Themes

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Last Updated on February 25, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 888

Pierre Birnbaum’s The Anti-Semitic Movement touches upon themes dealing with historically-rooted prejudice, institutional injustice, and the tendency for hatred to become embodied in the minds and activities of ordinary people. By systematically examining the outbreak of anti-Semitism not only in Paris, but also throughout France’s provincial towns and cities, Birnbaum is able to compellingly demonstrate just how thoroughly negative feelings toward France’s Jewish population spread among both elites and the common people.

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Anti-Semitism

One of the general impressions that can be taken away from Birnbaum’s book is just how deeply situated anti-Semitism was in the French historical consciousness. The events that Birnbaum refers to only lasted for about one year, from the beginning to the end of 1898. However, they also served as an unfortunate prelude to the much more destructive manifestation of French anti-Semitism that would characterize the Vichy regime, which came to power in 1940 following the German invasion of France. By the war’s end, the Vichy regime had doomed more than 75,000 French Jews to death under the orders of Nazi authorities (but in some cases even just as a presupposition of future orders).

Birnhaum’s description of anti-Semitism at the end of the nineteenth century, therefore, helps show that both Vichy France and the violence against French Jews during the Dreyfus Affair were not isolated events, but were rather much more heavily connected to a long-standing animosity that non-Jewish Frenchmen had toward Jews living in the country. As Birnbaum points out, this animosity had become ossified over the centuries in many of France’s longest-living institutions: the Catholic Church, the racialized discourse of French colonial authorities, general public superstition, the ongoing fear of foreign invasion, and much more. For example, such a point of view was expressed in the radical Toulousian editorial La Dépêche du Midi, in which one journalist expressed the following sentiment:

The moral is that the traitor is an Israelite, and in the pure and simple observation of that fact lies a sign of the times in which we are living . . . The Jewish caste is becoming a considerable danger in a country that still insists on defending its old mores, its traditions, its history, and that, without the ideal that made it glorious, would inevitably be condemned to disappear . . . I know that I am risking a great deal in going against many received ideas that seek the cause of all the iniquities of Israel in the matter of race.

The description of the Israelite as a “traitor,” “danger” to the country, and references to a “matter of race” essentially touches on all aspects of France’s historical indignation against Jews as a group, and thus this passage characterizes the larger context of French anti-Semitism.

Injustice

Birnbaum details the concept of injustice within the book. Alfred Dreyfus certainly suffered as much when he was accused of spying for Germany and imprisoned for treason. Even when a member of the French General Staff, Georges Picquart, uncovered evidence that linked another French Army elite, major Ferdinand Esterhazy, to the incriminating correspondence with German ambassadors, his superiors insisted on trying to hide it. Concerned about possible political backlash against military incompetence, Picquart’s bosses exiled him to Tunisia in the hopes that he would not bring this evidence to the attention of local newspapers. It was a gross miscarriage of justice, and Birnbaum notes how the specific circumstances of Dreyfus’s injustice were reflected by the general misfortune and calumny that befell French-Jewish residents during the period that followed.

Several local establishments of Jewish merchants and other businessmen were destroyed in the ensuing violence, Jewish Synagogues were raided and destroyed, and Jewish residents of every occupation were slandered in local and national publications. One must recognize that much of this action was taken in defense of a verdict which itself rested upon faulty principles and a deliberate obfuscation of the facts of the case. In this way the institutional manifestation of injustice as it was carried out against Dreyfus himself was replicated in public life as the expression of accusation and derision against a Jewish populace that was largely innocent.

Prejudice

Hatred and suspicion, Birnbaum points out, were not confined to the political or military elite. Everyday people also succumbed to the wave of anti-Semitic emotion that swept through France following Dreyfus’s arrest, both in and out of the major cities. Perhaps the strongest aspect of the book is Birnbaum’s ability to showcase just how widespread prejudice against the Jewish people had become, as even the residents of small towns had become convinced by the anti-Jewish propaganda being spread. For example, in the city of Nantes, with a population of around 120,000, anti-Jewish riots swept across the streets following the publication of Emile Zola’s J’accuse, an open letter defending Dreyfus. Other, smaller provincial towns exhibited similar effects: Anger, La Romagne, Dieppe, and so on.

It was not only Parisians but also provincial citizens of France who broke windows, beat up Jewish rabbis, looted storefronts, and threatened the public order. Evidence of the wide reach of French anti-Semitism naturally leads to the conclusion that not only were ordinary people not immune from the political diatribe of urbanites from the capital but that they were actually eager to use the emergent anti-Semitism in France as a mechanism to vent their own local frustrations.

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