Monday, June 13, 2011

French Secular Intellectual Jews

In the Forward this week is an interesting article: "Building a Collective Consciousness on a National Scale: Jewish Historian Pierre Nora Defined What’s Quintessentially French." This article by Benjamin Ivry reviews a new biography of Nora by François Dosse. Nora, Ivry explains, is an important writer and editor for major French publishers and a member of l’Académie Française, and he has played a major role in French intellectual life. His most famous accomplishment was as editor of the series titled “Lieux de Mémoire” from the publisher Gallimard.

Nora's linked French and Jewish identities and his relationships with many other prominent French-Jewish intellectuals are interestingly explored in the article. A key passage:
"Pierre Nora has, over the decades, labored mightily to keep Jewish thought and history at the center of French intellectual life. Among his earliest publishing successes was 'Archives,' a series of annotated historical source material launched in the early 1960s and including, among dozens of titles, volumes on the Dreyfus Affair and on the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and a 1986 volume, 'Mémoires Juives.' Translated as 'Jewish Memories' and published in 1991 by the University of California Press, the volume assembles accounts of little-known European Jews who had moved to France. By commissioning and publishing these books, Nora made it possible for French readers to follow his historical experience. And his focus was not only on world leaders or people of action; in the world of Nora’s 'Archives' series, intellectuals also play a prominent role."

In connection with the recent ugly affair of Dominique Strauss-Kahn and his French defenders, it's been noted that Jews are disproportionately represented among French public intellectuals. (See "So, You're a French Intellectual, Eh?") The really offensive statements by the likes of Bernard-Henri Levi and others left me very uncomfortable. This article doesn't mention any of that, but in what it says, makes me feel more positive.

The review concludes: "As chairman of the international association Liberté pour l’Histoire (Freedom for History), Nora, who will be 80 in November, continues to defend historians’ freedom of expression against political intervention. His massive contributions to French thought, as instigator and enabler as well as author, make him a unique figure on Europe’s intellectual landscape."

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