Aharon Appelfeld comes to mind. It is 2016, two years before his death, my last visit to him. In a moment, we’ll go to lunch in the Argentine restaurant at the corner of the street, but right now, he’s sitting on the living room sofa in his apartment in Mevaseret Zion, Jerusalem. His voice is almost a whisper, his eyes on the gray sky over the hills across the window. “There is no center anymore,” he remarks softly, “there are only provinces now everywhere.” We’ve been discussing the situation in the United States, Trump’s fresh election, but his sentence sounds less as a circumstantial remark on the subject, than as a follow-up to our first discussions, 16 years ago.
In October 2000, when we first met, I was traveling across Israel to report on what the French press called “the Second Intifada,” an unprecedented terror campaign of suicide bombings launched by Palestinian military and political organizations against Israeli civilian targets. We were having tea in the peaceful garden of the Ticho museum coffeehouse Appelfeld took refuge in every day to write while all around, in the city, hardly a week passed without a new bombing or bursts of automatic rifle fire.
“The Israeli peace camp is moved by the old Jewish optimist faith in progress,” he told me. “‘Let us integrate the Arabs into the economic process and their attitude toward us will change.’ Of course, it does not work. The Palestinians have no desire to be treated paternalistically or with condescension, and it is understandable. In the peace process, they see the sole product of imperialism. And in us, they see only Jews.”
The peace process Appelfeld was referring to came to be known as the Oslo Accords. In 1990, the demise of the Soviet Union had made the PLO weak, with no more serious financial or logistical support to count on. Seizing this opportunity, international diplomats had undertaken to support the Israeli left’s efforts to set off new rounds of talks with the Palestinians. Signed in 1993, in Oslo, under Bill Clinton’s supervision, the treaty that resulted from those talks planned an exchange of land between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the partition of Jerusalem, and the creation of a Palestinian state. Details were left to the negotiators. Long-term financial support to that new state was to be provided by new regional development based on new technologies.
In effect, what all this meant was that the Palestinian state’s economic and therefore political viability, would depend upon the emergence in the coming decade of a Middle Eastern Silicon Valley between Cairo and Amman, with Palestine and Israel at its heart. This project would be Israeli-engineered, and financially and politically backed by an American power that was then at its peak. The new Palestinian middle class that would be born out of the success of this plan would set off a virtuous circle across the whole region, spreading democratic values everywhere.
In the light of what has followed, all this probably sounds as insane today as it seemed rational at the time. But the Cold War was over, the West had won, and Francis Fukuyama’s End of History was the rage at Davos. Dostoyevskian revolutionary passion was a historical artifact. Who in his right mind would still want to riot, let alone blow himself up in blind terror attacks, if he had access to shopping malls, a decent job, a regular sex life, and a ballot to cast every now and then? Soon, guided by global media and technologies, the sheep would lie down with the lion.
The one country aside from the United States to share that view and play a crucial part in the Oslo peace process, was, unsurprisingly, France. Its influence, needless to say, was more symbolic than America’s, but the two countries did share a common hubris in seeing their ways of life as a universal model worthy of exporting.
Despite the 1995 murder of Yitzhak Rabin, one of the architects of Oslo, and despite everything that went wrong after that, the Oslo process remained in motion until the fatal month of September 2000, which marked the beginning of its unraveling in the face of a terror wave whose deadly nihilism was unprecedented even for the region. At the time, of course, policymakers and journalists utterly failed to grasp the implications of what this new cycle of violence meant. Only in retrospect, and with Appelfeld’s words in mind, did the petty quarrels between Israeli and Palestinian peace negotiators over what the agreement they had signed was really about—their furious fights to reinterpret each of the words they’d written, and each of the maps they’d drawn, as if all their documents had turned unrecognizable to their own eyes overnight—start to make sense.
Only a year later, after the images of the World Trade Center crumbling to the ground had spread across the rising internet with the first suspicious commentaries on what we were “really” seeing, after the United States was caught lying about the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and the trust in a common reality vanished into thin air, to be replaced by a fragmentary, paranoid counterknowledge industry on a global scale, and the “multilateral global village” of the 1990s discovered itself to be no more than an incomprehensible maze webbed in post-truths and alternative facts did the second intifada begin to appear as the first sign, perhaps, that what most of us had come to naturalize as “liberalism,” or “western culture” was, in fact, crashing.
