Between Anti-Semitism and Economic Malaise, Jewish Life in France Continues

“In today’s France, there are reasons for despair. But there are also reasons for hope.”
Laurent David Samama

By Liam Hoare

Nowhere are the problems for Jews in Europe in 2014 more evident than in France – but not everyone is reaching for the oft-mentioned suitcase.

These problems are much discussed and well-known. First and foremost, there is anti-Semitism as hate speech (particularly on the Internet) and violent action, including confrontations in the street in the vicinity of synagogues and the vandalism of Jewish-owned businesses. The one and the other have generated much fear of attack and assault, even among the many who have not experienced anti-Semitism personally.

There are the present economic difficulties which impact not only the Jewish community but the whole of France. France’s economic blues impact upon the young in particular, since the unemployment rate for those under than 25 runs at 24.8% (the general unemployment rate is 10.3%).

The rise of the far-right cannot be ignored either. Since the economic malaise set in after 2008, there has been a rise there has been a resurgence of nationalism, xenophobia, and the reactionary Catholic right, culminating for now in the National Front’s European election victory in May. As Anshel Pfeffer correctly identified in a recent article in Ha’aretz, the re-emergence of this “old form of European nationalism contains within it elements that could be just as dangerous, if not more so, to Europe’s minority groups, including the Jews.”

Thus the acute predicaments of the French Jewish community are most concerning, but to concentrate solely on the present difficulties is to obscure the fact that France remains – for all its problems – along with the United Kingdom one of the two main centers of Jewish Europe. It remains home to the single largest Jewish community on the continent, some half a million in number and majority Sephardic, and while it is estimated that around 6,000 people will elect to leave France this year, thousands more are making the decision to stay.

Writing for The Forward, Laurent David Samama, a Paris-based journalist and documentary director, made the case for the positive trends evident in the community:

Our thinkers are still in a position to play the role of whistleblower. Jewish intellectuals are focusing on social justice, as they are at the forefront of the fight for human rights and democracy. In France, a diversity of opinions can still be expressed in politics and in the media. Jewish thought is even experiencing a rejuvenation of sorts, thanks to a new generation of intellectuals who are taking the lead. Bernard-Henri Levy, André Glucksmann and Alain Finkielkraut are now joined by a bunch of young thinkers who are adding a 2.0 perspective to the work of their elders.

One tangible example of a positive trend in the community – the placing back of the suitcase upon the shelf – is the forthcoming opening a new Moishe House in Paris on September 20. “The problem that we’ve had is a gap for young adults in our community. We are opening Moishe house here to break the clichés and get young people back in,” Aurelie Attia, 28 and a resident of the new house, said.

Earlier this month, Moishe House Paris held its first ever program: an invitation to young community leaders from a variety of Jewish organizations in Paris to come round and hear more about the Moishe House philosophy and how they aim to fill that aforementioned gap. Residents presented their plans for the coming year in each of the four threads of their Moishe House programming: Jewish Culture & Holidays, Jewish Learning, Repair the World, and Social.

Jacques Abitbol, 25, said he is looking forward to creating a house which is “open, warm and very welcoming, with the goal to gather Jewish youth from diverse backgrounds.” Donna Fuks, 28, added that Moishe House Paris will be a “big project,” one which will aim “to join a lot of Jewish people who have been a little bit forgotten up to now or who do not know how to be part of Jewish groups and programs without going to shul.”

Below the fold, individuals and entrepreneurs from within the Jewish community are making waves, particularly in the fashion industry as Anne Cohen has noted. Judith Milgrom is the founder of Maje, a Parisian brand that has made a splash as a high-end brand in London. She previously told The Daily Telegraph that, “About 20 years ago, I started to observe the Jewish Sabbath really seriously. From dusk on Friday until dusk on Saturday, I don’t do any work, don’t shop or look at my email or phone. It’s unbelievably therapeutic.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Yiddish Mamma – created in 2006 by Camille Vizioz-Brami – plays off the close relationship in Ashkenazi culture between mother and daughter. (Around 25 percent of the French Jewish community is Ashkenazi). The fashion line describes itself as being about a “story of a girl, who became a mother, who loved her mother, who loved her mother” and so on down the generations. Vizioz-Brami’s T-shirts and tote bags carry slogans like ‘Super Mensch’, ‘Power Yiddish Mamma’, and ‘Klops Forever’, riffing off Judaism in a kitsch and playful way that the Risk Oy brand, working out of Warsaw, does too.

“Even though we come from a culture where oral tradition is fundamental, from time to time, it is necessary to write down things. In some case, the spelling of the Yiddish words is approximate, as each family had its own way of saying things,” Vizioz-Brami previously told The Daily Beast.

Indeed, Paris was this year host to a convention – Junction, put together by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) – of young Jewish entrepreneurs and start-up initiators. Lela Sadikario, JDC’s director for regional programs and Junction, said of the event:

Our hope is that Junction is helping this generation of young professionals to be inspired and strive for success in their journey of growth. And having the program wrapped in a Jewish framework helps them to understand that Judaism plays a significant part in their lives and embracing Jewish values could help in the way they do business today.

“In today’s France, there are reasons for despair. But there are also reasons for hope,” Laurent David Samama wrote. Even during these present struggles, Jewish life continues. It must continue.