By Steven A. Rakitt
Je suis. “I am.”
After the January 2015 terrorist attacks against the Charlie Hebdo magazine and the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket in Paris, Facebook users around the world changed their profile pictures to “Je suis Charlie” and ”Je suis Juif.” Rabbi Delphine Horvilleurs, the first female rabbi in France, argues that the phrase “je suis” has significant meaning precisely because it is not true. We cannot be someone else, but in saying so, we are exhibiting a most human characteristic of being empathic with the other. We do it, she says, without having to change our own identities.
I recently traveled to Paris to participate in the Board of Governors Meeting of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), the largest single beneficiary of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s annual unrestricted campaign. I went to learn about the long and proud history of the French Jewish community, the largest in Europe and the third largest in the world. I went to better understand the many challenges facing the French — and by extension European — Jewish communities. And I went to see how our community — through the work of JAFI — continues to stand united with French Jewry.
Over our long history in France, Jews have been expelled 13 different times. In 1791, just two years after the French Revolution, Jews were first granted equal rights. Napoleon himself created the Consistoire — which still exists today with a different role — to liaise between the French government and the Jewish community. The community grew and thrived, despite anti-Semitism evident in the Dreyfuss Affair in 1894 and the Vichy government in World War II. More than 90,000 French Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, bringing the post-war French Jewish community down to 200,000.
In the 1950s and ‘60s, tens of thousands of Jews fled North Africa and many made their way to France, effectively doubling the French Jewish population. Today, at nearly 500,000, the French Jewish community is 60 percent Sephardic, strong and vibrant. They live in 230 different communities, with the largest enclaves in Paris, Marseilles, Lyon and Nice. But underlying this proud history and communal strength is a deep and palpable fear.
The primary driver of this fear is that anti-Semitism is dramatically increasing in France. Although the Jewish community is less than 1 percent of the population, it is the target of 49 percent of all violent racist attacks. In 2015, an average of two anti-Semitic acts were reported every day. Kippot are not worn outdoors. Many Jewish communal institutions are unmarked, with the only hint of their presence being the French army soldiers posted outside. I arrived in France the day after the Brexit vote in Great Britain. Newspapers, television and street conversations were filled with analyses, “What now?” and a larger conversation about the future of France and Europe. Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right and anti-Semitic French political party, National Front, wrote in The New York Times that the “[French] People’s Spring is inevitable,” and that France should follow England’s lead. I felt a collective shudder by the Jews we met.
France is home to Europe’s largest Jewish community; it also boasts Europe’s largest Muslim community. Unemployment is high and the number of ISIS-trained terrorists returning from Syria to France is growing. All of France is at risk; Jews are a target. During our visit, I was honored to be asked to participate in a brief memorial ceremony outside the Hyper Cacher supermarket, where an Islamic terrorist took 20 hostages and killed four patrons on Jan. 6, 2015. It was my second time there. A few days after that horrifying attack, I participated on a solidarity mission organized by the Jewish Federations of North America. During the ceremony this week, I reflected on the deaths of the victims and the pain experienced by their families. In a small way, our Federation was part of the healing process and JAFI helped ensure prompt burials for the victims in Israel at their families’ request.
Despite the pain and the fear, Hyper Cacher is open for business and so is the French Jewish community. More than 32,000 students are in 286 French Jewish day schools, there are 300 kosher restaurants in Paris (more than New York City) and 48 JCCs throughout France. JAFI is increasingly active in France, helping with security arrangements and placing shlichim (emissaries) in day schools, JCCs and youth groups, organizing long-term Israel experiences for young adults (1,400 participated last year in long-term MASA Israel programs) and of course, assisting the increasing number of French Jews choosing to make aliyah to Israel (15,000 over the past 3 years).
How many more will leave? No one knows. Everywhere we visited, I asked older people, young adults and teens, “What does the French Jewish community look like in 10 years?” I received as many answers as people I asked: “the young will leave,” “it will look the same,” “it will look very different,” and “the more connected and committed will leave, the rest will stay.” I received one very honest reply from a 17 year-old day school student: “I don’t know. Do you?”
I don’t know. I do know that the connection between French Jews and Israel is very strong. We were told by one community leader that 250,000 visit Israel frequently/yearly and many of the wealthier French Jews have a home in Israel, “just in case.” Pride in being French, being Jewish and being supportive of Israel are mixed together in an inextricable web of emotions. The choices are many: go, stay, go to Israel or go to other countries. Over the past 10 years, millions of French citizens have emigrated to the U.S., U.K. and Italy. Jews are looking at the same options.
I am proud of the work our Federation does to support the Jews of France and in dozens of countries around the world. Promoting aliyah and building a strong and vibrant local Jewish community are not mutually exclusive. It’s complicated and there are no easy answers. Being supportive does not mean being judgmental. Being a community does not necessarily mean speaking with one voice, or as Rabbi Horvilleurs says, changing our identity. However, being a people does mean understanding the needs of others, sharing a past heritage and a vision for a secure future.
Je suis un Juif francais.
Steven A. Rakitt is the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.