Yerushalmi in a French Key: (French) History and (French) Memory

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  • Jewish History Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014DOI 10.1007/s10835-014-9202-5

    Yerushalmi in a French Key: (French) History and (French)Memory

    SYLVIE ANNE GOLDBERGcole des hautes tudes en sciences sociales, Centre de recherches historiques,Centre dtudes juives, Paris, FranceE-mail:

    Abstract This article explores the reception of Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi in France in light ofthe many and diverse reactions his books and lectures engendered at major conferences andmeetings. It describes how the American scholar became one of the leading figures amongFrench intellectuals after the first translation of his book Zakhor in 1984 and his first lecture atthe cole des Hautes tudes en Sciences Sociales in 1987, which resulted in a series of annuallectures over the next ten years. Following the readings of Jacques Derrida, Paul Ricur, PierreVidal-Naquet, and Franois Furet, among other intellectuals, the eminent standing achievedby Yerushalmi coincided with a special moment. At a time when doubt was cast on the tes-timonies of living witnesses and when the words of Holocaust deniers and of members of theFrench Resistance were treated on equal terms, the politics of memory challenged the statusof history and historians. This paper aims to recover the atmosphere of these past decades andto elucidate how Yerushalmis name has become inseparable from the issues linked with thedebates about history and memory.

    Keywords Memory Forgetting Hope Jacques Derrida Paul Ricur Pierre Nora

    The reception of Yosef Hayim Yerushalmis works in France has probablysurpassed his publishers highest expectations: his name has become insep-arable from the issues linked with memory and history. Yet the enthusiasmsurrounding him may have been aroused less by his writings on the historyof the Jews than by their convergence with the controversy that broke outin France in the 1980s and 1990s about the role of historians in the publicsphere. No matter what his intention was, as a Jewish historian speakingto a broader audience he helped legitimize in the academic arena a Jewishapproach to history and to the fragile workings of memory in general. Thisarticle will try to outline these two facets of Yerushalmis reception in France.

    Welcome to Paris

    The French translation of Zakhor was published in 1984 by EditionsLa Dcouverte, outside the circle of the major French publishing hou-


    ses.1 The book might have remained confined to the restricted readershipof initiates in Jewish studies, but it soon attracted the attention of the me-dia. It was immediately greeted in the press as important and funda-mental. The newspaper Libration published a laudatory review by PierreVidal-Naquet, with the straightforward subtitle revealing the tone of thecomments: Four Short Chapters, Four Key Questions.2 Over the fol-lowing months, more reviews followed. Pierre Chaunu, one of the greatFrench historians of the time, praised the book eloquently in Le Figaroand LAurore, two daily newspapers with large circulations.3 Yet in Jan-uary 1985, in the columns of LArchethe monthly magazine of the Jew-ish communityAntoine Spire attacked it fiercely, describing the book asdangerous. His objection was that Zakhor could serve the revisionist argu-ments aired by Robert Faurisson, who had claimed in Le Monde in 197879 that the Nazi gas chambers did not exist and was eventually convictedof Holocaust denial. Furthermore, Spire contended that Yerushalmis the-sis was biased by a certain North American positivism that gargles butdoes not digest scientific history.4 Two months later, LArche published acollection of responses in its Letters to the Editor section that featuredthe reactions of leading personalities such as Elie Wiesel, Yerushalmis ed-itor and translator Eric Vigne, and Alex Derczanski, along with criticismswritten by readers supportive of Spires concerns that Yerushalmis bookmight help sustain the dangerous proliferation of revisionist historical distor-tions.5

    1Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Zakhor: Histoire juive et mmoire juive, trans. Eric Vigne (Paris,1984).2Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Zakhor, Souviens-toi: Yoseph Yerushalmi a crit Zakhor; Quatrebrefs chapitres, quatre questions essentielles, et une analyse passionnante des rapports entrelhistoire et la mmoire dans la tradition juive, Libration, October 29, 1984.3Pierre Chaunu, Histoire et mmoire juive, Le Figaro, January 26, 1985, and Sortir duGhetto, LAurore, March 2, 1985.4Antoine Spire, Les Juifs ont-ils une histoire? LArche: Le mensuel du judasme franais,January 1985. Spires harsh criticism was the following: How can one avoid detecting inY. H. Yerushalmis thesis the influence of a certain North American positivism that garglesbut does not digest scientific history, such that what passes for serious work is merely a seriesof conjectures that mixes up memories and documents to arrive at a reconstruction whoseobjectivity strains credulity?5Les lecteurs ont le dernier mot, LArche: Le mensuel du judasme franais, March 1985.

