A France Without Jews Is No Longer Unthinkable

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Anti-Semitism Puts Pressure on a Community and a Cherished Idea

On January 11, 2015, thousands of Parisians gathered in the blistering cold to mourn the killing of four people two days earlier in a kosher supermarket. The killer, Amedy Coulibaly, claimed allegiance to ISIS, just as had his friends Saïd Kouachi and Chérif Kouachi, who had murdered 12 staff members of the satiric journal Charlie Hebdo earlier that week. Surrounded by a dense crowd, then Prime Minister Manuel Valls recalled that France’s Jewish community, the oldest and largest in Europe, had played a vital role in the nation’s history. Without French Jews, he declared, “France is not France.”

Valls’ words met great waves of applause. Near the fifth anniversary of his speech, however, the applause has given way to deepening fears and doubts among French Jews. Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur, one of French Jewry’s most respected and best-known figures, spoke to the impact of the supermarket attack. While she values Valls’ words, she told Le Mondethat something vital was broken that day and “has not been repaired.” Life goes on, but the anguish does not go away. “It’s as if certain events, even certain words,” Horvilleur reflected, “trigger a deep anxiety, almost a kind of post-traumatic shock.”

INTERNAL FLIGHT

To measure the depth of the shock among French Jews is as difficult as to measure their exact number. Since the French state does not ask for the religious or ethnic identity of its citizens, there are no precise figures. But the demographer Sergio DellaPergola estimates that there are between 450,000 and 600,000 Jews in France, with the once dominant Ashkenazi branch now eclipsed by the Sephardic one, which hails from North Africa and the Middle East. As for the state of mind of this large and diverse community, news media tend to portray it in the darkest colors. In the wake of the terrorist attacks, for example, a spate of articles appeared in the American press, carrying dire titles like “Is It Time for the Jews to Leave Europe?” and “The Twilight of French Jewry, the Twilight of France.”

Some statistics are indeed dire. Far from declining in the wake of the killings at Hyper Cacher, the kosher market, anti-Semitism has instead been on the rise, with 2018 witnessing a bumper crop of hate crime. The Ministry of Interior and the Council of Representative Jewish Institutions in France, or CRIF, reported 541 such acts, a 74 percent increase over the 311 acts registered in 2017. Moreover, since the statistics are based on complaints made to police authorities, such assaults, which range from vandalism to violence, are almost certainly underreported.

Large numbers of French Jews are leaving suburban for urban France.

The consequences of the rise in hate crimes seem clear. According to a study by the political scientists Jérôme Fourquet and Sylvain Manternach, approximately 26,000 French Jews left France for Israel between 2006—the year that Ilan Halimi, a young French Jew, was kidnapped and murdered by a group of Parisian youths calling themselves the Barbarians—and 2014, a year ending with the brutal mugging and rape of a Jewish couple by anti-Semitic thugs. More than 7,000 French Jews emigrated in 2014 alone—a number too small to be called an exodus but too big to be called a blip. These numbers were, in fact, significant enough to make France the most important source of emigration to Israel.

Yet the numbers remain volatile. In 2018, for instance, the number of French Jews emigrating to Israel slid to approximately 2,600. No statistics are yet available for 2019, but little suggests that the numbers have dramatically ticked upward. This volatility obscures, however, significant shifts in the physical and mental geographies of French Jewry. In their study, Fourquet and Manternach discovered that internal migration outstrips external emigration. Rather than leaving France for Israel, large numbers of French Jews are instead leaving suburban for urban France. In particular, French Jews are gravitating toward the capital. Jewish centers and synagogues in Parisian suburbs like Saint Denis and Clichy-sous-Bois, home to growing numbers of North African immigrants, have registered sharp membership declines. These individuals and families have, by and large, moved either to neighborhoods inside Paris or to a select number of so-called safe suburbs like Le Raincy and Sarcelles, known as la petite Jérusalem.  While the shift partly reflects motivations shared by non-Jews—such as the quest for better schools and opportunities for one’s children—Fourquet and Manternach believe the principal driver is the chronic sense of insecurity that Jewish parents feel.

A Jewish bakery in Paris, France, May 2015
A Jewish bakery in Paris, France, May 2015Nicolas van Ryk / VISUM / Redux

Paradoxically, these families are moving closer to Paris but further from France—or at least a certain idea of France. Rather than rallying to an embattled French Republic built on secular and universal principles, these Jewish families are retreating into their religious identity by enrolling their children in Jewish rather than public schools. President Emmanuel Macron expressed concern over this trend last year, directing the Minister of National Education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, to survey public schools in those regions that seem most affected. But once again, numbers are difficult to come by, because schools don’t record students’ religions.

