President Hollande with the rabbi

The French Jewish Community

By Rachel Kaplan

Paris–Less than a week after the murder of four Jews at the Hyper Cacher supermarket in the eastern part of Paris, four French soldiers in camouflage, brandishing machine guns, stand like sentinels in front of the Jewish Museum of Art and History on the rue du Temple. They are there to protect the museum and its staff, as well as its precious collections, which include one of the finest displays of ancient menorahs in the world.

The Jewish Museum of Art and History, housed inside a magnificent mansion in the Marais district, was inaugurated in 1998 with the joint support of the city of Paris and the French government. Eugène Atget photographed this same building at the end of the 19th century, when it was divided into workshops and living quarters for impoverished Jewish immigrants from Poland, Romania, and Ukraine.

President Hollande with the rabbi
President Hollande with the rabbi

Not even a generous donation of €15 million from the French government to transform this former mansion into an internationally acclaimed Jewish museum can eradicate the building’s haunted past: during the roundups of the Jews in Paris, some inhabitants of the building were arrested and deported. Thirteen of them died in Nazi concentration camps, a fact that is documented in the magnified identity cards that helped send each victim to their death, as well as by a work by conceptual artist Christian Boltanski consisting of blown-up funeral notices of each victim pasted on an interior concrete wall clearly visible to visitors.

Yet, even as the museum takes the trouble to educate the public about Vichy’s past anti-Semitic crimes, the world’s third-largest community, estimated at 600,000 Jews, feels once again under attack, only this time from a different and more nebulous enemy, albeit with French passports. Whereas the attacks on French Jews were once perpetrated by the National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen, today they are more likely to come from disaffected Muslim youths, many of whom have dreams of joining a holy war in Syria or Libya.

The killing of four Jews in a kosher supermarket on January 9 just before Shabbos was the most prominent in a series of incidents, the frequency of which had been growing exponentially over the past few years. Whereas there were fewer than twenty anti-Semitic incidents prior to 2000, the number rose to nearly one thousand in 2014, including anti-Semitic outbursts, vandalism, physical intimidation, and assaults.

Inside the shul
Inside the shul

Last July, despite the government’s ban against demonstrations in both Paris and in the banlieues (suburbs), French-born youths mainly from North African immigrant families went on a rampage in Sarcelles–known as “the little Jerusalem of France,” with the largest observant Jewish population. Spurred by anti-Israeli social-media networks and armed with bars and clubs, the Muslim delinquents burned a kosher grocery and Jewish-owned pharmacy to the ground, all the while shouting “Death to Israel.” A synagogue in nearby Garges was firebombed.

“Last summer, France saw its first Kristallnacht in Sarcelles,” notes Rabbi Moshe Sebbag, head of the Victoire Synagogue, the largest in France. “While Israel was defending itself against the rockets of Hamas, there were demonstrators yelling “Death to the Jews” on the Place de la République and in front of the Pantheon in Paris.”

There was even trouble in the highly touristic Jewish quarter in the Marais. “Some of the demonstrators against the intifada tried to attack Pitzman, the kosher dairy and pizza restaurant on the rue Pavée,” recalls the owner of the Librairie du Temple, Louise Magnichever. “They called the police and the demonstrators were immediately arrested.”

On January 9, the day of Amedy Coulibaly’s assault on the Hyper Cacher in Vincennes, the mayor of the 4th district ordered the Jewish shopkeepers, including kosher butchers, delis, and restaurants, to shut down at 2 p.m. “We hadn’t seen a situation like that since Goldenberg’s was bombed in 1982,” Mrs. Magnichever recalls.

Since the tragic events at Hyper Cacher, the rue des Rosiers is heavily policed, with an around-the-clock presence of uniformed and plainclothes security, as well as a parked police car on the main artery. But even if representatives from the Lubavitch community sell tefillin under the watchful eyes of the French military on a Sunday, there are still long lines for the falafel and schwarma from l’As du Felafel and other nearby delis. “I haven’t noticed a drop in visitors to the area since these events took place,” says Mrs. Magnichever. “It’s important to resume life as it was before all this happened.”

Not everyone agrees that life is back to normal, however. “Even if the Jews love France–and they do love it–they are also afraid,” notes Sebbag, whose phone rings incessantly with interview requests. The day I meet with him, he has been interviewed by Sky News, a British television network. “I asked several Jewish families to join me in the interview, but they all refused,” he notes. “They don’t want to show their faces, because they are afraid of physical retaliation. That’s the state of mind of many Jews in France today.”

