“I am French; I am a Jew,” said Rabbi Daniel Dahan, chief rabbi of Aix-en- Provence, at the Berkeley law school last week. He came to deliver a lecture on the state of French Jewry, and he appended a subtext to his talk: “The end of a 2,000 year story?” “It’s a question,” he said.
France has the world’s third largest Jewish community (~500,000). And, as you may have heard, Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called on them all to pack up their bags and leave for Israel. The pitch for this is Jews aren’t safe anywhere in the world and especially not in Europe, so they should all come and join fortress Israel. Presumably, from Netanyahu’s point of view, these immigrants should take up residence in East Jerusalem and the West Bank and enlist their kids in the Israeli Defense Forces to help manage the occupation for the next 50 years.
Through the middle ages, and up to the French revolution, this call to move to fortress Israel would have been an easy choice for Jews had it been an option. France was Catholic and intolerant of minorities. Jews were massacred during the crusades and periodically expelled. They were not citizens. They were not equal in the eyes of the law. Others suffered too. For example, in August 1572, Hugenots were massacred by the thousands in an orgy of Catholic mob violence. Nevertheless, a Jewish presence persisted. The famous Talmudic scholar, Rashi, flourished in Troyes (on the Seine southeast of Paris) in the latter half of the 11th century.
An identity as “French and Jewish” as expressed by the Grand Rabbi of Aix-en-Provence, as opposed to “Jewish and precariously living in this foreign land,” is a relatively recent development. The story of Jewish citizenship in France starts with the declaration of the rights of man, the revolution of 1791, and Napoleon’s emancipation of the approximately 40,000 Jews living there at the time–primarily in two isolated communities in Bordeaux and Metz. In exchange for equal citizenship under the law, the Jews pledged their allegiance to the state. Through a gathering of Jewish notables (the Grand Sanhedrin) the Jews of France confirmed to Napoleon that “The Israelite is required to consider the land of his birth or adoption as his fatherland, and shall love and defend it when called upon.” In other words, the Enlightenment turned diaspora Jews into citizens of the countries where they live.
Viewed in this light, the Enlightenment marked nothing less than an end of the Jewish diaspora. Not everywhere, but in France and America and other places where Enlightenment values and modern liberal democratic states took hold.
In the wake of emancipation, the 19th century saw a great flourishing of Western European Jewry, as well as American Jewry. French Jews became active in the professions, business, banking, education, and government. It gave rise to the Yiddish saying, “As happy as God in France.” It resulted in assimilation, the Jewish Reform movement, and Jewish immigration to France. In 1860 French Jews formed an organization (Alliance Israelite Universelle) to carry this human rights progress forward, to foster the rights of Jews as citizens everywhere, and to combat anti-Semitism in societies all over the world.
In 1905 France passed its law of separation of church and state and formalized the principle of laïcité (French secularity). The 1905 law emphasized religious neutrality of the state, guaranteed the freedom of religious exercise, and prohibited public funding of religions. This secular identity of the state became increasingly entrenched in the fabric of French political culture during the early twentieth century, even as most French continued to identify as Catholic. It is very much in force and in evidence today.
During the great migration from Eastern Europe to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century, some Jews stayed in France, resulting in a significant increase in population. By 1900 Jewish population in France had doubled to 87,000; by 1911 population was 100,000; by 1922 it was 165,000; by 1933 250,000; and by the eve of World War II, Jewish population in France was more than 300,000.
This happy story of assimilation, prosperity, progress and growth in France was certainly not without blemish. It was sorely tested by a rise in anti-Semitism at the end of the 19th century, as highlighted by the Dreyfus affair. Albert Dreyfus, a Jewish French military officer, was wrongly accused of treason for divulging military secrets to the Germans. He was convicted in a miscarriage of justice by a prejudiced military court, spurred on by anti-Semitic publications and expressions of anti-Semitism in society at large. But Dreyfus also had his defenders, among them the novelist Emile Zola who published a famous letter “J’accuse” in the newspaper owned by George Clemenceau (Premier of France during World War I).
Dreyfus was not a diaspora Jew living tentatively in a hostile land, packing up his bags to go somewhere else when the going got tough. The significance of the Dreyfus affair is that Dreyfus asserted his claim as a loyal French citizen. Together with his political supporters he fought this miscarriage of justice and was able to make it right (or at least better). Dreyfus was exonerated in 1906 after spending five years in the infamous Devils Island prison in French Guiana. He resumed his military career and he and his family served his country as loyal French Jews during World War I.
World War II presented a much greater challenge still. Leading up to the war, anti-Semitism reached a fever pitch, with deadly consequences. The Vichy government of France cooperated with the Nazis and deported 76,000 Jews (nearly 25% of the Jewish population of France) to death camps.
The Jews of France bore an obscenely disproportionate percentage of the 550,000 total French casualties (25% of Jews vs. 1.3% for the country as a whole died as a result of World War II; Germany had an overall casualty rate of 10%). The Holocaust claimed a staggering 6 million Jews. Jewish world population in 2015 is still below its pre-war level.
After World War II the Jewish population of France increased with immigration of French citizens from the French colonies in North Africa: Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. As a result, the Jewish population of France today is approximately 500,000.
