French Jewry: The End of a Model of Jewish Identity
By Shmuel Trigano
After the Shoah, a new model of Jewish identity was born in
France, one that defined itself in relation to the "community",
in other words, a Jewish collective destiny, a "Jewish
people" that the birth of the State of Israel at the same
period came to embody. This was a new type of identity,
because France's centralist political culture had never
allowed such an identity to come about before. The French
political culture only recognizes anonymous individuals
as its citizens. The combined events of the unification
of Europe (leading to the weakening of Nation-States and
national identities) and the simultaneous massive Arab-Muslim
immigration made this model of identity impossible. Society
no longer supports it but rather delegitimizes it and dissolves
it into itself. The antisemitic crisis of the 21st century
is only the apparent side of a profound and radical crisis
that is putting French Jewishness at a crucial crossroad
of its destiny. The article analyzes various possible scenarios
for a future posing of the terms of the problem.
the end of 2000 and the end of 2001, French Jews experienced
a situation they could hardly have imagined some time before.
During some long anguishing months, they were victims
of 450 attacks in a complete black-out by the media, political
and Jewish institutions which were asked by the socialist
government not "to add fuel to the fire."
French Jews tried to alert public opinion and ask for help, they
were rudely rebuffed, charged
and racism. They felt they had been abandoned by the government
and left in a suddenly foreign society. The antisemitic attacks
were not condemned or criticized at the time. Far from it! The
French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hubert Vedrines, caused no
outcry when he expressed his understanding for the anger of the
young Arabs and Muslims in the poor suburban areas at what Israel
was doing to the Palestinians. All the attacks, in fact, came
from this milieu.
to Israel concealed the antisemitic phenomenon to the point that
it was simply denied.
The state prosecutor
of a town in southern France discharged and released three men
charged with the burning of a synagogue, declaring that the arson "was
not the action of antisemites but of three young men with nothing
We had to wait for the return of the right to power - and especially the minister
of Interior Nicolas Sarkozy - for a radical change in policy on the part of
the government. But nothing changed in the media.
In the meantime, something has snapped in the
consciousness of French Jews. This experience has reminded them
of ancient traumas and pushed them to have radical thoughts concerning
The problem of French Jewry is related, of course,
to the emergence on the political stage of a new population, including
important sectors that carry a latent antisemitism which has been
revived by militant fundamentalism. Because the new population
is experiencing significant demographic growth, it is being courted
by the political parties. French society seems then to have sacrificed
the Jews in order not to alienate French Arabs and Muslims. A fatal
choice has been made.
more basic problem also exists: the way French society reacted
to these attacks, always beginning
refusing to accept the reality and accusing the Jewish community
of being the instigator of aggression. As always, the Jews have
been accused of being responsible for the outbreak of antisemitism.
The same reaction occurred some years afterwards, in 2006, even
after Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy came to power, when the
young man Ilan Halimi was murdered. These reactions are the symptom
of a profound crisis: a permanent, not temporary, crisis of the
Jewish condition in France.
The main accusation against the Jews during those
years, and already during the 1990s, informs us about the problem.
Indeed, the Jews were largely accused of what is in France a political
sin: communautarisme. This is a typically French ideological
notion, very different from the American communitarianism. The
French term signifies that one is at odds with the Republican State
and its laws and that one lacks fidelity to the nation. This accusation
seems a strange one to make against the Jews, who have been French
citizens for a very long time (since 1791 for the Jews in France,
and 1870 for the bulk of North African Jewry, the Jews of Algeria).
French Judaism, moreover, entered into the national pact with the
state in 1807, reconstituting itself so that Jews could perform
their duties as individual and anonymous citizens and no more as
a community. Consistorial Judaism was born. Napoleon created the "Consistoire" as
a unique and obligatory religious institution for the Jews.
My thesis is that the Jewish identity born after
World War II is no longer backed up by French society. It became
a thing of the past. The Jews are at a crossroads and will have
to choose which road they will take. There is, obviously, a hidden
dimension to this situation: France itself is facing an important
and totally new challenge concerning its identity and state; its
future will be determined at the same time. French Jews have the
feeling that they are experiencing the last dying light of an entire
I will try to analyze the nature of that crisis
and the evolution of European attitudes towards the Jews. French
reactions, in fact, have a sociological-political origin that should
also be contextualized within the framework of a more global European
attitude toward the Jews.
This evolution has been defined as a new antisemitism.