In 2016, if you were looking for someone to voice the obituary of liberalism, Aharon Appelfeld certainly fit the part. Born in Bucovine in 1932, speaking eight languages, having written 40 books, he was one of the last offspring of these urban, overeducated petit-bourgeois European Jewish families that Jews call “assimilated” but, who, in fact, were above all, cosmopolitan. These were Jews who identified with the most idealistic aspects of the Western world, were central in defining it, and were betrayed by it—and yet remained crucial in redefining it even after WWII, in both France and America.
“Assimilated Jews built a structure of humanistic values and looked out on the world from it,” Appelfeld said in an interview with Philip Roth in 1985. “I have always loved them, because that was where the Jewish character, and also perhaps the Jewish fate, was concentrated with the greatest force.”
What made “liberalism and Jewishness almost indistinguishable,” as Yuri Slezkine puts it in his seminal book The Jewish Century? Or, in the phrasing of George Steiner, how did the 20th century become “in essential ways, an Austro-Hungarian implosion in which the Jewish component was dominant?” Steiner quotes a list of greats going from Freud to John von Neumann and Robert Oppenheimer and Karl Popper, from Schoenberg to Irving Berlin and Aaron Copland, to which you can add anyone from Louis Mayer to Gregory Pincus, one of the inventors of the contraceptive pill, to Abbie Hoffman. If you’re French, the list includes the Front Populaire leader Léon Blum, Pierre Mendès France, and the Jewish circle around Charles de Gaulle, who created the postwar idea of modern France; Jacques Derrida, François Truffaut, and Jean-Pierre Melville; Simone Veil, who legalized abortion in France—not to mention virtually all Parisian intellectuals from the post-Sartre/Camus generation on to today.
In his book, Slezkine translates the question into his own language, in which humanity finds itself metaphorically divided in two categories, the Apollonian peoples—pre-modern, sedentary, feudal, and identity-driven—and the Mercurian ones, from the god Mercurio, the Greek Hermès, light-footed messenger of the everlasting change, and divinity of commerce, crossroads, translations, and mutations. Although Mercurian people can be found everywhere, Slezkine argues, listing aside from the Jews, the Gypsies, the Lebanese, the Farsis, the Jains, the Armenians, the Chinese and Italian diasporas, only in the West did something like a “Mercurian age” emerge.
This Mercurian age, more commonly called the modern age, or the first modernity, starts around the mid-16th century, with the consequences of the great discoveries and of the religious wars in Europe—after the first confrontations with Native Americans and Africans forced questions about what human means, when science began to take off, and the old cosmology of the Middle Ages cracked up. Of the four towering figures that shaped the age artistically, one, the poet Luis Camões, author of The Lusiads, was Portuguese, a term understood outside of Portugal at the time, as meaning “Jew,” because Portugal was swarming with Marranos or “New Christians”—the Jews forced to convert to Christianity and were said to more or less Judaize in secret. Two others, Miguel de Cervantes and Michel de Montaigne, were the direct offspring of Marrano families.
The fourth, William Shakespeare, of course wasn’t Jewish, came from Catholic converts living in an Anglican England haunted by the prospects of a foreign invasion, and obsessed with split loyalties and dubious identities. What you “really” were, and what you seemed to be, was as much a Shakespearean theme as it was a Marrano dilemma and a sign of the rising modernity. “I am not what I am,” as Iago puts it in Othello’s first act, goes much deeper than a simple statement about hypocrisy. Three centuries before Kafka and Joyce the modern “soul” was shaped by men caught up in (and faithful to) antagonistic injunctions and looking for a way out. The result was the discovery of “the other within,” as Yirmiyahu Yovel puts it: The invention of modern interiority, ambiguity.
The experience of the New Christians, the first modern Jews, prepared and anticipated the rise of the first libertins, a word that became synonymous with “dissolute aristocrat” in the 18th century, but whose first meaning was “skeptic,” “blasphemous,” “atheist.” Mozart’s Don Juan, an aristocrat of obscure origins, is all that in one, of course—all the more so, perhaps, for having been created by Lorenzo da Ponte, son of an Italian shoemaker and a Jew who converted to Catholicism.
