The novelist, historian, and essayist David Pryce-Jones does not make it into The Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century English Literature, but he does make it into the current issue of The New Criterion with a charming review of Sybille Bedford’s memoirs. (Evelyn Waugh thought Bedford’s novel A Legacy (1956) was a “remarkable achievement” in which “everything is new, cool, witty, elegant”; Bedford, too, is omitted from the Cambridge History.) It is a testimony to Mr. Pryce-Jones’s range of interests that he also has a long and penetrating essay in the May number of Commentary called “Jews, Arabs, and French Diplomacy.” Based on extensive reading in the archives of the Quai d’Orsay—the French Foreign Ministry—this remarkable essay provides an overview of French dealings with Arabs and Jews from the mid-nineteenth century to today. It makes for melancholy reading. “The historical record,” Mr. Pryce-Jones observes, “displays evidence of unremitting hostility to Jews, decade after decade.”
We all know about the Dreyfus Affair, in which the unfortunate Captain Dreyfus was wrongly accused of passing military secrets to the Germans. The Dreyfus Affair tore French society asunder, but what Mr. Pryce-Jones shows is the extent to which the enormity of the Dreyfus Affair was not an aberration but simply business as usual. One thinks, for example, of Marshal Pétain, who in 1940 agreed to an armistice with Hitler and “then formed his Vichy government with the intention of collaborating with Nazi Germany. That October, without any prompting from Berlin, Vichy passed the Statut des Juifs, its version of Germany’s Nuremberg laws, excluding Jews from whole areas of public life.” Mr. Pryce-Jones describes how France’s ambition to preside over a “Franco-Arab Kingdom” and become “a Muslim power” (une puissance musulmane) in its own right has since the 1850s fed “the differential attitude of the French elite toward Arabs and Jews.” At a moment when French anti-Semitism is (once again) on the rise and a large, restless, and unassimilated Muslim population is straining French civil society, Mr. Pryce-Jones’s meticulous history is essential reading.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 9, on page 3
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