Jacques Chirac (center) talks with Henri Hajdenberg (left), then-president of CRIF and of the European Jewish Council, Élysée Palace, Paris, 2000

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Secrets of the CRIF

The annual dinner where the French state meets the Jews

Marc Weitzmann
June 02, 2024
Jacques Chirac (center) talks with Henri Hajdenberg (left), then-president of CRIF and of the European Jewish Council, Élysée Palace, Paris, 2000

REUTERS/Bridgeman Images

This article is part of Tablet in Paris.
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It is May 6, Yom Hashoah, in Paris, almost exactly seven months since Oct. 7, and I am attending the dinner of the CRIF—an acronym for the high-sounding name of Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France, or Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France—at the Caroussel du Louvre. Up until two years ago, nothing could’ve been more French, for better or worse, but also nothing could’ve been more Jewish, for better or worse, than this annual event, whose aim at its creation in 1985 was to establish a “civic dialogue” between the Jewish community and the French state—as if the said community was somewhat foreign and the state still a monarchy.

The CRIF was then 40 years old. Its creation had the aura of a legend. It dated back to 1944, to an underground armed group of anti-Nazi resisters called the Comité Général de Défense Juive (the General Committee for Jewish Defense). The Comité Général was mostly composed of communists, Zionists and Polish Bundists of recent immigration who had chosen France because of the Republic’s promise of equality and because of its secularism. Since the emancipation in 1791, most European Jews saw the country the way that Emma Lazarus would see the U.S. 110 years later. As a young Jew named Samuel Levy wrote, “France is our Palestine, its mountains are our Zion, its rivers our Jordan. Let us drink at the white water of its sources, it is the water of liberty! […] France is the refuge of the oppressed.” This is the vision that the occupation years shattered.

As the war was coming to an end, the CRIF was meant to succeed the Consistoire, the religious traditional French Jewish structure created by Napoleon in 1808, 15 years after the emancipation, to manage what had become the “Israelite religion,” whose rabbis had all but compromised themselves with Vichy’s policy, blaming “foreign Jews” for the rabid antisemitism of the regime. It was therefore these “foreign Jews” who fought for “the French Republican ideal” against French rabbis who had betrayed it. In a way, the conflict between these two Jewish organizations mirrored the quasi-civil war that had been raging in the country since the 1930s and which had culminated during the collaboration years, in which the Conseil National de la Résistance—the National Council of the Resistance—opposed a (largely Catholic) anti-parliamentary far right for whom the decadent French Republic was a “whore” and Jews and the Freemasons its pimps.

But France being such a centralized country, the relationships between the Jews and the state did not stop with the end of the war. In 1985 the left had been in power for four years. It faced an economic crisis, massive unemployment, and above all, just like the rest of the country, what could be called a political identity crisis: How to remain centralist and socialist when you’re at the head of a Western power in a growing ultra-liberal geopolitical environment. France’s Socialist government could certainly use the memory of a time where the line between good and bad was clear.

But history’s a complicated thing. That year—the year Lanzmann’s Shoah came out—some 50 people invited by the CRIF gathered inside of the French Senate to dine under the auspices of a left-wing government whose Minister of Justice Robert Badinter was the son of a deportee murdered in Auschwitz (and the moral conscience of the country), but whose President François Mitterrand secretly maintained close ties, as we would later learn, with former high-ranking antisemitic collaborators of the Vichy regime who had remained his friends since the first years of WWII, during which he had worked as a civil servant for the Pétain regime before finally joining the Resistance. What could be more ambiguous than that?

Well, many things still, as it turned out. The 1980s, during which the CRIF and its formal dinner slowly became an institution, was also the decade during which France faced for the first time its post-imperial reality. It was the decade where the children of the migrant workers from Muslim background took to the streets to make public their demands to integrate, often at the dismay of their own parents, of the nationalist authoritarian apparatchiks of their countries of origins (Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria for whom integration meant betrayal), and above all at the unease of the French socialists, whose electoral base was mostly white and middle class, and whose government depended on the former colonies for its supplies of gas and post-colonial guilt.