Montaigne’s nonjudgmental mind, Cervantes’ irony, Spinoza’s pre-Freudian analysis of passions were only the cutting edge of a much bigger dynamic at play among European Jews in search of a “neutral place” freed from religious passions, where tensions could be appeased. In which measure did Judaism, and not merely the converso phenomena, prepare the Jews to the “disenchantment of the world” that Max Weber studied from a Protestant angle? “Religion as law aims at the subjugation of the merely animal instincts in man, at the bridling of his desires and inclinations and at the replacing of impulses by thoughtful action; in short, at the ‘ethical tempering of man,’” writes Slezkine.
Is it surprising, then, if the French, who loved reason, but, since the religious wars, lacked a significant Protestant community, turned to the Jews at the dawn of the Enlightenment?
“Moses formed and executed the astonishing enterprise of shaping into a national body a swarm of unhappy fugitives,” wrote, admiringly, Jean-Jacques Rousseau as far back as 1772. “He dared” to turn them into “a free people.” French philosophers trying to define modern society as a collective enterprise undertaken by free citizens in order to defend their common interests looked up to the Jews. Soon, so did the politicians they inspired.
At the time of the Revolution, Jews in France did not exceed 40,000 people out of a total population of 23 million. Yet, the National Assembly judged the question of their emancipation so crucial as to take up the question no fewer than 32 times, between 1789 and 1791, the year Emancipation was passed. In the eyes of the French, freeing the Jews from a legal status that forbid them to travel freely and submitted them to daily controls was not so much a duty dictated by humanistic concern as it was an organic necessity for the liberal dynamics of progress to take off. It was, as David Nirenberg reminds us in his book Anti-Judaism, “a subset and a surrogate for a much larger debate over how to achieve the conversion of millions of French subjects … into citizens.” This modelization of the Jews, so to speak, was so pervasive that at the end of the 19th century, still, the historian Anatole Leroy-Beaulieu could write: “We have a name for the Jewish Messiah, we await him, too, we call him as loudly as we can. It is called Progress.”
By the time Leroy-Beaulieu wrote those lines, in the last decade of the 19th century, the spirit of the Declaration of the Rights of Man had long since been spread all over Europe by the Napoleonic wars. Reinforced by the Haskallah, the Jewish Enlightenment set off by German Jews but influenced by French philosophers, it had brought with it the tidings of Jewish emancipation. The ghetto walls had tumbled down, along with the Russian Empire’s Pale of Settlement, and the Jewish migration toward urban centers such as Warsaw, Vienna, Berlin, or Paris was in full swing.
Slezkine writes: “In Vienna 62 percent of the lawyers, half the doctors and dentists, 45 percent of the medical faculty, and one-fourth of the total faculty were Jews, as were between 51 and 63 percent of professional journalists.” By 1920, in Hungary “59 percent of doctors, 50 percent of lawyers, 39 percent of all privately employed engineers and chemists, 34 percent of editors and journalists, and 28.6 percent of musicians identified themselves as Jews by religion. In Prussia, one-fourth of all lawyers were Jews; in interwar Poland, Jews were about 56 percent of all doctors in private practice, 43 percent of all private teachers and educators, 33 percent of all lawyers and notaries, and 22 percent of all journalists, publishers, and librarians.”
Further west, the liberalism these Jews championed was at its peak in Third Republic France, which like the United States, received a mass migration of Jews from Eastern Europe fleeing both the pogroms and the decaying world of the shtetls that had started in the 1880s. In Paris, “Jews were everywhere” in theater, in economy, and finance, writes Dominique Desanti in her biography of Marthe Hanau, the populist, turbulent, Jewish, bisexual financier, who founded her own bank in 1925 with her husband Lazare Bloch, and whose journal La Force was edited by my own grandfather. One of the most prestigious Parisian lycées, Janson-de-Sailly, in the 16th arrondissement, was nicknamed “the synagogue” because of the percentage of Jewish students there, among whom was George Steiner.
In the United States, where a similar craving for education could be observed, Harvard’s Jewish enrollment at the end of WWI was about 20%, Columbia’s about 40%, and City College of New York and Hunter College were respectively 80% to 90% Jewish. And as the 20th century unfolded, and Central and Eastern Europe crumbled under the totalitarianisms, it would fall upon these French and American Jews, exiled, to shape the heritage of this liberal trend, in ways that were both complementary and opposing.
