A History of the French Jewish Community
By Steve Israel
The origins of the French Jewish community date back to the Roman Empire, in Second Temple times.
There is evidence of a Jewish presence in Gaul from the early centuries of the Common Era, but the community's first major development was when it became the Western branch of the ‘Ashkenazi’ community from the Germanic lands, before the turn of the first millennium. The community was a crossover point: some Jews went to England with William the Conqueror and fled back to France after the Expulsion; French Jewry was also influenced by the existence of a Jewish community in Spain, from where learned Jews also came to France at this time, while others came and went from the Germanic lands – France became a center of Jewish learning. Rashi and the Rabbenu Tam, his grandson, both lived and worked in France, and the three Jewish cultures were thus the cradle of the Tosafists.
The community's history resembles that of other Jewish communities in Western Europe in this era: it suffered periodical blood libel campaigns fostered by the Church, persecution by the local population and officialdom – especially during the Crusades, and the Black Plague – and expulsions on a local basis and one nationally, in 1182. The Jewish community was finally expelled from all the French territory in 1394, almost 100 years before the Spanish Expulsion (1492), and there were no Jews in France officially for two centuries.
The first group of Jews who returned, albeit initially in the guise of Christians, were Conversos (crypto-Jews, or Marranos) who arrived in the 16th century – after the Expulsion from Spain. Gradually, during the 17th century, many of these families began to openly profess their Judaism, with the acquiescence of the authorities. When France acquired the Eastern territory of Alsace - Lorraine in the 17th century, it similarly acquired a large ‘Ashkenazi’ Jewish population (partly local, partly refugees from persecutions in Eastern Europe). Together, these populations formed the basis for the modern Jewish community in France.
In 1789, the French Revolution took place. It was a highly significant event for the history of modern Europe, and influenced the life of the Jews, providing the trigger that led later to the granting of French citizenship and civil emancipation (equal rights) to Jewish inhabitants. However, Napoleon viewed these solely as individual rights, to "French citizens of the Jewish faith". By the end of the 19th century, the Jews of France had become involved in all aspects of life in their country.
In the early 20th century, thousands of Jews immigrated to France, both from Eastern Europe and from the Sephardi communities in countries of the former Ottoman Empire (which fell during the First World War.), such as: Turkey, North Africa, and Greece. The community grew to about 300,000 in the late 1930s.
The Shoah devastated the French Jewish community: over one quarter of the community was annihilated by the Nazis, initially those who had come to France as refugees and new citizens, but gradually this was extended to all of French Jewry. In addition, one can assume that a significant proportion of the 46,000 unnamed victims deported by the Nazis were Jewish. Also important to note is that many Jews fought in the French Resistance. This was done with the active complicity of the Vichy government (the collaborationist French regime headed by Marshal Petain).
In the years immediately after the Second World War, there was an influx of tens of thousands of Ashkenazi immigrants from Eastern Europe into France, considerably augmenting the depleted population, although not to its previous size. However, the main post-war influx occurred from the mid-1950s onwards, as large numbers of French-speaking Jews from the former French colonies of North Africa relocated to France, seeking refuge in a familiar environment. As the atmosphere in Arab countries became increasingly hostile because of the Arab Israeli conflict and the development of Arab nationalism, the numbers continued to swell and more than 200,000 immigrants eventually joined French Jewry, mainly from Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt. Today, they constitute approximately 60% of the community.
In geographical terms, of the 500,000 or more Jews currently living in France, at least half live in Paris, or in satellite communities around it. The second largest community is in the southern French town of Marseille – with about 70,000. Lyon, Toulouse, Nice and Strasbourg all have communities of between 15,000 and 25,000. In addition, there are hundreds of smaller communities.
Major historical factors affecting the flow of Jews to and from the French Jewish community
Four major factors have affected the inflow and outflow of Jews to and from France, especially before and during the 20th century:
1. Persecutions and pogroms:
The persecutions, together with the unstable economic situation in Eastern Europe at the end of the 19th century, led to the migration from East to West of many Jews in Europe. Some of this immigration arrived in France and settled mainly in Paris.
2. The Shoah:
Over 77,000 French Jews are listed as deported and murdered during the Shoah. 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.
3. The end of French colonial rule in North Africa and the rise of Arab nationalist movements:
During the 1950s, French rule in North Africa came to an end and many Jews decided to rebuild their lives in the framework of a culture that had proved hospitable and attractive to them. The rise of Arab nationalism and the Arab-Israel conflict were additional incentives for many of those who left these countries for France.
4. The rise of Antisemitism:
In recent years, Antisemitism in France has increased, motivating more Jews from the French community to leave France, and some to go on ‘Aliyah’ to Israel: in the years 2002-2003, around 2,300 Jews came to Israel from France, but the number who are considering leaving is far higher.
