Time to Encourage – Not Discourage – Jews in France

It might be more constructive to listen to Jews in France and their leadership in order to find out how they see the situation and what they think should be done.

"Paris marais magasin juif" by Vincent de Groot - www.videgro.net. Licensed under Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons.
“Paris marais magasin juif” by Vincent de Groot – www.videgro.net. Licensed under Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons.

By Smadar Bar-Akiva

No one can deny the magnitude of recent terror incidents in Paris and the threats they pose to the delicate fabric of French society and to the security of Jews and Jewish institutions. Jews in France clearly feel that last weeks’ events were a turning point in their lives. Yet, the calls for French Jews to pack their bags and make Aliya are disturbing and self-defeating.

“All rights to Jews as citizens, no rights to Judaism as a nation” was the basic modus vivendi of French Jewry from the time of the French revolution. “Laicite” was the main principal and it meant a secular society, a total separation of Church and State. “Communtarism,” belonging to a community, was considered a dirty word. For a Jewish community, dating back to Roman times that was able to grow and prosper, adhering to the notion of full integration into French society was crucial. World War II shattered that ideal and shook the Jewish community. Following the war, the Jewish Federation of France (FSJU) was established – the first institution to include the word “Jewish” in its title. Then came large waves of immigration from North Africa, absorbing Jews who used to live in cohesive communities and were more traditional and observant. They had to adapt to the general model and therefore developed their own interpretations. For example, they included (Orthodox) synagogues in state sponsored Jewish Cultural/Community Centers. A phenomenon that is quite unique in the world. At the same time, their Cultural/Community Centers are open to the general public and attract the non-Jewish population as well.

France has always welcomed foreigners into its midst – except for the four years of the Vichy regime – but probably did not expect an approximate 6 million Muslim minority that hasn’t integrated fully into French society. That “time bomb” is now showing signs of explosion and it is clear that major efforts by the government and the society need to take place in order to confront the threats it poses.

For several years now, incidents of anti-Semitism and terror have challenged the old models of the Jewish community and have forced the community – numbering approximately 500,000 Jews – to turn inwards. The network of Jewish schools has expanded to absorb a growing number of students while synagogues and community centers are offering a wider array of programs. The close relationship with Israel and the “love without conditions” approach is still very prominent. Several thousands of people opted to make Aliya or leave to other countries, but clearly, the majority of Jews in France are there to stay.

Therefore, it might be more constructive to listen to Jews in France and their leadership in order to find out how they see the situation and what they think should be done.

Jo Amar, the Director of Culture, Community Centers and International Relations for FSJU, France says that the Jewish community is still in a state of shock and that last week’s incidents have been a watershed. A point in time that from now on the problems of anti-Semitism and terror incidents that the Jewish community experienced for the past several years, can no longer be ignored by the government, the army and the police. First and foremost, they are now attending to the families of the victims, the wounded and the ones who were under hostage. Then they need to deal with the issue of personal security. The leadership of the Jewish community and FSJU are already in intensive discussions with officials on all levels to provide a tighter security and to include security to all Jewish institutions. They also need to address the fears and anxieties of the Jews who are enrolled in Jewish schools, attend synagogues and JCCs and participate actively in the community. For that matter the community is now looking to develop programs and services with psychologists and other specialists to address these needs and strengthen the resilience of the community. For those who want to make Aliya or leave the country, the community is ready to provide support as well.

But after the first few weeks and months of addressing the crisis situation, the main challenge will need to be confronted: How to better educate the general society and combat anti-Semitism and racism. A goal which is important for all French not just the Jews. For that matter, the Jewish Community Centers play a major role as they are a link between the Jewish community and the general community. This process of education, as we all know, is a long term journey. It often takes place far away from the lime light and has fewer photo opportunities for dignitaries but this is where change can happen. Lise Benkemoun, the Executive Director of Neuilly sur Seine JCC in Paris, describes some of these programs such as the Discovery Week of Judaism and the Week of Jewish Culture where Jewish culture goes out to the streets, theaters and restaurants. She then continues to describe her point of view:

“On Wednesday, we were all Charlie, shocked and sad, stunned by the horror. On Thursday, we were all Charlie and Cops, in memory of the courageous young policewoman killed by the terrorist. On Friday, we were Jews more than ever, mourning the horrible death of our four brothers. On Sunday, we marched, proudly with more than 3.5 million French to show with force our rejection of terror and mark our attachment to our country, its values and motto: Liberté Egalité Fraternité which mean Freedom, Equality and Fraternity. On Monday, we organized with the police and the army, the board and the lay leaders the protection of our JCC, our community and our children. But from today we go back to our educational programs so that our neighbors will know us better. We will also continue all the projects we do with other religions, because we have a strong connection with them and we have faith of a better future if we all work towards it. We will also continue to work with children and youth because we strongly feel that now, more than ever, Education is the strongest army we have against terrorism.”

So instead of calling Jews to leave France, it will be more constructive to help French Jewry continue the educational and social work that they are already doing. The daily work of providing services to the community, educating the young generation, continuing the strong ties with Israel may not show immediate results, but can ensure the future life of the community. I believe that encouraging the Jewish community of France to achieve the goals they have set up for themselves will make Israel and the Jewish people much stronger.

Smadar Bar-Akiva is the Executive Director of JCC Global. Smadar can be reached at: Smadar@jccglobal.org.