1. Who are the Jews in the national community? Where did they come from? How many are there? What is their geographical distribution within the country?
The origins of the French Jewish community date back to the Roman Empire. We know of a Jewish presence there in the first centuries of the Common Era, but the community’s first main period was before the turn of the first millennium, when it developed as the western branch of the Ashkenazi community of the German lands. As part of that community it suffered the ups and downs of all Jewish communities in Western Europe: it suffered occasional destruction and exile, and was subject to the various anti-Semitic charges of the local Church and population. A long-term expulsion occurred at the end of the fourteenth century and officially there were no Jews in France for several centuries. The first group that returned, albeit initially in the guise of Christians, consisted of Conversos (Marranos) who arrived in the sixteenth century. Slowly, in the seventeenth century, many of these families openly professed Judaism with the silent acquiescence of the authorities. When France acquired the eastern territory of Alsace and Lorraine in the seventeenth century, it also acquired a large Ashkenazi Jewish population. These two populations became the basis for the modern Jewish community.
The next significant intake into the community took place in the early twentieth century. The years before and after World War One saw an influx of thousands of Jews from Eastern Europe and the Sephardi communities (before World War I) of Turkey, North Africa and Greece.
The Holocaust devastated the community, which had numbered some 300,000 on the eve of World War Two. Approximately a quarter of the community was murdered by the Nazis with the active complicity of the Vichy government (the French regime headed by Marshal Petain).
In the years immediately after the war there was a flow into France of Ashkenazi immigrants from Eastern Europe: tens of thousands augmented the depleted Jewish population. However, the main post-war influx occurred from the mid-1950s onwards, as large numbers of French-speaking Jews from the areas of North Africa where France had - until recently - been the dominant imperial power, sought an environment where they could feel at home. As the climate in Arab countries became increasingly inhospitable with the rise of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the development of Arab nationalism, the numbers continued to swell: more than two hundred thousand immigrants, Sephardi or Mizrachi Jews mainly from Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt, eventually became part of French Jewry. They currently form the community majority.
In geographical terms, of the approximately 600,000 Jews currently in France, at least half live in and around Paris. The second largest community is in the southern town of Marseille - about 70,000. Lyon, Toulouse, Nice and Strasbourg all have communities of between fifteen and twenty five thousand. There are also hundreds of smaller communities.
Many of the North African immigrants arrived with traditional artisan skills that had been in their families for generations. Under the impact of the modern western economy of France, however, they tended to abandon these skills by the second generation and to adapt to the modern economy. Many used their skills in industry. The professional schools run by the ORT organization enabled many to make a comfortable transition to the new economy. The occupational spread of French Jewry today includes a concentration of workers in the white-collar professions and the business world. A recent survey showed some 21% of French Jews engaged in the free professions or management; some 47% in clerical professions of one kind or another; 16% in trade; 6% as craftsmen and artisans, and 10% in industry and services. As in many other Western communities, the French community is largely middle-class, with at least 60% belonging to this group.
The background of the modern French community is traditional and Orthodox. Prior to the North African immigrations of the fifties and sixties, Orthodoxy was much weaker, although French synagogues were all officially Orthodox. This was a result of the organization of French Jewry within a tightly controlled French governmental structure that did not allow for individual religious expression: this was seen as deviancy. As opposed to many of the earlier Jewish inhabitants, most of the immigrants from North Africa were strongly connected to their religious tradition. As a result, there is a very strong Orthodox presence in French Jewry of a modern, open cast. Furthermore, the last decade or so has also seen a strong movement towards the Haredi world, and about 7% of the Jewish population currently define themselves as in this category. Reform and liberal congregations account for some 5% of the population and the first Conservative congregation was established some ten years ago. However, it should be noted that all of these groups account for only a little more than 50% of the community: almost half of the community has no specific religious affiliation.
There are many Jewish schools in France. In the last official survey of the community in 1996, they numbered over one hundred. In Paris alone there are more than twenty elementary or high schools, and most of the medium or largish communities have their own schools. However, most French Jews choose to send their children to the general educational system. This is an expression of their intense desire to be seen as part of the nation in the context of the last generations of the French republic, in which both government and society have usually shown scant patience for ethnic or religious groups that emphasize their differences.
Youth movements and organizations have traditionally been strong in France and run the gamut of ideologies from Zionist to socialist. It is worth mentioning that large sectors of the younger generation have traditionally been strongly left-wing. Many of the extreme leftist leaders of the student demonstrations of the late 1960s were Jews. The community leaders were deeply concerned lest this lead to a backlash against the community. The U.E.J.F., the Union of French Jewish Students, is an very strong organization with some 15,000 affiliated members, and is one of the most organized student bodies in France. Youth movements are still strong today, with many thousands of members.