It concerns not only the immigrants' fundamentalist circles
but also larger French public opinion. This term, new antisemitism,
refers to a complex attitude which fuses the memory of the Shoah,
attacks against the Jews by Muslim activists, the fate of the state
of Israel and the Palestinian attack which followed the Oslo agreement.
is a paradoxical attitude, on the one hand celebrating the Shoah and,
on the other hand, accusing Israel of being Nazi, or the Jews
of aggression and
of abusing the memory
of the Shoah. The Jew that the memory of the Shoah recognizes is
only a victim, the embodiment of victimhood within humanity. When
the Jews step out of this category, they are accused in the name
of the morality of the Shoah of being torturers.
A splitting of the Jew in two is occurring here,
in a manner reminiscent of Paul in the Epistle to the Romans.
As a body, the Jew is dead and celebrated, as a living person,
he is accused of wickedness. Through this symbolic operation, Europe
identifies with the dead body, the victim, in order to exonerate
itself. But when the Jew naturally steps outside this pseudo-moral
jail, he is no longer recognized but rather excluded, for what
are maintained to be the best reasons in the world.
this basis, there is a symbolic exchange or displacement occurring
between the Jewish (dead) victim and the so-called victim of
the Jews: the Palestinians, so that
European compassion for the victim has been transferred to the "people
in danger" as the Palestinians have been called. No longer victims,
the Jews became the persecutors of the Palestinians (the so-called "original
sin" of the state of Israel), and this permits the Europeans who
identify with the victim not to face their own culpability towards
To understand the present situation, it is necessary
to understand the framework of the Jewish condition in France.
This is not necessarily an easy thing for Americans to understand,
living in a federal, continental state constituted by immigrants
from all over the world. It is diametrically opposed to the centralist
French state, heir to a very integrated and monolithic cultural
fact, there never has been a place in France for a Jewish identity,
for a Jewish community
or for any other
minority community. Some years ago, the French Constitutional Court
declared unconstitutional the European charter of regional languages
that the French government had just signed, because a "Corsican
people" was mentioned and there is no such people within the French
Republic. Moreover, a Jewish community did not exist as such until
the 1950s, with the exception of the peripheral immigrant community
from Eastern Europe after the 1920s. Jews entered citizenship only
as individuals and only on condition that they renounce their belonging
to the Jewish people and their cultural identity. The concept of
a Jewish people is unconstitutional. Nevertheless, that is not
the way things actually went in history: the Jews have been regularly
suspected of being a community in any case. Some years after the
Emancipation, Napoleon constituted them anew as a community, with
an obligatory membership to a central religious body, the Central
Because of this discrepancy between the formal
status of the Jews and their real experience, every forty years
there has been an antisemitic crisis in France, beginning with
the 1848 revolutions, then the Dreyfus affair, then the 1930s antisemitism,
then the Vichy regime which stripped them of their citizenship
en masse, as a people. Xavier Vallat, the Vichy commissioner for
Jewish affairs, said once that the Jews were a foreign people
inside the French people.
famous saying of De Gaulle about the "Jewish
people, sure of themselves and domineering" was the first symptom
in post-war France of such a suspicion of the existence of a secret
people inside French citizenry; it was the first time such an important
leader spoke about the Jews as a people, a cosmopolitan people,
with its own agenda related to another state, Israel. De Gaulle,
moreover, linked his accusation to the memory of the Shoah, described
as the only basis for recognition of a Jewish people. But, with
the crisis of 1968 and his withdrawal from power, his words had
no immediate consequences.
is, of course, a Jewish people: it is a historical fact. The
new Jewish identity born in France
War II assumed this identity. To be more precise, it was born during
the war, in the Resistance, when the Jews created in 1944 an autonomous
representative body, the CRIF [Conseil représentatif des institutions
juives de France--Representative Council of Jewish Institutions
of France]. It is easy to understand why: the Jews had been destroyed
as a people despite their individual constitutional status as citizens
and nationals. It was no longer possible to deny this reality.
The new Jewish identity which was defined as a "Judaism in the
public square" [le juda´sme dans la Cité] developed a communal
identity, with a presence outside in the public square, in civil
society, not only in the synagogue. It was an identity that asserted
itself on the social, quasi-political, and educational scenes.
It even expressed itself on the cultural scene with the development
of a school of Jewish thought, the Parisian Jewish school of thought. "Consistorial" Judaism
remained the backbone of this identity, theoretically but also
practically, because the CRIF's president was also the Consistoire's
Consistorial Judaism is a flexible, Modern Orthodox
Judaism accepted by a large spectrum of Jews, so that before the
1980s there were no significant Reform or ultra-Orthodox constituencies.
