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Tablet Paris: An Introduction

Ten years after bloody Islamist attacks sent thousands of French Jews fleeing to Israel, France feels surprisingly resilient—while American Jews fear what comes next

Marco Roth
June 02, 2024

© Gueorgui Pinkhassov/Magnum Photos

This article is part of Tablet in Paris.
See the full collection →︎

As first contacts go, the conversation in the smoking area on the sidewalk in front of the arrivals terminal at Charles de Gaulle airport could not have been more serendipitous. In Paris to write about France and Jews, the first person I speak to turns out to be Gershom, as he’ll shortly introduce himself, on his way home from a weeklong tech conference in Boston. Neither of us appear “openly Jewish”—now a popular euphemism in respectable media organs. Our mutual recognition is a response to unconscious gestures and signs, the way that non-openly Jewish Jews in the anti-Dreyfusard drawing rooms of Proust’s Paris could recognize each other. Maybe the tell was the theatrical way I’d lit a cigarette after 12 hours in the no-smoking zones of public transport and airports. “I detect a certain impatience,” he says, and just like that we each recognize a fellow kibitzer.

Gershom wants to know what I think about the campus protests in the U.S. He’s baffled, but also wounded, betrayed. Like many French people of our generation, not only Jews, now entering our 50s, he’d looked to the U.S. as a potentially more attractive model of a free society: less managed, less top-down, more open to outside ideas and talents, and—of course—encouraging of all kinds of displays of religious and ethnic identity, a place where Jews could flourish. Does he feel more threatened by the extreme right or the extreme left in France? I ask him. “Both,” he shrugs.

Already it feels crazy that this man is afraid at all. Born in Uman in Ukraine, Gerhsom served 14 years in the French Foreign Legion and has kept in shape (Watch Claire Denis’ Beau Travail for a sense of what that looks like). He’s also a software engineer with a degree in physics. If anyone can walk around the modern world feeling serene and secure, it should be this man.

But his world shattered twice in the past four years: First there was COVID, he says, which was a period of extreme isolation and depression coming on the heels of a bad divorce that separated him from his child. He’d been led back to a religious community for the first time since his boyhood. Then came Oct. 7 and the aftermath. During the spontaneous demonstrations of support for the pogrom that occurred across France in the first week after the Hamas attack, the municipality of the city in Normandy where Gershom lives advised its Jewish citizens (“not even enough of us for a minyan most days”) to take mezuzot off their doors. This is the state’s way of saying “we’re not responsible and we can’t really protect you even if we wanted to.” Still, Gershom has no plans to emigrate, neither to Israel nor the US. He’s French; he recently happily remarried (the weeklong business trip was the longest he’d been away from his wife since they got together). “J’y suis, j’y reste,” he says, the former legionary quoting the French General Mac Mahon’s words at the siege of Sebastapol, “Here I am, here I remain.”

For a while, it had become fashionable to anticipate the exodus of the world’s third-largest Jewish population. This began after a diverse crescendo of Islamist, anti-globalist, and pro-Palestinian attacks explicitly targeting French Jews, beginning with the Passover assaults on synagogues at the start of the Second Intifada in 2002, but really taking off in the 2010s with the massacres at the Toulouse Jewish day school in 2012, the singling out of Jewish businesses and synagogues during the Sarcelles riots in 2014, and the terrorist attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris’ 12th arrondissement in 2015, a grotesque encore carried out “in solidarity” with the assassinations of the magazine Charlie Hebdo’s editorial and janitorial staff two days earlier; these headline-grabbing events occurred alongside a litany of muggings, stabbings, beatings, defenestrations, and rapes of individual Jews. All of this to the soundtrack of an increasingly popular strain of French ghetto culture, exemplified by the comedian Dieudonné and his signature odious reverse Hitler salute, dubbed “the quenelle.”

In the immediate aftermath of the supermarket siege, Benjamin Netanyahu made a direct appeal for French Jews to make aliyah, which the novelist Michel Houellebecq turned into a fantasy about the “voluntary deportation” of French Jews in his 2017 novel Submission.

But Tablet did not come to Paris to search for evidence of French Jewish precarity and fragility. We have arrived, rather, to see what’s at the source of the remarkable resilience and pride—yes, why not call it for what it is—of these Jewish citizens of France’s Fifth Republic. Is there something like a secret Gallic sauce, a knowhow, or art of everyday life that might inspire the Jews of the United States, as we stand at what is a clear crossroads in American Jewish history?

