On Thursday, April 14, associate professor of literature at UC Santa Cruz, Dorian Bell, visited UCR to give a talk entitled, “Axes of Otherness: Jews, Imperial Capitalism, and the Politics of Scale.” The talk was organized by the UCR Workshop on the Global 19th Century, also called the Global 19th Group and sponsored by UCR’s Center for Ideas and Society.
Bell was introduced by UCR associate professor of French and comparative literature, Heidi Brevek-Zender, who is also a member of the Global 19th Group, described as “an interdisciplinary working group that considers the material and cultural changes that took place during the long nineteenth-century.”
Referencing the murder of Jewish hostages at a kosher supermarket in a Paris neighborhood among other attacks in recent years, Bell stated that the resurgence of attention toward anti-Semitism in French discourse has been catalyzed by these types of attacks and has “induced some commentators to observe that French anti-Semitism has been reconfigured by immigration and the failures of assimilation associated with France’s post-colonial condition.”
Taken from his larger work, a book titled “Frontiers of Hate: Anti-Semitism and Empire in Modern France” that explores the historical relationship of France and Europe with regards to imperialism and anti-Semitism, Bell argued that what’s been missing from the discourse is that “modern European anti-Semitism … has always been shaped by the colonial encounter.”
Bell’s talk explored these topics through nuances of 19th century anti-Semitic literary Jewish colonial conspirator archetype that was prevalent in French literature such as “Bel Ami” written by Guy de Maupassant and published in 1885 and situated itself the context of imperial France. This archetype was sometimes fashioned as self-serving southern French Jews with Germanic roots, who was were endowed with financial acumen and embodied economic modernity. It played into a “grand French literary tradition of German-Jewish villainy” which also coincided with negative French sentiment of Germans after the 1870 Franco-Prussian War when Paris was captured by the Prussian Empire.
As time went on, France would continue its imperialist project into Northern Africa with the Cremieux Decree passed at the tail end of the Franco-Prussian War, which gave thousands of Jews in French Algeria citizenship while excluding Muslim Arabs and Berbers. The identity of the archetype would also align itself with this region of Africa, such as Morocco or Algiers, in several novels and posit the Jew in a binary with the civilized Frenchmen that was articulated as analogous to the Black-White binary propagated by European colonialism.
By reinscribing xenophobic nationalism and Jewish otherness in order to further France’s project of national and global attempts at an imperialist empire, the Jewish colonial conspirator manifested “an anxiety about the nation’s increasing inhabitation of a world system marked by impenetrable complexity and racial alterity.” The conspiratorial Jewish archetype was unique, Bell argued, in that it exhibited stereotypes of African or Arab subalterns’ primitivity as well as Jewish stereotypes of financial enslavement of white working class Europeans, two characteristics that were radically opposed. The figured difference made it possible for imperialist France to locate Jews at the center of the blame in France’s governing fictions, contradictions and shortcomings of nation and empire whenever ideologically convenient.
In his closing remarks, Bell elucidated, “The colonially conspiring Jew functioned to reveal and conceal, at once signifying and suppressing creeping imperial difference. In this respect, it remained important to distinguish between the axes of otherness and whose intersection the figure was located. For the Jew to mediate between national and global scales required that corresponding alterities never bleed completely together, since the figure’s utility depended precisely on translating between varieties of otherness.”