After the separation of church and state, the Jews kept consistorial
These developments did not provoke any problem
in the 1950s and the early 1960s. France was changing under the
effects of the Marshall Plan: a process of modernization, urbanization
and industrialization was underway.
But this new model of Jewish communal identity
is gone today. The landscape has totally changed around the Jewish
community. The Jewish community has lost its legitimacy in the
eyes of public, national opinion which defines itself as republican.
We arrived at this situation for global reasons
at both the European level and at the internal political level.
The atmosphere is no longer open to Jewish assertiveness in the
public square. To understand why, we need to understand the state
of the French nation. The European unification process shook the
foundations of the nation-state which gave its framework to European
democracy and especially to France. Because of France's centralist
spirit the consequences have been stronger there. In France, the
State created the nation, while in Germany it was the exact contrary.
Just as national identity was collapsing, a demographic
shock was occurring with huge immigration from Arab and Muslim
countries (between 5 to 10 million out of a total population of
60 million, the precise number is unknown because in France you
cannot ask anyone about his or her religion or origin),
a situation complicated by the fundamentalist threat developing
throughout the Muslim world. This cast French identity into question
as well. The immigrant population has not been integrated--it seems
that a part of it does not even want to be--so that it appears
as a closed community, endangering the Republic.
then on, anything that resembled a community was seen as problematic.
And thus the Jewish community's communal identity became a problem
This process began around the mid 1980s and burst out with the first affair
of the Islamic veil in 1989, the year of the Bicentennial anniversary of the
French Revolution. Islamic fundamentalism was denounced along with Jewish fundamentalism. Laicité [secularism]
became a militant ideology which ended up reversing all the gains that communal
identity had obtained from the secular state. The Jewish community has entered
a new Ice Age.
This radical change in the status of the Jews
was accompanied by two other processes that worked to overthrow
the communal model and which can explain recent developments. During
his second presidency (beginning in 1985) Francois Mitterrand recruited
the Jewish community to serve his new strategy, intended to take
over following his renunciation of the socialist program, a new
strategy based on the formation of an "anti-fascist" front.
Mitterrand's aim was to pulverize the Right, by
making it hostage of the extreme Right, and eventually pulverize
his own Socialist party (which really happened in the 2002 elections
when it was caught in a pincer movement between the Right and far
Left). Mitterrand called on France to transcend the Right-Left
divide in order to face a common fascist enemy and defend the Republic,
an enemy he had wholly fabricated from start to finish in the person
of Jean Marie Le Pen.
The whole of French political life began to be
centered on Le Pen. The Jewish community was very much in demand
because Mitterrand needed to rally the classical victims of extreme
Right antisemitism around his fight against this then artificial
threat. Already, the attack on the Rue Copernic Synagogue in 1980,
committed by Palestinian terrorists, had been spontaneously attributed
to the extreme Right, which paved the way to a series of huge demonstrations
against fascism. The desecration of a Jewish cemetery in the town
of Carpentras (May 1990) gave way to another such manipulation
of public opinion by Mitterrand's government.
This strategy was based on the mobilization of
public opinion. The organization SOS-Racisme was created for this
purpose. The Jewish student organization played a decisive role
in implementing Mitterrand's strategy. This was the beginning of
Mitterand's recruitment of Jewish institutions and opinion for
his own purposes.
slogan "Jews equal immigrants" gave the finishing
touches to this picture which was set to haunt France for twenty
years. The French people were called upon to fight against anti-Arab
racism--which is a reality--on behalf of the struggle against
antisemitism. The Jewish community, its institutions, its leadership
became the main champions of this identification of Jews with immigrants.
It was a fateful operation for two reasons. The
first one is the false idea that the Jewish community is an immigrant
community and that it constitutes a political power. The second
one is that it provoked among the Arabs a profound resentment.
They understood little by little that the Socialist Party and the
Jewish leaders of SOS-Racisme had taken them for a ride.
This conflation of the Jews with immigrants fed
all sorts of misguided policies. The first affair of the Muslim
veil in 1989 was a turning point in this process. The then-positive
identification with the immigrants was radically transformed into
an accusation and a delegitimization of the Jewish community. The
secularist regime that had been flexible in the 1960s became rigid
and made it more and more difficult for Judaism to be active on
the public square. Even though Islam had been recently institutionalized
by the government (with the French Council of Muslim Religion),
France did not want to concede to a non-reformed and non-modernized
Islam the facilities that had been granted to the old national
religions. In order to be fair and politically correct, the public
authorities felt it necessary to return the other religions to
their status of fifty years before.