“I felt divorced from my own Americanness, when I started out,” the great mid-century American writer Saul Bellow told me in an interview in Harvard in 1998 (a smiling, old man, elegant and cool, still full of energy, a dry-cleaner tag forgotten at the neck of his vest). “Through my family background I was a colorful mix of provincialism that wasn’t really provincialism, and of cosmopolitanism that wasn’t really cosmopolitanism. And through my college education, I had acquired a classical culture and a classical language that, as pleasant as they were, did not reflect my own habits of speech, and in the eyes of the common man passed as a pretentious, unjustifiable attitude. I had enough of that common man in me to be aware of the problem.”
At the end of the 1950s, that problem would become the material for one of Bellow’s masterpieces, Herzog—but in 1948, when Bellow came to Paris on a Guggenheim grant, the book was not even in the charts. Bellow, whose Russian Jewish parents had moved from Montreal to Chicago in 1924, when he was 7, was, at the time of his arrival to Paris, a perfect example of that generation of American Jews raised by liberal émigrés, and in search of their identity, that would help to define liberal America in the decades to come.
He spoke Yiddish, Russian, English, Hebrew, and he had grown up in a Polish-Ukrainian neighborhood of a city ruled by Al Capone and Meyer Lansky. Bellow had known the Depression, had witnessed the political arguments between his Menshevik parents and their communist friends, and in 1940, he had joined the Partisan Review, which was then, in equal parts, the intellectual headquarter of American Trotskyism, the best runway from which to launch a literary career in capitalist America, and—with Philip Rahv, Meyer Shapiro, Delmore Schwarz, and Harold Rosenberg as some of its main figures—something of a sophisticated, snobbish shtetl.
Bellow was trying to find a way to express and transcend this multiplicity, the chaotic richness, in himself—he was trying to be an American, and it is telling that he had his breakthrough in Paris. He’d come to France out of a fascination for the previous generation of American expats, of course, but above all, for the country’s alleged “political and intellectual instruction and leadership,” as he put it.
But postwar France had nothing of the kind to offer at the time—at least not to someone like him. “I was depressed,” he told me, “and Paris was depressed. The country had been humiliated once by the quick defeat in 1940, a second time by its own cynicism during the collaboration, and a third time for owing its liberation to foreign Allies. As an American I could feel the resentment, and as a Jew, I could perceive very directly traces of the attitude of the French toward the Jews during the war.” Meeting with Sartre, de Beauvoir, and the like (he seemed to have missed Camus), Bellow witnessed the hostile reactions of the intellectuals to the Marshall Plan. At Les Deux Magots, anti-Americanism went along with sympathy for the USSR—something that, as the son of Russian émigrés, familiar with the realities of Stalinism, Bellow found both appalling and disconcerting. As an American, he analyzed it as a symptom of the same “nihilism” that had already destroyed most of Europe.
The story’s well known: One morning, he simply gave up the solemn European novel he had in mind and, instead, wrote the first sentence of what would become his first elegiac novel on America, and a manifesto of sort for a generation of Jewish writers, The Adventures of Augie March: “I am an American, Chicago born … and I go at things as I have taught myself, freestyle ...”
In his foreword to the Penguin edition of Herzog, Philip Roth remarks that Bellow’s opening “demonstrates the same sort of assertive gusto that the musical sons of immigrant Jews brought to America’s radios, theaters, and concert halls by staking their claim to America as subject, as inspiration, as audience.” He quotes, among others, Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” Oscar Hammerstein’s “Ol’ Man River,” Gershwin, Bernstein’s West Side Story, Copland’s ballets Appalachian Spring, Rodeo, and Billy the Kid. All these composers who, just like Bellow, were looking for a distinctly American style that, by fusing “high” and “low” languages would resonate with the “the new public” that had “grown up around the radio and phonograph,” as Copland put it.
Of course, in the United States at the time the quest to shape and voice an American culture was not limited to the Jews—nor to the left. Walt Whitman was the forerunner and source for them all, and John Ford, Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, William Carlos Williams, and many others were searching for it, too. But the role these “sons of immigrant Jews” played in shaping the new American postwar culture was central.
What explains this particular symbiosis? Is it because, in America, the Jews discovered, with the Protestants, “a humorless, dignified way to be Jewish,” as Slezkine puts it? Or should we accept Harold Bloom’s theory in The American Religion, according which the United States is less a Christian country than a Gnostic one—which finds in parts of Judaism some sort of metaphysical echo?
In any case, despite xenophobic reactions, nothing stopped the Jews of America from becoming another tribe of the country. Not so in Europe—particularly in France, where Jews had been exalted, not as equals, but as a model. And yet, there too, Jews proved to be the key holders to modernity, albeit in a more discreet way.
