The Twilight of French Jewry

They’re too scared. I hadn’t really noticed till now, but in the last few months they’ve stopped going out. The only people they still see are other Jews. They stay in at night, working each other up—and they’re not the only ones, they’ve got at least five other friends who’ve sold everything so they can move to Israel. We spent a whole night arguing about it, but they’ve made up their minds. They’re convinced that something really bad is going to happen to Jews in France.

— Michel Houellebecq, Submission (2015)

In Mosaic (“Advancing Jewish Thought”) Alain El-Mouchan (the pen name of a professor of history and geography in Paris) discusses the notable phenomenon of French Jews emigrating to Israel (“The Twilight of French Jewry, the Twilight of France“).

Regarding the pull of Zionism, El-Mouchan writes:

One, already mentioned in connection with earlier instances of aliyah, is the pull of Zionism. If, for most American Jews, the Jewish state is an abstraction, a place they seldom or never visit, French Jews, on the contrary, have a very strong connection with the country: many visit regularly and in proportions far higher than those mustered by any other community worldwide, and/or own property there, or otherwise invest in the country. Many, too, have family living there; indeed, thanks both to the current aliyah and the cumulative results of earlier waves, about 150,000 French Jews now reside in Israel.

In passing:

French Jews are not the only European Jewish community so affected. The same situation helps explain Jewish emigration from Italy, where, despite a far lower level of anti-Semitism than in France, aliyah to Israel doubled between 2013 and 2014. In Belgium, the Antwerp Jewish community is facing extinction—not because the city has become the home of the European Arab League but because of the decline of the diamond industry, which flourishes in the U.S. and Israel.

Delving into French history:

Throughout the centuries after the French Revolution of 1789, despite ups and downs, and with the sole major exception of the Vichy period (1940-44), Jews have tended to regard French society as exceptionally open and welcoming—including at the peak of the Dreyfus affair itself. At that time, the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas would recall his father saying, the idea that half a nation could be for a Jew would have been unimaginable anywhere else in Europe.

In fact, even before the United States, and centuries before the existence of Israel, enlightened France was the place for Jews to be. The Enlightenment, coupled with emancipation, brought religious tolerance, freedom of thought, political liberty, scientific progress, the pursuit of happiness, and hope for the future. Jews as well as Protestants attained citizenship in Catholic France and were able to make their way into political and economic circles without being required to abandon their religion.

There’s discussion of Jewish particularism (gasp!), usually a trope consigned to the ‘far right’:

For many French Jews, now that the external world seemed to be adopting Jewish values, Jewish particularism appeared supererogatory. What need to play the part of an ethical avant-garde once the war against injustice and prejudice was on the verge of being won? The author and statesman Joseph Reinach, a pillar of the Dreyfusards and, in 1899, one of the founding fathers of the Ligue des droits de l’homme et du citoyen, the powerful association dedicated to defending and promulgating the rights of man in all spheres of public life, even contemplated the dissolution of Judaism itself into republican universalism.

Yeah, but that didn’t happen. Jewish particularism is alive and well, thank you very much.

Of the proximate causes of Jewish flight from France:

But the real game changer at home would not occur until later, triggered by the growing demographic heft of the Muslim population (today more than ten times the size of the Jewish population) and its burgeoning awareness of its own social and political weight. Whereas Jews had made themselves inconspicuous, Muslims started to demand more and more from secular society: removal of pork from school cafeterias, permission to wear the veil, provision of female doctors for women in hospitals. At first, French authorities reacted defensively, enforcing rules by the book and, in order not to be accused of discriminating, even banning many things that had hitherto been allowed to others, like wearing a skullcap in state-run facilities (public schools and hospitals, courtrooms, government offices at all levels, and so forth). Coerced at once by Islamic pressure and by lingering loyalty to their own principles, those who had long lived with the old ad-hoc arrangements became increasingly zealous in behalf of laïcité and increasingly intolerant of religious differences across the board.

In today’s European identity politics, Jewish identity is held tacitly suspect at once by its association with the West and, in the form of Zionism, by its association with a retrograde ethnic particularism.

