Maurice Samuels


On his book Inventing the Israelite: Jewish Fiction in Nineteenth-Century France

Cover Interview of July 04, 2010


Taken together, this fiction helps us reconsider what we thought we knew about Jewish history and literature.  It reveals that nineteenth-century French Jews envisioned other fates for themselves besides assimilation and homogenization.  In the mid-nineteenth century, at a time when French Jews were first beginning to take advantage of the new opportunities offered to them, they sought out creative ways to become French while remaining Jews and to express their difference in the public sphere. 

This literature also helps us reconsider what we thought we knew about French history and literature.  These writers were very likely the first members of a minority religious or ethnic group in France to describe that group’s experience in fiction.  They thus reveal that difference inhabited modern French literature from the start, and provide a useful historical context for examining current examples of minority or postcolonial fiction, which concerns itself with very similar issues.

Moreover, these Jewish writers help us re-evaluate the tradition of French universalism, which is often seen as hostile to all forms of minority identity.  By showing how these Jewish writers attempted to reconcile their particular identities with the French universalist tradition, or to substitute a Jewish form of the universal in place of what they felt to be the Christian one of the dominant culture, I indicate that nineteenth-century French universalism was far less monolithic and hegemonic, far more malleable and adaptable, than has previously been supposed.

The recent “return of religion” in France has made these issues newly topical.  The last few decades have seen fierce clashes over the role of religion in contemporary society, as France has struggled to accommodate the increasingly vocal demands of its religious (and ethnic) minorities.  The 1989 “Affaire des foulards,” or head-scarf controversy, in which French Muslim girls fought unsuccessfully for the right to wear head coverings in public schools, demonstrates how fraught the question of laïcisation continues to be in France.

While I do not address such recent issues in my book, it is my hope that the nineteenth-century debates around Jews and Judaism will provide a useful historical context for understanding current controversies.

© 2010 Maurice Samuels