Commentary Magazine


Topic: French Revolution

How Not to Fight Anti-Semitism in France

Anti-Semitism in France is nothing new. And even the “new” anti-Semitism in France isn’t new, as our COMMENTARY editorial on the plight of Jews in France and the necessity of Zionism points out. What’s new, it appears, is that France is in danger of its Jews giving up on the sustainability of Jewish life there. The current trend of French Jews making aliyah is seeing the numbers double each year. In response, the French government has taken to saying nice things about how integral Jews are to France’s national identity. It’s a kind sentiment. But is it true?

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Anti-Semitism in France is nothing new. And even the “new” anti-Semitism in France isn’t new, as our COMMENTARY editorial on the plight of Jews in France and the necessity of Zionism points out. What’s new, it appears, is that France is in danger of its Jews giving up on the sustainability of Jewish life there. The current trend of French Jews making aliyah is seeing the numbers double each year. In response, the French government has taken to saying nice things about how integral Jews are to France’s national identity. It’s a kind sentiment. But is it true?

In a speech yesterday, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls offered the following stirring declaration:

How is it possible to accept that France, which is the land of emancipation of the Jews many centuries ago, but which also seventy years ago was one of the lands of the martyrdom of Jews, how can it be accepted that we hear on our streets “Death to the Jews”? How can we accept the acts that I have just recalled? How can one accept that French people be murdered simply because they are Jewish?

… We must say to the world: without the Jews of France, France would no longer be France. And that message is one that we all have to deliver strongly and loudly. We did not say it in the past. We did not show our indignation in the past.

First, it must be said that the prime minister deserves praise for his defense of the Jews. The rest of Europe should take note. We should temper our cynicism by recalling that words and ideas are the currency of a society reckoning honestly with its political demons. And if positive change is going to come to France, it won’t arrive overnight. Valls’s speech is in some ways a plea for patience, to buy time for the state to begin turning things around.

But it is unlikely that real change is, in the end, on the horizon in France. And Valls’s speech even hints at why. The talk of “emancipation” of the Jews of France in the time of the revolution is a bit of a misdirection. “Emancipation” in France was a graduation to secularism. The revolution was a psychotically violent one, and that violence was aimed, much of the time, at the clergy.

Loyalty oaths were instituted, Constitutional clergy were foisted upon faith communities that preferred their own, and the state engaged a struggle to render unto Caesar far more than what is Caesar’s. That was merely a reverse power structure from the ancien regime, in which the clergy were part of an aristocratic governing structure. For the ancien regime to be uprooted, so did the clerical class. And it was a bloody uprooting.

What does this have to do with the Jews of France? A lot, actually. The French Revolution inculcated a fear and suspicion of religious authority as a threat to secular Enlightenment power. It’s true that when the dust settled under Napoleon’s feet, there had been at least a façade of reconciliation for the purposes of putting the country back together. But it was only really a façade. And a Napoleonic power structure sowed the seeds of its own undoing. French society remains unnerved by strangers among them, as well as anyone they believe answers to a higher authority than the state. The French government can talk all it wants about appreciating its Jews, but unless and until those Jews feel comfortable and safe actually showing outward signs of their Judaism and religiosity, it won’t change minds. A Frenchman who happens to be a Jew at home cannot be the only Jew who feels at home in France.

Additionally, the French government appears poised to make precisely the same mistakes over and over again. If Valls is right about the importance of Enlightenment principles and personal liberty in his country, they wouldn’t be arresting the notorious anti-Semite and popularizer of Nazi social signaling Dieudonne M’bala M’bala, which authorities have now done.

Dieudonne is actually a perfect test case for how France chooses to fight its battles going forward. He is fully and truly repellant in virtually every way. And so his freedom must be defended forcefully. If the lesson of the “free speech uber alles” protests after the massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo and then the censorship conducted by Western media (with the New York Times as the chief self-censor) is to censor Dieudonne–or worse, criminalize his demented stupidity–then France will doom history to repetition.

Censoring and criminalizing anti-Semitism, in addition to being incompatible with a free society, does two major things wrong. First, it suggests that the Jews get special treatment and that therefore the anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists are right. This will certainly not make Jews–or anyone in France–any safer. Second, it allows these ideas to gain the credibility of the counterculture while simmering and metastasizing unchallenged out of view. If sunlight is truly the best disinfectant, then France is enabling this infection to spread.