El-Mouchan then argues that the promise of French republicanism (and its 100+ years of delivery) towards religious and civic freedom has… now expired:

From neither traditionalists nor secularists, however, are the old ideals of republican universalism likely to re-emerge or find a voice in Israeli democratic discourse. French Jews wedded to those ideals either came to Israel earlier, in some cases after the Six-Day War, or came and then left, and they were also conspicuously fewer in number. If few of today’s immigrants carry with them the universal ideals of the French model, the reason is plain: in their case, the promise of that model, after two centuries of impressive success, collapsed in front of their eyes.

The France born with the French Revolution was supposed to be the place where no one could ever scream in the streets, “Death to the Jews.” At the beginning of the 21st century, it is not that place anymore. That place is the state of Israel, the only place, as Rousseau understood so clearly, where Jews “can speak and argue without danger” and where Jewish universalism, wedded to Jewish particularism, can thrive to its fullest.

So, Jews are forced, you see, to more openly embrace the Jewish particularism which they apparently concealed while living in France. How else to describe this ‘sudden awakening’ of Jewish consciousness and ethnocentrism? Are we to think of it as some cosmic epiphany? Occam’s Razor would suggest a latency that has simply become more actualized.

El-Mouchan finishes his piece with a dire warning, aimed at both Jews and indigenous Frenchmen:

To cite Prime Minister Valls one last time: “History has taught us that the awakening of anti-Semitism is the symptom of a crisis for democracy and of a crisis for the Republic. . . . When the Jews of France are attacked, France is attacked, the conscience of humanity is attacked. Let us never forget that.” Unfortunately, to judge by the looks on the faces of his auditors in the National Assembly, many in France prefer not to be reminded—which is to say, they prefer not to face the grim reality that what is happening to Jews in France is not about the future of French Jews but about the future of France.

Welcoming and protecting persecuted Jews was for centuries the pride of a republic that aimed at embodying liberalism, secularism, and tolerance. In that sense, Jews had become a symbol of the success of the republican model. This is precisely why many members of the French elite regard Jewish departure as an insult and an outrage. For it tells them an unacceptable truth about themselves: namely, that the French republican idyll, one of the most attractive and promising chapters in the history of mankind, has reached the beginning of the end. France can still pretend for many more years to represent the epitome of Enlightenment, but it is a pretense, and an increasingly hollow one. And this is something that not only Premier Valls but, deep down, a majority of Frenchmen understand—just as everyone understands that Jews, the proverbial canary in the coalmine, are always the first victims, but others soon follow.

On a sunny summer day, on the terrace of a typical Parisian café, a French ambassador, proud to regard himself as an embodiment of enlightened European and republican principles, was having a drink with a Jewish friend. They were indulging in small talk about a famous line by the poet Paul Valéry: “Civilizations, too, are mortal.” Suddenly the ambassador fell silent, pondering for a few seconds, and then turned toward his friend. “Of course, you can always go to Israel,” he said. “But us… where shall we go?”

The sentiment of this last line is echoed in Houellebecq’s novel Submission (2015), where the indigenously French academic protagonist says goodbye (for the last time) to his young Jewish girlfriend, the latter of whom is moving to Israel out of co-existing fears of Muslim incursion and the National Front:

I hit MUTE. Marine Le Pen gestured more vigorously. She shook her fist, she threw open her arms. Obviously Myriam would go with her parents to Israel. There was nothing else she could do.

“I really hope I come back soon,” she said, as if she’d read my mind. “I’m just going to wait a few months, till things calm down in France.” I found her optimism slightly overdone, but I kept this to myself.

She stepped into her skirt. “With everything that’s going on now, it’s obvious the National Front’s going to win. That’s all we’ll talk about at lunch. ‘We told you so, sweetheart.’ Still, they’re good people, they only want what’s best for me.”

“Yes, they are good people. Truly good people.”

“But what about you? What will you do? What do you think’s going to happen at school?”

We were standing at the door. I realized that I hadn’t the slightest idea, and also that I didn’t give a f*ck. I kissed her softly on the lips, and said, “There is no Israel for me.” Not a deep thought, but that’s how it was. She disappeared behind the elevator doors.

This entry was posted in Europe, Jewish. Bookmark the permalink.