How the Jewish Mystery Became the Jewish Question in France
By Pavel Vaclav
The first article of the French Constitution of 1789 states that “La France est une République indivisible, laïque, démocratique et sociale,” which can be translated to: “France is an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic.” Secularism is a core French value — France prides itself on having no official religion. Although all faiths are accepted, religion itself is a private matter, which is, in theory, not supposed to impact public life. But history has shown otherwise, and many times these secular values have been (and are still being) challenged.
There have been traces of Judaism in France since the Middle ages. Jews have been a part of French history for a long time, but are still regarded by most French as outsiders — as a mystery.
Who are French Jews?
France hosts the third-largest Jewish population in the world, with approximately 600,000 Jews, or about 1% of the population. This number is just an estimate: by law, no official religious census is allowed in France since it is a secular state. This law came about in the 1870s, when the government banned any question dividing citizens by race, ethnicity, or religion. Historically, the French Jewish population was majority Ashkenazi. After the Holocaust, however, the Ashkenazi population was decimated and only a few stayed in France, with the majority fleeing to Israel or the United States. Sephardi Jews are now the majority in France; most fled Northern Africa between the 1960s and the 1980s. This exodus was due to local persecution, in particular because of the recent creation of the State of Israel, and also because of the Algerian War. As a result, the majority of French Jews today come from Moroccan, Algerian, or Tunisian descent.
French Cultural Symbols and the Antagonism of Jews
In Modern French Jewish Thought: Writings on Religion and Politics, Sarah Hammerschlag incorporated writer Albert Memmi. Memmi was a French Jewish writer of Tunisian descent, who wrote The Jew, the Nation, and History, a text in which he reflects on the place of “The Jew” in French society. “The Jew finds himself, in a certain measure, outside of the national community;” Memmi asks himself: “As a Jew, [do] you admit to being stateless and cosmopolitan?” Memmi here emphasizes the marginality of the Jew in French society; for him, French Jews cannot live inside their society because they are simultaneously rejecting it and being rejected by it. Indeed, French Jews are rejecting it because they are cosmopolitan and because they do not feel the same level of community and attachment that other French people do; at the same time, their society marginalizes them. France is supposed to be a secular country, but its traditions are thoroughly based on Christian culture. To this point, Memmi asks: “How could I feel that Joan of Arc is a symbol for me?” (Joan of Arc is pictured as a hero in French history books for her acts in the Hundred Years War between France and England.) Still, Memmi shows us that, not only does Joan of Arc not represent non-Christian French, but most notably, that she is a voluntary social construct, showcasing that it is, in fact, France that has rejected The Jew. In his writing, Memmi shows us the paradox behind French secularity: it is impossible to differentiate tradition, culture, and religion in French society.
France’s population is approximately 71% Catholic; as a comparison, only 25% of the United States is catholic. France is historically a Catholic nation, and thus, even if the law is secularity for all, its Catholic roots are too deep not to prevail. Jonathan Judaken, in Jean-Paul Sartre and the Jewish Question also mentions the complications of having Joan of Arc as a national symbol for French Jews. Judaken writes: “Joan of Arc was an icon for the land and roots […] who is an emblem of national unity. ‘The Jew,’ on the other hand, was represented as a nomadic wanderer, a parasite of speculation.” In this passage, Judaken agrees with Memmi that Joan of Arc is a symbol that antagonizes the Jewish population. National symbols are chosen for political reasons — to represent specific values that leaders want their people to hold. These symbols can be dangerous for minorities like Jews; the rest of the population (attached to these symbols) can see a minority not “fitting in” as a threat to the values of the nation.
Antisemitism in France
Antisemitism is prevalent in France. In July 2015, a survey showed that “60% of the respondents believe that Jews have a responsibility in the rise against Antisemitism’’ and “56% of those surveyed believe that Jews have a lot of power and that Jews are richer than the average.” Another poll showed that “41% of respondents believe that Jews are a little too present in the media.” These two statistics show the French population’s adoption of misinformation and how Antisemitic stereotypes conveyed by propaganda throughout history are still strongly held in French society. A total of 687 Antisemitic acts were counted in 2019 — a 27% increase from the 541 in 2018. But the violence towards the French Jewish community cannot only be understood in the number of acts, but also with the fact that 824 Jewish community sites are protected everyday by police and military forces. Jewish schools, synagogues, and museums are all heavily guarded; to live as a French Jew is to live in a constant state of threat, even in 2021.
Many French Jews make Aliyah (a Hebrew word for the Jewish “ascension” to Israel from the diaspora). In 2015, a year in which France suffered terrible terrorist attacks (some of them targeted towards Jews), the number of Aliyot was 6,629. For comparison, in 2015, the United States only had 2,689 citizens that made Aliyah, although the U.S. Jewish population is more than eight times larger than the French Jewish population. In 2019, 2,431 French Jews moved to Israel, while 2,759 American Jews did the same. Although the number of French Aliyot has diminished since 2015, it is still very high and shows a strong connection between the French Jewish population and the state of Israel.