WHAT’S OLD IS ALSO NEW

The phrase “Morts aux juifs!”—one often scrawled on Jewish tombs or apartment walls—has a particular historical resonance in France. It echoes from the Dreyfus Affair in the 1890s through the rise of fascism in the 1930s, culminating with the short and murderous life of the Vichy regime in the 1940s. Since the 1970s, historians like Zeev Sternhell have argued that modern anti-Semitism was as much a product of fin-de-siècle France as was impressionism or symbolism. More recently, political theorists such as Pierre-André Taguieff maintain that something new, which Taguieff calls “judéophobia,” is afoot, an ideology that combines traditional anti-Semitic claims with more recent anti-Zionist and pro-Palestinian commitments. Sociologists, including Didier Lapeyronnie, have gathered empirical evidence for this claim, identifying decaying suburbs populated largely by the disaffected offspring of North African immigrants as especially fertile ground for such sentiments. Anti-Semitism, Lapeyronnie observes, makes for the social “cement” that binds together the undereducated and unemployed youths consigned to those areas that constitute, both literally and figuratively, the periphery of Paris.

Tellingly, liberals have joined conservatives in expressing concern over Jewish flight from these same suburbs. They worry that the outflux reflects a larger re-composition, or rather decomposition, of French society into “communitarianism.” In the 1970s, Horvilleur observes, the French left’s fight against racism and anti-Semitism were one and the same. Fifty years later, the lines between them have hardened. From a struggle against discrimination “driven by politics,” she laments, such battles are now waged separately, “driven by identity.” Reflecting this shift to communitarianism, Horvilleur writes, growing numbers of French citizens have ceased saying “Nous, les français,” and instead say “Nous, les juifs” or “Nous, les musulmans.”

Or, for that matter, “Nous, les gilets jaunes.” Familiar anti-Semitic tropes and attitudes threaded through last year’s yellow vest movement, itself an outcry against persistent unemployment and widening economic disparities. The submerged sentiments exploded into public view in a videotaped confrontation in Paris, between the well-known French Jewish intellectual Alain Finkielkraut and a group of yellow-vested young men. Led by one protestor shouting, “Get the hell out, you Zionist piece of s—-!” and “France belongs to us,” the group approached the stunned 70-year-old Finkielkraut, who was quickly surrounded and led away to safety by security forces.

At his trial for hate speech a few months later, the lead protestor, the child of Algerian parents, insisted that he was anti-Zionist, not anti-Semitic. “There are people who give orders in France, like the Zionist lobby,” he explained. “They influence our politics.” Last summer, the court handed him a suspended sentence of two months.

THE UNTHINKABLE QUESTION

Jews became full citizens of France after the Revolution, in 1791, and since that time, French Jews have been fond of exclaming “Happy like God in France.” For generations, France without Jews seemed as inconceivable as Jews without France. Over the past five years, though, both one and the other have become conceivable.

Such was the conceit of Michel Houellebecq’s best-selling novel Submission, which, in a twist that Hollywood would have rejected as too contrived, was published the same day as the terrorist attack at the offices of Charlie Hebdo. Set in 2022, Houellebecq’s France is convulsed by a civil war between a Socialist-Islamist alliance and the extreme right-wing National Front. As a result, France begins to hemorrhage its Jewish population, which looks to Israel as its last place of safety. (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu anticipated just such a sentiment a few years earlier, when, during an official visit to France, he responded to a question about rising anti-Semitism by urging French Jews to move to Israel.)

More recently, the French sociologist Danny Trom also posed the possibility of a France sans les juifs. The author of a much discussed book by that title, Trom acknowledges that Jews have not in fact left France en masse. Yet he also notes that the trend, though diffuse, has been constant: “Jews are discretely leaving France, leaving one by one.”

Does this mean that, one day, there will be no more Jews in France?

For Trom, that question is not the crucial one. Instead, as he remarked in an interview, the crucial question is whether there will soon be any French Jews who will not have asked themselves the question.

How remarkable that French Jews are now asking themselves a question that their ancestors had not been posed since the Middle Ages. A France without Jews has long seemed impossible. But, as Napoleon once observed, “The word ‘impossible’ is not French.”

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A France Without Jews Is No Longer Unthinkable

by Robert Zaretsky time to read: 7 min
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