‘Heureux comme un juif en France,” according to an old French proverb. Happy as a Jew in France. How is it that France, the first country to emancipate its Jews, fiercely proud of its post-revolutionary ideals of ”liberty, fraternity and equality”, is regularly described as the most antisemitic country in Europe? How to understand this ”tortured history, one of love and betrayal, enthusiasm and loss”?
For anyone interested in this complex story, the film Being Jewish in France (whose French title, Comme un juif en France, is a deeply ironic reference to that old proverb), showing at JW3 this month, is a must-see, a rich, dense exploration of the complex ebb and flow of the relationship between modern France and its Jewish population.
Directed by Yves Jeuland, the film is a nuanced exploration of over a century of French Jewish experience, which has been punctuated by long periods when Jews have genuinely thrived, and yet which is simultaneously a history of a specifically French brand of antisemitism that has regularly manifested itself at all levels of society throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.
The film opens with images of the 1895 military humiliation of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, when his insignia was ripped from his uniform and his sword broken in front of a crowd of thousands of jeering Parisians shouting: ”Death to the Jews!”
The Dreyfus Affair perfectly illustrates the fragile dichotomy of French Jewish experience. Dreyfus was the most patriotic of Frenchmen, Jewish by birth but not by practice. He was found guilty of espionage but even after the Army discovered he was not guilty, they kept their silence preferring to maintain a conviction that dovetailed nicely with the antisemitic attitudes of a significant part of the French establishment.
The affair split France in two, pitting Dreyfusards, Republican and anti-clerical, of whom Emile Zola was the most prominent, against largely Catholic, deeply antisemitic anti-Dreyfusards.
As former Justice Minister Robert Badinter – one of the dozen or so intellectuals whose testimonies punctuate the film – says, the most astonishing thing about the Dreyfus Affair was what it revealed of the depth of antisemitic sentiment in post-revolutionary France.
Being Jewish in France offers an unflinching exploration of the way in which the French Jewish population has evolved with each new influx of refugees.
In the immediate aftermath of the Great War, wealthy and established metropolitan Jews, utterly patriotic and perfectly French in attitudes and appearance, were horrified by the arrival of huge numbers of Yiddish-speaking, impoverished refugees from eastern and central Europe, fearful that they would jeopardise their hard-won bourgeois status and lead to an increase in anti Jewish sentiment.
As elsewhere in Europe, the interwar years saw an increase in hostility towards Jews, but nothing prepared the Jewish population for their fate under the Occupation: the collaboration of the Vichy government with the Nazis that led to a third of the Jewish population, around 78,000 men, women and children, being deported.
Fewer than 3,000 survived. Jeuland interleaves archive footage – of Jews in yellow stars, anti-Jewish propaganda, the famous 1941 antisemitic Paris exhibition Jews and France – with footage of (now adult) survivors recalling their childhood experiences. The words of film-maker Marceline Loridan-Ivens, deported to Auschwitz at the age of 15, are almost unbearably moving.
Yet, to counterbalance this terrible betrayal, it must be recalled that two thirds of the Jews survived, many hidden by ordinary French men and women who risked their lives to save those of their Jewish friends and neighbours, or even total strangers.
This ambiguity is the subject of another film out now, Suite Française, adapted from Irène Némirovsky’s celebrated novel. Némirovsky, having been abandoned by the Parisian literary world and no longer, as a Jew, able to publish, wrote the novel whilst in hiding in Issy-l’Evêque. “My God!”, she wrote in a notebook in 1941, “what is this country doing to me? Since it is rejecting me, let us consider it coldly, let us watch as it loses its honour and its life.”
Suite Française shows us occupied France in microcosm: aristocrats, farmers, communists, resistants, collaborators, noble characters and cowards – but no Jews – are closely observed over the course of three months when a German division is billeted in the small town of Bussy.
Saul Dibb’s film, starring Kristin Scott Thomas, is a restrained evocation of the frailties, strengths and contradictions of ordinary French people under Nazi occupation.
Jeuland’s film shows us what Némirovsky, deported in 1942 and murdered at Auschwitz, did not live to see; after the liberation of the camps, returning deportees found that no one wanted to hear about what they had experienced in the camps. For decades, the myth was maintained that the majority of French citizens had been active in the Resistance. The collaboration of official institutions, including the French police, the French railways, and of course the Vichy government, was at worst completely unacknowledged, at best viewed as a kind of parenthesis that could be glossed over as somehow falling outside French history.
There was an official refusal to recognise that the Jews had been specifically targeted by the Vichy collaborationist government, instead, lumping them together in commemorations and memorials with non-Jewish political prisoners (though these political prisoners suffered terribly in the German concentration camps, 50 per cent survived, as opposed to the three per cent of Jews who survived deportation). It was not until 1995, in a speech by President Jacques Chirac, that the role of the French in the deportation of the Jews was officially recognised.
Yet while those who had survived the war struggled to reintegrate into France, conscious of the unfathomable betrayal of the French, paradoxically the post-war years saw Jewish life in France flourish as it hadn’t for decades, with the arrival, between the mid 1950s and the mid 1960s, of 300,000 Jews from north Africa, who brought with them liturgical, musical and culinary traditions that infused the traditionally Ashkenazi French Jewish culture with a new vivacity.
Unconstrained by the traditional Republican norms that demanded that religious identity remain entirely private, these new Sephardi communities brought with them a cultural confidence that by the 1970s led to an extraordinary proliferation of Jewish schools, community centres and publishing houses. A confident, extrovert Jewish culture was at last flourishing in France, arguably as never before.
Even when terrorism reared its ugly head, with the bomb that killed four people outside the rue Copernic synagogue in 1980, or the cemetery desecration at Carpentras in 1990, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in protest, testifying to an almost universal solidarity and support for French Jews.
But the extraordinarily maladroit response after the Copernic attack by the then prime minister, Raymond Barre, who appeared on television saying that ”a bomb that was meant to attack Jews going to synagogue instead killed innocent people crossing the street”, was a sharp reminder that, for some French people, the Jews were, nearly 200 years after their emancipation, still not entirely accepted as fully French citizens.
The golden age of French Jewish culture was not to last. Since 2000, there has been a sharp increase on attacks against Jews, closely following events in the Middle East and largely perpetrated by young Muslims.
Many Jews today say that they are afraid to wear identifying symbols, such as a kipah or a Star of David, when they are out on the street in major cities, for fear of being verbally or physically attacked. Increasing numbers are leaving the country, for Israel, Canada, the US and the UK. A recent report shows that 50 per cent of racist attacks today are against Jews, who number less than one per cent of the population.
There is a sense today that there is a new banalisation of antisemitism: the comedian Dieudonné is seen in a film on one of France’s publicly funded television channels, dressed as a Charedi Jew in military fatigues. The audience don’t just applaud his antisemitic rant, they give him a standing ovation.
Jeuland’s film was completed before the wave of murderous attacks on Jews in France that began with the kidnap, torture and murder of Ilan Halimi in 2006, followed by the point-blank murder of a rabbi and three children at the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse, the murder by a French national of three people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, and the hostage taking at the Hyper Cacher supermarket in January this year, which resulted in the deaths of four Jewish shoppers.
No other country in Europe has seen this level of murderous violence by its own citizens against Jews. With its brilliant weaving together of an immense wealth of archive film, music and testimony, Being Jewish in France provides an invaluable and detailed historical context against which to understand the current situation of Jews in France.
As Robert Badinter puts it with his customary elegance: the Jews and France “are a love affair gone sour”.