A Look into French-Israeli Relations
Since France is home to the third-largest Jewish population in the world, its ties with Israel are strong. There is an array of different positions within the French population about Israel. Indeed, in talking about French-Israeli relations (including among French Jews), it is important to discuss Zionist Jews, non-Zionist Jews, anti-Zionists (who some believe use the term to cover internalized Antisemitism), and also the actions and views of French political leaders. Joseph Sitruk, Chief Rabbi of France from 1987 to 2008, once stated: “Each Jew in France is a representative of Israel,” and always refers to French Jews as the “French Jewish Community.” This poses a problem for numerous people (Jewish and non-Jewish alike) in France. The idea that each Jew is a representative of Israel implies that every French Jew has an automatic dual allegiance, which is not fair to say. Most French Jews consider themselves French, and their attachment to Israel is spiritual and, most importantly, voluntary. The fact that Rabbi Sitruk mentions a “Jewish community” is also problematic. As we mentioned, there are not just one or two types of French Jews, but many different types of practices, communities, and beliefs that make the concept of a “Jewish community” an unrealistic depiction of the situation at hand. Indeed, since there is not one “Jewish community” in France, Jewish views on Israel differ dramatically. Indeed, writer Richard Marienstras once said “A Jew may go to Israel, but that does not mean that he should go.” For Marienstras, the Jewish attachment to Israel is undeniable, but that does not mean that a Jew should be forced to support Israel unconditionally, or that anyone has to go to Israel.
To better understand French-Israeli relations, the study of the Six-Day War is particularly helpful. The Six-Day War, which involved Israel and its surrounding countries (Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq), occurred between the 5th and 10th of June 1967. Ultimately, Israel claimed an unlikely victory. Marc Hecker, in his book La Défense des Intérêts de l’Etat d’Israel en France (The Defense of the Interests of the State of Israel in France), mentions the Six-Day War as a turning point for French Jews, as General Charles De Gaulle was publicly against Israel. Philosopher Alain Finkielkraut said of French Jews: “Unanimously, the Jewish population stood up against the French government.” There is no sign that De Gaulle was against Israel because he was anti-Zionist or Antisemitic; most probably, his reasons were economic. Hecker tells us that, because Arab countries at the time held such a significant amount of oil (Iraq held 10% of the world’s reserve and Saudi Arabia held 25%), French President De Gaulle favored France’s economic allies.
After De Gaulle’s term, President François Mitterand continued France’s “Arab policy,” and in 1970, France voted for a UN resolution that asked for Palestinian rights. After that, during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, French minister of Foreign Affairs Michel Jobert defended the Arab nations. All these elements serve to show the complicated nature of the beginning of the fifth Republic, especially for French-Israeli relations. But as Israel expanded and the French Jewish population rebuilt itself after the war, Israel became an ally to France. Today, Israel has 42 diplomats in France. In comparison, Germany, Belgium, and the United States have a combined 41 diplomats. This highlights the value Israel places in France and affirms the solidity of their relationship.
When discussing French-Israeli relations, it is important to mention the CRIF [Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France (Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions)], which has replaced the Consistory as the main French Jewish institution. An organization that advocates on behalf of Jews, the CRIF was founded in 1944, but its influence has peaked in recent years. One of the CRIF’s goals is to “promote French-Israeli relationships and peace in the Middle East,” but many French Jews feel that this institution does not represent their views, but rather one type of view (similar to Rabbi Sitruk’s). It is also important to point out that the CRIF was not democratically mandated and that its legitimacy is debatable in a country where no religion can exist as an institutionalized collective. As mentioned before, French Jews do not make one united “Jewish community,” but rather represent a vast number of views, and it is therefore complicated to find a spokesperson or institution that represents the views of the French Jew on Israel.
Some Final Thoughts
French Jews have been subject to Antisemitism throughout their entire history. In recent years, Antisemitism has risen and this constant hatred has forced French Jews and other thinkers to constantly analyze, debate, and think about the problem of the dual “French-Jewish” identity. Because of France’s huge Jewish population, its ties to Israel have shown to be strong, but complicated. France still has a long way to go in the fight against Antisemitism, and while life has historically been harsh for French Jews, France remains a model of acceptance in Europe and around the world. Many French Jews, despite their unique position in French society, feel that they are totally assimilated. French Jews are, for the most part, very attached to France, and the duality of their identity is seen not as a burden, but as a blessing. Antisemitism is as present as ever in French society, requiring strong measures from the French government to create awareness and fight this hurdle to a truly peaceful society.