Is France truly still France without its Jews? The last thing the government wants is to have to find out. But that’s where they’re headed, and they haven’t done anything yet to change direction.

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A Good Deal for the Ukrainian Opposition

The agreement reached between President Viktor Yanukovych and Ukrainian opposition leaders is about as good as the anti-government forces can possibly hope to get.

It calls, inter alia, for a power-sharing arrangement with the opposition to be followed by a new presidential election no later than December. It also commits the government not to impose a state of emergency–meaning martial law–and to allow outside monitors from Europe and the opposition to monitor all investigations “into recent acts of violence.”

A sign of just how favorable this agreement is to the opposition: while it was signed by the foreign ministers of Poland, France, and Germany, all of whom are in Kiev, the Russian delegate pointedly refused to sign it.

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The agreement reached between President Viktor Yanukovych and Ukrainian opposition leaders is about as good as the anti-government forces can possibly hope to get.

It calls, inter alia, for a power-sharing arrangement with the opposition to be followed by a new presidential election no later than December. It also commits the government not to impose a state of emergency–meaning martial law–and to allow outside monitors from Europe and the opposition to monitor all investigations “into recent acts of violence.”

A sign of just how favorable this agreement is to the opposition: while it was signed by the foreign ministers of Poland, France, and Germany, all of whom are in Kiev, the Russian delegate pointedly refused to sign it.

Yet, many protesters in the streets are not prepared to accept what is largely a victory. Many of them refuse to disperse from Independence Square until Yanukovych resigns. Their position is understandable but misguided. As Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski reportedly told demonstrators: “If you don’t support this [deal] you’ll have martial law, you’ll have the army. You will all be dead.”

Sikorski should know what he is talking about, having spent a good part of his life as a refugee from Poland, which saw the imposition of martial law in 1981.

It remains an open question, however, whether many of the people on the streets of Kiev will heed Sikorski’s wisdom and that of their own leaders. They should, because all too many revolutions have gone off the rails when the revolutionaries pushed for an absolutist agenda and refused to accept a compromise that would have given them 75 percent of what they wanted. The classic example is, of course, the French Revolution, which started off as a moderate, liberal movement in 1789 and soon thereafter was drenched in blood from one round of “terror” after another.

The most successful and revered revolutionaries are those, like Michael Collins and Nelson Mandela, who are willing to accept a negotiated outcome to avoid an all-out war. That is an example the people of Ukraine would be wise to heed.

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Church, State, and the Role of the Family

Julia Shaw at Public Discourse has an interesting review of Mary Eberstadt’s new book, How the West Really Lost God. The practice of analyzing (and criticizing) the West’s spiritual condition is not new, but Eberstadt, according to the review, posits a new theory: the falling birthrate was more a cause than effect of societal secularization. Eberstadt finds the theories of intellectual secularization insufficient to explain the phenomenon:

For instance, some blame rationalism and the Enlightenment for crowding out God. Others accuse consumerism. Sometimes, we are told that secularization results once people realize they no longer need the imaginary comforts of religion, or that the catastrophic world wars caused men and women to lose their faith. Many of these theories have a kernel of truth, but Eberstadt argues convincingly that none is sufficient to explain the whole picture because none can explain the ebb and flow in religious belief.

These theories, she writes, do contribute to our understanding of the West’s declining religiosity. They just can’t supply the whole answer. The missing piece is the family:

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Julia Shaw at Public Discourse has an interesting review of Mary Eberstadt’s new book, How the West Really Lost God. The practice of analyzing (and criticizing) the West’s spiritual condition is not new, but Eberstadt, according to the review, posits a new theory: the falling birthrate was more a cause than effect of societal secularization. Eberstadt finds the theories of intellectual secularization insufficient to explain the phenomenon:

For instance, some blame rationalism and the Enlightenment for crowding out God. Others accuse consumerism. Sometimes, we are told that secularization results once people realize they no longer need the imaginary comforts of religion, or that the catastrophic world wars caused men and women to lose their faith. Many of these theories have a kernel of truth, but Eberstadt argues convincingly that none is sufficient to explain the whole picture because none can explain the ebb and flow in religious belief.

