Commentary Magazine

Jewish Identities in France, by Dominique Schnapper

Israélites & Juifs

Jewish Identities in France: An Analysis of Contemporary French Jewry.
by Dominique Schnapper.
Foreword by Edward Shils. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. University of Chicago Press. 181 pp. $25.00.

The French Jewish community is now the largest in free Europe, the fourth largest in the world. Decimated by persecution during World War II, it was still in a convalescent state when the arrival of the North African communities (in particular from Algeria) swelled its ranks in the early I960’s. The Jews from Algeria have done well in France, better on the whole than those from Morocco, who when they emigrated tended to be much poorer. As their children have grown up and started families, the two communities have changed not only the demographics of French Jewry but its character as well, somewhat the way North African (and more generally Sephardi) Jews have changed Israeli society. From a French perspective, however, the important point about this new emigration is that the North African Jews are not by and large interested in assimilation. In this they differ sharply from their European brethren, at least up until World War II.

In regard to assimilation, the “old” French Jewry has been likened to German Jewry. Both communities were profoundly nationalistic, both were educated, highly motivated, and generally successful. But a more interesting comparison might be made with American Jews. When the Reform movement explicitly rejected the notion of Jewish nationhood, as it did for about fifty years from the 1880’s on, it was expressing a faith in America (as well as a theological point of view) that was close to the kind of attachment French Jews felt to France. France and the United States were, in the eyes of their respective Jewish patriots, the closest anyone had yet come to the historical realization of the good society.

In a sense they were right. Both France and the United States, in the 18th and 19th centuries, developed political traditions that seemed to encourage the flowering of civic virtues and civil philosophies (especially tolerance and the rule of law) that would allow Jewish life in the Diaspora to be, at last, without constraint. In this context, it was quite natural for the ideal of assimilation to gain ground in the Jewish community, and for the idea of Jewish nationhood to lose significance. Judaism would be a religion and nothing more.

These ideas were stronger in France than the United States. Despite Tocqueville’s prediction that there would be a general lessening of cultural diversity in American society, the United States has actually fostered more rather than less diversity in the years since he made his observation. Thanks in part to those private voluntary associations that Tocqueville found so interesting and valuable a part of American society, national religious and ethnic groups have been able to preserve their identities.

French society, by contrast, permitted no such diversity, which is why the idea of assimilation ran much deeper in France than in America. It was far more difficult (and unusual) to be both French and Jewish in France than it was to be both American and Jewish in the United States. On the practice of Judaism as a religion, however, there were no constraints. The logical conclusion for French Jews was therefore to think of themselves as Frenchmen who adhered to the Jewish religion. To make this clear, they adopted the term “Israélite” to describe themselves, a term similar in connotation to the British coinage, “of the Mosaic persuasion.” A Français Israélite was simply a Frenchman who attended le temple, just as a Français catholique was a Frenchman who went to church.

So eager were French Jews to drive this point home (if only to themselves) that they referred to non-French Jews—like those who had immigrated from Central and Eastern Europe, and particularly from Poland, between the wars—by another name, Juifs. Juifs were simply Jews, those who still belonged to the Jewish people as it were by default; for, given a choice, would not anyone in his right mind prefer to be a Frenchman?



But the ideal of assimilation, in all its rosy promise, was unhinged permanently by the cataclysmic events of World War II and its aftermath. The Holocaust, and the abjectness of French behavior in the course of it, revealed that France was not the special nation of asylum and solidarity that the Jews had taken it to be. Then came the creation of Israel and the shock of the Six-Day war, which demonstrated the tenacious will of the Jewish people to survive, but also its isolation. Until 1967, Israel and France had been close allies. De Gaulle’s icy response to the Six-Day war changed all that. He accused Israel of provoking the war, complimented the Jewish people in a way that sounded almost anti-Semitic, and tilted French Middle East policy significantly away from Israel. Over the next few years, French Jews realized that they had to band together for the defense of Israel—which meant, in effect, that they had to act politically for the defense of their identity as Jews. With the help of the new immigrants from North Africa, to whom this came more naturally, French Jews became reacquainted with the centuries-old idea of Jewish people-hood.

This development, which is of the highest importance with respect to the future of national ideas as a whole, has been brilliantly analyzed by the French sociologist, Dominique Schnapper. Her book, published three years ago in France, has now been issued in an excellent English translation with an introduction by Edward Shils.