If French Jews were never as “assertive” as their American counterparts, to use Roth’s word, the discretion of their Jewishness verges on complete erasure in the public life of postwar France. The country had provided help to the Haganah in 1947 (the Exodus left for Haifa from the French port of Sète with the help of the government), but if helping Jews abroad was OK, dealing with them inside of the country was a different matter. Guilt and shame over the country’s collaboration with the Nazis was part of the problem—but so was the complexity of the Jewish situation itself.
During the 1920s and ’30s, the situation of the Jews in France was more or less similar to that of Jews in the United States. Whether they came from the recent Yiddish immigration from the East, or from the more assimilated Jewish communities of Provence and Alsace, Jews in France had turned to entrepreneurship, theater, journalism, finance, or higher education—and, like in the United States, they were attracted to one form or another of liberalism, often mixed with socialism.
In the prewar years, French Jews attained a prominence in national life that seemed impossible for their brethren in America for many decades after WWII. Led by Prime Minister Léon Blum, a secular Jew, the Popular Front that had reached power in 1936 counted four other Jewish ministers in its ranks—and it was met by a rabid anti-Semitism whose violence is unimaginable today. At the National Assembly, Blum was publicly insulted on a daily basis, called “a thief,” “a female homosexual,” and “a delirious prostitute” by militants of L’Action Française, which was then the most important political and cultural movement in the country; two of Blum’s Jewish ministers, Marx Dormoy and Jean Zay, lived under permanent death threats—and would indeed be killed during the war by French pro-fascist activists. Nationalist militants regularly stood out in front of the Lycée Janson-de-Sailly chanting “death to the Jews.”
As strange as it may seem, this anti-Semitism was nothing new in the country that had entered modernity by freeing the Jews. In fact, the history of French modernity had been shaped by anti-modern writers. The first of them, Joseph de Maistre, started like Edmund Burke as a moderate, until Robespierre’s terror radicalized his position. His ultra-Catholicism, however, took him much further than Burke. A contemporary of the American and French revolutions, he was as anti-American and anti-Protestant as he was anti-Semitic. In the notion of progress and universalism, de Maistre saw no less than a satanic device brought up by a “sect” bent on overthrowing the natural order of things in Europe (i.e., the monarchies).
De Maistre, who was Swiss, but wrote marvelously in French, had a tremendous influence on nearly every corner of French cultural and political life. His counternarrative to the Enlightenment was the cornerstone of Balzac’s and Flaubert’s writings, and above all, of his most genial disciple, Baudelaire, who borrowed from him the dark irony, the sharp style, and the Gothic taste that would come to define the distinctive meanness of French literature until Céline and Houellebecq.
Walter Benjamin was right when he pointed out, in his book on Baudelaire, the “pre-fascist” tendencies of the French literary class. Perhaps with the exception of Rimbaud (who significantly stopped writing at an early age and left the country altogether), France never had a Walt Whitman to chant both the horrors and the beauties of progress. “The spontaneous me” singing “a simple, separate person, yet utter(ing) the word Democratic” as Whitman proclaimed himself, was unimaginable in a class of intellectuals whose watchword was decadence and who were obsessed with the nobility. This mindset was not without consequences in the way they saw the Jews, whom they associated with the new era of unbridled urbanism and money. “A beautiful conspiracy, to organize the extermination of the Jewish race,” wrote Baudelaire, only half-jokingly, in Mon Coeur Mis à Nu (1864).
At the turn of the 20th century, during what was known as the Belle Epoque in Paris, the heirs of this class defined themselves as “a disgusted generation” (Barrès) living in “a world in which one is bored” (Edouard Pailleron), where progress was synonymous with corruption. Édouard Drumont’s anti-Semitic firebrand La France Juive was an instant bestseller, prefiguring the Dreyfus case by 10 years. It was followed by The Protocols of the Elders of Zion—written at the Parisian Russian Embassy by two agents of the czar, but influenced by the city’s atmosphere.
Another trap awaited the Jews aside from the hatred of those who rejected the modernity that they now symbolized—namely, the ambiguities of the emancipation process itself. In 1791, the National Assembly, in defining the country’s new identity, had used the Jews from the past—the ancient Hebrews—as an abstract ideal for the French model of a universal nation, while the actual Jews living in the country were turned into guinea pigs for the new concept of nationalism. In exchange for emancipation, Jews were obliged to renounce the legal autonomy that had been theirs during the Ancien Régime. In other words, they had to abandon their particularism as a group in order to melt into “the general will” that, according to the newborn republic, was embodied by the state.
