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At Simone Veil’s Funeral, a Fight About Who Are France’s ‘True Jews’

A tiff over saying Kaddish brings out simmering tensions between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews about the Holocaust, religion, and the future of Jewish life in France

Marc Weitzmann
July 14, 2017
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The joke has it that one of the most dreaded disciplinary measures El Al’s stewards fear is being transferred to the Paris-to-Tel-Aviv line. Which, as everyone knows, transports the worst, stupidest Jews—the French. The Francofone are frequently the subject of Israeli satire, which sees them as loud, arrogant, chauvinistic, and opinionated. And, judging by the petty squabbling that occurred July 5th at the Montparnasse Cemetery during Simone Veil’s funeral, those who wish to salvage French Jews from their bad reputation have their work cut out for them.

Veil, who died on June 30th, remains one of the most prominent figures of French politics and Jewish history. She was born in Lorraine, in the north of France, in 1927, to a secular family who suffered the full force of the Vichy regime. Her father, André, an architect, winner of the prestigious Rome prize in 1919, found himself jobless as early as October 1940, when the law banning every Jew from any social and professional life was passed. Her mother, Yvonne, began to spend her days looking for ways to find food. At 16, and now living with her family in Nice, Veil, acting against her parents’ advice, was on her way to a party to celebrate her high school graduation when a routine German patrol arrested her and, subsequently, deported her and her family in March of 1944.

Her father and her brother Jean were sent to Lithuania, where they died, while she, her mother and her sister Madeleine were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau and assigned to the unloading of trucks full of rocks and the digging of trenches. In 1945, the three women were sent on the infamous 2000-mile Death March. Walking barefoot in the frost, with nothing but light rags to cover their bodies, tens of thousands of men, women and children dragged themselves along in the snow day and night. Those whose physical strength abandoned were shot on the spot. Simone’s mother died from typhus in Bergen-Belsen in March of 1945, one month before the camp was liberated by the English troops.

As Marceline Loridan-Ivans, who met Simone Veil in Auschwitz and remained one of her closest friend afterwards, testified at the funeral, “there was something admirable in Yvonne and her two daughters’ behavior that forced respect even at the worst moments. Watching the dignity and moral strength they were able to maintain despite everything gave you strength.”

After the war, Simone ended up in law school, where she met and married Antoine Veil. The couple had three sons, and Simone became a high civil servant in the Justice Department, where her moral strength became her trademark. Working with the minister of Justice during the Algerian war, she managed to have the Muslim women detained in Algiers by the French army transferred to Paris in order to prevent their local interrogators from torturing and raping them, a common practice at the time.

But the political act for which she remains known in France is the law legalizing abortion. It was passed in 1974, when Veil served as minister of Health in Valerie Giscard d’Estaing’s right-wing government. Arguing for the bill at the National Assembly, Veil faced a barrage of anti-Semitic screeds from some of her fellow legislators. Representatives from the right and the National Front accused her of genocide against French children and called her a Nazi, implicitly or explicitly suggesting that France would have been better off if she’d died in the camps.

Her death last month made front-page news, and President Macron spoke at a ceremony honoring her in the courtyard of the Hotel des Invalides, where French heroes have been feted since Napoleon. The army band played the Marseillaise and the Deportees Song, and television networks broadcast the memorial service live. After sixteen years of anti-Semitism on the rise in France, it seemed like the country was finally acknowledging the importance of the Jewish contribution to its cultural and political life. Veil’s coffin was taken to the Montparnasse cemetery for her funeral, to which only the family was admitted. And then, the circus began.

On July 6th, the day after the funeral, the liberal rabbi Delphine Horvilleur published a tribute to Veil in Le Monde, praising her as a feminist hero. Veil, she wrote, was a real mensch: “The term may have no feminine equivalent in yiddish,” she added, “but it does qualify Simone Veil, whose exemplary life offers a blessing to the women of my generation.” The piece ended with a note from the newspaper, mentioning that, at the request of the Veil family, and side by side with Haim Korsia, the Chief Rabbi of France, Rabbi Horvilleur, who was born in the same town as Veil, was to say the Kaddish at the funeral.

