At the Quai d’Orsay

To the Editor:

I would like to respond to the article by David Pryce-Jones, “Jews, Arabs, and French Diplomacy” [May], which I read with astonishment and indignation.

As France’s ambassador to the United States, as a career diplomat, and as a French Jew, I did not recognize in this article either the country I have the privilege to serve or the ministry to which I have the honor to belong. The descriptions of France as anti-Semitic and its foreign ministry as motivated by “unremitting hostility to Jews” are complete falsehoods that seem rooted in utter dishonesty.

The number of inaccuracies and errors contained in the article is so high that I cannot cite all of them in my reply. Mentioning just a few might lead one to assume that I accept the others, while in fact I reject them in their entirety.

Nevertheless, I would like to point out one particularly egregious example: the article’s assertion that in contemporary France, “Arab aggression against Jews . . . has been accompanied by occasional loss of life.” I wish the author who saw fit to make such a grave accusation had offered names, dates, and the circumstances of such murders. For my part, I am not aware of any.

I would like to conclude by citing one particularly respected figure, the president of Israel, Moshe Katsav, who declared during an official visit to France in February 2004, “No, France is not anti-Semitic!” I fully share his view.

Jean-David Levitte

Ambassador of France

Washington, D.C.


To the Editor:

In his attempt to find an explanation for the tense relations between Arabs and Jews in France, David Pryce-Jones deems it necessary to go back as far as the 19th century to describe the history of the pro-Arab policy of the French foreign ministry. He does not hesitate to put forward the anti-Semitic tradition of the Quai d’Orsay and (he suggests) of France itself.

This can only strengthen the already confused views prevailing in certain milieus. As some see it, the pro-Arab position of France is behind any French critique of current Israeli policy, the clashes between Arab-Muslim and Jewish communities are a consequence of French anti-Semitism, and the least support for the Palestinian cause must be understood as a formal rejection of Israel’s right to exist—and therefore fundamentally anti-Semitic.

This simplistic interpretation not only prevents any serious understanding of what is going on in France but tends to construe the French scene as a mere replica of the Middle East. France has always adopted a complex attitude toward its minorities, toward all its minorities, not only the Jews. A more complete presentation of the situation would have set Muslim-Jewish tensions in a multicultural and multiethnic context. It also would have stopped short of the eternal trap of Jewish victimization, a trap that prevents Jews from building a positive Judaism, a Judaism turned toward the future and able to overcome the obsessive memory of a traumatic past.

French pro-Arab policy has been directly linked to its former colonial interests in North Africa and in the Middle East. Everyone knows that the Quai d’Orsay did not support the Zionist agenda at its inception. But Mr. Pryce-Jones forgets to mention that the Quai d’Orsay’s position was itself in full accord with the views of the French Jewish elite of the time, which was deeply attached to the republic that had granted emancipation to its Jews and strongly opposed to a political program that could be interpreted to justify the accusation of double allegiance. Moreover, this elite saw in Zionism a dangerous utopia. Even Dreyfus’s innocence was not taken for granted by French Jews.

No one will deny the historical anti-Semitic bias of the Quai d’Orsay, the reality of anti-Semitic trends in various strata of French society, or the necessity to be aware of the dangers of current manifestations of anti-Semitism. But should we interpret every anti-Israeli policy as a manifestation of anti-Semitism, or build on this the image of a racist France?

Arab-Muslim hostility toward Jews is the side effect of a new kind of diasporic nationalism that is currently taking root among minorities. In a time of growing globalization, Arabs and Muslims living in the diaspora tend to gather symbolically around an imagined Muslim community, which transcends ethnic diversity and geographic boundaries. Through such an identification, the rejects of integration in France are able to share a part of the glory of those Muslims of Palestine who are perceived as sacrificing their lives for an “ideal.”