“To the Jews as individuals: everything; to the Jews as a nation: nothing.” This sentence, the battle cry of the Jews’ friends at the time, perfectly captures the double edge of what would come to be known as French “assimilation,” which led in turn to the French invention of “the Israelite”—the Jew who bears no public Jewish distinctive traits and yet remains Jewish somehow, a kind of modern Marrano.
Remarkably, this programmatic cultural erasure did not stop the Jews from putting their mark on French modernity. Hence Proust, arguably the most influential writer of the country in the 20th century, whose Jewishness was as elusive as his being gay—two conditions that “can be seen to have been the two main generators of the entire fabric of urban modernity in the West,” as Georges Steiner once remarked. And yet, what would In Search of Lost Time be without Proust’s portraits of Jews and of homosexuals, probably the best ever written in French literature?
In Black Skin, White Mask, Franz Fanon studied the consequences of this assimilating process for Blacks, yet no serious work has been undertaken on the price paid by the Jews—perhaps because the Shoah presented itself as that price. Yet, between 1880 and the 1930s, as a nonassimilated Yiddish-speaking immigration from the East settled in the heart of Paris—the Pletzl, today Le Marais—the assimilating model had already entered a crisis. It did not take long for the “Israelites” to turn against the new immigrant Jews, and blame them for the rising tide of anti-Semitism. In 1940, the Consistoire, which was the official religious structure of the French Jews, aligned itself with the anti-Semitic politics of the Vichy regime. Synagogues were divided between French and “foreign” Jews, who ended up being the first to be deported. In return, it was among these migrants, mostly secular Jews, that some of the first Jewish resistance networks were set up.
Such complexity helps explain the embarrassment of the French toward the Jews after WWII. If the Jews did not conform to the assimilationist model any longer, who or what were they, exactly? And what was France?
At the dawn of the Cold War, two political narratives were doing their best to reshape the country’s ego, along with its political legitimacy in the eyes of the world. One was the Gaullist, the other the communist. Both came from the resistance, both were badly in need of international acknowledgment, both emphasized the centrality of the state in uniting the country—and neither allowed for any recognition of the divisions, verging on civil war, that had damaged France, even less, of course, of the specific fate that had befallen the Jews under the Vichy regime.
Don’t look back was the unspoken motto—possibly, too, one of the main reasons for the rise of the French taste for abstraction and theories over facts. Where in the United States, Bellow, Mailer, Styron, Capote, and others were paving the way for the exuberance that would characterize the American novel in the second half of the century (and the Jewish exuberance that would characterize American public life), in France, Sartre’s Being and Nothingness was the rage, and theoreticians of Le Nouveau Roman were about to proclaim the death of the narrative. Where, in the United States, Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” sounded like a triumphant, quasi-national hymn sung at ballgames, “le chant des partisans,” the song of the resisters, written by two Jews, the novelists Joseph Kessel and Maurice Druon, was more of a dark, underground sort of song.
That the most popular among this generation of Jews remained secretive Marrano-like figures in public life is telling. Druon would become famous in France in the 1960s, but as the bestselling author of a saga on the Catholic kings of France, Les Rois Maudits, and the secretary of the Académie Française; Kessel was known as a writer of exotic Russian origin. Romain Gary, who published his first novel, European Education, in 1945, played hide-and-seek with his Jewish identity until the end of his life.
Yet, the Jewish influence was perceptible everywhere. Pierre Mendès France was a former minister of the Blum government who became prime minister after the war. A secular Jew from Bordeaux with Sephardic and Marrano forebears from Portugal, and a personal fascination for the history of the Marrano, Mendès France had joined de Gaulle in London as soon as he escaped the jails of the Vichy regime. In 1940, the first resisters around de Gaulle were mainly composed of patriot nationalists whose minds were shaped by L’Action Française, and who saw parliamentarianism, liberalism, the republic, and the Jews as key factors for France’s decadency and defeat. Along with the handful of Jews that surrounded him in London—Blum’s former adviser Georges Boris, Jean-Louis Crémieux-Brilhac—Mendès helped reshape the Gaullist movement as a more democratic force. In 1945, the Gaullists became the first right-wing party in France to submit to “the Republic whore” as L’Action Française had called it before the war.
