Being Jean Daniel

The latest issue of the New York Review of Books is now available, and several articles are freely accessible online, including Adam Shatz’s perceptive review of Jean Daniel’s The Jewish Prison: A Rebellious Meditation on the State of Judaism.

Daniel is the legendary French journalist who co-founded the weekly Le Nouvel Observateur and still serves as its editorial director. Born in Algeria to a Jewish family, Jean Daniel (né Bensaid) is one of those people seemingly made up of irreconcilable contradictions: he worked for the French Resistance, supported Algeria’s independence, argued for decolonization in general, championed the state of Israel, and deplored its occupation of the Territories. The review revisits each of these contradictions, all the while offering a brief but fascinating portrait of Jewish life in France from the 1870s to the present.

The impetus for the book, though, came from the second intifada (which began in late 2000) and the way in which it played out in France, a country that, Shatz points out, has Europe’s largest Jewish community as well as its largest Muslim one. The battles in Israel and Palestine were being replayed between Beurs and Jews (most of the latter, it should be noted, were of North African origin as well.) American readers will easily remember how this was shown in the press here, but, Shatz writes:

As Daniel insists, the popular account of anti-Jewish violence in France, especially in the American press, is no more than a cartoon of an extremely complicated, fraught, and volatile situation, whose causes deserve far more subtle consideration. It is not simply a matter of hate crimes by Arabs against Jews, but of a clash between two groups whose passionate identification with the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy threatens to eclipse their commitment to the Republic that is their home.

Which perhaps helps to explain why, ultimately, Daniel remains committed to ‘laicite,’ to the ideal of a secular France. (One need only look, for instance, at his latest editorial for Le Nouvel Obs for proof.) Great review. Intriguing book.

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