French Jews - IMG_3880

Sebbag, a native Israeli with degrees in engineering and rabbinical studies, praises the strong condemnation of anti-Semitic acts by both President François Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls. “Our relationship with the government is extraordinary,” he says.

Still, one can’t be too cautious. Every piece of mail sent to his office at the Consistory (the Jewish Board of Rabbis) is checked and stamped with the word “security” in French–confirming that the Jewish community’s safety can no longer be taken for granted.

In light of the tensions that have escalated in recent years between the Jewish and Muslim communities over Israel, as well as the fact that France is joining the fight against ISIS in Syria and Mali, many non-Jews as well as Jews remain pessimistic about the future.

“Everyone believes that even if the government deploys soldiers and police to protect every Jewish day school, every synagogue, and every district, there will still be more attacks,” Sebbag notes. That is not all. “The situation for Jews has changed. We used to have 200 schools a year visiting this synagogue to learn about Judaism and the Jewish community of France. Now we’re down to 20. In the school bulletins that we come across, we read that 50% of the Muslims in class don’t want to come. Today, for the first time, people are asking if they should continue to teach about the Holocaust–a subject that is part of the school curriculum.”

The concerns of today’s Jewish community are no longer rooted in the past. Many parents are so worried for their children’s safety that 30% have enrolled them in either secular Catholic schools or Jewish day schools–something that was unthinkable 15 years ago. While many observant Jews want to wear yarmulkes in the street, some feel these days that it is more prudent to cover their head with a baseball cap.

Despite these developments, the January 11 march through the streets of Paris demonstrated an unprecedented outpouring of support for freedom of speech and expression as well as for the Jewish community of France. For the first time, the crowd carried signs that read “je suis juif” (I am Jewish) as well as “je suis Charlie” —something that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. At the time, most Jews preferred to call themselves “isréalites” rather than “juif”–partly because the latter had had such a negative connotation throughout French history.

Still, even if the word juif is more socially acceptable, staunch supporters of Israel have been under attack. Rabbi Yeshaya Dalsace, a Conservative rabbi who works out of an unprotected storefront synagogue in the 20th district of Paris, maintains that left-wing intellectuals (including Jews) have a negative view of Israel’s current policies and this situation has had negative repercussions for French Jews. “We are just beginning to realize that anti-Zionism is another form of anti-Semitism,” he says. “Many French people on the Left are very critical of Israel and are pro-Palestinian, and that is one reason why French Jews who side with Israel feel under attack. This same Left wing treats the Palestinians as martyrs, not as a people that wants to destroy Israel.”

It wasn’t always this way, of course. More French people–Jews and non-Jews–have visited Israel than Americans, Dalsace maintains. “It’s hard to believe, but in the 1950s until the Six Day War, France was a better friend to Israel than the United States,” he continues. “It was France that enabled Israel to become a nuclear power, for instance.” Even after Charles de Gaulle opposed nuclear cooperation between Israel and France, his pro-Israel ministers defied him and completed the project without his approval.

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Dalsace maintains that it is essential to understand the evolution of the French Jewish community since the liberation of Auschwitz. “Following the war, there was a total blackout on the roundup of Jews and the fact that a third of France’s Jews perished in the camps. Furthermore, there were almost no kosher restaurants, only a few Jewish day schools, and virtually no outward signs of Jewishness.” (Anti-Semitism was not the only factor at play–so was France’s strong secular approach towards religion, which continues to this day; for instance, Jewish students cannot make up exams on another day if they choose to observe Shabbat or the High Holy Days.)

After 1962, the French Jewish community became more visible and active after the influx of North African Jewish immigrants following the independence of Algeria. Practically overnight, several hundred thousand Jews (all of whom had French citizenship) fled to France, fearing Algerian Muslim reprisals since they had supported French Algeria. “Theirs was a whole new sort of Judaism, which didn’t feel it had to hide,” noted Dalsace. “They wore kippahs and Jewish stars around their neck and showed them in public.”

Still, it wasn’t until Mitterrand came to power that Jewish culture became visible to the rest of the French population. Mitterrand was the first French president to make a state visit to Israel, to travel to the Soviet Union to meet with Jewish dissidents, as well as the first to make Jews prominent in his government. It was also under Mitterrand that Klaus Barbie, whose capture was spearheaded by Serge and Beate Klarsfeld, was tried in Lyon for crimes against humanity.