Mme. Schnapper’s original title, Juifs et israélites, reflects her concern with assimilation and its discontents. In a sense, though, the American title, Jewish Identities in France, is a more accurate rendition of the aim of the book, which is to describe the burgeoning expression of Jewish identity in France in a post-assimilationist period. That is not to say that French Jews are rejecting assimilation en masse, or that they have developed qualms about being French. Neither is true. What they have rejected, however, is the classic assimilationist idea that Jewish identity has to do only with adherence, residual or otherwise, to the Jewish religion.

As Mme. Schnapper shows very convincingly, French Jewry is not exactly in the midst of a religious revival, but it is in the midst of a substantial Jewish revival, as even the most casual observer must note. The distance covered in this regard since the 40’s is indicated by the existence, for the first time ever in France, of a quasi-political Jewish movement called Renouveau juif (Jewish Renewal); by the support, vocal and otherwise, of the French-Jewish community for Israel; by the number of books appearing on all aspects of Jewish life, thought, and religion; and finally by the belated willingness of non-Jewish French society, for the first time since the end of World War II, to confront the question of national and individual responsibility in the Holocaust. One indication of this last development has been the widespread discussion occasioned in France by the publication of Robert Paxton and Michael Marrus’s works on the Vichy period.1



In France (as in America), concern for Israel might be said to have supplanted religion as the central bond and focus of Jews, and this will probably continue as long as the state of war in the Middle East persists. Nevertheless, there are also purely religious aspects to the current renewal, though it is sometimes hard to separate them from the national. Mme. Schnapper finds—not too surprisingly—that the most observant Jews in France today come from among the recent immigrants from North Africa (one of whom was chosen recently to serve as the next Grand Rabbin), but she also finds a surprising number of “newly practicing Jews” who, by all evidence, are coming to Judaism from the head rather than from the heart. Though their original impulse may have been an emotional one (resulting from a trip to Israel, for example), they have since made a deep intellectual commitment as well. Looking at this as a professional sociologist, Mme. Schnapper writes that an advanced society gives highly trained individuals the opportunity to use their education to fulfill spiritual needs:

It is easy to understand why the return to Judaism, an intellectual religion, should be so common in a population whose cultural level has always been higher than that of the non-Jewish population and in which respect for study has always been a part of the tradition. Whereas, during the early phase of industrialization in the 19th century, increased education led Jews away from the practice of their religion, today education helps traditional Jews to perpetuate their ritual and newly practicing Jews to find their way back to it.

Many of those who have returned to Judaism, Mme. Schnapper notes, are “disillusioned leftists of the 1968 era” who have given up on the dreams of that period. Whether they come via this or some other route, however, the characteristic note of the current revival is Jewish militancy. It is expressed both through political means (pro-Israel activism, and to a lesser extent community politics) and through religious observance, and frequently, through some combination of the two. As one of Mme. Schnapper’s respondents says:

On Shabbat we eat kosher food, we light the candles, we say prayers [yet] . . . I work on Saturday. It’s hard to close a pharmacy on Saturday. . . . But in the end I think you make up for all your deficiencies by supporting Israel, by being militant.

“Militant Judaism,” writes Mme. Schnapper, “is no doubt the most widespread form of Judaism in France and certainly the most active form.” What she has understood is that the catastrophic events of the century, plus the realization that anti-Semitism is today fostered officially by some socialist countries, plus the constant awareness of the danger which Israel faces, have “forced every Jew to look at his own Judaism and at Judaism in general in a political light.”

In her “map” of French Jewry Mme. Schnapper does not overlook those Jewish militants who belong to tiny splinters of the far Left, and who are not pro but anti-Israel. But she does not dwell on this, or on the other pathological forms that “non-Jewish Jews” take. As a group, most French Jews have reaffirmed the idea and the fact of peoplehood. Very few Jews in France still refer to themselves as Israélites. And this sense of people-hood, Mme. Schnapper demonstrates elegantly, is a deep and precious source of Jewish strength and survival.


1 See my review of their Vichy France and the Jews in COMMENTARY (“Collaboration Par Excellence,” January 1982).

About the Author

Roger Kaplan has written widely on French politics and on Algeria’s Islamist insurgency of the 1990’s.

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