In a similar way, Jews in the diaspora have identified with their coreligionists everywhere in the world, and Israel is for most of them one of the main pillars of their Jewish identity. Thus, commentators who dare to criticize Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians are not seen simply as critics of a state’s policies; they hit something sacred and thereby fall, supposedly, into the camp of Israel’s implacable adversaries. In the French case, Jewish institutional intellectuals have been able to convince international Jewish public opinion that we are back in the 1930’s.

The time has come to produce long-term solutions. We have to create the conditions of peaceful and fruitful coexistence between Jews and Arabs in France. Bridges have to be built between these communities. In spite of its so-called pro-Arab policy, France has not done what it should to improve the social and economic integration of its immigrants and their descendants, whose resentment and bitterness may turn against not only Jews but against the republic itself. A drastic revision of state policy toward these groups is now a matter of urgency.

As for French Jewish leaders and their intellectuals, they should realize how dangerous it is to manipulate facts and fears, and how dangerous their role has been in destabilizing French Jewry and making it lose its sense of reality.

Esther Benbassa

Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Sorbonne

Paris, France


To the Editor:

David Pryce-Jones has unearthed hair-raising examples of racism and nationalism in the archives of the Quai d’Orsay, but a little comparison might help put these matters in perspective. What would a similar search unearth in the archives of the U.S. State Department or the British foreign office? David Wyman, Bernard Wasserstein, and others have shown how unbendingly the American and British governments refused all appeals to admit more Jewish refugees from Europe during the crisis years after 1933. They found plenty of quotations similar to those cited by Mr. Pryce-Jones.

Between 1933 and 1939, when the United States let in only 17 percent of its quota for immigrants from Germany and Austria, France admitted more Jewish refugees in proportion to its population than did either Britain or the U.S. Sadly, these refugees awakened a backlash on the French Right that expressed itself during Vichy.

It is doubtful that the U.S. foreign service recruited Jewish diplomats before 1940 any more eagerly than did the French. In general, France admitted Jews into the professions, the universities, and even into high political office sooner than the United States. French universities never had secret quotas (as major American universities did), and French immigration policy, even at its most restrictive, never had ethnic quotas like those adopted in 1922 by the United States.

As Mr. Pryce-Jones notes, France has indeed appeased Arab countries whose oil it has needed. But in this respect it differs not one whit from the United States, which began courting Saudi Arabia in the 1930’s and has never stopped. In the 70’s and 80’s France and the United States competed for the benevolence of Saddam Hussein. France is a normal country that seeks its own interests.

Why is it the fashion nowadays to single out France as systematically evil? French opposition to our war in Iraq might explain it, except that Germany, which opposed the war even more adamantly, and Turkey, which actually impeded our military operations, never incurred much American animosity.

Robert O. Paxton

New York City


To the Editor:

The Quai d’Orsay has a sorry history when it comes to Jews and Arabs, and David Pryce-Jones does a splendid job of recounting it. He is to be commended for laying out so clearly and vividly the continuities of this peculiar institution, from the days of the exquisitely-named Ratti-Menton to the present. To the extent that I have differences with him, they mostly concern the relationship of the Quai d’Orsay to the larger history of France. Mr. Pryce-Jones presents the diplomats of the Quai d’Orsay as typical of a largely undifferentiated “French elite” and as “foster[ing] preconceptions . . . that have now come to threaten the integrity of the French nation.” I would argue that the history of French attitudes toward the Jews is more complex and ambiguous, and that the importance of the Quai d’Orsay for present-day French dilemmas is more limited.

Start with the history. Mr. Pryce-Jones quotes Clermont-Tonnerre’s famous principle, formulated in 1789, that “everything must be refused to the Jews as a nation, and everything granted to the Jews as individuals.” It is a problematic principle, as Mr. Pryce-Jones notes, because of the suspicion it betrays of any collective identity other than a uniform French one. The republican tradition that enshrined it as dogma can be faulted in many respects.

