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The Right to Difference

French Universalism and the Jews

Universal equality is a treasured political concept in France, but recent anxiety over the country’s Muslim minority has led to an emphasis on a new form of universalism, one promoting loyalty to the nation at the expense of all ethnic and religious affiliations. This timely book offers a fresh perspective on the debate by showing that French equality has not always demanded an erasure of differences. Through close and contextualized readings of the way that major novelists, philosophers, filmmakers, and political figures have struggled with the question of integrating Jews into French society, Maurice Samuels draws lessons about how the French have often understood the universal in relation to the particular.

Samuels demonstrates that Jewish difference has always been essential to the elaboration of French universalism, whether as its foil or as proof of its reach. He traces the development of this discourse through key moments in French history, from debates over granting Jews civil rights during the Revolution, through the Dreyfus Affair and Vichy, and up to the rise of a “new antisemitism” in recent years. By recovering the forgotten history of a more open, pluralistic form of French universalism, Samuels points toward new ways of moving beyond current ethnic and religious dilemmas and argues for a more inclusive view of what constitutes political discourse in France.

264 pages | 1 halftone | 6 x 9 | © 2016

History: European History

Jewish Studies

Law and Legal Studies: Legal History

Literature and Literary Criticism: Romance Languages

Religion: Judaism


“A noted literary critic, Samuels tells his story through a series of largely literary case studies, tracing competing literary representations of Jews from the 18th century to the present. As these case studies reveal, even supposedly philo-Semitic French advocates of Jewish integration and equality have often sounded suspiciously like dyed-in-the-wool anti-Semites.”

David Bell, The Nation

"The Right to Difference is a useful and clairvoyant book full of rigorously researched evidence that allows us to better grasp our relationship to universalism. From the years leading up to the Revolution to the rigid universalism of Finkelkraut and the universalism that Badiou calls an instrument of exclusion, Maurice Samuels charts a nuanced path that never seeks to reach a definitive, prescriptive conclusion. Because undertaking this archeology of universalism is not an attempt to establish a philosophy of history, a typology, or a user’s guide, but rather to establish a global frame of reference that might even provide keys to understanding the present.”

Nonfiction (France)

"This book’s most valuable contribution is its inclusion of moments of both failure and success in France’s universalist history and its focus on both 'high' and 'popular' culture, reminding the reader that ideologies permeate every aspect of society."

French Review

"The Right to Difference is a beautifully written, accessible book that is suitable for undergraduate teaching, while offering fruitful opportunities for engagement by specialists. . . .Samuels’s argument unfolds in seven chapters in which he engages with current scholarship in Jewish studies and French history in textual readings that challenge long-settled scholarly consensus. His careful analyses elucidate the ways universalism has been understood since the eighteenth century to 'offer new possibilities for thinking through France’s current social and political dilemmas—and perhaps some American ones as well'. . . . The Right to Difference persuasively demonstrates that the current political understanding of republican universalism is not the only version available for the French body politic."

Journal of Modern History

“The originality of Samuels' book lies in its approaching the moment of definition of universalism by using the Jews as a touchstone. The Jews, in Samuels' book, although very real and historical, loom also as a prism through which the nascent French republic tried to invent and define itself. What were the conditions Jews had to fulfill to belong to the Republic? Defining those conditions amounted to defining the very identity of that Republic—a Republic that imagined itself in dialogue with its other.”

French Forum

“Timely and thought-provoking, The Right to Difference will interest scholars and lay readers alike. Ambitious in scope, the book offers a broad survey of French universalism’s multifaceted attitude toward the Jews since the eighteenth century. Just as importantly, it represents a much needed intervention in public discussions about the ambiguous legacy of the French Revolution, the politics of laïcité, and debates over the assimilation of religious minorities in France today. At a time when France’s Jews are in the news more than ever before, Samuels offers illuminating new ways of thinking about their position, and, through that analysis, about the politics of difference in modern France.”

Lisa Moses Leff, author of The Archive Thief: The Man Who Salvaged French Jewish History in the Wake of the Holocaust

“Particularism and Universalism: ever since St. Paul, the Jews have served as a stage upon which to act out the tension between these two ideals. That tension did not diminish with revolution, democracy, modernity, or secularization, nor did figures of Judaism lose their utility in these revolutions. Today Zionism and Israel continue to play a special role in fervent debates about the relationship between claims of universal justice and those of particularist, often minoritarian identities. The Right to Difference is a clear and critical guide through this history and these debates, a guide all of us who live in this age of increasingly passionate convictions should be grateful for.”

David Nirenberg, author of Neighboring Faiths: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in the Middle Ages and Today

“Samuels presents a highly nuanced and sophisticated analysis of French universalism through the exploration of its various historical iterations as it has engaged with the Jews of France since the French Revolution. This superb study is a major contribution to the scholarship on the themes of assimilation, acculturation and minority distinctiveness, and diversity that continue to be vexed problems in France to this day.”

Aron Rodrigue, author of Jews and Muslims: Images of Sephardi and Eastern Jewries in Modern Times

"elegant...deftly written book."

Jeffrey Mehlman, Antisemitism Studies

"The Right to Difference is a timely and compelling study that urges us to rethink some rather widely held perceptions about universalism, secularism [laïcité], the French state, and modern European society in relation to religious minorities and ethnic communities. Maurice Samuels combines insightful and sometimes surprising reexaminations of historical sources with sharp analyses."

Jonathan Skolnik, University of Massachusetts Amherst

"Samuels’s analysis of the positive effects of France’s ambivalent and evolving universalism... provides a useful perspective."

Journal of Church and State

"...this book will make a useful contribution to courses on religion in France, histories of Judaism, comparative examinations of minority religions, Jews as models of otherness, and critical examinations of secularism and laïcité."

Spencer Dew | Religious Studies Review

Table of Contents


1          The Revolution Reconsidered
2          France’s Jewish Star
3          Universalism in Algeria
4          Zola and the Dreyfus Affair
5          The Jew in Renoir’s La grande illusion
6          Sartre’s “Jewish Question”
7          Finkielkraut, Badiou, and the “New Antisemitism”
Conclusion: “Je suis juif”



Modern Language Association: MLA Scaglione Prize for French and Francophone Studies

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