Essays

Fighters in the shadows:

When Nicolas Sarkozy became President of the République in 2007, one of his first acts was to pledge that a letter, written by 17 year old Communist resistant Guy Moquet to his mother before his execution by the Germans in 1941, be read out in every lycée in France on the anniversary of his death. Sarkozy’s starkly opportunistic gesture explicitly harked back to de Gaulle’s repeated instrumentalisation of a very specific resistance narrative at various points in the post war years, echoes of which still resonate over seventy years later.

As Robert Gildea shows in his monumental and arguably definitive new study of the French Resistance, Fighters in the Shadows, the narrative that developed out of the deep and lasting trauma of the 1940 defeat (called in French, tellingly, the débâcle, whose meaning is closer to catastrophe than merely defeat), followed by occupation and collaboration, began right as the liberating army of the FFI arrived at the gates of Paris in August 1944.

Read more

 

A love affair gone sour:

Comme un juif en France is a rich and fascinating documentary from 2007 about the history of Jewish life in France since the end of the 19th century.  The film is a nuanced exploration of the complex ebb and flow of the relationship between French Jews and the Republic. I wrote an essay on the film that you can read here.

The Threat to France’s Jews:

In January 2015 a murderous attack by French born Islamists on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was followed two days later by a siege at a kosher supermarket in Paris in which 4 Jewish shoppers were killed. This was the third time since 2006 that French Jews were murdered by fellow French citizens on French soil. The world’s gaze turned towards the situation of French Jews, who have been leaving France in increasing numbers over the last few years.

Six days after the attacks I published this piece in the Guardian.

D’Artagnan’s Tune:

There are those in France who would have you believe that freedom of the press, like the notion of human rights itself, is a French invention. ‘The free communication of ideas and opinions’ was enshrined in the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man as ‘one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write, and print with freedom’ within the bounds of the law. Yet, like so many of those famous rights, it appears that in its spiritual home press freedom can be something of a chimera.

One of the elements that has historically limited journalistic freedom in France is the country’s draconian privacy laws, which make some of the types of press intrusion that are so common in the UK and the US subject to legal proceedings. Whilst there are many who would acknowledge that limiting the kind of press intrusion that Britain’s tabloids specialise in is surely not a bad thing, it has inevitably led to a climate where journalists self-censor and the public expresses profound scepticism regarding journalistic probity.

Read the full essay in Index on Censorship – Privacy is Dead!

Speculative Fiction:

Palestine, 1929. Albert Pharaon—scion of a wealthy Arab family, heir to an enormous banking fortune, husband and father—takes a lover. Not just any lover, but a Jewish girl born in the Ukraine, brought up in Milwaukee, a militant Zionist. Her name is Golda Myerson, but she is better known today by the name she took some years later: Golda Meir.

Read the full piece on Tablet

English Cracker:

A few months ago, Charlotte Mendelson ran into the novelist Howard Jacobson at a party and told him that her third novel, When We Were Bad, was about a rabbi. “I said, ‘Howard, Howard, I’m writing this really Jewy book,’” Mendelson recounts. “And he said, ‘You’re a fool…. Don’t do it!’”

Jacobson may be the most vociferous decrier of Britain’s “philistine Jewish population” and the “cultural wasteland” that is Anglo-Jewish culture, but he’s certainly not the first (midcentury novelists like Brian Glanville and Frederic Raphael beat him to the punch), nor is he alone. British Jewish writers, in the words of Guardian columnist Anne Karpf, “can’t help but envy American Jews for the centrality they occupy in North American culture.”

And she has a point. Those novelists and dramatists who have dealt with explicitly Jewish themes—Gerda Charles, Emmanuel Litvinoff, Bernice Rubens, Bernard Kops and Arnold Wesker—have not had the same success as those whose work addresses Jewish themes only obliquely, as for example Harold Pinter. And while Jacobson is frequently referred to as the British Philip Roth, at home he’s never attained anything close to the canonical status that Roth occupies in American letters.

Read the full piece on Tablet

Celluloid Promised Land:

Once upon a time, in that strangely distant era known as the 1970s, American Larry Collins and Frenchman Dominique LapierreLapierre collaborated on a book about the birth of Israel. Impeccably researched and written in the sort of fast-paced, novelistic style that is often described as “bringing history to life,” the book—dubbed, with a biblical flourish, O Jerusalem—was an immediate critical and popular success and has remained in print since, selling more than 30 million copies to date.

It’s hard now to imagine a time when Israel wasn’t “the most despised and also the most unattractive country in the world,” as Doron Rosenblum recently put it in a satirical piece in Ha’aretz. Hard to imagine a time when anyone really believed that just telling the facts of history straight would be enough to persuade the people of liberal Europe that Israel not only had the right to exist, but that the nation’s origins were not rooted in an ancient Jewish longing to perpetrate genocide on the Palestinian inhabitants of this stony land. Hard to imagine a United Nations that voted for Partition instead of passing yet another resolution against Israel, with the United States the lone voice of dissent.

Read the full piece on Tablet

Les Bienveillantes:

Even by the standards of literary Paris, the awarding of both the Grand Prix de l’Académie Française and the Prix Goncourt to the American Jonathan Littell for his novel Les Bienveillantes has caused—if not quite a scandal—a definite stir. On the one hand people in France are flattered (if a little perplexed) that a writer who could have written in English actually chose to do so in French. For a country that seems permanently on the edge of a nervous breakdown about the dwindling global importance of its language there could surely be no greater compliment. On the other there is palpable outrage that an American has not only dared to write a novel about the Holocaust—the consummate European experience—but has been awarded two of the most prestigious French literary prizes for his trouble. One of the Goncourt jurors was so opposed to the award going to Littell that he voted for Elie Wiesel —who wasn’t even on the shortlist.

Read the full piece on Tablet

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