But how much does this tradition have to do with the anti-Semitism that Mr. Pryce-Jones describes? Something, certainly. But the history of modern France is one of bitter ideological and cultural divisions. Let us not forget that the worst hatred of the Jews, and the worst crimes against them, from the Dreyfus affair through Vichy to the National Front, came almost exclusively from the enemies of Clermont-Tonnerre’s principle and of the republican tradition. That is to say, they came from men who wanted to give the Jews nothing, either as a “nation” or as individuals. While there were many republican anti-Semites, the worst anti-Semitism tended to come from those who loathed the republic and longed for an idealized Catholic old regime.

Especially during the Third Republic and Vichy (from 1870 to 1944), their noxious blend of anti-republicanism and anti-Semitism was a powerful force in French life, and had particular influence in certain venerable institutions: the church, the army, the bar, and, not least, the Quai d’Orsay. But we should still not exaggerate its overall extent, or its strength. Except in 1940, when the reactionaries had the weight of a distinctly non-French institution behind them—the Wehrmacht—they never managed to impose their ideas on French society as a whole.

It was the republican tradition that mostly prevailed, and for all its faults, under its aegis French Jews enjoyed a remarkable degree of success and influence. They continue to do so today, despite the rising anti-Semitism of the poor banlieux and the likes of Jean-Marie Le Pen. Three Jews—Léon Blum, Pierre Mendès-France, and Laurent Fabius—have become head of government in France, which is three more than have acceded to that position in the United States. The presidential election of 2007 could well pit a Jew- ish Socialist, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, against a conservative of Jewish ancestry, Nicolas Sarkozy.

I also wonder how much France’s diplomacy has had to do with its current predicament vis-à-vis its large, discontented, and radicalizing Muslim community. A similar predicament faces many other Western European states: how to make alienated Muslim immigrants and their children feel like fully integrated members of the nation, and how to convince them to accept the full obligations of secular, democratic citizenship. In this respect, France may not be so different from a country like Norway, despite Norway’s lack of an imperial tradition, a large native Jewish population, or anything like the Quai d’Orsay.

France’s diplomatic tradition certainly influences the way the French talk about the problem, but how much difference does it make, ultimately, to the stubbornly difficult situation on the ground? As Mr. Pryce-Jones himself notes, all the Quai d’Orsay’s wretched appeasement of Arab leaders, right down to Jacques Chirac’s embarrassing courtship of Saddam Hussein, has not made the slightest impression on the resentful Muslim teenagers in the wretched housing projects that surround every major French city. If only the Quai d’Orsay had been as irrelevant in other arenas as it has been in this one!

David A. Bell

Johns Hopkins University

Baltimore, Maryland


David Pryce-Jones writes:

I have some sympathy for Ambassador Levitte as he sets about the task of (to quote the job description offered by a British diplomat long ago) lying abroad for his country. Whatever his instructions from the Quai d’Orsay, this case is hopeless for him. Nowhere did I write “descriptions of France as anti-Semitic”—as if a country, rather than people within it, could be any such thing. Instead, I documented the hostility toward Jews of one particular institution, and let the record speak for itself.

For Ambassador Levitte to claim that he cannot select any inaccuracies or errors for fear of appearing to accept others is rather comical. Let me do what I can to help him. In the course of checking a French translation of my essay, I found that Max Chottier’s report from Salonika should be dated 1911, not 1912. Paul-Louis Weiller was not Paul Claudel’s son-in-law, as I wrote; rather, he and Claud-el’s son had married sisters, and were therefore brothers-in-law. Finally, Henri Ponsot’s 1945 report on the “Jewish question” should be dated April 22, not April 15. These slips are indeed regrettable, if also too trivial to affect the argument or to provoke spluttering about “utter dishonesty.”

When I wrote that Arab aggression “in the last decades” had been accompanied by occasional loss of life, I was thinking of the Palestinian attacks in the Rue Copernic in Paris on October 3, 1980, in which four Jews were killed (and 30 injured) and in the Rue des Rosiers on August 9, 1982, in which six Jews were killed (and 22 injured). On the former occasion, Raymond Barre, then the prime minister of France, said that “two innocent French people were killed” as well, which put the dead Jews well and truly in their place as far as he was concerned. I doubt that the Ambassador can have led so sheltered a life that these events have passed him by entirely.