Still, it wasn’t until 1995 that French president Jacques Chirac formally recognized Vichy’s crimes against the Jews as well as the French people’s complicity in sending a third of its Jews to the gas chambers.

An Exodus?

Will there be a massive exodus, as many in French Jewish media and institutions predict? It’s hard to say. Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who has a Jewish spouse, maintains that “France without its Jews isn’t France.”

Stephen Berkowitz, an American Reform rabbi who now teaches at Copernic Synagogue in Paris (France’s oldest Reform synagogue) believes that the aliyah movement from France to Israel is overblown. “If you are a secular, non-affiliated Jew, living your life, with a network of gentile as well as Jewish friends, you’re not likely to immigrate to Israel,” he says. “I think you have to see this situation in its proper context. Twenty-five years ago there was virulent black anti-Semitism in the United States. People forget that. Did American Jews head for Israel? Hardly. I think the same is true for French Jews.”

“The 17th arrondissement of Paris is the largest growing Jewish neighborhood in continental Europe,” Berkowitz continues. “It is true that in 2014, 6,900 Jews left France for Israel. But what people forget to mention is that 15—20% of them don’t succeed in making aliyah. Some French Jewish retirees find it financially advantageous to live in Israel. They maintain homes in France and in Israel. Others find that Israel has a more conducive business climate than France. There are a multitude of reasons to relocate to Israel, and they don’t only have to do with anti-Semitism.”

“People who have strong ties and businesses in France will probably remain here,” notes Mrs. Magnichever. “Young people who are seeking new business opportunities as well as a more supportive environment in which to openly practice their religion may emigrate to either Israel or the United States. After all, they have less to lose.”

Rabbi Michel Serfaty would like to believe that his organization, the AMJF (Arab—Jewish Friendship Committee of France), may hold a viable solution for both French Jews and Muslims. (The headquarters of the AMJF shares space with a modern-day Orthodox synagogue in the bedroom community of Ris-Orangis, 30 minutes away from Paris by train.)

Made of brick, wood, and glass, Serfaty’s synagogue could have been designed by Le Corbusier–its striking design is divided by a wall that is joined to a local Baptist church. Next door is a very discreet mosque located in a cinderblock edifice.

For the past decade, in the company of different youth mediators, Serfaty has been spearheading a movement encouraging meetings in France’s public-housing project youth centers (where many police and politicians still fear to go). His goal: to understand the socioeconomic situation of young, unemployed, and poorly educated Muslims, as well as the roots of their prejudice, and to see how this new form of anti-Semitism might be eradicated.

Serfaty’s undertaking is both vast and daunting. One of his youth mediators, Magassa Abudalaye, a Muslim from Mauritania, notes, “Many of these young people are so illiterate, they don’t understand what discrimination means or what a prejudice is. And they are in 9th grade.”

The day of my visit, two French soldiers in combat outfits and a police car are stationed in front of the synagogue. Since the killings at Hyper Cacher, the local prefect insists upon a heavy security details to protect the rabbi and his staff, despite the rabbi’s protests. Serfaty wishes the situation were otherwise. “It would be better to budget for four more mediators who can help to create understanding between Jews and Muslims than to spend money protecting me in this way.”

“We can’t treat this situation as if we are in a war,” he insists. “We need to talk and understand one another. Last summer, we made a pact with the Muslims of Evry–the local imam made sure that no one joined the hate demonstrations in Paris or in Sarcelles. We succeeded where the government failed. We are the only Judeo-Muslim association of this kind in France. We have hundreds of rabbis and imams, as well as youth-group leaders, calling on us for help every day.”

While communication between Jews and Muslims is starting to open up in a variety of ways–the more courageous and learned Muslim intellectuals are even openly critical of certain anti-Semitic passages in the Koran–both ignorance and high unemployment in the Muslim community have prompted as many as 3,000 French Muslims to join the international jihad movement. That problem is not going away, and the French government is now taking a much more muscular approach to this situation.

“We have to recognize that there is a big gulf between the Jewish and Muslim cultures, even today,” notes Rabbi Dalsace. “The Jews remain the people of the Book–whereas there is a high level of illiteracy among Muslims, even today.”

“Whereas Jews may be critical of France, they have never spit on their country, even after so much harm was done to us during the war,” he adds. “It’s now time for French Muslims to look at the problems within their community.”

Should this happen, they would certainly be joining the Jews in their love of France.

Rachel Kaplan is president of European Jewish Heritage Tours (, based in Paris for over 20 years.


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