French Jewry: The Tip of the Iceberg

Photo courtesy Junction Connect
Photo courtesy Junction Connect

By Ruben Uzan
eJewish Philanthropy

History has often taught us that when the Jewish future is at stake in a country, it’s a warning sign that the nation as a whole is not heading in the right direction. For the past fifteen years, French Jewry has been portrayed in the Israeli and American Jewish press as a ‘community in danger,’ due to insecurity and aliyah – but that’s only part of the truth, for the destiny of French Jewry is no different from that of France in general.

“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born,” Antonio Gramsci once wrote, and “in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” This captures what has been bubbling under the surface in France – and French Jewry – for thirty years.

A confrontation looms between, on the one hand, the old France, the generation of May 1968 who hold power and benefited from postwar economic growth, and the new, young France, that is struggling with dual unemployment and real estate price crises – many call this the ‘sacrificed generation.’ Hence, Gramsci’s morbid symptoms: violence, racism, emigration, fear of change, weak and conservative leadership, and an absence of vision.

Indeed, insecurity has been on the rise for French Jews, just as it has for all French citizens in the past decade. A combination of ideology and cowardice have led politicians to ignore security threats and problems, thinking they will eventually vanish, and what started fifteen years ago as attacks on Jews perpetrated by a small minority of French young Muslims has evolved into a national problem.

And, indeed, aliyah has been on the rise in France, as French Jews, tired of the country’s problems and worried about their future and that of their children look for a better place to live. But so do all French people, who look to Britain, Canada, and Australia as a way out of France’s political sclerosis and massive unemployment.

And, indeed, anti-Semitism is on the rise in France. In times of crisis, a scapegoat is unfortunately always useful, for it is easier to blame an outsider than it is to look inside ourselves. But anti-Semitism is not the only illness, as other forms of racism, radicalism, and closed-mindedness are on the rise in France, be it Islamic extremism, Catholic cultural conservatism, or far-right anti-Islamic, anti-European populism.

If we zoom out, therefore, we can see that the problems of France and the French Jewish community, in this increasingly globalized and interconnected world, are intertwined: problems of identity, security, and community.

At stake in France – as in the French Jewish community – is a choice between renewal and stagnation. In part, this is a crisis of leadership – in France and in the French Jewish world. Our institutions, whether national or communitarian, are ossified and cannot be called representative, in the way they once were. Just as voters stay away from the polls, Jews become unaffiliated. Our institutions stand against things, such as anti-Semitism, but not for ideas, such as Jewish identity building. We – France and the Jewish community – lack a vision for ourselves. We lack a role and a mission. Our institutions need to be rethought, recomposed, and renewed.

Personally, though, I still have faith in the future, in spite of the picture I’ve just drawn. Crisis is an opportunity to grow and change – as the world changes, Jewish communities should not only change with it, but also foster that change, as we have always done. I believe that a strong Jewish world is a balanced one. We need thriving communities in the heart of Europe.

Despite of our problems, new institutions and initiatives have came about in the past fifteen years beside the traditional ones. In fact, one might say that precisely as the old ways have lost their purpose and become sclerotic, a space opened up for the work of younger French Jews and that of other grassroots initiatives to be conceived, born, and bear fruit. Limmud is one example of this, and a number of non-Orthodox communities have been set up – for the good of the French Jewish landscape.

Elsewhere, there are such positive initiatives as JewSalsa, which holds popular events that blend salsa, klezmer, and Oriental music. Consider also the work of young, courageous people like Jeremy Navon, the young Jewish entrepreneur who is the founder and CEO of Pitch my startup, or Mira Niculescu, with her Jewish Mindfulness meditation class project. These are just a few of the names of people and projects that are working to renew the ways in which we relate to both our Jewish and French identities, while reconnecting unaffiliated Jews with their heritage and values.

The three I have mentioned, as well as a dozen other Jewish teachers, trainers, and thinkers were recently participants in a gathering named Connect, designed to (re)empower the next generation of leaders of the French Jewish community. This was made possible with the help of Junction Europe, a shared initiative of JDC, the Schusterman Family Foundation and Yesod. History has also taught us that, when France is in a time of turmoil, its American friends can be relied upon to support it – and we can at least be thankful for that.

Ruben Uzan, born and raised in Paris, is the CEO of Coefficient Directeur and a member of the ROI Community.