“Any time young people approach me in order to get married, I ask them various questions about their future. Eighty percent of them say they do not envision any future in France.” This is what one rabbi in Paris told me last week. I heard similar statements from other French rabbis and lay Jewish leaders: “We have a feeling the words are on the wall now,” one leader in the Lyons area confided to me. “It is not just our situation in this country deteriorating; it is also that the process is much quicker than expected.”
Even the chief rabbi of France, Gilles Bernheim, may be sharing that view now. A philosopher (holding a prestigious French agrégation degree in philosophy), a graduate of the French Rabbinical School in Paris, and a former student at some of the most orthodox yeshivoth (Talmudic academies) in Jerusalem, Bernheim was until recently very eager to reconcile traditional Judaism with Europe’s “open society.” He has just devoted a book to France as a nation and how Jews can contribute to France’s public debates (N’oublions Pas De Penser La France), and in 2008, the year he was elected chief rabbi, he coauthored a book on Judeo-Christian dialogue (Le Rabbin et le Cardinal) with Cardinal Philippe Barbarin.
Despite all that, Bernheim suddenly warned Jewish leaders a few weeks ago about a growing “rejection” of Jews and Judaism in France, something he linked to the global passing of “Judeo-Christian values” in French society as a whole.
The immediate reason for Jewish pessimism in France and for Bernheim’s change of heart may be the Toulouse massacre last March: the murder in cold blood of three Jewish children and a Jewish teacher by Mohamed Merah, a Muslim terrorist, on their school’s premises. This crime, instead of instilling more compassion and understanding towards the Jewish community, has actually generated more anti-Jewish violence and hate talk, as if Merah was not seen as a vile thug but rather as a model by parts of the population.
There were no less than six cases of aggravated assault on Jewish youths or rabbis in France from March 26 to July 5, including one case in Toulouse again. According to the Representative Council of French Jewish Organizations (CRIF), anti-Semitic incidents of all sorts have increased by 53% compared to the same period last year.