The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

Secularism, Universalism, and the Politics of Jewish Textual Heritage in Post-War France

On 19 October 2021, a medieval Jewish prayer book was auctioned off at Sotheby’s New York for over 8 million US dollars. Many scholars of Jewish history are familiar with the seller: the Alliance Israélite Universelle, which had owned this richly illuminated manuscript since 1870, houses one of the largest Jewish libraries and archives in Europe. The Alliance was part of the European Jewish philanthropic landscape that developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many of the organisations populating this landscape still exist today, but donations and bequests have steeply dropped in recent years in the case of the Alliance. Efforts to get the state involved – whether through funding the Alliance’s library or, in the mahzor’s case, through classifying this manuscript as national heritage – have so far been unsuccessful. As a result, the organisation had to sell its invaluable mahzor.

This paper will examine how the cultural politics of the French state and the evolution of French Jewish philanthropic patterns led to this sale. This talk will ask what this episode tells us about the place of Jewish history and culture in France in the period following the second world war, both in terms of the institutions preserving it and those researching it. It argues that French political culture still looks unfavourably on so-called ‘communautarisme,’ i.e. the expression of group identity in the public sphere. This has made it more difficult for the study of communities – whether defined by gender, ethnicity, or religion – to develop in France. Moreover, France’s self-styling as a staunchly secular state does not encourage the study of religion or of religious communities.