Writing the History of France’s Jews: Blindspot or Blinding Presence? 

The question that two books, appearing by happenstance at the same time, raise is both simple and complex. What position do Jews hold in French history?[1] Must one see there a lacuna or does enough material exist so that Jewish history can assume its proper place in the French national narrative?


“Rue du Faubourg des Juifs” (Jewish borough Street) in Clermont Ferrand © Paul Salmona


There was a recent colloquium held at Paris’ Museum of Jewish History and Art, the title of which has a curious ring to it: The Jews,  Blindspot in the National Narrative? The question mark is of capital importance, and one is perplexed to see it disappear with the publication of a book reproducing the lectures given at the conference. A review of the vast and various contributions, from a panel composed of teachers and professors; historians, modern, contemporary and medieval; museum curators; history teachers in high school and middle school; archaeologists and sociologists, casts doubt on this assertion. The Mallet-Isaac school textbooks, read by generations of middle and high school students during the twentieth century, devotes one sentence to the French Revolution’s emancipation of Jews. Archaeological excavations have also for too glossed over long sites of Jewish interest, traces of the Jewish past, despite their widespread presence in France. No less than Pierre Nora, the eminent French historian who coined the idea of lieux de mémoire and then produced several volumes dedicated to these items, places and ideas invested with national memory, has regretted that Jewish themes and sites are not more integrated into his work.

Does all this mean that there has been an active determination to cast aside the Jews, narrow one’s vision to exclude them? French Jews have themselves been the tribunes of the national idea since the Revolution. Their embrace of republican values has made them a model that some authorities, with a lack of finesse, would seek to apply to other religious minorities, notably those of the Muslim faith.

For Mathias Dreyfus, who presents in his book the results of his doctoral dissertation, that is to say the accumulated work of a decade, it is undeniable that Jews hold a non-negligible spot in France’s historical primary sources. Examining carefully the establishment of the archives, and the presence of Jewish history and matters in those archives running back centuries, one must understand that there has not necessarily been a will to erase Jews from the national story.

The presuppositions of the implicit bargain between the French nation and the Jews is at the heart of this matter: how to grant a place in the writing of a common national history to this minority, when the Count of Clermont-Tonnerre, the great advocate of Jewish emancipation during the Revolution, himself declared: “One must deny all to the Jews as a nation and give all to them as individuals.”

Proceeding along this line of reflection, one can wonder whether one must write a Jewish history of France or rather fold Jewish realities into the general history of France. The identity of historians can also prove relevant. One need not be Jewish to write about Jews, but the fact is that the overwhelming majority of those conducting historical research on Jews are themselves of Jewish origin. In the nineteenth century, the cause célèbre of many Jewish university professors – then often called “Israelites” in the pre-war period – was the substantiation of an ancient Jewish presence in France. The Wissenschaft des Judentums movement, Gross’ work on Galla Judaica, or even the title of the first mass circulation Jewish periodical, les Archives Israelites, attest to this determination to catalogue these written and material artifacts of French Jewry, often overlooked in general histories. Institutions arose to fix the rules of this discipline, such as the Société des études juives in 1880 or the Commission française des archives juives in 1965.

Archaeology and the display of Jewish artifacts also figure among the sources of our national history. While Jewish monuments and vestiges could be neglected, they are not absent from this account, far from it. This is in evidence in the cities of Montpellier and Rouen. The promotion of a local Jewish memory is a contemporary trend. We see it, too, in the city of Troyes, which includes Rashi Square on its tourist itinerary, or in numerous Alsatian villages, where the European Union’s Heritage Days feature the opening to the public of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries.

The question of an interest in the history of French minorities can also be entertained in this discussion. The place of Protestants, or of the country’s various regional identities, is often, too, relegated to the background with the history of Jews.

The pedagogical aspect of this discussion is also essential. How can our school textbooks incorporate the Jewish past so that each French citizen can have an idea of this history? Right now, in the best of cases, the medieval expulsions, the revolutionary-era emancipation, the Dreyfus Affair, the Vichy Regime, the Holocaust and Israel are the only Jewish topics discussed in history classes, to which all our adolescents are exposed. We do not teach enough about France’s Jewish geography, Jewish implantation in the country, the Jewish will toward integration, without the loss of their particular identity.

The debate underscored by these two books is perhaps a bit belated. We can observe some evolution over these past few years. The political stakes of national history, which some transform with great alacrity into a national myth, can lead to the use of Jews’ successful integration as a political tool. Jews are heralded as the poster children of the secular French Republic, and are praised for having remained so even after th Vichy Regime. This model is, again, often applied in an awkward way to other religious minorities, chief among them Muslims.

In December 1983, in an interview given to L’Arche, a French Jewish periodical, President Francois Mitterrand regretted “the silence in textbooks on the history of the Jews of France… It is past time to educate about how much French civilization owes to the Jewish people.” There is without doubt work to be done in writing a fuller history of the Jews in France, which shines more of a light on Jewish integration in general society throughout the ages, and is not a mere record of anti-Semitic persecutions and atrocities, in particular the Holocaust, or for that matter too focused on ties to Israel. Living Jews, participating in the social, economic, political, and artistic life of the country, fromù Rashi to Serge Gainsbourg, need greater visibility among our middle and high school students, and by extension before all French citizens. The same reflection holds for other minorities. These two books give us a roadmap toward these goals. Is it a sign? Recently, the list published by Pascal Blanchard to aid elected officials in the renaming of public streets or buildings included 36 Jews among the 317 proposed candidates.

Jean-Claude Kuperminc

Jean-Claude Kuperminc is director of the archives and library of the Alliance Israelite Universelle, a French Jewish advocacy and education organization. He leads the European Network of Jewish and Hebraica Libraries, and has long sat on the French Commission on Jewish Archives, which publishes Archives juives, a review dedicated to the history of Jews in France.


1 Les Juifs, une tache aveugle dans le récit national, edited by Paul Salmona and Claire Soussen, Albin Michel, 2021 (untranslated) and Aux sources juives de l’histoire de France, par Mathias Dreyfuss, CNRS Editions, 2021 (untranslated).

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