No Future in France: Dire Times for French Jews
“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.
President François Hollande and Minister of the the Interior Manuel Valls must be credited for taking the present anti-Semitic crisis seriously, a noted departure from the ambivalent attitude of the last socialist administration of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin ten years ago. On July 22 -- on the seventieth anniversary of the “grande raffle” (“great round-up”) of Jews by the Vichy government police in 1942 -- Hollande drew a parallel between the Toulouse massacre and the deportation and mass murder of Jewish children during the Holocaust. As for Valls, he not only repeatedly acknowledged that “there was an upsurge of anti-Semitism in France,” but on July 8 went so far as to stigmatize the “most stupid, most dangerous new anti-Semitism” brooding among “young and not-so-young people” in the “neighborhoods” (a code word for Muslim enclaves). Quite a bold statement, since the Socialist party and the Left at large primarily derive their present electoral edge in France from the Muslim vote. Valls and his staff may also have inspired several no-nonsense reports on anti-Semitism that were recently published in the liberal, pro-socialist press.
The connection between Muslim immigration -- or Muslim-influenced Third World immigration -- and the rise of a new anti-Semitism is a fact all over Europe. Muslims come from countries (or are culturally attuned to countries) where unreconstructed, Nazi-style Jew-bashing dominates. They are impervious to the ethical debate about the Holocaust and the rejection of anti-Jewish stereotypes that were gradually incorporated into the European political discourse and consciousness in the second half of the 20th century (to the point that lessons on the Holocaust are frequently dropped from the curriculum at schools with a plurality or a majority of Muslim pupils), and are more likely than non-Muslims to engage in assaults, attacks, or harassment practices directed at Jews. Moreover, Muslim anti-Semitism reactivates in many places a dormant, but by no means extinct, non-Muslim European anti-Semitism. Once Muslims are unopposed, or at least unprosecuted, when they challenge the historical veracity of the Holocaust or when they refer to the The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as an authentic document, a growing number of non-Muslims feel free to do the same.
Muslim immigration is nurturing European anti-Semitism in more surprising ways as well. One unintended and ironic consequence of European Islam’s demographic growth is that Jews are frequently amalgamated with Muslims. Many people use a widespread concern about a growing influence of Islam in Europe as a way to hurt Jews as well, or to hit them first.
Clearly, there are outward similarities between Judaism and Islam. Both religions originated in the Near East, and are -- as of 2012 -- related to Near or Middle East countries. Both use Semitic languages. Both insist on rituals, particularly in terms of gender roles, family life, or food, that do not fit with the current mainstream European way of life.
However, differences between Judaism and Islam may outweigh similarities. As far as Near Eastern or Middle Eastern countries are concerned, Muslims turn to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the strongholds of anti-Western hatred, while Jews turn to Israel, the super-Western “start-up nation.” In terms of ritual, kosher slaughtering -- a quasi-surgical operation -- is as remote from halal slaughtering as from secular slaughtering. Jewish circumcision is performed on newborn babies and is much closer to secular prophylactic circumcision (as it is largely practiced in the United States) than to Islamic circumcision, which is performed on boys in their preteens or early teens. And when it comes to relations between politics and religion, there is simply a chasm between the two religions. Judaism (including Orthodox Judaism) is not interested in mass conversion; does not seek to wrest Europe or any historically Christian part of the world from Christianity; recognizes the supremacy of state law over religious law in non-ritual matters; and sees Western democracy -- a polity based on the rule of law -- as the most legitimate political system.
But Europeans are not culturally equipped to understand such nuances or to keep them in mind (far less than the Americans, who are more religious-minded, more conversant in Biblical matters, and more familiar with the Jewish way of life). Jules Renard, an early 20th century French writer, wrote about his cat: “I keep telling him to hunt mice and let the canaries alone. Very subtle guidelines, I must admit. Even intelligent cats can get wrong on this issue.” And decide that eating canaries is easier and more satisfying than hunting mice. Regarding Judaism and Islam, most Europeans are like Renard’s cat. And what usually originates as a reaction against difficulties linked to radical brands of Islam quickly evolves into a primarily anti-Jewish business.
