|Volume 1, Issue 2 (April 2007 / Iyar 5767)
French Jewry: The End of a Model of Jewish Identity
By Shmuel Trigano
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 authorities
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 with provocation 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
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.
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 their future.
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 by denying, 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.
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.
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 civilization.
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.
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.
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
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 the Jews.
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 Consistory.
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 after World 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 president.
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
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
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.
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.
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 too. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 threat.
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
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.
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.
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.
the basis of this analysis, I will draw the following conclusions:
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 capacity to answer the challenge of a new
commitment to Jewish life which was the fruit of a voluntary
and creative choice has become a factor of marginalization,
exclusion and inequality.
Jewish community has been instrumentalized despite its
wishes in the national politics of France.
representativeness 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
Jewish community is gradually being isolated within society,
imperceptibly excluded 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
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.
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
combination of these two elements yields four possible scenarios:
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.
That 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
changes and the situation worsens. The Jewish community will
break up under the impact of repeated clashes.
face these challenges the Jewish community has only two possibilities:
to adapt or resist.
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.
about the three other scenarios? They hardly paint a glowing
picture insofar as the continuity of communal identity is concerned.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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
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 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, 2006).
- Global Jewish Magazine 2007