An Oxford philosopher once earned his share of immortality by saying in a lecture, “To put the matter more obscurely . . .” So it is with Esther Benbassa. My essay addressed the record of the Quai d’Orsay and did not—could not—set “Muslim-Jewish tensions in a multicultural and multiethnic context,” which is anyhow a phrase so imprecise and voguish as to be without meaning. Contrary to her assertion, France’s attitude toward its minorities has been simplicity itself. Nor did I set out to write about the attitude of the French Jewish elite— although, again contrary to her assertion, that elite ever since the Rothschilds and Bernard Lazare has been quite as much Zionist as anti-Zionist.

Peaceful and fruitful coexistence between Jews and Arabs in France is to be desired, and I concur with Esther Benbassa that a drastic revision of French policy toward these groups is a matter of urgency. But she seems to be suggesting that both groups make a similar mistake in connection with their identity, the one tending “to gather symbolically around an imagined Muslim community” (whatever that voguish phrase may mean) and the other supporting Israel. But the groups are not on an equal footing. The Muslim community, real or imagined, is under no external threat, while Israel is in a fight for its survival in a hostile Muslim environment. Evidently she means to target those French Jewish intellectuals—“certain milieus,” be it noted, rather than named persons—who, unlike her, support Zionism. The subject of the Quai d’Orsay is not a suitable battleground for this private quarrel of hers.

I can assure Robert O. Paxton that the archives of the British foreign office do indeed provide plentiful evidence of stupidity and racism, but nothing like the prejudice of the Quai d’Orsay that has served French interests so poorly and set Arabs and Jews against one another. But it is no sort of argument to shout tu quoque as he does. Besides, it is not so long ago that, in his own excellent and timely writings, Mr. Paxton was leading the field in criticizing aspects of French policy. It is most doubtful that there is a fashion to single out France as systematically evil; but if there is, he did his bit to launch it.

David A. Bell has generous and thoughtful remarks to make. It may well be that diplomats everywhere are not so influential as they make themselves out to be. Still, the historic illusions of the Quai d’Orsay have helped to create and perpetuate contradictions in the state’s handling of Arabs and Jews on a scale—and in the face of a steadily gathering threat—quite unknown in lucky little Norway.

The Vision Thing

To the Editor: Wilfred M. McClay correctly identifies George W. Bush’s “religious fervor”—and, even more, the sincerity of belief animating that fervor—as what liberals loathe most about the President [“Bush’s Calling,” June]. Bush’s undaunted embrace of the Gospel message appeals not only to millions of evangelicals and conservative people of faith but also to many “non-believers” who, while not sharing the President’s religiosity, appreciate the values of freedom and personal responsibility at the heart of it.

