Léon Blum: Prime Minister, Socialist, Zionist
Léon Blum: Prime Minister, Socialist, Zionist by Pierre Birnbaum. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. (Yale University Press, 222 pp.)
Even though many American Jews have not heard of Léon Blum, he played a pivotal role in French history as France’s first Jewish prime minister. Blum, born in 1872 in Paris, was France’s prime minister twice in the 1930s. In many ways, he was typically French. He was a leftist intellectual, a lawyer and a writer, who was married three times and had a lengthy affair during his first marriage with the woman who became his second wife. Like many French Jews, Blum was assimilated and mostly nonobservant. But, as Pierre Birnbaum, a noted French sociologist, shows in his illuminating work, Jewish issues played animating roles in Blum’s life. The Dreyfus Affair was one of these.
Blum didn’t immediately jump to Dreyfus’s defense when the Jewish artillery captain was accused of treason in 1894, perhaps because Blum underestimated anti-Semitism or because he didn’t want to jeopardize his own status as a state lawyer. After being convinced of the injustice being perpetrated against Dreyfus, Blum became active in the pro-Dreyfus camp. As a result, France’s Socialist leaders welcomed him into the party and he rose through the ranks.
Birnbaum provides a few quotes from Blum that link his socialist beliefs to his Jewish background, although the author doesn’t develop the point well.
Birnbaum is more persuasive at showing how Blum’s pro-Dreyfus activism also led to something more sinister: the deepening of anti-Semitic allegations and activity against him. A self-styled intellectual, Blum fit the stereotype of the weak Jew. As Birnbaum puts it, “he was a Chagall rabbi, all wrapped up in himself.” Birnbaum points out, as evidence to the contrary, that Blum successfully dueled a rival literary critic. The anti-Semitism against Blum only increased after he became prime minister as head of a Socialist-led government. During his tenures, which quickly succumbed to the polarizing politics of the 1930s, he was the target of a right-wing assassination attempt.
Of course, anti-Semitism in France, as across Europe, only increased in the latter years of the decade. Blum’s wartime years, while difficult, were better than they were for many. He was imprisoned for several years and suffered through a show trial in 1942, but was never put in a concentration camp and survived in relatively good health. He even became, briefly, president in a postwar French government.
During the postwar years, Blum championed the Zionist cause. Not surprisingly, Blum mostly viewed the effort as a class conflict between Zionist laborers and Arab landowners, although he was also friends with Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann. A tangible reminder of Blum’s Zionist and socialist beliefs exists in northern Israel, where a kibbutz, Kfar Blum, is named after him.