Opinion piece on France and French Jewry.
As in any complex and multi layered situation one cannot expect to become an expert on anything in a few short days.
So what follows are merely impressions formed after our time in France, of a community struggling with its future.
French Jewry is clearly a large, proud and dynamic community – and without doubt, one under considerable stress. Many levels of stress.
At its most basic, under direct physical threat.
So serious is the level of physical threat that over 10,000 soldiers are spread over France protecting Jewish schools, synagogues and institutions. The question repeatedly raised, with justifiable concern, was just how long this level of belated protection from the French government could continue?
And on the personal level, fears were continually expressed about the level of physical threats and incidents to people on their way to and from these places of Jewish gathering.
But more than that, the lack of personal safety for those identifiable by name or dress as Jews just going about their everyday life. Incidents for which there is no organised protection.
So the fear was palpable and many examples, sadly, were given to show why the fear is rationally based.
One should also note a number of voices raised in defiance of these conditions by people determined to keep on going about their lives in a normal fashion.
We had a chance to meet and speak with a range of people including: French Jewish leaders; Rabbis; teachers; high school students; numbers of Jewish university students; and mothers making decisions about the future of their children. On the macro level the main question continually raised was whether there was a future for French Jewry in France.
Basically they were struggling with the question of – should they “stay or go”?
Remarkably there was some research to show that the general population of France, some said even around 40% of all French citizens, were contemplating whether they had a future in France or not.
France has a particularly poor track record when it comes to antisemitism having a pattern of expelling the Jews many times over its history.
And of course with the role of the Vichy French during WW2 in transporting almost 1/3rd of the Jewish population to extermination.
We visited a site in Drancy just outside of Paris, where the French government had organised a transit centre for Jews to be gathered and put on cattle cars on the way to their deaths in NAZI concentration camps.
There was no apologising or seeking of forgiveness or anything similar – merely an acknowledgement that this had occurred.
Fast forwarding to today, numerous people spoke about the recent French vote in favour of the UNESCO resolution denying all Jewish connection to the Temple site in Jerusalem. It was clear that this was very worrying to young and old alike as it provided just another example of the current government not understanding or being sympathetic to Jews and Jewish history.
Yes Prime Minister Manuel Valls did say afterwards that a “mistake” had occurred. But there was no change to the record.
In France the key figure is actually the President (Francois Hollande) and not the Prime Minister. Hollande could not bring himself to say France’s vote in favour of the UNESCO resolution was a mistake – but merely a “misunderstanding” as he put it.
It should be remembered that it was also Valls and not the President who said that
“France without her Jews is not France”.
Nice statement, but coming from the Prime Minister who has some vested interest in all of this of course as his wife it should be noted, is Jewish, so………….
We visited Sarcelles, a town just 40 minutes’ drive from the centre of Paris.
Sarcelles saw one of the most violent demonstrations of recent times. On Sunday the 20th of July 2014 a pro-Palestinian demonstration quickly became an antisemitic riot. Jewish shops and businesses were attacked by gangs with iron bars and wooden clubs. Some of the French referred to it as their Kristallnacht.
We spoke with Jewish leaders and residents of Sarcelles and the stories were all the same – shock that such a thing could have occurred; a belief that this was a key turning point in the Jewish future in Sarcelles; and a question of whether to make aliyah or stay.
The Dreyfus Affair (1894-1906). It was quite surreal to stand in the centre of Paris at the actual site of the degradation of Captain Alfred Dreyfus where he was publically humiliated and drummed out of the army.
He was of course falsely accused as a traitor and imprisoned for almost 5 years on Devil’s Island.
To hear how France became divided over the question not only of whether Dreyfus was a traitor or not, but the escalation to whether French Jews were traitors or not.
And then after years of trials and tribulations and after he was finally exonerated, to find that Dreyfus’ only desire, somewhat amazingly, was to return to the French army.
So in 1906 he returned to the army he loved and the country he wanted to serve, as a major.
In fact, he went on to serve in the French army during WW1 ending his service as a lieutenant colonel and dying in 1935.
We also visited the lodgings where Herzl stayed as a journalist witnessing these events. The rest as they say, is history.
Just as the Dreyfus affair split France into those who were pro Jewish and those who were not, the affair typified the internal struggles of French Jewry then and now.
Repeatedly the question raised with us was whether French Jews felt more Jewish or more French. This it seems to me is the critical struggle French Jews are going through with obvious consequences.
The contrasting pulls of whether to stay or go came to stark clarity on the night we attended a function at the Great Synagogue of Paris in Rue de la Victoire. A more magnificent and imposing synagogue I have yet to see anywhere in the world.
And the function we attended?
Ironically, the farewelling of 500 French olim to Israel inside this sanctuary built in large part as a symbol of Jewish permanency in France.
Stay or go?
Views ranged from gross pessimism about the future of French Jewry, to lesser pessimism. I could not really find anyone who was confidently optimistic.
Questions about the future were based broadly on two points: French history and the large and growing number of Moslems.
The majority of the Jewish population of France is now made up of Jews from North Africa and their descendants. As was pointed out, the big difference between them and their fellow Moslem migrants from the same areas are that the Jews left their old countries behind and have integrated into France and have become “French”. Whereas the Moslems in large numbers have maintained their ties with their countries of origin and bring their children up with divided loyalties, wanting to bring North Africa to France.
Whether the French will recognise Jewish community attitudes and their desires and love of France for what it is, is still open question.
Stay or go?
France continues to maintain its double standards and moral ambivalence when it comes to terror.
According to the French, when terrorists stab and run over Israelis, there must be something the Israelis have done wrong to warrant such a reaction.
On the other hand, when terrorists attack the people of France, France is blameless and the fault lies with the attackers.
This French hypocrisy too, and let us understand it for what it is, a version of anti-Semitism, has a big effect on the Jewish community.
To the French, terror is not terror when directed against Israelis.
When Israelis defend themselves by neutralising terrorists, the French ask why Israelis needed to kill the terrorist. Why not just injury him or her, why not just shoot the attacker in the leg?
Not for a moment did the French ask themselves whether they were correct in shooting dead Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel who murdered and injured all of those people on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, or whether they should have merely shot out his tyres and arrested him?
No, they had no questions when it came to protecting French lives. Just Israeli lives.
Stay or go?
It seems to me that that will largely be decided by the attitudes and actions of France towards French Jews and whether France can break a long and unfortunate pattern of anti-Semitism punctuated only briefly and intermittently by moments in history of the French coming to their senses.
At the moment the community lives in hope for the future, rather than confidence in it.