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Trapped by History: France and Its Jews

On February 13, 2006, in a grove of trees behind a suburban rail station fifteen miles south of Paris, a 23-year-old French Jew of Moroccan descent named Ilan Halimi was found tied to a tree, barely alive. Kidnappers had left him there naked, handcuffed, hooded, and gagged, after having cut off pieces of his fingers and his ears, stabbed him repeatedly, and burned much of his body. He died before reaching a hospital. The police soon arrested more than twenty youths belonging to a gang called “the Barbarians,” led by a 25-year-old Muslim immigrant from the Ivory Coast named Youssouf Fofana. They had targeted Halimi, and demanded a ransom of over $600,000 (which his family found impossible to raise), because of a vague belief that all Jews are rich. In the time since his arrest, Fofana has shown no remorse and has adopted the language of Islamic extremism. On trial in April of this year, he declared that “Allah will be victorious,” and gave his name as “African Barbarian Army Revolt Salafist” (Salafism is a strain of Islamic thought grounded in a literal interpretation of the Koran).

To those who see the story of French Jewry as predominantly tragic, the killing of Ilan Halimi foreshadows a dark new chapter. They note that it is only the most horrific of hundreds of anti-Semitic incidents and attacks that have taken place in France over the past decade, ranging from simple vandalism and graffiti to the attempted destruction of synagogues to murder. France, they argue, is fundamentally unsafe for Jews. Michel Gurfinkiel, editor of the conservative magazine Valeurs Actuelles, recently claimed that “things are getting worse and worse” for French Jews, and that “we are witnessing a terrifying chain of events.”

Ironically, these events have taken place just when anti-Semitism among French Christians has declined to its lowest point in modern history. As the sociologist Michel Wieviorka has observed, opinion polls repeatedly show less hostility to Jews in France than at any time in the past, and less than in most other European countries. While the aged Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the xenophobic Front National, continues to engage in deliberate provocations vis-à-vis Jews (most recently calling the Nazi occupation of France “not especially inhumane”), his party generally devotes much less attention to them than to France’s rapidly expanding Muslim population. And with the election of Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007, the most philo-Semitic government in French history came to power. Sarkozy himself has one-quarter Jewish ancestry, and a Jewish daughter-in-law. He has improved France’s legendarily troubled relations with Israel, and repeatedly expressed admiration for France’s Jewish community. He has also gone further than any other French leader in expressing repentance for Vichy France’s persecution of the Jews during World War II. In 2008 he even suggested that all French schoolchildren learn the story of—and each “adopt” one of—the 11,000 French Jewish children deported by Vichy to the death camps.

Given this context, it is tempting to see little connection between the new anti-Semitic violence and the long-term history of French Jewry. Perhaps acts such as the killing of Ilan Halimi reflect nothing more than the rage of young, underprivileged, frustrated, and misguided Muslims all over Europe. Significantly, the violence seems motivated less by resentment of French Jews, than by anger at Israel. The number of incidents spiked dramatically during the intifadas, again with the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and yet again this past winter with the invasion of Gaza. Given that France has both the largest Muslim and the largest Jewish populations in Europe (5 to 6 million Muslims and 600,000 Jews), the recent violence may represent what Michel Gurfinkiel calls an “importation of the Palestinian conflict into France.”

Yet there do exist deep continuities between the history of the Jews in France and the current wave of violence. During the course of this history, the Jews and the French state have crafted an enduring modus vivendi, even as both protagonists have changed almost beyond recognition. French conceptions of the Jews have had a surprisingly broad influence on French conceptions of their nation as a whole, and on the way that it has absorbed immigrants. Disaffected young Muslims like Youssouf Fofana may think that they are importing the Middle Eastern conflict into France. Yet the significance that French society attributes to their acts—and the way it is trying to deal with their frustrations—has been shaped by the deeply intertwined histories of France and its Jews.



These histories have always had a darkly ambivalent character. In the Middle Ages, French rulers lurched erratically between persecuting Jews and welcoming them as sources of tax revenue. Edicts protecting Jewish property alternated with blood libels, burnings of the Talmud, massacres, and expulsions. After the expulsion by King Charles VI in 1394, Jews did not return to France until the seventeenth century. Even then, Jews continued to suffer under severe legal restrictions (notably the infamous tax levied by Colmar, in Alsace, on all Jews and heads of cattle entering the town). And they remained few: only 40,000 at the start of the French Revolution in 1789.