In other words: The annual state ceremony of the CRIF dinner grew out of a French moment where the country was beginning to discover the ambivalence, the complexities, if not the perversity, of its historical heritage. One could argue that the seeds of what has followed were planted during that equivocal period.

The demographic of the hate has changed. Most of today’s antisemitic incidents in France involve universities, the cultural world, and/or, of course, Mélenchon’s far-left party, La France Insoumise.

As time passed, the CRIF dinner went from a gathering of 50 people to 700 today, and successfully managed to become unavoidable for the whole political class (excluding both the far left and the far right). It is there that Prime Minister Alain Juppé announced the first mission on the spoliation of the Jews during WWII; that Prime Minister Lionel Jospin announced his concern over the “devoir de mémoire” (the “duty to remember”); and President Sarkozy came to defend his own vision of “laïcité” (the famous French version of secularism). All this, without ever getting rid of its half-civic, half-monarchist ceremony, in which Jews are cast in the dual role of the Republic’s moral superego and of worldly courtesans.

In 2022, an energetic 42-year-old entrepreneur named Yonathan Arfi took over the CRIF presidency for a three-year term with the clear intention of dusting off the institution. No more mythical past, no more Israeli-Parisian worldliness; instead, efficiency and focus on the furies of the global present. Already in 2023, most of the speeches and guests of the first dinner he presided over focused almost entirely on the Iranian “Women Life Freedom” movement whose slogans were cheered repeatedly. This year, of course, it focused on the consequences of Oct. 7, “a tragedy for Israel and the Jewish world and also a French shock, an eye opener and a catalyst of the fractures of our society,” to quote Arfi’s remarks.

9/11. 3/12. 1/7-8-9. 11/13. 10/7. Most of the people present that evening knew all the key dates by heart. From the start of the Second Intifada, to the attacks on N.Y. and D.C., to the Black Shabbat in the south of Israel, via the murders of the Jewish children in Toulouse to the Charlie Hebdo/Hypercacher killings to the Bataclan massacre, history since 2001 looked like a line punctuated with unthinkable shocks, all targeting Jews to better target everyone else, and all pointing in the same direction. It was a line where the U.S. stood at one extremity, Israel at the other, and France in the middle, both geographically and figuratively.

Why did they see France as central? Is it because Paris was the first to edict the political emancipation of the Jews, an emancipation that served as a template for the liberal laws that helped the Yiddishkeit grow out of the ghettos and across the continent in the 19th century, and that the reactionary forces saw at the time, and pretty much like today’s Islamists, as the beginning of decadence? Is it because, today, France is home of the largest Jewish community in Europe? Because it is located seven hours away from the place that was once the country of a complete successful diaspora (the U.S.), and five from Israel where Jews gather together?

There are reasons why Haaretz journalist Lee Yaron’s investigative report October 7, the first book to recount what happened that day in Israel through the people that lived it while at the same time drawing a historical and humanistic portrait of a country under global siege, which will be released in the U.S. and the U.K. next fall, was commissioned from Paris by the French editor Joachim Schnerf at the prestige Grasset publishing house.

Between 2000 and 2016, the number of antisemitic incidents in France went from virtually zero to 700 per year—almost two per day. That wave of verbal, physical, and sometimes deadly attacks that French Jews experienced then makes them particularly receptive to Oct. 7 and its repercussions, as if France had been the place of a dress rehearsal rag for what is now a worldwide situation—a situation where, as Arfi put it, “antisemitism, everywhere it has expressed itself [in the last seven months] is not a consequence of Oct. 7 but, indeed, its continuation.” In that sense, the young Prime Minister Gabriel Attal—who, although not Jewish, reminded them of his own grandmother who was and carried the yellow star during WWII—was right, when, after having reminded everyone that 42 victims of Oct. 7 were French, he called the Black Shabbat “the deadliest terror attack on France since the Bataclan slaughter.” (France is the only country to have dedicated a national homage to all of the victims of that day.)

