The Unwritten Rule

In France, one is expected to be quiet about one’s Judaism in public. But a number of working-class French Jews don’t care.

French Jews outside a synagogue in Sarcelles after an attack on July 21. AP Photo/Thibault Camus.

French Jews outside a synagogue in Sarcelles after an attack on July 21. AP Photo/Thibault Camus.

Response
Oct. 27 2014
About the author

Neil Rogachevsky teaches at the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University.


A few weeks before this summer’s eruption of violence in Israel and against the Jews of Paris, I attended a dinner of mostly secular young Jews at a private home in a well-to-do Parisian suburb. Graduates of the country’s elite educational institutions, they were now, in their late twenties or early thirties, well launched on sterling careers in industry, politics, and the French civil service. The mood was jovial, the food and wine superb, the air thick with insider political gossip. Cultivated and public-service minded, the group seemed to personify the opportunities open to individual Jews in France’s national life today.

And yet, as this was a private event where Jews met other Jews, conversation inevitably turned without prompting to the “situation.” While this entailed oblique acknowledgements of “difficulties” for Jews in particular, the company tended to submerge these in the wider national malaise. “Over the last decades our institutions have eroded, and people have really very little in which to believe,” one defense-ministry official suggested. “These young men, immigrants or not,  isolated in their small apartments—looking out, they see the Jews, surrounded by family and friends on the High Holy Days, and they get jealous and enraged.”

The implication? Strengthen the economy, revive French political life, and the problem of anti-Semitism will be solved or at least attenuated. A young economist went further. Referring to Jews by the absurd 19th-century designation “français de confession israélite” (as if one’s Judaism were reducible to where one said “confession”), he averred that France was “not at all anti-Semitic, no matter how many times Americans say so. We have problems of integration, of growth. But aside from a small minority, no one pays attention to your religion. It poses no obstacles.”

I do wonder whether the ensuing events of this past summer, so ably and grimly described by Robert Wistrich in “Summer in Paris,” have shaken the complacency of this economist. But despite the almost unbelievable myopia displayed by him and others that evening on the issue of anti-Semitism, one can at least partially sympathize with their diagnosis of the overall French condition. As Michel Gurfinkiel notes in “The Ferment that Feeds Anti-Semitism in France,” his response to Wistrich, the violence against Jews that erupted over the summer is a product not only or not simply of Muslim immigrant rage but of broader and deeper failures.

For 25 years (at least!), the French have reacted to severe economic and geopolitical challenges to their standing with a blend of denial, indifference, and ever more ridiculous paeans to the glory of the French model, or the parts of the European Union built on the French model. In this environment, unseemly political passions have been able to grow on both the left and the right.

It is theoretically possible that some French version of Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan could rouse the country from its torpor in a humane and rational way. (Recent successes scored by Marine Le Pen’s National Front suggest the possibility of less humane ways.) Better political and economic circumstances would certainly ameliorate the condition of French Jews. In this sense, the emphasis placed by the Jews I met on the larger political and economic picture is understandable and, in a way, even admirable.

 

I can’t say as much for the indifference shown by some of these elite Jews—after all, a very small minority of the country’s Jewish population—to the plight of their much more numerous co-religionists. They seemed, in fact, quite inured to the anti-Semitic violence and intimidation that is still most visible at the level of the street. And “the street” is where much of French Jewry lives.

In the course of recent trips to France, I was fortunate to spend time in and around the heavily Jewish, heavily Muslim, all-working-class Parisian suburb of Sarcelles, site of some of the worst anti-Jewish riots this summer. Developed in the 1950s to house French-Algerian pieds-noirs, both Jews and Gentiles,seeking refuge from the raging civil war, the town later absorbed waves of Jews expelled from Morocco and Tunisia. Respectable, safe, and comfortable if not exactly prosperous, Sarcelles began to decline in the 1980s. It is now a seething banlieue where a shrinking and aging Jewish community lives amid increasingly restive, hostile newcomers.

Many younger Jews do escape from Sarcelles—social mobility is still not completely dead in France, and there is always the tantalizing prospect of Israel. But the ones who stay are caught in a difficult situation with little opportunity for employment, dreary marital prospects, and few avenues of self-improvement. The kind of Jews one meets here, as one might expect, are hard-scrabble—the ones I know are cab drivers and boxers. For the less ambitious or less fortunate, there’s always the unemployment line.

In short, this is the kind of Jewish community one hasn’t seen much of in America for many decades. Even before this summer’s riots, Jews of Sarcelles faced a humiliating run of vandalism, anti-Jewish graffiti, insults, intimidation, and occasionally worse. One shudders to think what would happen if gendarmesbearing automatic weapons didn’t keep the Sarcelles synagogue under constant protection.

Needless to say, the Jews of Sarcelles are far more representative of the Jews of France today than my dinner companions. Mostly Sephardi, often working-class, and traditional if not strictly observant in their religious practice, they either do not know or do not care about the previously unwritten rule that one is expected to be quiet about one’s Judaism in public. Besides, even if they wanted to, their many enemies would never let them get away with it. So why deny it?

It is for such Jews, as Robert Wistrich’s essay acutely demonstrates, that daily life is becoming a real struggle. To the moribund economy, and the hapless governing class, add the now-frequent episodes of barbaric anti-Jewish violence, and you have a positively toxic brew. And so a more accurate sense of the actual situation than the one at the dinner party came to me from a prominent Parisian rabbi who admitted frankly that there seemed no way to stop the decline in the numbers of French Jews—and he wondered whether it was even worth trying.  A large part of his current task, he said, involved nurturing the already strong Zionist impulses of the younger generation, of whom nearly 5,000 are now departing for Israel annually (where, unlike in the case of previous French waves, they seem largely intent on staying).

At the end of our talk, only half-joking, the rabbi asked me whether New York would have any use for a man in his position. No doubt it would, as would London’s own growing French-Jewish community, to say nothing of Netanya in Israel. Indeed, today’s migration, assuming it continues, could render my dinner companion’s ruminations on whether France is philosophically anti-Semitic entirely beside the point.

None of which is to deny that, provided one has been willing to play by the rules and win admission to the right circles, post-war France has offered opportunities for individual Jews unmatched anywhere in the Diaspora except America or other English-speaking countries. In recent years there have also been plenty of successful Jewish politicians (and at least one too successful one). Yet a French Joe Lieberman, proudly, publicly Jewish as well as American, is almost inconceivable.

The price of more or less full admission to French society has been to keep one’s Judaism sotto voce. Many Jews, in all facets of life, have been willing to abide by this condition. With a sinking economy, a political class that for the most part is intellectually bankrupt, and the return to prominence and perhaps even respectability of openly anti-Jewish tropes, the price of such social inclusion in France seems set to climb. The current situation thus affords an opportunity for French Jews, and Jews in similar situations elsewhere in Europe, to think about whether the compromises they are asked to make are worth it.

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More about: Anti-Semitism, European Jewry, France