Yet a shortage of actual Jews did not prevent French thinkers of the Enlightenment from developing an obsession with Jews in the abstract. Voltaire, notably, attacked their “raging fanaticism,” and called them “in many ways the most detestable nation ever to have sullied the earth.” Others mixed suspicion with grudging respect. Perhaps the single most revealing piece of writing about the Jews in the period comes from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who held them up as an instructive counter-model to what he considered a distressing European trend toward cosmopolitanism and cultural homogeneity. He wrote:

[Moses] conceived and executed the astonishing project of creating a nation out of a swarm of wretched
fugitives, without arts, arms, talents, virtues or courage, who were wandering as a horde of strangers over
the face of the earth. . . . Out of this wandering and servile horde Moses had the audacity to create a body
politic, a free people; and while they were wandering in the desert without a stone on which to lay their
heads, he gave them that durable set of institutions . . . which five thousand years have not been able to
destroy or even to alter, and which even to-day still subsists in all its strength, although the national body
has ceased to exist.

In effect, Rousseau was urging modern nations to become more Jewish. Still, implicit in the same passage was a more disturbing claim. If the Jews had retained such stubborn particularity even after thousands of years of diaspora, then they must, wherever they lived, have remained a stubbornly alien presence, an unwelcome piece of grit in the molds from which other nations took their shape. The same qualities that made the Jews an admirable model, in other words, made them a potential threat as well.

It did not take long for other thinkers to make this point explicitly. In 1788, an ambitious young priest from Lorraine named Henri Grégoire wrote a prize-winning essay in which he warned against letting the Jews multiply and “infest” the French nation. The Jews, he charged, not only had lax morals, atrocious hygiene, and a hideous jargon of a language (i.e., Yiddish); worse, they actively refused to give these things up and learn decent French customs. The Jews would only become productive, upstanding citizens if cajoled into abandoning their identity entirely. They had to be, in Grégoire’s words, “melted into the national mass,” a process that would ultimately involve conversion to Christianity. Grégoire did hope for the Jews’ “regeneration,” and for this reason, somewhat paradoxically, the modern French Republic now celebrates him as an emancipator of the Jews (in 1989, François Mitterrand had his body reburied in the national Pantheon). But his example suggests how, in the French context, even a sincere desire to help Jews could have deeply problematic repercussions.

The French Revolution of 1789 provided a concrete illustration of this point. In part thanks to Grégoire himself, who quickly rose to prominence as a revolutionary politician, the new regime eliminated legal burdens on Jews and granted them full citizenship. But in return, it expected them to wash off any taint of particularity. In the words of the Count of Clermont-Tonnerre during the 1789 debates on Jewish emancipation: “Everything must be refused to the Jews as a Nation in the sense of a corporate body and everything granted to the Jews as individuals. . . . They must make up neither a political body nor an order within the State; they must individually be citizens.” In other words, while they might keep their religion, they needed to shed communal autonomy. The revolutionaries held that the essence of French culture lay in rational, enlightened democratic values, and they expected all citizens to subscribe to them. As the historian Ronald Schechter has observed, they saw the Jews as a sort of test case for their ideas. If they could transform even such stubbornly alien people into proper French citizens, then they could do the same with anyone.

Strikingly, the elite of French Jews willingly agreed to give up much of what had made them distinct in exchange for rights and opportunity. Indeed, they soon went so far as to reject the very word Jew—Juif—which for them bore irredeemably ethnic associations, a smell of the ghetto. Instead, they began to call themselves “Israélites,” distinguishing themselves from their co-citizens on the level of religious observance alone, without implying any cultural difference. Jewish leaders agreed to become agents of assimilation, proselytizing for the Republic among the poor Ashkenazim of Alsace and Lorraine, and later among new Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. They even tried to spread French civilization to Jews abroad, through an organization called the Alliance Israélite Universelle. Just as happened throughout the Western Jewish world, the attitudes of the Jewish elites toward poor foreign or immigrant Jews sometimes recapitulated all too closely the anti-Semitism of the larger society. By the late nineteenth century, the prominent Sephardi literary critic Bernard Lazare could denounce Russian Jewish immigrants as “these despicable people [coming] into a country that is not theirs.”

Throughout the nineteenth century, the Jews remained less than one percent of the French population, but attempts to integrate them had a broader significance. Republican thinkers, continuing to see them as a sort of test case, extended the model of Jewish assimilation to other groups. As early as the 1790s, the irrepressible Henri Grégoire turned his attention to the Catholic peasants who made up the large majority of the French population, and who, for the most part, did not speak standard French (local tongues ranged from Basque and Alsatian German to the distinct Romance languages of southern France to dialects of French itself). As with his earlier treatment of the Jews, Grégoire argued that these peasants needed to abandon their particular languages and customs. By the later nineteenth century, his projects had become the basis for sustained educational efforts aimed at reducing local languages and customs to the status of harmless folklore, while absorbing all peasants into the national culture as defined by Paris.