Mendès France’s long-range influence on postwar French history can’t be overestimated. He was the first public figure after the war to prioritize rationality, pragmatism, and economic science over the lyricism and heroic culture that plagued French political culture. This exasperated de Gaulle, who needed him, nonetheless, and used him as his key adviser. Mendès’ cold analysis of the country’s new situation—an empire that didn’t have the means to keep its colonies—made him a partisan of Indochina’s independence, and a target for both the nationalist right and the communists, who all saw him as an unpatriotic Jew willing to sacrifice the country’s interest for money.
Jews did not invent the modern liberal welfare state that would change “the common man” of the Depression and war years into the middle class—but they were central in popularizing and institutionalizing it. Mendès shared with his American counterparts an attraction toward the theories of John Keynes, whom Felix Frankfurter had introduced to Roosevelt in 1934, and whom Mendès had met and befriended at Bretton Woods 10 years later. Mendès advocated for ethics in politics and, in economy, investments in scientific research and new technologies.
During his brief time as président du conseil (then the equivalent of prime minister), between 1954 and 1955, Mendès found his main support in the newly founded L’Express, a news magazine with intellectual prestige that was created to support him. François Mauriac and Camus were regular contributors, and the magazine’s editorial team was overwhelmingly Jewish. When Jean Daniel, a Jew from Algiers, and a friend of Camus’, left L’Express to create Le Nouvel Observateur in the early ’60s, both magazines became central in setting the tone of intellectual life in France.
By the next decade, “Le Nouvel Obs” would report on the creation of Doctors Without Borders—by Bernard Kouchner and Rony Brauman—and become the base of French intellectuals such as André Glucksmann, Alain Finkielkraut, and Bernard-Henri Lévy who voiced their support for the same dissident Eastern European writers who were supported in the United States by Bellow and Roth.
Is it too much to say that Paris and New York were then the center of the West?
When and how it ended can only be suggested here. The Six-Day War surely was a wake-up call for the Jews—all the more so, perhaps, in France, where the desire to forget the occupation years had been eased by the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. If the problem was solved there, the logic went, did you really need to be Jewish here? Not only did the Six-Day War show that the problem was not solved after all, it also brought up the specter of a reversal of alliances not unlike Barack Obama’s Iran deal. Where France had supported Israel in 1948 and ’56, it now looked for a way to palliate its vanished empire by finding new partners in the Arab world.
But it is the long-term effects of the Yom Kippur War of 1973, with its ensuing oil crisis, that broke rational, reasonable, Keynesianism—or revealed its fundamental flaws, depending on the viewpoint. By the end of the decade, Reaganomics, the Iranian Revolution, the Chinese economic reforms, and the Afghan war were paving the way for the 21st century. As a model for society, the middle class was already gone.
Yet, France stuck to its traditions. An aging Mendès France, devoting his retirement to the dream of peace in the Middle East, was there when François Mitterrand became the first French Socialist president since Blum, in May 1981. After Mendès’ death one year later, it would fall on Robert Badinter, the offspring of a Jewish family of Bessarabia, and Mitterrand’s minister of justice, to embody the ethical dream of the liberal French tradition. Later on, he would be joined in the popular nostalgia for the decades of prosperity, by Simone Veil—the Auschwitz survivor who passed the law on abortion rights in the 1970s.
But something was different now. In a few decades, power had transformed the French intellectual class into something that had come to be known as “la gauche caviar”—a category that would soon translate in the United States, on the ruins of the middle class, as “limousine liberalism.” Dominique Strauss-Kahn could name Mendès France as his favorite economist at a conference on Keynes at the Brookings Institute in 2011, just a few months before his arrest for sexual assault at the New York Sofitel. In retrospect, the bicentennial of the Revolution in 1989, the very year of the fall of the Berlin Wall, was the swan song of French universalism. The end of the Cold War played a similar role in the United States.
The tragedy of American politics at the turn of the 21st century, after Sept. 11, was a misplaced nostalgia for a time when the self-image of the country coincided with the image the rest of the world had of it, namely the vital liberal America of the post-WWII era. If reason and pragmatism worked then, why would not it work now? But nostalgia could only obscure the outlines of the new age.
Marc Weitzmann is the author of 12 books, including, most recently, Hate: The Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism in France (and What It Means for Us). He is a regular contributor to Le Monde and Le Point and hosts Signes des Temps, a weekly public radio show on France Culture.