Main Occupations & Professions
Many of the North African immigrants arrived with traditional artisan skills that had been in their families for generations, but under the impact of France's modern Western economy, they tended to abandon these skills by the second generation, and adapt to the modern economy; many abandoned artisan professions but used the same skills in industry.
The occupational distribution of French Jewry today includes the concentration of people employed in the white collar professions and the business world. A recent survey showed some 21% of French Jews as 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.
Like many other Western Jewish communities, the French community is a largely middle class entity, with at least 60% to be found within this social stratum.
Streams and Movements of Judaism
The background of the modern French community is traditional and orthodox. Prior to the North African immigrations of the 1950s and 1960s, orthodoxy was much weaker - although all French synagogues were 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, which were considered deviancy.
As distinct from many of the earlier Jewish citizens of modern France, most of the immigrants coming from North Africa in the 1950s and 1960s 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 seen a strong movement towards the Haredi world, with about 7% of the Jewish population defining 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 just over 50% of the community: in other words, almost half of the community has no specific religious affiliation at all.
Education and Culture
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. Altogether, the percentage of French Jewish children who go to some kind of Jewish day school stands currently at about 40%.
However, most French Jews choose to send their children to the general educational system. This is an expression of their intense desire to be considered 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, running 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 Jewish. Community leaders were deeply concerned, lest this lead to a backlash against the Jewish 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 in France 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 19th century.
Recent 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 gone up 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 fading of the strong Yiddish culture, characterizing French Jewry in the post-war years, Paris still has some active Yiddish culture and scholarship, as well as being able to boast 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, many of them having an international reputation. 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 by the extreme right-wing and fascist circles of French society.
In parallel with many other Western countries, intermarriage is increasingly accepted by young Jews in France, and has become very prevalent. A recent survey calculated that about 40% of all French Jewish marriages in very recent years have included a non-Jewish partner. The younger generation's tendency to marry non-Jews is one side of the process of becoming part of non-Jewish society in France.
At the same time, in the last twenty years, there has also been a revival of a stronger Jewish identity among French Jews. Spearheading this revival have been many of the descendents of Jewish immigrants from North Africa. A key turning-point came at the beginning of the 1980s, with the ascendancy of these relative newcomers in many of the institutions of French Jewish life, including the Chief Rabbinate.
The French government provides official aid to the Jewish community as an institution, in line with its economic support for institutions of the different religions in the country.
Today, the percentage of Jews in need of welfare and social services is the same as that of the general population in France. Many among the new immigrant groups of the 1950s and 1960s arrived with very limited material resources, 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; today, around 25,000 Jews are registered with welfare services.
The major official social welfare agency working 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 American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), in order to help French Jewry recover from the devastation of the Second World War and the Shoah. Although its scope of activity is far wider than welfare, a considerable proportion of its funds are dedicated to welfare.
Physical Security & Antisemitism
There is a duality in the modern Jewish story in France. On the one hand, France was the first European country to grant equality to its Jews and to make them citizens. This occurred at the time of the French Revolution, in the early 1790s. One of the major 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 perceived by many as the new “motherland”.
However, throughout the 19th 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 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.
While Leon Blum became Prime Minister of France in the inter-war period, despite overt Antisemitism in French political life and French society. The old stereotypes persisted and were even reinforced under the Vichy government of Marshal Petain between 1940 and 1944. This regime was responsible for considerable anti-Jewish legislation and actively collaborated with Nazi deportation policy. France’s acquiescence in the anti-Jewish policies of the Nazis is still a subject of great discussion in France as a whole and among French Jews specifically. Despite President Chirac's official apology of 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 antisemitic incidents in France.
Desecrations of graveyards and attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions have been widespread.
This period has seen the rise of a significant extreme right-wing in the political arena. The principal figure here has beenJean Marie le Pen, who appears to have deep support for his anti-alien policies among the French population.
An additional source of concern has been the developing anti-Israel feeling in the country. Until the Six Day War, in 1967, France was one of Israel’s strongest supporters, but the embargo declared by General De Gaulle on the sale of French arms to Israel, on the eve of the war, signalled 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 strengthened this perception: The government was 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 French Arab community: 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, and attacks against Jews and Jewish institutions escalated in severity in 2004.
The Community Agenda
The agenda of the Jewish community of France resembles that of any modern Western country:
Assimilation and intermarriage represent a problem, as discussed above, but should perhaps be viewed as a part of the larger process of Westernization (read Americanization!) of French life.
Yet there are also problems that are specific to the French community:
- The community is under seige: A feeling of vulnerability has manifested itself strongly in the period since the outbreak of the Al Aqsa intifada, in conjunction with the "new" Antisemitism and outbreaks of violent attacks and physical assault;
- At the same time, its unity is in question: There are significant divisive tensions with the existing religious leadership of the community, while the lay sector is marked by demands for a more dynamic leadership across the board, and particularly for a more pro-active response on Antisemitism.