Just as attitudes toward the Jews helped shape the broader republican revolutionary project of nation-building, so conservative critics of this tradition increasingly associated it, pejoratively, with the Jews. Indeed, to an uncanny extent, the strength of anti-Semitism in France tracked the success of revolutionary republicanism. Until the later nineteenth century, the country veered between monarchy, empire, and the short-lived Second Republic of 1848, and attacks on the Jews still focused heavily on the stereotypical Jewish activity of moneylending (for instance, in Emperor Napoleon’s so-called “infamous decrees” against Alsatian Jewish moneylenders in 1806–7). But the creation of a durable Third Republic in the 1870s changed things radically.

In many ways, the Third Republic brought enormous successes for French Jewry, with Jews rising to prominence in politics, business, law, and particularly academia. In an age when Jews still were largely barred from American universities, figures like Emile Durkheim and Henri Bergson rose to the commanding heights of the French university system. Yet this same period also marked the explosion of a new, virulent anti-Semitism, exemplified by the author Edouard Drumont and his great bestseller La France Juive (Jewish France). Drumont and his allies explicitly identified the Jews and the Republic. They themselves associated Frenchness not with enlightened values, but with ethnicity and the Catholic faith, and denounced the Republic as an artificial, foreign graft onto the French body politic. And who, they charged, better exemplified this artificiality and foreignness than the Jews? All the hatred and anxiety that Drumont and his ilk felt towards the Republic came to focus on a supposed vast Jewish conspiracy aimed at casting France into slavery, led by a secret rabbinic organization called the Kahal. The sheer volume and venom of anti-Semitic writing they produced would not be matched in modern history until the rise of the Nazis. It provided the background for the Dreyfus Affair of the 1890s, in which French conservatives united behind the soon-disproved claim that a Jewish colonel named Alfred Dreyfus had betrayed French military secrets to Germany.

The Third Republic survived the Dreyfus Affair, and Dreyfus himself, although initially subjected to horrific public humiliation and a jail cell on Devil’s Island, was ultimately vindicated. But the Republic did not survive the French defeat by Hitler in 1940, and neither did some 76,000 French Jews. The collaborationist Vichy government, acting on its own initiative, institutionalized anti-Semitism, forcing Jews to wear yellow Stars of David, banning them from most professions, denouncing them in official propaganda, seizing their property, and ultimately deporting them to the death camps. The emblematic figure of Vichy is the half-mad Louis Darquier, second head of Vichy’s General Commission for Jewish Affairs, who helped organize a notorious roundup of Jews in Paris in 1942, and claimed after the war (from his refuge in Franco’s Spain) that only lice had died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Carmen Callil’s recent biography of Darquier is a terrifying, and utterly compelling, portrait of modern evil.

Yet Vichy also marked an important shift in the history of French anti-Semitism, for when faced with the horrific task of choosing which Jews to deport first, the regime tacitly came close to accepting definitions first devised by its republican predecessors. Drumont and his allies had worried less about Yiddish-speaking, immigrant, recognizably Jewish street peddlers, than about French-born, well-educated, assimilated Jews. These Jews, he insisted, hid their evil behind a deceptive mask of Frenchness. Vichy, however, acted more often to spare assimilated Jews of proven French ancestry, while concentrating its persecutions on recent immigrants and refugees whom it ruthlessly stripped of citizenship and protection. This distinction would doubtless not have survived a Nazi victory. Nonetheless, it demonstrated the spread of the republican idea of the French nation even among the Republic’s supposed conservative enemies. And since the war, this republican idea has become close to universally accepted in France, even on the extreme right. Today, even Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front often accepts a distinction between those immigrants who manage to integrate successfully into the nation and those who fail or refuse to.



