The Jews of France: A History from Antiquity to the Present

The Jews of France: A History from Antiquity to the Present


By (author) Esther Benbassa, Translated by Malcolm B. Debevoise

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  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Format: Hardback | 304 pages
  • Dimensions: 165mm x 242mm x 27mm | 603g
  • Publication date: 4 October 1999
  • Publication City/Country: New Jersey
  • ISBN 10: 0691059845
  • ISBN 13: 9780691059846

Product description

In the first English-language edition of a general, synthetic history of French Jewry from antiquity to the present, Esther Benbassa tells the intriguing tale of the social, economic, and cultural vicissitudes of a people in diaspora. With verve and insight, she reveals the diversity of Jewish life throughout France's regions, while showing how Jewish identity has constantly redefined itself in a country known for both the Rights of Man and the Dreyfus affair. Beginning with late antiquity, she charts the migrations of Jews into France and traces their fortunes through the making of the French kingdom, the Revolution, the rise of modern anti-Semitism, and the current renewal of interest in Judaism.As early as the fourth century, Jews inhabited Roman Gaul, and by the reign of Charlemagne, some figured prominently at court. The perception of Jewish influence on France's rulers contributed to a clash between church and monarchy that would culminate in the mass expulsion of Jews in the fourteenth century. The book examines the re-entry of small numbers of Jews as New Christians in the Southwest and the emergence of a new French Jewish population with the country's acquisition of Alsace and Lorraine. The saga of modernity comes next, beginning with the French Revolution and the granting of citizenship to French Jews. Detailed yet quick-paced discussions of key episodes follow: progress made toward social and political integration, the shifting social and demographic profiles of Jews in the 1800s, Jewish participation in the economy and the arts, the mass migrations from Eastern Europe at the turn of the twentieth century, the Dreyfus affair, persecution under Vichy, the Holocaust, and the postwar arrival of North African Jews. Reinterpreting such themes as assimilation, acculturation, and pluralism, Benbassa finds that French Jews have integrated successfully without always risking loss of identity. Published to great acclaim in France, this book brings important current issues to bear on the study of Judaism in general, while making for dramatic reading.

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Review quote

"Since studies on the history of Jewish groups in France have multiplied over the last years, a synthesis is in order. Here it is, and it is remarkable.... Esther Benbassa studies Jewish reality in France over the long run, noting the interactions observed between the history of the country and that of the Jews, as well as local developments.... Fueled by the most recent research, this synthesis is never reductionist: each period (especially the Middle Ages, which is discussed in several admirable chapters) is treated in fine detail."--"L'Histoire"

Editorial reviews

An overly brief, dryly informative history or the world's fifth largest Jewish community (after the US, Israel, Russia, and Ukraine). The strong suits of Benbassa (Jewish history/Paris IV-Sorbonne; Hahn Nahum: A Sepharilic Chief Rabbi in Politics, 1892-1923, etc.) are social and institutional history. She provides the reader with a wealth of statistics on such matters as French-Jewish demography, vocational and class structure, and fertility rates. Benbassa also writes well about the strongly regional nature of French-Jewish history, at least until Napoleonic reforms began to unify the community in the early nineteenth century. During the first two years of the French Revolution, for instance, she shows how the Sephardic Jews of the southeast were granted basic civic rights before their Ashkenazic brethren in the areas north and east of Paris. Finally, Benbassa does an excellent job of explaining how important French-Jewish intellectuals developed a strongly integrationist, but not assimilationist, doctrine known as "Franco-Judaism" and of discussing the death and life of French Jews during the Holocaust (about three-quarters survived). However, this book is far too brief for its subject - the first signs of French Jewry go back to the fourth century - and its pacing is highly uneven. Again, while there are long lists of prominent Jews in modern France's business and professional life, religious, cultural and intellectual life generally are given short shrift. For example, although Benbassa devotes several pages to Jews active in the Left during the late 1960s, there is only one sentence on the great Jewish philosopher Emanuel Levinas, perhaps the most influential Jewish thinker of the post-Holocaust period. Finally, a number of important facts and quotations, such as de Gaulle's oft-quoted, oft-criticized 1967 statement that the Jews comprise "an elite people, sure of itself and domineering," are relegated to endnotes. Benbassa's history, then, informs the way most encyclopedia entries do: It is helpfully fact-laden, but its lack of sparkle - particularly the absence of memorable anecdotes and quotations - leaves the reader hungry for a more colorful history. (Kirkus Reviews)