Many universities have faculties or courses of Jewish studies, and many French high schools offer Hebrew as a choice of language, following a cultural agreement with the State of Israel. There are also specific Jewish frameworks of higher education, including a rabbinical seminary training rabbis for French-speaking countries that has been active since the nineteenth century.
The last years have seen a general flowering of Jewish institutions and organizations of all kinds. For example, the number of kosher restaurants and supermarkets around Paris has increased dramatically in recent years.
French Jewry enjoys a vibrant cultural life. There are regular Jewish cultural events and festivals, with music and films from all over the world. Many Jews are active in cultural fields; books and films with Jewish content are common and popular. Despite the fact that the strong Yiddish culture that characterized French Jewry in the post-war years has faded, Paris still has some active Yiddish culture and scholarship, and boasts the largest Yiddish library in Europe. Jewish theater and dance companies are active, and Jews take a part as Jews in the intellectual and cultural life of the country.
Large numbers of Jews have also been actively involved in French art and literature, and many have gained international reputations. There are several Jewish newspapers and journals, including two weekly papers. Many Jewish journalists are active in the French press, and have been targeted for attack in the extreme right-wing and fascist circles of French society.
In the last twenty years there has been a revival of a stronger Jewish identity among French Jews. Spearheading this revival have been many of the children of the North African Jews. In general, the North African Jews have stood for a prouder, louder type of Judaism that is not afraid to stand up and be counted. This contrasts strongly with the earlier generations of French Jews who internalized French reticence with regard to emphasizing separate group identities. A key turning-point came at the beginning of the 1980s when the newer group began gaining control of many of the French Jewish institutions. For the first time, for example, the Chief Rabbi of France was chosen from the Sephardi/Mizrachi community, in 1980. Since then, the post has remained in the hands of this sector of the community.
However, there is also a strong tendency in parts of the community towards loss of solid Jewish identity. In parallel with other parts of the Jewish world, the traditional Jewish family, bastion of the community in previous generations, is under attack; and alternative models of family are becoming increasingly common. We see a pattern of intermarriage that has developed in many Western countries: it is increasingly accepted by young Jews, and has become very prevalent. A recent survey calculated that about half of all French Jewish marriages in the last few years included a non-Jewish partner.
6. Are there any major historical circumstances that affected the inflow or outflow of Jews to and from the community?
If we restrict ourselves here to recent generations, the answer is clearly yes. We have already mentioned the fact that the Holocaust caused the deaths of many tens of thousands of French Jews. In the post- Holocaust years, tens of thousands of refugees from Central and Eastern Europe sought to start a new life for themselves in France, as did Jews from North Africa and Arab countries. It can be said that most of the current French community can trace their presence in France to the effect of some historical trauma in the last two generations. This is really astonishing for a community whose history goes back two thousand years.
7. Are there welfare problems within the Jewish community? Are there welfare organizations within the community?
French Jewry has its share of welfare problems. Many among the new immigrant groups from the fifties and sixties arrived with very little in material terms, and there have been large pockets of poverty within the community as a result. In the mid-1990s around 12% of French Jewry were below the poverty line. In addition it should be noted that there are problems with AIDS and drugs among the younger elements of the community.
The main official social welfare agency that works within the Jewish community is the Fonds Social Juif Unifie (F.S.J.U.) - the Unified Jewish Social Fund - created in 1950 with the help of the Joint to help French Jewry recover from the devastation of World War II. Although its field of activity is far wider, a considerable proportion of its funds is spent on welfare.
8. What is the feeling of physical security of the Jewish community? Has there been, and is there today, a problem of anti-Semitism?
There is a strange duality in the modern Jewish story in France. On the one hand, it was the first European country to grant equality to its Jews and make them citizens. This occurred at the time of the French Revolution in the early 1790s. One of the key effects of this emancipation was to create a feeling of deep gratitude among all sections of French Jewry, which was expressed in the development of an intense patriotism and loyalty towards what was now seen by many as the new ‘motherland.’
However, throughout the nineteenth century we see that the official equal status granted by law did not always translate into social acceptance. Beneath the surface, there was often tension between the French Jews and their fellow Frenchmen. The 1840 Damascus blood libel accusation whipped up popular opinion in France against the Jews and saw violent attacks on the Jewish community of Alsace. The latent anti-Jewish feeling of parts of the French population came to a head in the last decades of the nineteenth century when prominent anti-Semitic parties began to whip up public opinion against the Jews.