But the horrible calamity of World War II—with its 60 million to 80 million war dead overall–did not manage to destroy the Enlightenment project. After World War II, the Enlightenment project in Western Europe has been consolidated. All countries in Western Europe have working liberal democracies. Jewish citizens of all these countries have helped with this consolidation… this picking up of the pieces from World War II. In the United States, too, huge strides have been made in the realization of the Enlightenment promise since the end of World War II. In the United Sates Jews played a particularly instrumental role in the civil rights struggle in the South, and with implementation of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs. The promise of the Enlightenment in France, Western Europe generally, and the United States is stronger than ever; the reasons for French Jews to stand by the promise made by the Grand Sanhedrin that “The Israelite will consider the land of his birth or adoption as his fatherland, and shall love and defend it when called upon,” are stronger than ever.
The creation of Israel in 1948, and its subsequent expansion in 1967 did not change this. The creation of Israel did not suddenly weaken the citizenship rights and commitments of French Jews to France or American Jews to America; it did not reinstate the diaspora in Western Europe and America. After the creation of Israel, Jews in France continue to be French and Jewish; Jews in America continue be American and Jewish.
It does not mean that these countries are post anti-Semitic utopias. Challenges remain and will always remain as for any minority. These challenges must be met. Netanyahu has material to work with when he attempts to persuade French Jews to abandon their Enlightenment promise to France and to pick up their bags and move to fortress Israel. Take, for example, the Kantor Center for the Study of contemporary European Jewry’s annual report on world-wide anti-Semitism. The Kantor Center focuses on “violent” incidents—although their report does not provide incident reports and the criteria they use are not clearly explained. They say that “violent incidents” in France increased from 141 (2013) to 164 (2014). The total number of “anti-Semitic incidents” as reported by CRIF (conseils representatives des institutiones juives de France) (again no clear definition or incident reports) doubled from 423 to 851. Even though there is no substantial evidence that world-wide anti-Semitism has been on the rise if we look at the past decade [See, e.g. this BBC report from 8/21/14.] these are numbers to be very concerned with.
Norman Finkelstein has cited evidence that anti-Semitic attacks in Europe are correlated with violent Israeli assaults like last summer’s Gaza war. The Kantor report seems to agree when it attributes last summer’s Gaza war as the primary cause for the increase in this year’s statistics. This seems correct and is understandable when Israel’s prime minister purports to represent and speak for—and thus implicates—French Jews and American Jews as Israel assaults Gaza.
In his Berkeley lecture, Rabbi Dahan recounted the terrible tally of recent attacks against Jews in Europe: the bombing of a synagogue on rue Copernic in 1980, the bombing of a restaurant in 1982 on Rue de Roisiers, the gruesome kidnapping and torture death of Ilan Halimi in 2006, the murder of three school children and their teacher in Toulouse in 2012, the shooting of three people at a Jewish museum in Belgium last May, the rape and robbery incident in Creteil (a suburb of Paris) last December, and the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket (the Hypercacher) in January 2015. These attacks were initiated primarily by disaffected angry Muslim youths.
“You can understand that a lot of communities are afraid,” said Dahan.
We’ve heard that 7,000 French Jews emigrated to Israel in 2014. Rabbi Dahan described how, on a recent flight from Marseilles to Tel Aviv, he met 20 religious families making Aliyah (emigrating to Israel). But we don’t hear reliable statistics of what happens to these people; how long they stay, what they do. “Many are also coming back,” said Dahan.
Dahan lamented that a predominant portion of French Jews who emigrate are religiously involved in French Judaism and that it’s those who are most involved, the largest donors, who leave. It presents a challenge for French Jewish communities.
Statistics indicate that French Jews tend to be secular like the French in general. Only 15% of French Jews attend synagogue. Seventy-five percent of Jewish school age children attend public schools. The majority of French Jews do not wear traditional religious clothing; they have no particular reason to shop at the Hypercacher.
Rabbi Dahan feels strongly that French Jews should not leave because they are afraid. “For Jews to leave France because they are afraid is bad,” he said. It’s giving in to terrorism. If individual Jews want to emigrate to Israel because they want to live a religious life, good for them. But Jews should not heed Netanyahu’s siren song—or abandon their citizenship commitment to help make France a better place—because they are afraid.
For the past 15 years, ever since the rise of Islamist violence against Jews in France, the French government has gone to considerable lengths to protect its Jewish community. According to Dahan, since the Charlie Hebdo/Hypercacher attacks, the French government has been spending €1 million each day for security at Jewish schools and community centers throughout France. This is not like the 1930’s when state governments in Europe supported anti-Semitism. Just last week French Prime Minister Manuel Valls pledged to finance a plan to fight racism and anti-Semitism in France. The French government is working to keep its Enlightenment promise. French Jews should keep their citizenship commitment to fight to make France the best it can be.
As Finkelstein said in the lecture referenced above, there are things Israel can do to help. First and foremost, Israel can stop carrying out massacres like last summer’s Gaza war. Second, Israel can stop saying that it is carrying out these massacres in the name of world Jewry. There are also things that Jewish leaders in France and the United States can do to help, says Finkelstein: “they can cease defending Israel’s criminal actions so it won’t appear as if Israel when it carries out these actions is acting in the name of the Jewish state.” For an example from last summer, see here.
Japanese Americans did not abandon the United States and return to Japan after the travesty of the Japanese-American internment during World War II. They remained loyal citizens of the country and subsequently fought for their rights. Fighting for your rights as a minority is not always pleasant and you can get hurt. But it’s something that has to be done, and the post-enlightenment liberal democratic state provides tools and opportunity to do so. The proper response of French Jews (or American Jews) to unfriendly looks on the street, political discrimination, or political violence is the same: it is not to run meekly to fortress Israel; the correct response is to stand up proud and claim your rights as a French Jew.
It’s not exactly how the Grand Rabbi of Aix-en-Provence put it, but I think this was the essence of his message.