Why France is seeing an exodus of its Jews
In January 1992, I took my Uncle René to the Bastille. It was our last opportunity to go to the opera. René was about to join his daughter in Israel, ending three centuries of our family’s existence as French Jews – Jews who were as proud of their republican heritage as they were meticulous in their religious devotions.
Our family lived in the ninth arrondissement and normally went to the opera at the old Palais Garnier, a chandeliered relic of French pomp. René did not think much of the concrete Opéra Bastille. Nor of the country’s direction. When I asked why he was leaving France, he said: “C’est terminé.”
In the wake of last week’s Islamist attacks on cherished freedoms – and on innocent families out shopping for the Sabbath – there has been much talk of renewed unity. Yesterday’s march through Paris was a stirring symbol of that.
But the rift between the Republic and its Jewish citizens did not begin last week. It has a longer history.
My family were hugely proud of being French. We can trace our lineage back to the dawn of citizenship records, to 1727, in a village on the outskirts of Strasbourg. Our patriarch was Grand Rabbin of the Lower Rhine, the first Jewish preacher to deliver sermons in French. When the Germans occupied Alsace-Lorraine in 1870, we moved to Paris. My ancestors were never going to live under any flag but the Tricolore.We founded an orthodox synagogue at the back of the Folies-Bergère. My Aunt Fifi would giggle as we passed display cases of half-naked entertainers, whispering to me about what went on in there. On the day she was born – August 1 1914 – my grandfather went off to the Front, serving for the full four years, never omitting to wrap a Jewish talit around his French uniform at morning prayers. A wooden board in the rue Cadet synagogue lists more than 20 members of our family who gave their lives for France in that war and others – who “fell on the field of honour”, in the official phrase.
Aunt Fifi would never marry: most French Jewish men of her generation were exiled or exterminated. In the Second World War, a great-uncle, Samuel, was shot dead in the street by a German soldier. Other relatives were deported to death camps. My grandparents fled south, surviving by luck, wit and the kindness of strangers. Uncle René went underground with the Résistance.
Peacetime or war, our loyalty to France was absolute. It even survived the Dreyfus Affair, when a Jewish army officer was falsely prosecuted for espionage, and the “dark times of the Thirties”, when large sections of the French media promoted Nazi prejudices against Jews.
For our family, being Jewish and French are inseparable strands of our identity. Our family tomb is in Montmartre, at the very heart of French culture. We embraced the Republic even when it impinged on our core beliefs – requiring Jewish children, for instance, to attend school on the Sabbath. We accepted the centrality of the state in exchange for its celestial values: liberty, equality and fraternal dialogue. The dogmas of the Republic were our guarantee of tolerance. We participated in the life of France, its culture, its economy. Some distant cousins became Christian; one is married to a Muslim.
We were part of France – until France ceased to be France. The problem was not the waves of North African immigration from the Sixties onwards. Those waves actually contained many Jews: Uncle René, annoyed by a young Israeli rabbi, stormed out of rue Cadet to form a new community with Moroccans and Tunisians.
For a while, Paris seemed friendlier than ever, and Jews a vital part of its élan. Alain Finkielkraut and Bernard-Henri Lévy, two popular TV philosophers, are avowedly Jewish. A celebrated bass-baritone at the Opéra, Laurent Naouri, belongs to a family of kosher supermarket owners.
But the alienated populace in the outer suburbs, ignored by the Republic and exploited by radical preachers, contributed to Jewish unease. Some streets were no longer safe to walk in a skullcap. Anti-Semitic rhetoric was heard on the Right, on the Left, and from the banlieues. Murderous attacks on Jewish schools aroused no national outrage on the scale seen in the past week.
So Jews fled in their thousands – many to London, where two new communities have sprung up in my own neighbourhood. Some 3,300 left for Israel in 2013, rising to 5,000 last year. Many more French Jews acquired homes abroad.
France awoke too late to the exodus. Last September, prime minister Manuel Valls, whose violinist wife is Jewish, put on a skullcap at a central synagogue and announced to the world that “a France without Jews is no longer France”. This weekend, for the first time since the Nazi era, that same synagogue had to shut for the Sabbath because the state was unable to protect its worshippers.
France is in a state of moral confusion. Yesterday a million marched in Paris and the impressive Mr Valls declared: “We are all Charlie, we are all police, we are all Jews of France.”
How I long to believe that. My Jewish friends were out on the streets of Paris this weekend, hoping that, after this tragic moment, the tide will turn. For myself, I am unable to pretend that life will go on as before. My history, as a Jew of France, is over.