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
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 secularism—after all, the Jacobins had knocked the Church from its privileged place alongside the Bourbon
throne—the 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 America’s own multicultural debates, is a hard slog.