In Conversation: Historical Consultant Frances Malino
Charles Haugland (dramaturg): By way of an introduction, will you talk about what continues to fascinate you about the topic you study, about French Judaism and its roots?Frances Malino (historical consultant): I’ve been preoccupied with the history of the Jews of France almost my whole academic career. For it is in this history that I see a microcosm of the issues that Jews have faced globally – and that other diasporic communities also face. Over two centuries France has offered us an extraordinary window not only into the debates ‘welcoming’ Jews but also those excluding them.
Do you have a research project that you’re in the midst of right now?
My colleague Yaëlle Azagury, and I have just completed a translation of Mazaltob, a novel written in 1930 by the Algerian Jewish poet Blanche Bendahan. The novel takes place in turn of the twentieth century Tetouan, Morocco. It is an extraordinarily rich tale, which was awarded a prize by the Académie Française. Yaëlle and I translated the novel from French into English and wrote an introduction situating the novel historically as well as a concluding essay which provides the literary context. Published by Brandeis University Press, it will appear in the spring of 2024.
When you visited rehearsal, you really blew our minds as you unpacked a quote from the beginning of the script. After a major terror attack at a Kosher supermarket in Paris in 2015, the prime minister of France, Manuel Valls, says, “If 100,000 French people of Spanish origin were to leave, I would never say that France is no longer France. But if 100,000 Jews leave, France will no longer be France. The French Republic will be judged a failure.”
He’s absolutely right. The context for his speech is the present day and the massacres — but it resonates right back to the French Revolution, to the ‘welcome’ that France gave to its Jews. At the time of the Revolution, the Jews were the only sizeable minority in France. When the Revolution broke out, the assumption was that all those living territorially within France would be welcomed. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen said it very straightforwardly: “All men [they meant this literally] are born and remain free and equal in rights. No person shall be molested for his opinions, even such as are religious.” Yet hidden in that one sentence: “molested for his opinions, even such as are religious” is a serious question concerning the Jews. Who are they? Is their religion just credo, or is it a way of life different from that of non-Jews? Are Jews, the French deputies asked, a ‘tribe’ whose allegiances lay beyond France? The very last day before it was to make way for the Legislative Assembly — the very last day – the National Assembly voted to include Jews in the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Had the Jews not been emancipated, France would not have become a republic for all. And if Jews now feel that as Jews they must leave France, it’s no longer the inclusive republic of the Revolution. Simply put, the vote in favor of citizenship for the Jews in September 1791 was an explicit vote on the inclusiveness and credibility of France’s new constitution. The legacy of that vote and its debates—both for the Jews of France and France itself—continues to reverberate today.
Can you talk about the moment of 2015 in which Valls says it? Why was he talking to Jews who are thinking about leaving France?
He’s saying to them, ‘Don’t leave. Because if you feel you have to leave, we will have lost the republic we cherish.’ Many Jews were, in fact, thinking of leaving in 2015 for two reasons: one is terrorism and the massacres, and the other is that many of them no longer wished to live the way the French expected them to once they welcomed them as citizens. A quick quote – soon after the Revolution, Napoleon convened an Assembly of Jewish Notables to answer twelve questions: ‘Who are you,’ he asked the Jewish deputies. ‘Are you both willing and able to become full members of the body politic?’ The answer summarized by Abraham Furtado prevailed: “Paris will become for us what Jerusalem was for our ancestors in the beautiful days of its glory. Israelite in our temples, French among our fellow citizens. This is who we are.” This is a model that has been challenged in France recently, especially by those Jews who arrived after Algeria became independent in 1962. They want to live lives which give full expression to their Jewish identity. This desire is explicitly expressed in the play. A baseball cap hiding a kippah … but of course if you cover the kippah, you’re making the statement that you do not believe it possible to identify as a Jew publicly and live safely.
You talked to us about how alive the debates of the revolution still are in France. How else do you hear them?
In 1989, the bicentennial of the French Revolution, I was in Paris for six months teaching and attending colloquia, and saw first-hand how people were re-evaluating the revolution. For example, a new vote was taken as to whether the King should have been executed or not – this time, however, the answer was an emphatic “No.”
The response of the Jews to celebrations of the Revolution was very interesting. In 1791, when Jews were emancipated and welcomed as citizens in France, they accepted the caveat that there was an axiomatic relationship between their looking and acting like everyone else and their being acceptable and accepted. In 1989 many Jews rejected that caveat. For example, just as the abbé Grégoire was given the highest honors by the French nation—his body was moved to the Pantheon—he was denied them by the Jews, traditionally his most ardent admirers in recognition of the role he had played in their emancipation.
Robert Badinter, former Minister of Justice and President of the Constitutional council of France had suggested to the centre Rachi, a Parisian cultural center for Judaism, that commemoration of the Revolution include naming their amphitheater after Grégoire. Badinter argued that if the history of the Jews in Europe did not follow the happy course the champions of emancipation hoped, it diminished not at all the gratitude he owed them as ‘man and Jew.’ The response to Badinter’s suggestion was to postpone how if ever to honor the memory of Grégoire. The reason? Behind Grégoire’s support for the Jews, many now believed, lay his hope that they would eventually cease to be Jews.
Earlier you said Jews in France are a microcosm, and in this play, a family asks “should we stay, or should we go?,” a question that Jews have faced throughout history. How is that both specific and universal to this diasporic group?