    Spires fear that revisionists might make use of Zakhor turned out to be well founded:Yerushalmis argument that the common image of the Holocaust was shaped more by nov-elists than by the work of historians (Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, repr. ed.[Seattle, 1996], 98) was quoted on the back cover of a revisionist book. For Yerushalmis rec-ollection of the incident, see Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi and Sylvie Anne Goldberg, Transmettrelhistoire juive: Entretiens avec Sylvie Anne Goldberg, Itinraires du savoir (Paris, 2012), 8485.


    During these few months, Yerushalmis stature in the French landscapeunderwent a dramatic change: an American historian, foreign and unknown,became a leading figure among French intellectuals. That year, the topic ofthe Colloque des intellectuels juifs de langue franaise (CIJLF) happenedto be Mmoire et histoire (Memory and history); invited to participate,Yerushalmi delivered what remains one of his most beautiful and movingtexts: Un champ Anathoth: Vers une histoire de lespoir juif (A field inAnathoth: Toward a history of Jewish hope).6 Taking advantage of his stayin Paris, he also gave a presentation about Zakhor on the premises of theesteemed periodical Esprit and participated in a roundtable on Panorama,then the flagship radio program of France Culture.7

    Yerushalmis French adventures, already well underway in 1984, acceler-ated on his return to France in 1987, when he was invited to participate in aprestigious symposium at the Abbey of Royaumont on the theme Usages delOubli (Uses of forgetting). There he presented his Rflexions sur loubliand met his alter ego in the field of memory, Pierre Nora.8 The same year,he delivered his first series of lectures at the cole des Hautes tudes en Sci-ences Sociales through the initiative of Franois Furet. He regularly filledthe classroom. Over the next decade, Yerushalmi would come to Paris everyyear, and indeed his work occupied a truly important place on the stage ofthe French intelligentsia. While the publication of the French translation ofhis magnum opus, From Spanish Court to Italian Ghetto, in 1987 generatedlittle debate and probably garnered a limited readership, it gave Furet the op-portunity to publish an interview with Yerushalmi in the prestigious weeklyNouvel Observateur.9

    On the other hand, Yerushalmis book Freuds Moses, published in Frenchin 1993, aroused a host of reactions and also prompted a new reading, not of

    6Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Vers une histoire de lespoir juif, Esprit, nos. 1045 (1985), 2438, and Un champ Anathoth: Vers une histoire de lespoir juif, in Mmoire et histoire:Donnes et dbats; Actes du XXVe Colloque des intellectuels juifs de langue franaise, ed.Jean Halprin and Georges Lvitte (Paris, 1986), 91107.7Other participants in the roundtable included Emmanuel Le Roy-Ladurie, Jean Delumeau,Antoine Spire, and Jacquot Grunewald. Panorama, France Culture, December 11, 1984.8Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Rflexions sur loubli, in Usages de loubli: Contributions deYosef H. Yerushalmi, Nicole Loraux, Hans Mommsen, Jean-Claude Milner, Gianni Vattimo auColloque de Royaumont (Paris, 1988), 721, published in English as Postscript: Reflectionson Forgetting, in Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, repr. ed. (New York, 1989),10517.9Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, De la cour dEspagne au Ghetto Italien: Isaac Cardoso et lemarranisme au XVIIe sicle, trans. Alexis Nouss (Paris, 1987), and De la Cour au Ghetto:Franois Furet a interview Yosef Yerushalmi historien du judasme, Le Nouvel Observateur,September 46, 1987.


    Freud, but of Zakhor.10 While the main thesis of Zakhor had already reachedthe headlines a decade earlier, the discussion now went in a very differentdirection, mainly guided by psychoanalysts. A special issue of Librationlisting the sixty books of the year reprinted a long and laudatory arti-cle by the psychoanalyst and historian of psychoanalysis lisabeth Roudi-nesco in which she explained that Yerushalmis reading of Freuds Moses andMonotheism rested on a method derived from the biblical concept of history,a method that combined oblivion and remembrance into a single narrative.11However, another psychoanalyst, Denise Weill, took offense that an academiccould have dared to reduce psychoanalysis to a Jewish science; her ar-gument was that Jewish identity cannot be an analytical concept, sinceasFreud had positedthe psyche is transcultural.12 The worst dismissal camefrom Marie Moscovici, who in La Quinzaine Littraire articulated her disap-pointment with a pen dipped in bitterness:

    When, in 1984, Eric Vigne provided us with the translation of thebook by Y. H. Yerushalmi, Zakhor, histoire juive et mmoire juive(La Dcouverte), the welcome among historians and those inter-ested in Judaism was a warm one. Stimulated