The delegitimization of the community is ambiguous
because it is while the community is criticized for being tribalist, communautariste,
it is also held up by the Right and Left alike as a model of integration
for new immigrant populations. The community is thus taken as a
yardstick of the condition of the Arabs and Muslims, by the public
authorities and then used by Muslim fundamentalists as a tool for
obtaining privileges. There is no need to say that this permanent
comparison increases Arab jealousy of the Jews and makes the Jews
responsible for the immigrants' cause, in the eyes of public opinion.
This leveling of conditions objectively weighs
in favor of the immigrant community, because it identifies immigrants
with a Jewish community which has been a part of national society for
two centuries. But it penalizes the Jews for the same reasons
and contributes to denationalizing the Jewish community. The discomfort
society feels toward immigrants is transferred to the Jews precisely
because they are closer to the French and less dangerous. Xenophobia
is thus directed against the more feeble other to avoid disturbing
the stronger foreigner. The other side of affirmative action or,
in French, "positive discrimination" in favor of immigrants is
negative discrimination against the others. Here is a good example:
since 2000, a new concept for defining the Muslim fundamentalists' attacks
against the Jews has been formed: they are now called "intercommunal
tensions." Its sole aim is to conjure away the word antisemitism.
But this word, used to avoid accusing the immigrants, ex-colonized
people, of antisemitism, implies in fact that the Jews, too, are
perpetrating aggressive attacks. That is untrue. What protects
the Jews, celebrated for their peacefulness, ends up damaging the
Jews, accused of aggression and communautarisme.
These developments led the government to use the
comparison between the Jewish community and the immigrants as a
criterion to guarantee public security and deal with the fundamentalist
The inter-religious dialogue which developed over
the past ten years is now exploited to maintain public peace. Catholics
and Jews, but especially Jews, are very much solicited to give
the appearance of peace and harmony between religions in towns
and regions throughout the country. The harmony between Jews and
Muslims is guided by the government and supposed to enhance public
And so the CRIF, the representative body of the
Jewish community, had to meet with UOIF, the Union of Islamic Organizations
of France, with roots in the Muslim Brotherhood. The meeting was
intended to give this association, known for its antisemitism,
a certificate of good behavior and pacifism and set it up as a
respectable actor in French society. Some months ago, we had a
proof of this lie. During the riots in French suburbs in November
2005, the government asked this organization to make an appeal
and call to stop the violence. The UOIF surprised the Ministry
of Interior. It issued a fatwa, with a lot of Koranic quotations
condemning violence. No one (except Muslims) understood
the allusions hidden in this text: all of the quotations produced
were used in the Koran to condemn violence by the Jews!
The Jewish community has been used here to exonerate Islamic fundamentalists
just as it was used against Le Pen some years before.
Solicited as they were by the government, the
Jewish institutions are more and more instrumentalized, and that
changes totally the significance of the communal identity in citizenship.
This is truly an objective ghettoization (or in French terms a communautarisation),
a development universally condemned, however, especially by those
who are doing it.
This period was characterized also by a problematic
evolution of the Jewish institutions themselves. Their leadership
overestimated their power and representativeness. The separation
between the functions of CRIF presidency and Consistory presidency
in 1980 opened the way to structural rivalry inside the Jewish
community itself. The CRIF president thought he had a mandate to
intervene on the French political stage or even in the international
arena (from a peace plan for Yugoslavia to the recognition of Yasir
Arafat in Gaza). This evolution concerned also the Consistoire.
Consistorial Judaism was a very important element of Jewish communal
identity. It permitted after World War II to keep a link with the
classical Republican legitimacy which defined the community in
denominational terms and it also constituted an acceptable religiosity
for a majority of Jews, due to its centrist orientation (Modern
Orthodoxy). That explains why French Jews did not know the American
division into sectarian currents. Indeed, the policy initiated
by the Chief Rabbinate during the 1990s departed from this centrism
towards ultra-Orthodoxy, jeopardizing the institutional and doctrinal
basis of post World War II identity.
On the basis of this analysis, I will draw the
existing model of Jewish identity, born after World War
II, is no longer
applicable. It is no longer harbored by French society
and it has suffered a process of decomposition. It lacks
the challenge of a new situation.
commitment to Jewish life which was the fruit of a voluntary
choice has become a factor of marginalization, exclusion
Jewish community has been instrumentalized despite its
wishes in the national politics
of the French Jews has no real basis any more and in fact no possibility
of action. The only role that the government allots to it is one
of appeasement and conciliation, in a struggle against racism.
But the power that public opinion and government are willing to
grant to the CRIF is liable to cause profound misunderstandings.