I participated in the December 1999 presidential primary debate in Des Moines, Iowa, and well remember the hush that came over the room when Bush identified Christ—as I did—as his favorite philosopher, explaining simply, “because He changed my heart.” This answer is the key to understanding not only the President’s interior spirituality but his governing philosophy as well. After spending many years “on the road to nowhere” (as Mr. McClay writes), Bush suddenly recognized the need to reform his life and take responsibility for his actions. Mr. McClay points out that “the animating ideal of evangelicalism is the freely choosing individual.” But, as he also acknowledges, freedom’s necessary companion is restraint. The President understands what authentic freedom means; it is the foundation of his governing philosophy—the true Bush Doctrine. Mr. McClay also states that elements of Bush’s agenda—from his program to fight AIDS in Africa to his faith-based initiative—have made the President “something of a progressive.” American conservatism has experienced a similar awakening, whereby progress—the “territory long claimed by liberals as their exclusive property” —has come to be more closely associated with the Republican party. From the pursuit of democracy abroad to creating an “ownership society” and defending human dignity at home, Republicans, as Karl Rove recently asserted, “have seized the mantle of idealism and reform from the Demo-crats.” This perhaps is Mr. McClay’s most important point: liberals also despise the President because his approach to governance “picks up where they left off.” Bush is proof positive that faith is a force for good in politics, because the values and principles necessary for living a mature and responsible faith are the same ones required for mature and responsible governance. Gary L. Bauer American Values Arlington, Virginia Wilfred M. McClay writes: I am grateful to Gary L. Bauer for his generous response to my article. Since he and I both share the President’s faith, I think it is especially important to stress that, although the sources of Bush’s ideas are clearly religious, they do not depend on religious assent for their cogency and wide appeal, since they are so consonant with the broad mainstream of American history. Unfortunately, I fear that it will take years, perhaps even decades, before the visceral disdain for this President felt in so many centers of influence subsides enough to allow the remarkable coherence in his vision to be fully visible. As Mr. Bauer well knows, it would not be the first time in recent American history that an energetic conservative President has been so treated—shabbily by his most vocal contemporaries, and then quite differently by history.

Classical Music To the Editor: Reviewing Joseph Hor-owitz’s book, Classical Music in America, Terry Teachout agrees with the author that the blame for the failure of modern music to take root in the repertoires of American orchestras lies with European-born conductors, like Arturo Toscanini, who were hostile to American music and to new music in general [“Singing the Classical-Music Blues,” April]. Quoting Horowitz, Mr. Teachout writes: “It was Toscanini’s example that would be followed by most conductors of the 1930’s and after,” as a result of which “American orchestras became musical museums that were ‘preponderantly curatorial . . . disproportionately dedicated to masterpieces of the past.’” But the New York Philharmonic was founded, in 1842, to be such a museum. That was a time when many European orchestras were ignoring Beethoven and Mozart in favor of third-rate contemporaries like Carl Reissiger and Ferdinand Ries. By the 1930’s, Toscanini’s indifference to most new music was in fact atypical, and he never became a model. American orchestras under European-born conductors played a great deal of new American music—partly as a gesture of gratitude to their host country, and partly out of the suspicion that America, as a rising political power, might also be a rising musical power. Often the works of local composers were played. Thus, between 1896 and 1930, the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed a hefty 18 pieces by the city’s own George Whitefield Chadwick.

New music, American and otherwise, is still played by our orchestras. If, despite that, the latter still seem like museums, it is because only older, established pieces get performed from one season to the next. To understand why modern works ultimately fail, one must recognize the dominant influence of the university in the creation and appraisal of contemporary music.

Before Schoenberg, composers considered themselves part of the general public and wrote for the public. So did—and this is a key point—nearly every music historian. When Ernest Newman’s first book came out in 1895, the man who would become perhaps the most brilliant writer about music in English worked as a bank clerk. Today’s music histories are not written by knowledgeable amateurs like Newman who take the taste of the educated public seriously. They are written by professors imbued with the jealous, if-it’s-popular-it-must-be-bad attitude of the university. When contemporary composers read these books, they notice that the popular Gershwin and Rachmaninoff are routinely sneered at while the beyond-dull likes of Milton Babbitt and Elliot Carter get a lot of ink and snap up the lucrative commissions. The music they write thus tends to sound more like the latter than the former. Our conductors, too, read these books and, wishing to be forward-looking and progressive, arrange for such works to be written and performed. It is a vicious cycle. Roger Kolb Somerville, Massachusetts To the Editor: Terry Teachout remarks that “classical radio stations are fast becoming a thing of the past.” This is quite true; let me suggest how it happens. Commentators like Mr. Teachout imply that jazz is on a par with classical music, indeed is a subset of it. Classical stations begin to play some jazz, and are gratified by increased audience interest. They schedule more jazz and even hire personnel who are knowledgeable about it. If the station is commercial, advertising revenue grows as the size of the audience increases. Then, when listeners complain that the station still plays so much “highbrow” stuff—Beethoven, Shostakovich, and the like—classical content is reduced and further reduced until it is completely eliminated. I do not know how to reverse this sad trend, because the less young people are exposed to good music, the less they care about it. The issue is not American music versus the standard European repertoire; it is good music versus bad.