Earlier this year in France, during the last months of the conservative Sarkozy administration, a debate about the rapidly growing halal meat industry led to attacks against the kosher meat industry as well, complete with uncomely remarks about “old-fashioned rituals” by then-Prime Minister François Fillon. While Fillon subsequently “clarified” his views, the Sarkozy administration upheld its support for some kind of “tagging” of “ritually slaughtered meat,” a European Union-promoted practice that would prompt commercial boycott of such food and thus make it financially unaffordable for most prospective buyers. Since kosher meat regulations are much stricter than halal meat regulations, religious Jews would be more hurt at the end of the day than religious Muslims. The reason why French conservatives were so fond of tagging is that a 2009 poll shows a 72% rejection of “ritual slaughtering” writ large. And Marine Le Pen, the far-right presidential candidate, dwelled on that issue for a while.
In Germany, a rare case of malpractice by a German Muslim doctor in a Muslim circumcision led a court in Cologne to ban circumcision on children all over Germany on June 19, on the quite extravagant grounds that only legal adults may decide on issues irreversibly affecting their body, except for purely medical reasons. Which is tantamount, in the considered issue, to denying parents the right to pass their religion to their children.
Conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel immediately filled a bill to make religious circumcision legal in Germany, and it was passed on July 19 by the Bundestag (somehow, German conservatives are nowadays more genuinely conservative than, say, their French counterparts). But according to a YouGov poll for the DPA news agency released at about the same moment, 45% of Germans support the ban, while only 42% oppose it.
In an even more ominous instance, Judaism has been singled out in a protracted intellectual debate in France since early June, as the fountainhead, past and present, of totalitarianism and political violence and thus as a more dangerous religion than radical Islam.
The charge was made in Le Point, an important right-of-center newsmagazine, by Michel Onfray, a commercially successful dabbling philosopher and a long-time supporter of the radical Left, who himself reviewed and approvingly quoted Who Is God? (Qui est Dieu), an essay by another controversial author, the former diplomat Jean Soler. In the 1970s Soler, who holds an agrégation degree in Greek and Latin classical studies but was never academically trained in anthropology, Semitics, or Near Eastern history, applied a structuralist approach to the study of Jewish rituals and won some polite applause from French, Israeli, and American scholars. Later on, when structuralism fell out of fashion, he sort of remixed his early work with neo-Marcionite currents in 19th century and early 20th century German and French Biblical criticism which claimed there was no spirituality at all, and indeed no real monotheism, in the Old Testament, a narrowly “tribalist” book. Or that everything spiritual in the Old Testament was a transplant from other cultures, either Pharaonic Egypt or Indo-European Iran.
Very few people in France realize what Soler’s later writing is really about, and that his approach or sources do not fit present academic standards. Even fewer people are aware that the neo-Marcionite hypothesis to which Soler has switched and which Onfray supports exerted a major influence on Nazi anti-Semitism (including the so-called “German Christian” movement) and remained after 1945 a major polemical tool in neo-Nazi or post-Nazi circles. So much so that the media had no qualms engaging for weeks in multifaceted debates and discussions about the Soler/Onfray contentions and thus, for all practical matters, promoted them.
The second half of the 20th century was a golden age for French Jews, both in terms of numbers (from 250,000 souls in 1945 to 700,000 in 1970 due to population transfers and natural growth) and in terms of religious and cultural revival. There was only one shadow: the French government’s anti-Israel switch engineered by Charles de Gaulle in 1966, in part as a consequence of a more global anti-American switch. The 21st century may however be a much darker age. After a first wave of anti-Jewish violence in the early 2000s, some Jews left for Israel or North America. Emigration never really ceased since then, and may soon reach much more important proportions.