Whither the Jews of France

Dear Friends,

The history of Jews in France begins with a single individual, Archelaus, the ethnarch of Judea, who was banished by the Roman Emperor Augustus in the year 6 c.e.  Thirty-three years later, Archelaus was joined by his brother, Herod Antipas, who was exiled by Caligula.  By the middle of the fifth century, there were a dozen thriving Jewish communities throughout France. The Jewish population increased significantly yet again in the early 600’s.   Judaism flourished under the Carolingian emperors beginning in the early 800’s.  Jewish involvement in agriculture and in viticulture was so successful that Jews all but monopolized France’s wine production by the eleventh century, so much so that all wine for Catholic Masses was purchased from Jews.  Rashi, the great biblical and Talmudic scholar, made his living not from his commentaries, but from his many vineyards.

The fortune of the Jews made a turn for the worse with the beginnings of the First Crusade.  In France as in the rest of Western Europe periodic expulsions and anti-Jewish outbreaks made Jewish existence far more precarious over the course of the next five hundred years.  Still there was a persistent and vital Jewish presence in France throughout the Middle Ages.  On the eve of the Revolution, there were 80,000 Jews living in greater France.  (Comparatively, there were only 2,000 Jews living in the United States.)  Under Napoleon, Jews were granted civil enfranchisement and were given full rights as citizens of the State.  With the opening of the ghettos and the abolition of restrictions, many Jews eagerly abandoned the authority of their rabbis to become completely assimilated into French secular society.  The security of French Jews was shaken at the end of the nineteenth century with the Dreyfus Affair, but the process of social assimilation continued enough for Leon Blum to become the first Jewish premier of France in 1936.

France was invaded by Germany in May of 1940.  Paris fell a month later.  About 300,000 Jews lived in France at the time of the invasion.  More than 75,000 Jews were deported in the course of the war.  About 2,500 of them survived.

In 1951, the Jewish community of France numbered 250,000 fed in large part by persons from other countries displaced because of the war.  Between 1954 and 1961, approximately 100,000 Egyptian, Moroccan, Tunisian and Algerian Jews settled in France.  They were joined by the rest of the Algerian Jewish community immediately after Algeria declared its independence.  More Jews arrived from Morocco and Tunisia to live in France following the Six Day War, all of which changed the ethnic majority of France’s Jews from Ashkenazic to Sephardic.

This is the France of today’s 500,000 Jews, the largest concentration of Jews in Western Europe.  While the shooting of three students and a rabbi at a Jewish school in Toulouse two years ago, and the slaughter of four Jews in a kosher supermarket in Paris a fortnight ago along with a series of attacks on synagogues and violence against individuals in the last several years has been a jolt to the Jews of France, these terrible incidents must be seen against the backdrop of a two millennia long history, and within the context of the most recent response of France’s leaders.  “It’s just like the Holocaust,” one of my sixth graders responded in class two weeks ago.  “The Jews should get out while they can,” she suggested.  But Chief of State, Marshal Philippe Petain, did not march hand in hand with the Chancellor of Germany, Adolph Hitler, in protest to the death of Jewish victims in the 40’s, I observed.  No one then carried a placard “Je suis Juif / I am a Jew” in solidarity with the Jews who were being sent to Auschwitz as they did in the march that brought more than a million people including  forty presidents and prime ministers to the streets of Paris in a show of solidarity two weeks ago.  A day before the march, Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared, “France without Jews is nor France.”  The day after the march, Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian announced that 4,700 police officers will be deployed to protect Jewish schools and synagogues throughout the country.

In response to the increased number of anti-Semitic attacks these past several years, aliya from France to Israel has increased dramatically -- 7,000 in 2014.  As a consequence, there are suburbs of Tel Aviv where French is the language of the street, and where one can eat a croissant or a mille feuille equal to any in the Marais, the Jewish Quarter of Paris.  We are thankful that there is a Jewish homeland to which Jews can flee for their safety.  And we are thankful that the majority of Jews who will choose to remain in France have the support of French government officials and the protection of France’s security forces.  One leader of the Council of Jewish Institutions observed, “There will always be a French Jewish community – not a token entity, but a thriving force for growth and progress – thanks to the righteous positions and outspoken courage of France’s leaders and of our fellow citizens.”  Confident in the future of Jews in France, Claude Lanzmann, the filmmaker responsible for the nine-hour long Holocaust documentary, “Shoah,” directed the following imperative to his fellow Jews in his essay published in the daily, Le Monde:  “Let us not give Hitler a posthumous victory.”

Still with hope,