The communal institutions have the image of power but not the means.
Jewish community is gradually being isolated within society,
from national life, and ghettoized. When recognized, it is
considered only as a separate or alien community and such
a recognition ájeopardizes
each Jew's citizenship. This was hardly the direction it
was taking when the new Jewish identity was founded in the
Obviously the answers to these challenges depend
to a large extent on developments that are underway in society,
outside the control of the Jewish community. The future of French
Jewry is at stake.
Based on these developments, let us assess possible
scenarios, each of which will include the two basic factors I have
already described: the decline of the nation-state and the demographic
The combination of these two elements yields four
republican model is strengthened and the immigrants accept
republican model is strengthened but the immigrants do not
accept it and fundamentalism
gets the upper hand among them while xenophobia progresses;
republican model evolves and undergoes a revolutionary transformation.
will be the end of the centralist political tradition and the triumph
of multiculturalism. The immigrants will become a quasi-national
minority in a Europe of diverse peoples. There will no longer be
a problem of national identity for France.
changes and the situation worsens. The Jewish community will
break up under
the impact of repeated clashes.
To face these challenges the Jewish community
has only two possibilities: to adapt or resist.
From the standpoint of future viability, the fourth
scenario is totally negative: not only will the delegitimization
of the community deepen but insecurity will increase for individuals.
What about the three other scenarios? They hardly
paint a glowing picture insofar as the continuity of communal identity
Let us consider the first scenario, the reassertion
of a strong republican model. That is the only strategy defended
by the Jews today. It will condemn the Jewish community to disappearance
because Jewish continuity will become a major symbolic obstacle
to strengthening national unity. The Jews, par excellence, will
have to be the example, by dissolving their community.
The alternative is therefore between the disappearance
of the community and its transformation into a ghetto. The Jews
are commonly accused already, just by being openly Jewish, of a
tribal withdrawal into themselves, a regression into their own
communal identity [repli communautaire]. Such a scenario
seems to me impossible due to the European unification process,
which is still underway (even if it has slowed down somewhat),
and which must be taken into account.
The second scenario describes a status quo in
the republican model and a drift in the immigrant community towards
separatism. In this case, the situation can only worsen for the
Jews. The hard core of the Jewish community will remain and become
the focus of extreme tension and trouble. Like a boat without a
rudder, it will be smashed in the storms of events to come. The
Jews will flee the community. Only those who do not have any option
to distance themselves from the community will maintain their membership
(that is already the case: the Jewish societal elites have already
abandoned the community, which became too heavy for them to carry
in their careers.)
The third scenario describes the transformation
of the republican model in the framework of a European federalism.
In this case, the Jewish community will tend to become more and
more an ethnic minority in danger of being marginalized by other
more powerful minorities. The decline of the state as a referee
and guarantor of the equality of rights of individuals will bring
with it a decline in the civic equality of Jews. This development
is already at work in party politics. It was evident already in
2001 in the Socialist party with a controversial report (by Pascal
Boniface) recommending that the Socialists neglect
the Jewish electorate and court the Arab-Muslim one.
It is significant that the three most important
candidates for the presidency represent these options and do not
open other ways. The Socialist Segolene Royal tends obviously to
the third scenario. Nicolas Sarkozy oscillates between the strengthening
of republican centralism and the communautariste model.
He was much more pro-multiculturalism before the campaign than
later. It seems that Bayrou, the centrist candidate, will tend
toward strengthening the republican model. That is also true in
the case of Le Pen, but his Republic would be in fact an authoritarian
In conclusion, French Jewry is today at a crossroads.
Its fate will be decided in the coming years. The present situation
which began in around 2000 is transitory and one of the scenarios
will necessarily triumph. But the fate of French Jewry is not the
sole one at stake. The main question is the future of the French
national idea, of the Republic, as it was imagined two centuries
ago. Can France change without disappearing?
 I have analyzed this complex process in one of my recent books, Auschwitz
Frontiers (2005) and more basically in L'Idéal démocratique à l'épreuve
de la Shoa [The Democratic Ideal: The Test of the Shoah], to
be published soon in English by SUNY press.
Professor Shmuel Trigano teaches sociology of politics
and religion at Paris-Nanterre University. He is the founding
director of the College of Jewish Studies at the Alliance Israélite
Universelle, of Pardès, a European Journal of Jewish
Study and Culture, and of Controverses, a journal of ideas.
He is president of the Observatoire du monde juif, and has published
17 books, among them The Future of French Jewry (Paris,
- Global Jewish Magazine 2007