The quick way to say this is that Oct. 7 has precipitated a public schism within American Jewry, with anxious status quo-ists losing their hold on communal opinion. Meanwhile, French Jewish communal opinion has remained united and attached to both the state and to institutional life. Why?

To understand this, it helps to also have some deeper, if necessarily schematic, intellectual-historical background about the respective political settlements of modern France and the USA that made it possible for Jews to thrive in each place. The United States of America was a republic founded in large part by the descendants of actual Hebrew-speaking, or at least Hebrew-reading goyim: dissident protestants from England who, under the spell of their rediscovery of the “Old Testament” in its original language, cast themselves quite literally as the new Jews who would lead their people to the new Jerusalem of New England. Cotton Mather was a formidable Hebrew scholar, a veritable rabbi, as were many of his descendants and followers. To this day, one of the major universities of the United States that produces a part of its political and managerial elite bears a Hebrew motto, proudly taken from Aaron’s breastplate, אורים ותומים, “light and truth.”

To all this, of course, the Puritans added a faith in divine grace, which manifested through individual virtue, as well as a doctrine of explicitly personal salvation through the acceptance of the messiah Jesus Christ—and dire consequences were imagined for those whose hearts, for whatever reasons, remained stubbornly hardened against the good news. Yet the republic these people created proved both tolerant and open to Jews, one could even call it actively “philosemitic.” Certainly, it deployed the “Old Testament,” when it suited them, to justify an expansionist settlement program and an economic system that permitted both chattel slavery and indentured servitude. But there was also always a theological ghost inside the machinery of the secular American state: the idea that grace was no more denied to Jews than to the Puritans’ own recalcitrant brethren, should they be but open to it.

American Jews and American Jewry thus became at least potentially Protestant before they “became white.” Or rather American Jews became white in exactly the way that William Blake would notice in “The little black boy” from the “Songs of Innocence,” a poem that manages to be anti-slavery while poking at the naive dualism of his contemporary Christian abolitionists: “I am black. But O! My soul is white.”

What gets lazily called “assimilation,” in the United States, actually meant an increasing admixture of Protestant ethics (of kinds both defined in 1904 by Max Weber in a work of sociology as well as closer to the moment of its foundation in the works of the poet-theologian John Milton) into the daily bread of Jewish experience and practice. The post-Oct. 7 schism among American Jews mostly has broken along the lines of the children of the old assimilationists and those of newer arriving groups of Jews (ex-Soviet, Mizrahi, Persian, Israeli diasporic). The Protestant assimilationists are those who see Hamas’ pogrom as a proof of the sins of Israel for which “the Jews” must repent, through blood as well as the sackcloth and ashes of abnegation. They also understand the message of Jewish suffering to be a prefiguration of a universal predicament, in which the murder of millions of European Jews in the Shoah took place so that good American children may learn that never again means never again for anybody.

The protests and tent encampments are, by these lights—and as the various Jewish participants and sympathizers who sometimes speak on their behalf maintain—“not antisemitic,” precisely in the way that the foundational covenant of the United States is not antisemitic. Jews were welcomed to the U.S. as potential converts to Protestant manifest destiny, and they are now welcomed in the tents of American elite universities—and subsequently in the political and cultural institutions where “the elect” of such places go on to serve—as long as they are willing to assimilate their history and religion to the story of a greater history and religion, in which the moral arc of the universe bends toward universal human rights under international law.

The Puritans’ typological reading of the Torah, the theological ghost in the American machine, means that Jewish history only makes sense to Protestants (and today’s protesters) as a prefiguration of the universal history to come, in the same way that some right-wing evangelical “unqualified support for the state of Israel” derives from a different typological but no less Christian understanding of the conditions necessary to bring about a hoped-for apocalypse.

In France, on the other hand, the compact that allowed Jews to become full citizens of a modern European nation for the first time was a resolutely secular version of the ancient edict of Caracalla that had once made Roman citizens out of Jews. The National Assembly bill of Sept. 27, 1791, in essence required that France’s Jews pay taxes, do military service, submit to be governed by French laws rather than ecclesiastical courts, and then the rest was up to them. Religion ended where the state began, and that also meant the state’s “grandes ecoles” that trained its scholars, philosophers, and political class. Everyone was in theory free to practice any religion they pleased, unless its doctrines required its adherents to seize the machinery of the state or impinge on the liberty of others.