For a time, after the war and the apparent discrediting of Vichy’s conservative ideology, it seemed as if France would grow steadily more tolerant and welcoming, not just toward Jews but toward non-ethnically French communities in general. According to opinion polls, the numbers of French people who openly professed anti-Semitism fell steadily decade by decade after 1945. Meanwhile, as had been the case since the late nineteenth century, France continued to lead the European continent as the single country most open to foreign immigration. Earlier waves of Belgians, Italians, and Poles were now followed by Spanish, Portuguese, Greeks, Chinese, and Indochinese. By 2000, it was estimated that one French person out of four had at least one foreign-born grandparent. And since the war, most of these communities have experienced a remarkably high degree of acceptance—on condition that they follow the path first articulated with regard to the Jews over two hundred years ago. That is to say, they had to give up any serious degree of communal autonomy and collective identity, and melt into the national mass. Nicolas Sarkozy, son of a Hungarian immigrant, and grandson of a Greek Jew on the other side, but impeccably French in his speech, education, and habits, is only the most obvious and impressive example of this success. As is often remarked, France has no “hyphenated communities” on the model of Irish-Americans or Italian-Americans. Indeed, in comparison with their American counterparts, the older ethnic communities have left little distinct mark on French culture. France has little equivalent to the American holiday of Saint Patrick’s Day, or to the distinctively, self-consciously Jewish art of a Woody Allen or Philip Roth.

Yet in the past fifty years or so, the nature of ethnic relations in France has begun to change once again, and not only because of the arrival of millions of Muslim immigrants from North and West Africa who have had far more difficulty integrating into French society than their European immigrant predecessors. The reason has to do with challenges to the republican revolutionary model. And once again, at the heart of the controversies, catalyzing the changes, are French Jews.

During the last half century, these challenges have come from a massive social and cultural transformation that the sociologist Henri Mendras once went so far as to call “the Second French Revolution.” First, the peasantry, who always formed the most important target of assimilatory efforts and who as recently as 1945 still constituted nearly a third of the French population—have vanished. Today, there remain precious few Basque- or Breton-speaking country-dwellers still in need of full integration into French national culture. Second, the colonial empire that once allowed the French Republic to cast its goal of spreading enlightenment as a worldwide “civilizing mission”—to carry the values of the Republic far beyond France itself—has largely evaporated. Algeria, once considered as integral to France as Hawaii is to the United States, gained a bloody and traumatic independence in 1962. Thanks to these changes, the republican idea of the nation has lost the grand and urgent sense of mission that once accompanied it. Finally, in the student revolts of 1968, the powerful French educational system, which had served as the principal agent of integration of Jews, peasants, and immigrants alike into the national culture, found itself the target of withering criticism from its own most talented graduates, and lost much of the self-confidence with which it had previously molded young charges into proper French citizens.

In the midst of these crises, French Jewry itself continued to evolve. Algerian independence brought to the country hundreds of thousands of Algerian Sephardi Jews who soon came to outnumber the predominantly assimilated Ashkenazim of the métropole. Once again, the older community was hostile to the newer one. The great French Jewish social theorist Raymond Aron notoriously confessed that he would rather spend an hour in conversation with a refined French Catholic anti-Semite than with one of his Algerian co-religionists. Meanwhile, the creation of the state of Israel infused many younger French Jews with Zionist enthusiasm, and led them to question whether, in assimilating so thoroughly to the French norm, they had given up too much of their own identities. The general decline of religious observance in France (Catholic and Jewish alike), and the resulting rise in intermarriage, forced the Jewish community to confront the possibility that assimilation might now result in its complete evaporation.

As all this occurred, French politics provided some unwelcome reminders that even virtually complete assimilation might not, in fact, bring about full acceptance. In 1967, in the midst of a dispute between France and Israel, President Charles de Gaulle angrily denounced the Jews in terms eerily reminiscent of Rousseau, two hundred years before. In diaspora, he charged, “they remained what they had always been, an elite people, confident and domineering.” Thirteen years later, after Arab terrorists carried out a bungled assault on a wealthy Parisian synagogue, killing several passers-by instead of the intended Jewish targets, Prime Minister Raymond Barre rushed to the scene and lamented the fact that “innocent Frenchmen were killed.” And in the 1980s, Jean-Marie Le Pen gained notoriety—and votes—with his deliberately offensive remarks toward the Jews, notably calling the gas chambers “a detail” in the history of the Second World War. In reaction to these events, voices within the French Jewish community that questioned the traditional model of assimilation gained strength, while even traditional leaders of the Jewish community lost inhibitions about expressing themselves politically as Jews. The Representative Council of Jewish Institutions (known by its French acronym CRIF) gained visibility and influence in French politics.

And once again, debates about the Jews have helped shape larger debates about the French nation as a whole. Do ethnic communities have any legitimate role to play—as ethnic groups—within the nation? Do such groups deserve formal recognition from the French state? Can France function as a “communitarian country,” to use the phrase of sociologist Alain Touraine? Particularly in the past ten years, these questions have moved to the very center of French political life.