A few hours after the piece was published, Rabbi Korsia’s press office made a furious phone call, not to Le Monde but to a small Jewish newspaper called Actualité Juive, whose sin had been to reproduce Le Monde’s piece of information that Horvilleur would say the prayer along with Korsia. No, claimed the rabbi’s press office, Horvilleur hasn’t said the Kaddish. The reason why that wrath fell on poor ActuJ instead of Le Monde remains a mystery of theological magnitude. In any case, the next day, the Jewish newspaper, dutifully repenting, published a story on half a page to deny Horvilleur’s presence at the funeral. The piece was soon posted to Facebook, and, not long after, the liberal movement and Horvilleur herself began receiving angry emails accusing them of exploiting Simone Veil’s death.

Veil, said the trolls, had asked for a kaddish to be said at her funeral, which was a sign that she was a good Jew. And the liberals allowed a woman to recite it, which meant that they weren’t. While Horvilleur refused to respond, Le Monde along with several testimonies set the record straight, forcing the Jewish newspaper to publish a third article of the same length on the subject, the focus now being whether Rabbi Korsia had tried to take the microphone away from Horvilleur while she was saying the Kaddish for Veil or simply turned his back to her. It was the stuff of a Seinfeld episode.

Or maybe it was all just a bleak joke, considering the distance between the precarious condition of Jews in France and their willingness to engage in such petty squabbling. Yet the incident does shed light on a few interesting facets of Jewish life in France. The liberal movement in France has been marginalized for decades, and to let a woman read the kaddish, let alone serve as a rabbi, is considered not kosher by a significant portion of France’s communally active Jews, most of whom hail from the Maghreb and many of whom have settled in France in the 1960s after fleeing its former colonies. Most of the Lubavitchers and the yiddish-speaking Orthodox Jews you see these days in Le Marais come from Tunisia and speak the Yiddish they learned at shul, not at home. Korsia himself, although born in Lyons, is of Algerian descent.

The kerfuffle over Veil’s funeral, however, is about more than just the place of women in religious life, which is ironic considering Veil’s standing as a feminist icon. It’s also about the Holocaust, and what it means or doesn’t mean to French Jews. As a secular Ashkenazi Jew, Veil was one of the last representatives of the European Jewry that was Hitler’s main target, and that the French revolution had helped to turn into citizens. By asking that the Kaddish be read at her funeral, she was acknowledging that she was a part of that particular Jewish history. France’s religious Sephardic Jews, however, understood the request very differently: to them, it was about repentance, about Veil finally embracing religion and coming back home.

This view has its particular historical context. During the war, although the Vichy laws were theoretically applied in the French colonies, and although a minority of Jews from the Maghreb were indeed deported, Sephardic Jews from Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco were largely spared the worst of the Nazi terror. In the 1980s and 1990s, when the Shoah finally became an acceptable, even obsessive topic of conversation in France, many Sephardic Jews felt that their experiences of exile and suffering were marginalized. Many grew more observant as a result, a backlash of sorts to the Ashkenazi Jews’ strong secularism. Increasingly, then, Sephardic Jews came to see themselves as France’s “true Jews,” the redeemers of a French Judaism that was half-dead even before World War II. Some Sephardic French rabbis go further, flirting with the notion that European Jews had genocide coming because of their lack of piety and suggesting that secular Jews had doomed themselves long before Hitler appeared on the scene and that the Holocaust was an act of divine retribution. The question of whether or not a liberal rabbi woman should or shouldn’t say the Kaddish at the funeral of a secular, Ashkenazi, feminist hero is therefore also the question of to which kind of Jews does the Holocaust really belong. It’s the kind of question that can be asked only in France.

Marc Weitzmann is the author of 12 books, including, most recently, Hate: The Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism in France (and What It Means for Us). He is a regular contributor to Le Monde and Le Point and hosts Signes des Temps, a weekly public radio show on France Culture.