These theories, she writes, do contribute to our understanding of the West’s declining religiosity. They just can’t supply the whole answer. The missing piece is the family:

Family life is not an outcome of belief but a conduit to religious faith….

Eberstadt shows that strong family formation means more God. America enjoys a higher degree of religiosity than European countries, because “there are more families following the traditional model in America, even today, than in Europe.” Indeed, the post-war American baby boom coincided with a religious boom.

Conversely, weak family formation (e.g., illegitimacy, cohabitation, and divorce) means less God. The countries that have experienced religious decline have seen the natural family at its weakest. The French lost God earlier than other Western nations, because they stopped having babies and forming families in the late eighteenth century. Scandinavia, an area that has experienced dramatic decline in religious belief, has a high divorce rate and late marriage, and although there is a high rate of out-of-wedlock births, the total birth rate is very low. Countries that stop marrying and giving birth also stop attending church.

Correlation does have some explanatory power, but there is more to this story to buttress the case for the connection between faith and the family. One missing ingredient here is politics, because as the West “lost God,” it didn’t really lose religion–it simply substituted political religions for its Judeo-Christian past. Shaw and Eberstadt mention rationalism, the Enlightenment, and late 18th-century France as an early example–and it’s a good one.

The French Revolution was not a case of politics triumphing over religion. It was a case of a messianic political religion triumphing over the church. The language and symbolism of the Revolution were soaked in the concept of regeneration and rebirth. Religion had been so central to life in 18th-century Europe that it had to be appropriated by the church’s enemies because of its idealistic and aspirational language. As Michael Burleigh notes in Earthly Powers:

The attempted fusion of Church and Revolution through the Constitutional Church had been a divisive failure. So why not elevate the Revolution itself into the religion? After all, it had its creeds, liturgies and sacred texts, its own vocabulary of virtues and vices, and, last but not least, the ambition of regenerating mankind itself, even if it denied divine intervention or the afterlife. The result was a series of deified abstractions worshipped through the denatured language and liturgy of Christianity.

Because the French Revolution ushered in the new (and persistent) age of messianic politics, the state became a rival to the church–and later to organized religion in general in the West. This is one reason the value of the separation of church and state became truly realized with regard to protecting the former from the latter. It’s what Roger Williams meant when in the 17th century he said “when they have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wildernes of the World, God hath ever broke down the wall it selfe … and made his Garden a Wildernesse, as at this day.”

A century later, as William M. Wiecek noted, the divide became stark:

For the antinomian divine, God’s garden (the church) had to be protected against the profane incursions of the ungodly (the wilderness). For the Enlightenment rationalist, on the other hand, the state had to be protected from the church, lest power-avaricious clergy corrupt the secular order.

Returning to the family, we see not only its role in incubating religious practice and tradition in each new generation but also the political outlooks that may logically result from it. Studies have suggested, for example, that conservatives in America have larger families than liberals, and that conservative church attendance is double that of liberals. Might there be a reverse connection along the lines Eberstadt argues in this separate context? Might conservatives be more religious because they have more children? It would certainly not be the only reason, of course, but perhaps an underestimated contributing factor.

While we’re at it, might having children encourage a more politically conservative outlook? Having families certainly affects a person’s interaction with the state, not just on basic issues of taxes and services but of voluntary economic organization. In his review of Jonathan Levy’s Freaks of Fortune, Benjamin Friedman notes the age-old existence of risk-sharing within families. In a footnote, he adds: “Risk-sharing within families continues to be important. According to some estimates, even small families can internally insure against nearly three-quarters of the income risk associated with individual family members’ uncertain length of life.”

This is not to claim that having more children means less dependence on the state, in the aggregate or otherwise. But it may affect the kind of dependence on the state, and the mere existence of the opportunity for risk-sharing encourages a ubiquitous reminder of the state’s proper role in human affairs and its lack of monopoly on fulfilling the needs of its citizens. This is not the separation of church and state, but rather the separation of state and individual. I’m not suggesting the purpose of having a family is for economic abstractions like risk-sharing. Only that Eberstadt is surely on to something when she offers renewed credit to the family’s impact on society at large.

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