Much critiqued as a form of “liberal hypocrisy” by various factions on both the French and American left and right in recent decades, the French idea of laïcité differs in crucial ways from both “secularism” and the “establishment clause” of the American Bill of Rights. Laïcité did more than “separate church and state,” it also separated public from private. And so, by not enrolling Jews in a larger cosmic narrative at the same moment they were enrolled on voter lists and tax registries, France allowed them to remain Jews in whatever way they liked: free to study Torah or free to forge public identities for themselves as philosophers, soldiers, politicians, actors, pop stars, gangsters, businesspeople, artisans, etc., without requiring them to profess adherence to any system of values other than “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.”

The old Jewish section of the Cimitière Montparnasse is still separated by a wall, a trace of a medieval ghetto. To go there and stand before the grave slab of Alfred Dreyfus, embossed anew each week with the stones of mourners, on a bright spring morning in the second decade of the 21st century of the common era, is to be forced to acknowledge the pathos of the First Republic’s rather schematic and hopeful idea of modern Jewish citizenship, as well as the man whose fate embodied its ultimate fragility.

The Dreyfus affair proved that post-revolutionary France’s social contract with the Jews was no less immune from being revoked as the ancien regime’s contract (the Edict of Nantes) had been with its Protestants.

As Proust’s Baron Charlus remarks to the Jewish narrator on the eve of the retrial that would result in Dreyfus’ second wrongful conviction,

I understand the newspapers to say that Dreyfus has committed a crime against his country—so I understand, I pay no attention to the newspapers, I read them as I wash my hands, without finding that it is worth my while to take any interest in what I am doing. In any case, the crime is non-existent, your friend’s compatriot would have committed a crime if he had betrayed Judaea, but what has he to do with France? ... Your Dreyfus might rather be convicted of a breach of the laws of hospitality.

The sinister implications of Charlus’ witticism, a Jew cannot be a traitor to any interests but that of some then-mythic nation of international Jewry, would be born out a few decades later, when Vichy France would denationalize the Jews as prelude to its own betrayal of the laws of hospitality, the deportation and extermination of their former citizens. Among those deported, as the inscription on Dreyfus’ grave records, was his granddaughter Madeleine Levy, killed at Auschwitz at age 25.

The far-reaching legacy of the Dreyfus affair, with Zionism at one end of it and Vichy at the other, also animates the politics of contemporary France. The political figures Tablet met with understand that they are being called upon to uphold the promise of French-style secularism and the protections it accords to France’s Jews, as it was renewed after World War II. As various as their beliefs may be, Ben Haddad, Manuel Valls, Raphael Glücksmann, and Simone Rodan-Benzaquen all understand that the French model now faces a dual challenge from the euroskeptic revival of the blood-and-soil nationalism in the style of Action Française and Baron Charlus, now represented by Marine Le Pen’s National Rally on one side. On the other side stands the grab-bag far-left coalition La France Insoumise, a congeries of former Communists, Trotskyists, and disaffected socialists with plenty of support from the new urban proletariat of angry, disappointed, underemployed Black and brown immigrants and children of immigrants, many of whom try to salve their wounded dignity with a version of political Islam that demonizes Jews.

Taken together, the far-right/far-left axis in France comprises an ideological constellation, “a populist front,” that deems Jews anywhere to be killable, whether because of the sins of capitalism, imperialism, and globalization, or because of the actions of other Jews in other parts of the world, or because of any given individual’s feelings of impotence and perceived slights against their dignity or general feelings of victimization and low self-esteem. If right and left could agree on anything other than Jew-hating, they would constitute a clear electoral majority within France.

In the face of a political situation that is objectively worse than what American Jews are dealing with right now, the Jews of France and their friends continue, through their anxiety, to live, eat, dance, make love, write, make films, compose music, and engage politically with what can only be called “jouissance,” or, for the more modest, “joie de vivre.” We are grateful to have encountered the wit, passion, and hospitality of Bernard-Henri Levy and the graciousness and playfulness of his wife, Arielle Dombasle; the remarkable groundedness of Charlotte Gainsbourg, who keeps alive the intelligence, suave irony, and untranslatable ésprit of her father, Serge and mother Jane; the intellectual curiosity and craftsmanship of Olivier Asseyas and Colombe Schneck; the perfectionist chefs and patissiers intent on creating the ideal French form of falafel and babka. We found little of the piousness, hand-wringing, and paranoia that currently grips their American counterparts, although worry is everyone’s inheritance.