For the Jews, it’s been a dominant theme throughout their history: they have flourished and been expelled, they’ve flourished and been massacred. They have moved from place to place. Spain appears in the play as a place that was welcoming, until it wasn’t.
When Patrick says ‘it doesn’t matter who the Jews are, they will still be hated’ we hear echoes from the 19th century Russian Jew Leo Pinsker’s pamphlet titled Auto-Emancipation. Pinsker, a physician, argued that it was necessary for the Jews to form a home of their own. Antisemitism, he explained, was a malady – for which there was no remedy: “For the living,” he explained, “the Jew is a dead man; for the natives, an alien and a vagrant; for patriots, a man without a country: for all classes, a hated rival.”
Many believed, however, and certainly hoped that things were finally different in France’s republic – just as there was the assumption in America that Jews were finally safe. In France, the welcome given Jews was challenged during the Dreyfus affair, and once again during World War II. And today in France we have yet another challenge along with the fear that this time the challenge will prevail.
We talked a little bit when you visited about the ways in which this is a period piece. It’s a 2016-17 play, and then also a 1944-46 play. Can you give us a sense of how you see the questions facing French Jews now? How do you hear them?
I believe it’s a period piece but it is dated ironically only very recently because of changes both in America and in Israel. In the recent past when French Jews felt insecure in France, they knew there was Israel —or for some America.
Indeed, French Jews had been leaving France for a number of years. Many more had ‘a suitcase packed,’ as they said, ‘ready to go.’ There are even parts of Jerusalem where when you walk down the street — you hear French rather than Hebrew spoken. But today Jews in America as well as France are asking themselves if Israel is still their safety net.
I hope I could ask you to talk a bit about the Prayer for the French Republic. It comes out of a similar moment of the revolution, and occupies a specific place in French life today
It was written at the time of Napoleon— who has enjoyed an amazingly good press as a friend of the Jews. Historically this is far from accurate.
Napoleon and his French armies emancipated Jews elsewhere in Europe. But if he had had his druthers and if he didn’t have a Conseil d’Etat constraining him, he would have expelled the Jews from France. To him they were ‘bad people, cowardly and cruel.’ He even advocated—unsuccessfully– requiring them to intermarry so their blood would become diluted.
The Conseil d’Etat however, prevailed and instead Napoleon organized the Jews as a corporate entity. Now they, along with both Catholics and Protestants, became blocks in the ‘grains of sand’ he called his nation. The “Prayer for the French Republic” reflects the loyalty Napoleon expected of all French citizens.
Wow! I hope it’s not telling tales out of school to mention that you brought a French friend to rehearsal, herself a Jew as well. We mentioned the prayer to her, and her first response was “I love that prayer. It means so much to me.” So it’s fascinating to think about the resonance that has —
Yes! Listening to her read the prayer aloud was so moving. It really does mean a great deal to her. After we visited with you, I reminded her that Napoleon had required that prayer to be said. But that’s what is so telling about who she is. She knows the history but she is also fully committed to the lofty ideals the revolutionaries had in mind in 1789.
One more contradictory national symbol: can you talk about La Marseillaise for a second?
I’ve heard it sung many times, of course. It was adopted as an anthem at the moment in the French Revolution when the revolutionaries of Marseille were marching on the capital, determined to be victorious! It’s a very dramatic and dynamic statement of marching forward militarily, very different from the prayer for the French Republic. And yet they both capture the Revolution of 1789.
I’ve been interested in the debate in recent years in French public schools about, ‘should we be singing La Marseillaise? Should our children be singing this song, with its violent words?’ And I hear two things in there — one, is that song, so meaningful to our past, is that the future we want for our country? And two: is that another example of what you were talking about — is that another way that France is still debating the ideals of their revolution?
Absolutely. The French are still debating the ideals of their revolution — and in our own way, especially recently, we in America are debating the ideals of our own revolution.
Yeah, I wondered if we might end on the difference in the American situation and I’m curious about what comes to mind for you in terms of that. In rehearsal, we’ve talked about Charlottesville, about Tree of Life, about the American history of anti-semitic attacks that have happened since the period of this play. How do you see the difference between the then of 2016/2017 versus the now?The problem right now is that our political parties have differing views of the Jews and different agendas concerning Israel. This means that around the question of its Jewish population America has become politicized. Although not as intense as in France, this politicization differs markedly from the situation just a few years ago. Then I would not have said that Jewish students felt unsafe in the classroom or in the university. Now they often do. Why? Because there is a presumption that they hold particular positions, specifically concerning Israel. And these positions at least to some are unacceptable. Recently I learned that a student who was half Jewish and half indigenous American wanted to join a club for Indigenous Americans. The club rejected her on the grounds that she was Jewish.
We in America have not seen anything like this since the 1930’s when Father Coughlin delivered his radio broadcasts and supporters of Nazi Germany filled Madison Square Garden to capacity.
To close, with everything we’ve unpacked about now — in this current moment, what gives you hope? The play takes its title from a prayer, and asks where hope can come from at a time like this.
‘Am I optimistic?’ Not right now. I’m finding it hard to sustain optimism at this moment. It frightens me. But when I listen to the young people, when I enter a classroom and hear the seriousness of their questions, I have hope that the next generation will confront the crises we now face — not only in France but also globally.