The Future of the Community
French Jewry has long had a strong relationship with Israel, which is a major component of their Jewish identity, and one of the expressions of this relationship has been considerable numbers of olim. Well over 40,000 Jews have gone on Aliyah since 1948, and recent years have seen a strong stream of olim - especially, although not exclusively, amongst religious Jews. If the current difficulties of the community persist, It is certainly possible that numbers of olim will continue to increase.
- There are other important negative demographic factors: assimilation and intermarriage will continue to take their toll, while the French Jewish community is also affected by a declining birth rate.
- On the other hand, the trend to greater religiosity among parts of the community might do something to offset this trend, at least partially. If the strong cultural and traditional revival among large sections of the community in recent years and this trend continues, it is likely to have a positive impact, in terms of affiliation, in-marriage, fertility and vibrancy of the community.
- Finally, perceived attacks on communities often result in a new cohesiveness, and a new flowering of culture and identity among the more alienated and assimilated sub-groups.
In conclusion, it might be said that the Jewish community of France is going through difficult circumstances which may have several possible outcomes, and it remains to be seen how this will affect the future of the community.
The Connection to Israel
There have been some important French Zionists, including Herzl's chief lieutenant, Max Nordau (born in Budapest; resident in France from 1880), but French Jewry in general has been a minor contributor to Zionism, although the community today identifies very strongly with Israel.
It is possible that the French Jewish community's status as the oldest emancipated Jewry in Europe was a factor in its much stronger perception of France as its homeland than that of some other national Jewish communities, during the formative years of modern Zionism. However, the Holocaust and the attitude of the collaborationist French Vichy government caused many Jews to think again, and in the post war period, we begin to see larger numbers of Jews who consider leaving for Palestine and the Jewish state. Since 1948, more than 40,000 Jews from France have left for Israel.
The influx and established presence of the more traditional North African Jews, many of whom have family ties with Jews in Israel, has also done much to strengthen the ties between the Jews of France and Israel. The number of French Jews estimated to have visited Israel is almost 70%.
In recent years, in the wake of the new antisemitic wave of incidents in France, the interest in Aliyah on the part of French Jews has strengthened considerably, and the community now constitutes the source of one of the largest groups of Olim currently coming to Israel. In the year 2003, for example, some 1,800 Jews came on Aliyah and 20% indicated that they may be considering Aliyah.
The Jewish Community's Contribution to France
French Jews have been involved in most aspects of French life for over two centuries, since the Emancipation. To a large extent, however, their involvement has expressed itself more as individuals, than as members of the Jewish community.
In collective terms, they have been especially active in the middle class and the professions. Many others are involved in public service and a few have reached high positions of public office, including that of Prime Minister.
In intellectual and cultural life, especially throughout the 20th century, French Jews have consistently played an important role:
Suffice to mention:
- The contribution of Pissaro, Soutine, Chagall and Modigliani - all of whom became world famous artists, renowned from the Impressionist period among lovers of Modern Art.
- Writers, such as Marcel Proust and Andres Maurois;
- Scholars such as the sociologist Emile Durkheim;
- The philosophers Henri Bergson and Emanuel Levinas;
- The literary critic Jacques Derrida;
- The anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss;
all of whom are household names in the international intellectual community.
Extensive history to 1903 by period: communities, figures, persecutions, Emancipation, Napoleon, Sanhedrin, Consistoire, Assimilation. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=288&letter=F History, persecutions, monarchs, Napoleon http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Jews_in_France
First chapter of The Jews of France, by Ester Benbassa, online http://www.pupress.princeton.edu/chapters/s6706.html
History of the Jews of Paris http://www.wzo.org.il/en/resources/view.asp?id=1607
The Dreyfus Affair, French Jewry, World Impact, activities http://www.history.ucsb.edu/faculty/rappaport/classes/hist4c/lindemann/Dreyfus%20Affair.pdf
19th Century French Jewry, France, and the Dreyfus Trial http://www.history.ucsb.edu/faculty/rappaport/classes/hist4c/lindemann/Dreyfus%20Affair.pdf
Detailed Timeline for France, French Jewry http://www.uwm.edu/Dept/CJS/holocaust/examnotes.html
Related documents http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/francetoc.html
Manual with Chronology, terms, resource lists http://www.frenchteachers.org/general/DOEgrant/Holocaust/HolocaustManual.pdf
Genealogical resources and statistics http://www.genealoj.org/ENtexte/page17.html
Overview, Antisemitism http://www.jewishjournal.com/home/print.php?id=15087
Address by Mme Simone Weil http://www.fondationshoah.org/anglais/fondation/discours/osce.pdf
Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism http://www.jcpa.org/phas/phas-26.htm
ADL report, 2002 http://www.adl.org/international/lfe/lfe_01_2002.asp
Society, new Antisemitism, leadership http://www.aish.com/jewishissues/jewishsociety/Paris3_When_It_Sizzles_With_Hate.asp