandal in which French Army captain Alfred Dreyfus was wrongfully imprisoned from 1898 to Dreyfus’s exoneration in 1906, a p[rocess prolonged primarily due to prejudice relating to his Jewish identity. When reading through the various case studies that Birnbaum provides to highlight just how deeply anti-Semitism had cut into the fabric of French society, it is useful to look at some of the different groups who insisted on persecuting Dreyfus and his defenders to define just what their underlying motives were.
In the first place, one of the most outspoken critics of captain Dreyfus that Birnbaum draws attention to was the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church in France was always a fiercely insular institution. Since the French Revolution in 1789, the Church had continuously lost power in French politics and society, being replaced by more secular and liberal-democratic institutions. Priests had been suppressed under the period of Jacobin rule, and Catholics had gradually lost many legal protections regarding the right to certain tax exemptions and state observance of Catholic rituals. The Church never really recovered from this blow to its authority and prestige, and thus its categorically anti-Semitic reaction to the Dreyfus controversy can be interpreted as an attempt to regain some of its lost power.
Birnbaum also discusses Georges Clemenceau’s reaction to the Dreyfus verdict. Outraged at what he saw as the lawlessness and arbitrary ruling by the French military court, Clemenceau seconded Emile Zola’s condemnation of Dreyfus’s guilty verdict as nothing more than a religious war against Jews, Protestants, and atheists, one from which the Catholic Church only stood to gain. Clemenceau was recorded stating that "if there is no law for Dreyfus, it’s because he is Jewish, that’s all." Several other commentators recognized that the Catholic Church was simply using the Dreyfus trial to spread paranoia about non-Catholic French denominations in the hopes of drawing in more followers.
Another source of French anti-Semitism were fears surrounding France’s impending “racial degeneration.” Colonialism and anti-Semitism had always been highly connected in imperial France. For centuries, legions of French social scientists, biologists, anthropologists, political theorists, and other experts had produced a rich literature that was intended to justify France’s global imperial expansion, especially in resource-rich colonies like Algeria and Madagascar.
Thus, it is not surprising, as Birnbaum points out, that anti-Semitism in Marseilles, a coastal-town in the south of France and in very close proximity to the north-African coast, was rooted in and grew out of similar movements in colonial Algiers. Many of Algeria’s racially-motivated politicians and bureaucrats spread an anti-Jewish rhetoric across the Mediterranean, which directly influenced the rise of anti-Dreyfusard groups, fear of Jewish businesses, and other anti-Semitic manifestations among the Marseilles public. Of course, much of this had been precipitated by the events of the Dreyfus Affair itself. But it is important to recognize that anti-Semitism in regions in close proximity to France’s colonies would be influenced by colonial literature and the pseudo-scientific racism of France’s colonial experts.
Finally, perhaps the largest source of French anti-Semitism was ordinary French citizens themselves. Throughout France’s long and convoluted history, it was, in fact, a common occurrence for non-Jewish people to blame the Jewish population for certain disasters that might strike the community, or to use Jewish communities as a general scapegoat for socio-economic frustrations. These disturbances seemed to have taken on new significance in the context of the Dreyfus Affair, and Birnbaum sprinkles examples of general social unrest throughout his book.
For example, when a cyclone hit the city of Brest in 1899, local boys took it upon themselves to use the disaster as an opportunity to loot local stores. Crowds of local French residents came to defend the boys’ recklessness by shouting anti-Semitic slogans such as “Down with the Jews!” This expression of mass pandemonium seemingly justified aberrant behavior by displacing it in favor a larger, anti-Semitic sentiment. Similar incidents occurred elsewhere, as local Jewish merchants and shopkeepers were perceived by large crowds of non-Jewish Frenchmen to be planting the seeds of France’s economic downfall.
In all of these cases, Birnbaum demonstrates how French anti-Semitism arose out of a suspicion of Jewish residents that was deeply rooted in the French historical consciousness. His argument begs the larger question: to what extent were anti-Jewish sentiments then (and today) the result of deeper, cultural aversions to certain groups of people, and not just the immediate, gut-reactions of individuals to an ongoing political scandal? Birnbaum’s evidence seems to point much more strongly to the former, indicating that the Dreyfus Affair merely served as a trigger for certain cultural animosities to surface.
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