Andrew Sanders Toronto, Canada To the Editor: Terry Teachout’s article fails to emphasize a fundamental factor behind the contemporary decline in musical taste and awareness: the almost total collapse of music education in the schools, both public and private. Paul A. Snoock Jersey City, New Jersey To the Editor: Nowadays, almost all classical-music lovers hear most of their music in electronically reproduced and “amplified” fashion. This means that live classical concerts are simply not loud enough to produce the impact we have grown accustomed to with our stereos and portable players.

One way to increase attendance at classical concerts would be to amplify them. Even the most callow audience member could not fail to be impressed by the Symphonie Fantastique played as loud as the typical big-screen Hollywood film. Live acoustic music without amplification, even when played by full-sized symphony orchestras, simply does not cut it anymore. It is time for the classical-performing world to face the music and bring in the sound engineers.

Joseph Vos Edmonton, Canada Terry Teachout writes: I think Roger Kolb may be overestimating the extent to which major American orchestras other than Serge Koussevitzky’s Boston Symphony and Leopold Sto-kowski’s Philadelphia Orchestra were playing new American music in the 30’s. Some were, some weren’t, and in any case the spigot tightened up over time. He is, however, absolutely right about the reason why “modern works ultimately fail.” Longtime readers of Commentary will hardly need reminding of my passionate opposition to the unlistenable music of the American professoriat. The collapse of the avant-garde monopoly has pretty much broken that “vicious cycle” (though James Levine seems to be doing his misguided best to start it up again in Boston!), but the damage to the public trust from all those years of pointlessly ugly premieres is still in need of repair.

Andrew Sanders’s letter puzzles me. I do not know whether the process he describes is happening in Canada, but his description bears no resemblance whatsoever to what is happening in the United States, where public-radio stations are walking away from all forms of music, not just classical. Needless to say, this process has nothing to do with the relative merits of jazz and classical music. If I read Mr. Sanders rightly, though, he thinks jazz is “bad” music, in which case we must agree to disagree—violently.

Paul A. Snoock, on the other hand, is dead right. The decline of music education in America is a shameful business whose long-term consequences will be dire indeed—though that, I think, is another story, one that postdates the main line of Joseph Horo-witz’s narrative. As for Joseph Vos, I sincerely hope he is making a Modest Proposal. Now that even Broadway pit orchestras are amplified to the brink of the threshold of pain, the last thing I want is for the New York Philharmonic to get into the act. Berlioz and Wagner at full blast are quite loud enough without benefit of microphones, thank you very much.

Rules of Law To the Editor: May I amplify Dan Seligman’s excellent review of Mark R. Levin’s Men in Black: How the Supreme Court Is Destroying America [Books in Review, June]? The problem of “activism” by the Supreme Court is due in large part to the bipartisan cowardice of Congress. The framers of the Constitution were aware of the risks of a runaway Supreme Court and gave Congress the authority to override it and even to curtail its powers.

Thus, the Constitution gives Congress the right to limit the Supreme Court’s appellate jurisdiction; to appropriate funds for the judicial branch; to confirm (by vote of the Senate) the President’s judicial nominees; to define the jurisdiction of the lower federal courts; to impeach, try, and remove delinquent Justices; and to decide how many Justices there shall be. These powers, wrote Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist, were “a complete security” against the danger of “judiciary encroachments on the legislative authority.” If Congress were to exercise them, there would be no need for a constitutional amendment providing a legislative veto over Supreme Court decisions, as has been proposed by Mark Levin and others.

Arnold Beichman Hoover Institution Stanford, California

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