The infamous Dreyfus case of the 1890s showed many Jews that, even after a century of full emancipation, they were still considered potential traitors to the country with which they had thrown in their lot so enthusiastically. This feeling increased, of course, under the Vichy government of Marshal Petain between 1940 and 1944. This regime was responsible for considerable anti-Jewish legislation and cooperated actively with the Nazi deportation policy. France’s acquiescence to the Nazis’ anti-Jewish policies is still a subject of great discussion in France as a whole, and among French Jews specifically. Despite President Chirac’s official apology in 1995, there is a feeling within large parts of the Jewish community that France has not completely overcome its prejudices towards the Jews as an alien group.
A number of factors have fed this opinion among many Jews. Over the last twenty years or so there have been many cases of anti-Semitic incidents in France. Desecration of graveyards, and attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions have been widespread. The feeling persists that the authorities have not been doing enough to apprehend the perpetrators of these acts. This period has seen the development and rise in the political arena of a significant extreme right-wing. The principal figure here is Jean Marie le Pen, who appears to have deep support for his anti-alien policies in the French population. Jews watch and are fearful.
An extra source of concern has been the developing anti-Israel feeling in the government and more recently in the country. Until the Six Day War in 1967, France was one of Israel’s strongest supporters, but the embargo declared by De Gaulle on the sale of French arms to Israel on the eve of the war signaled a change of direction that continues to concern much of French Jewry. There is a perception that the government is consistently pro-Arab in its policies towards the Middle East, and weak in its support for Israel.
The Al Aksa intifada that broke out in 2000 has made this perception far stronger. The government is perceived to have taken a pro-Palestinian line and to have shown insufficient understanding of the situation of the State of Israel. Pronouncements from government circles have been strident in their criticism of Israel, strongly reflecting the media line that has dominated the coverage of the intifada by the French press and contributed towards a strong anti-Israel atmosphere in French public opinion. The Jewish community has also found itself at the receiving end of a host of abuse from the Arabic French community (about six million strong, including illegal workers) and an unprecedented spate of violence, both verbal and physical, has broken out against the Jews of France since the beginning of the intifada. Some six hundred cases of violence against French Jews were recorded by the beginning of 2002. Once again, there is a feeling that the government is not doing very much to deal with the incitement and the violence.
On the one hand, the agenda is like that of any modern Western country. Assimilation and intermarriage, as noted, represent a problem and perhaps this should be seen as a part of the larger process of westernization (read Americanization) of French life. However, there are problems that are specific to the French community, to which we have already alluded.
French Jews seems to be feeling increasingly vulnerable. This has developed to such an extent that, in November 2001, the Chief Rabbi of France warned the Jews that the time had come to start thinking of selling their assets and getting ready to move to Israel. It appears that many are feeling torn between their homeland of France and their other homeland of Israel. It should be noted in this context that, since the 1967 Six Day War, support for Israel and pride in its achievements have been an important component of the Jewish identity of the majority of French Jews. Many now find themselves with a dilemma, in terms of their divided identity, based on the perception that France is perhaps less hospitable than previously.
Another set of internal questions relates to the divisions within the community. There are tensions between the different groups of French Orthodoxy, with the ultra-Orthodox groups looking increasingly outside of France and away from the French Chief Rabbinate for its sources of authority. There are also tensions between the traditional leadership of French Jewry, exemplified by the aristocratic families of the community such as the Rothschild family, and the newer, more militant leadership of the community, largely associated with the North African group, which tends to find the approach of the traditional leaders too moderate and accommodating. It remains to be seen how these problems will work themselves out, but they definitely raise questions in a community that increasingly considers itself under siege.
10. What are the demographic trends within the community? Can anything be said about the future of the community?
There have been increasing calls for aliyah among sections of the French community since the beginning of the intifada, including one from the Chief Rabbi. French Jewry has long had a strong relationship with Israel, which has often been expressed through considerable numbers of olim. Well over 40,000 Jews have made aliyah since 1948, and recent years have seen a strong stream especially, although not exclusively, among religious Jews. It is certainly possible that, if the current difficulties of the community persist, the numbers of French olim will increase substantially in the years to come.
At the same time, assimilation and intermarriage will almost certainly continue to take their toll. The French Jewish community is subject to a declining birth rate, especially significant because there was a norm of large families among many of the North African Jews. On the other hand, the trend to greater religiosity among parts of the community may partially offset this phenomenon. As mentioned, there has been a strong cultural and traditional revival among large sectors of the community in recent years that, if it continues, is likely to affect the community.
It may be said, in conclusion, that the French community is generally going through difficult circumstances and these may have different outcomes. Perceived attacks on communities often result in a fresh cohesiveness and a new flowering of culture and identity among the more alienated and assimilated sub-groups. It remains to be seen what will happen in this respect to the Jewish community of France.
The European Jewish Congress