They have done so in the context of a new wave of immigration that has posed far greater challenges to France than any of its predecessors. Since an initial influx of mostly male Algerians, Tunisians, and Moroccans as guest workers in the 1950s and 1960s, the Muslim population of France has grown vastly. The secular Republic refuses to note religious observance in the census, making precise numbers difficult to gauge, but the overall size of the French Muslim community probably approaches six million, or more than 10 percent of the French population. By 2050, they may well exceed 25 percent. Muslims tend to face more discrimination than earlier groups of immigrants, and a significant portion of them cling to the culture of their country of origin. These facts, and the general erosion of the education system as an agent of integration, have produced a large underclass of frustrated young Muslims, who live in dilapidated, crime-ridden housing projects on the outskirts of French cities. In 2005, their anger and resentment erupted in a month of sustained rioting, with thousands of cars burned. In response, a significant proportion of French political leaders called for special measures to ameliorate the situation of Muslim youth, including the introduction of affirmative action programs in France’s elite universities. In 2003, the government of Jacques Chirac helped create the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), which models its activities in part on those of the Jewish CRIF (the regional Muslim leader Azzedine Gaci recently declared that the Muslim community “has every interest in taking inspiration from the CRIF”).

It might seem that France is rejecting its older republican ideas and moving toward a more “American” model of ethnic relations. President Sarkozy, whose own ethnic background seems more typically American than French, and whose brash manner and enthusiasm for private enterprise long ago earned him the sobriquet “l’Américain,” exemplifies this move. Not only did he, as Chirac’s interior minister, spearhead the creation of the Muslim CFCM, but as president he has expressed modest support for affirmative action initiatives, while also engaging in the most high-profile dialogue with the CRIF and other Jewish groups of any French leader in history. My own sense is that Sarkozy, who has few real ideological commitments, and a love of incentives, would not mind instituting something closer to an American-style spoils system for France’s ethnic and religious minorities, and sacrificing high-flown rhetoric about “the French republican model” in exchange for a greater degree of cooperation from these groups on the ground.

But will he succeed? For all the changes of the past decades, the language of the “republican model” stubbornly continues to structure French political debate. Self-proclaimed “republicans” on both the left and right continue to demand rigid adherence to the idea that, in becoming full members of the national community, men and women abandon all open forms of solidarity with a particular community: ethnic, or (especially) religious. In 2004, they succeeded in winning passage, by the French parliament, of a law banning the wearing of headscarves by Muslim girls in public schools. In the parliamentary debates, legislators frequently compared these headscarves to Jewish yarmulkes.

In short, even if the current wave of anti-Semitism among French Muslim youth does represent, in many ways, an extension of the Middle East conflict onto European soil, the French political community itself will not define it this way. In fact, nearly every act of horrific violence against Jews by young Muslims has tended to provoke the sort of questions that would almost certainly not arise after a similar act in the United States. Can a degree of affirmative action prevent further crimes by hastening the integration of angry young Muslims into the national community? Or does their supposed “fanaticism” make them, in the final analysis, unassimilable? (Voltaire made the same argument about “fanatical” Jews more than two hundred and fifty years ago). Has the long history of French anti-Semitism in some way encouraged thugs like Youssouf Fofana in their murderous attacks? French Jewish leaders frequently make this charge. Or does the charge itself amount to an assertion of “communitarian identity” that runs counter to the republican norm? So say critics on the far left, who go so far as to argue that Fofana cared about nothing but a ransom, and that it is the Jewish community that has transformed his victim, Ilan Halimi, into a Jewish martyr. A similar dispute broke out in 2004 after the murder of Jewish DJ Sébastien Sellam by a troubled Muslim friend and neighbor who reportedly boasted that killing a Jew had earned him a place in paradise. (To the disappointment of Jewish organizations that considered the killing a hate crime, the murderer was found insane.)

And so, the situation of the Jews in France remains today, as it always has been, a theater of irony. Young Muslims, alienated from a country that urges their “integration” but does little to bring it about in practical terms, vent their anger on Jews whom they associate, above all, with the images of Israeli violence they see on television. In most cases, both perpetrators and victims are descended from recent immigrants from the Arab world. In most cases, neither side has much knowledge of the long, intertwined history of France and its Jews. But with its tight cords of interpretation, this history continues to twist around them, and indeed around the entire French nation.

David A. Bell is Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University, where he also serves as Dean of Faculty in the School of Arts and Sciences. His most recent book is The First Total War.

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