On the advice of a friend, I passed the time between these encounters reading Le Dernier des Justes, the 1959 Prix Goncourt-winning novel by André Schwartz-Bart with a reception history as bizarre and tortured as the novel itself. An early example of what would later fall under the umbrella of “magical realism,” the novel narrates the generations of the Levys, from a pogrom in 12th-century York, England, to the extinction of the line at Auschwitz. These Levys are called upon not only to witness but also to experience, in their minds and bodies, the entire weight of suffering of the Jewish communities they inhabit. Sometimes they even exhort their fellow Jews to suicidal martyrdom, preempting the violence planned against them. What makes them the elect, “the Just,” is their capacity for suffering beyond suffering, for continual empathy with the idea that this suffering will also somehow redeem the world.

In a review of the novel shortly after its English translation in 1960, Ted Solataroff, a Jew of a midcentury American age closer in spirit to French secularism, rightly observed, “The idea that Jewishness is defined by martyrdom, which the true Jew seeks as his secret raison d’être, may strike one as dubious—and even repellent.” Indeed the novel now reads like a kind of torture porn, a litany of atrocities committed against Jews throughout the ages with the holy “Just” Jew as a divinely appointed lubricant and almost all-too-ready participant in his people’s destruction. Schwartz-Bart’s “Just” are Jewish equivalents of the Marquis de Sade’s Justine, the virtuous “good girl” whose various rapists and torturers enjoy her status of willing victim. They keep her alive because her tears and lamentations make them even more excited.

To turn the Hasidic legend of the “lamed vav” into a novel, Schwartz-Bart also had to keep alive the possibility that these magical, suffering Jews could have had ordinary lives full of regular joys and sorrows. Some of the Just try to resist the role that Jewish history has prepared for them. As Solatoroff points out, “Against the holy defenselessness of Ernie is placed his tough aggressive brother, who hits back; against the pious acquiescence of Mordecai is placed the cynical secularism of his own son, Ernie’s father, and even more notably, the earthy and resourceful élan of the grandmother, who carries in her spirit the Jewish capacity to endure and survive.”

Schwartz-Bart, himself the sole survivor of his family and participant in the French Resistance, is a “post-Just” Jew, and also writes from that standpoint. The novel rebels against its own premises and plot structure and rages against the kind of meekness and acceptance that helped drive the Jews of Europe to their fate in the gas chambers. It can be read as a form of satire and an act of resistance.

The Last of the Just actually contains two novels. One of them—a snapshot carousel showing “great pogroms in Jewish history”—amounts to a despairing sentimentalization of Jewish weakness. This tendency would reemerge at the turn of the millennium in the United States with Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated; it would also lead to inane later glosses of Schwartz-Bart’s novel like “a timeless classic about “how easily torn is the precious fabric of civilization, and how destructive are the consequences of dumb hatred—whether a society’s henchmen are permitted to beat an Ernie Levy because he’s Jewish, or because he’s black or gay or Hispanic or homeless.”

The other novel is a dark, existentialist rebellion against precisely that kind of higher bullshit. Schwartz-Bart suggests ironically that it’s not that “Jews as exemplary meek people shouldn’t have to suffer.” He’s pointing out that Jews who survived the Shoah no longer have to suffer in order to be Jews. The need for suffering has been removed. This did not happen because of global human rights law, the graceful intervention of an almighty God, or even thanks to the existence of the modern State of Israel. The novel leads you to the inevitable conclusion that the dumb meaninglessness of the Shoah proves the absurdity of suffering as a raison d’être for any belief system.

Following the publication of the Last of the Just, Schwartz-Bart spent the rest of his life in the tropical paradise of Martinique, helping his wife record and transmit local folklore. As a post-Shoah French Jew, you do not have to appear guilty before God, or guilty before your fellow citizens; you do not bear the sins and sufferings of others; you are not among the elect or ennobled by unearthly suffering. Instead, you do your work and enjoy your life. It’s a type of freedom that many American Jews feel they have lost.

This article is part of Tablet in Paris.
See the full collection →︎

Marco Roth is Tablet’s Critic at Large.

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