It is with that in mind that the 700 guests of the CRIF dinner came to listen to Arfi and to the young prime minister, and to applaud the family members of three of the French hostages detained by Hamas—to whom an empty table with their posters was dedicated in front of the stage.

Something strange and contradictory has been happening in France since Oct. 7. It is true that, since that day, France “is facing an antisemitic wave stronger, more brutal and more established than the one we have known those last years,” as Gabriel Attal put it in his moving speech: “Between Oct. 7 and the end of December, 1,200 antisemitic incidents have been recorded, three times more than in 2022, and since January, the percentage is of 300%.” Since that speech, an undocumented Algerian migrant has tried to set fire to a synagogue in Rennes, a woman has been arrested knife in hand in front of a Jewish school in the 19th arrondissement of Paris, a series of bloody hands have been found tagged on the wall of the Shoah Museum (this one particular incident has been proved to be part of the now-regular Russian destabilizing ops), and in a recent “pro-Palestinian” gathering to protest the bombing of Rafah near Les Halles, protestors chanted “Israel dehors” (Israel get out) on the music of “Hava Negila,” a famous Jewish (not Israeli) song. Antisemitic incidents have risen by 45% since Oct. 7 in primary schools and high schools, according to a recent study of the LICRA (the International League against Racism and Antisemitism). In fact, not a day passes in France without new insults against the Jews.

And yet, despite its violent record since 2000, the country has known nothing of the massive demonstrations that we’ve seen in the U.K. praising Allah and Hamas. In 2000, according to the Islamist preacher I was able to interview when I wrote Hate, the Muslim youth of the cites galvanized by the Second Intifada threw themselves en masse inside the French mosques looking for preachers of war who would incite them to attack the Jews and later to go to Iraq to fight the Americans. (The first attacks against synagogues happened three weeks after the images of the Palestinian child Muhammad Durah, popularly known as Le petit Mohamed, ostensibly being killed in an exchange of fire between Israelis and Palestinians were aired first on French TV, then worldwide.)

Nothing of the sort has happened since October. Despite the big riots last June, during which some Jewish stores were indeed ransacked, but not systematically and more by reflex than out of anything else, the cites have been remarkably quiet. So far, no one has offered any convincing explanation for why.

But one thing is clear: The demographic of the hate has changed. The elite school Sciences Po has been occupied on the model of the U.S. campuses, after the SJP sent an emissary from Columbia—it seems it was the activist Maryam Alwann—to open an office there. (Interestingly enough, the first statement issued by the SJP bureau at Sciences Po Paris denouncing “the ongoing Israeli war in Gaza,” “the loss of hundreds of innocent lives” is dated Oct. 11: four days after the massacre in Israel and 16 before the Israeli offensive on Gaza …) Most of today’s antisemitic incidents in France involve universities, the cultural world, and/or, of course, Mélenchon’s far-left party, La France Insoumise. Indeed, Mélenchon’s unique concern during the current electoral campaign for the European election is “Palestine”; the parti star, Rima Hassan, practically the only candidate we see campaigning and whose only subject is Gaza, is an alleged Franco-Syrian-Palestinian “refugee,” whose sources of revenue are not known. She is also the only Palestinian in the world who enters and leaves Syria at will (and sends touristic tweets from there) without being checked by anyone there or in France.

In other words, France went from brutal, direct violence against Jews to a more perverse game whose result is unknown. In that context, the words of Yonathan Arfi sounded particularly strong to the ears of the guests. “Only the courage of the truth and the clarity of the positions can gather us and reassure us. […] 80 years ago, in the heart of the night, the CRIF built itself in echo with the National Council of the Resistance, with whom it shared the spirit of resistance and the ambition to draw a better future for all. As we face the moral confusions of our times, this heritage enlightens us.”

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

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.

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