“There Are Two Promised Lands: France and the United States”

In Tears of History: The Rise of Political Antisemitism in the United States, French historian and sociologist Pierre Birnbaum compares anti-Semitism in the history of the United States and France. His book, recently translated into English, reveals how the destinies of American and French Jews are converging for the worse, in the shadow of the war in Gaza.
Pierre Birnbaum. © Emmanuelle Marchadour

France-Amérique: In Jewish history, particularly in the 19th century, there are two Promised Lands: the United States and France.

Pierre Birnbaum: Indeed, these were the two destinations for the mass immigration of Central European Jews in the 19th century. At a time when pogroms were sweeping through Russia, Ukraine, and Poland, these two countries were both exceptional and totally different in how they welcomed Jews. They were exceptional because they took Jews in and recognized their citizenship. This has been written in the U.S. Constitution since 1787, and in France’s since 1791. Nowhere else were Jews recognized as citizens. However, unlike the United States, France’s history is haunted by religious anti-Semitism dating back at least as far as the Crusades. The United States has never experienced this tradition. Until the 1930s, Jews in the U.S. were just one of the many nations that formed the basis of the new American society.

George Washington gave a speech at Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, on August 18, 1790, granting Jews the same protections and rights accorded to all other nations, whatever their origin or religion. Would you agree that this was a foundational moment for Jews in the United States?

Washington’s speech was an exceptional event, which can be contrasted with the choice made by France around the same time. In the wake of the French Revolution, Jews were granted full rights as individuals, but none as a nation. France did not recognize communities, unlike the United States, which was far more tolerant, giving American Jews more freedom of association than France ever did.

Did the Dreyfus Affair, which began in 1894, mark a turning point for French Jews?

Yes, but I would offer two interpretations. On the one hand, a military officer was condemned because he was Jewish; on the other, a movement of popular opinion led by influential intellectuals and politicians came to his defense and exonerated him. This would be inconceivable outside France. So the Dreyfus Affair did not completely sever the bond of affection between Jews and the French state.

You show that anti-Semitism is not unusual in the United States. When did it first appear?

Social anti-Semitism has always existed in the United States. Since the late 19th century, it took the form of street fights and, in the highest social circles, the banning of Jews from certain clubs and universities. But this anti-Semitic outlook never led to mass public mobilizations like in France, nor to pogroms. Everything changed in the 1930s, when Franklin D. Roosevelt arrived in office. Roosevelt wanted to build a modern welfare state, and he happened to be surrounded by Jewish advisors. As in Europe, a political anti-Semitism developed that stirred up the masses – a turn of events strongly encouraged by the rise of Nazism. In his novel The Plot Against America (2004), novelist Philip Roth imagines a Nazi party taking power at the White House. But this far-right anti-Semitism, copied from Germany, obviously did not lead to the Holocaust or the Vichy Regime in the United States.

You write that from the 1930s onwards, the seeds of extreme right-wing anti-Semitism were planted and have continued to produce harmful effects ever since.

That’s right. Numerous attacks, such as the one on an Atlanta synagogue in 1958, can be attributed to this ideological transformation. More recently, in 2018, 11 Jews were killed in a synagogue in Pittsburgh. This bloody anti-Semitism is sustained by an often underground literature, such as The Turner Diaries (1978), a worthy heir to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (1903). It has actually inspired extreme right-wing movements, such as those that led to the assault on the Capitol. The “Great Replacement” theory, coined by French writer Renaud Camus in 2010, has been imported to the United States, where it is often cited by far-right activists.

The major difference between France and the United States is that public expression of racism and anti-Semitism is prohibited in France by the Gayssot Act of 1990. In the U.S., however, it is protected by the First Amendment. Which situation is better?

Any comparison is impossible. The Gayssot Act is positive because it prohibits anti-Semitic hatred in public. But the First Amendment is an exceptional guarantee of freedom of expression as a whole. I couldn’t say which is better.

Will the war in Gaza change the situation of Jews in France and the United States?

This war is a turning point in Jewish history. Exactly to what extent criticism of Israel will lead to renewed anti-Semitism remains to be seen. But I fear that confusion between Israelis and Jews will increase in both France and the United States. Will this war drive the Jewish diaspora away from the State of Israel, or instead bring them closer? It is too early to say.

In both our countries, we are seeing the same virulent, pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli outbursts, particularly from the far-left.

Yes, but there is a distinct difference between the two countries. In France, the decline of Marxism and the working class has led many intellectuals and activists to replace the proletariat with Palestine. This is combined with an electoral strategy tailored to certain neighborhoods with large Muslim populations. In the United States, this newfound passion for Palestine has mainly been aroused by identity politics, wokeness, and the denunciation of the White male, an avatar that also serves as a shortcut for Jews. This development will have electoral consequences for the Democrats.

Tears of History: The Rise of Political Antisemitism in the United States by Pierre Birnbaum, translated from French by Karen Santos Da Silva, Columbia University Press, 2023.