“I don’t believe there was a single person I loved that I did not eventually betray.” — Albert Camus
PARIS — The Jewish story of love is also one of betrayal. Nowhere is that reality more poignant than in Europe. Each place in Europe that the Jews loved sooner or later betrayed them.
For the Jewish experience there is hardly a nation on earth more exemplary in its historical ambivalence, in the Jewish experience of attachment and rejection, than France. There is a long tradition of antisemitism that is not less notable than other European nations. Here were medieval burnings of the Talmud and the Crusades and persecutions and terror and violence.
Later on as modernity dawned even the preeminent enlightenment figures like Voltaire were open about their dislike: In his Letter of Memmius to Cicero in 1771, Voltaire said of Jews: “They are, all of them, born with raging fanaticism in their hearts, just as the Bretons and the Germans are born with blond hair.” The following year, Voltaire thundered at Jews: “You deserve to be punished, for this is your destiny.” From Arthur Hertzberg’s seminal work on The French Enlightenment and Jews in the sixties onward, no one could be under the illusion that as France embraced humanism it also embraced Jews.
And yet… Napoleon’s decrees did enable France’s Jews to enter the modern world and in many ways, France has been a portal to modernity, with some notable defenders of Jews, like Mirabeau, the revolutionary “Friend of Man.” Leon Blum, born in 1872, was a Jew who was three times the Prime Minister of France.
Most famously of course, France’s legacy is marked by the Dreyfus affair, concerning a deeply patriotic soldier who was unjustly accused of treason — when he was in fact deliberately framed — and whose trial loosed waves of antisemitism. The trial had a large role in Zionist history; Herzl once wrote that it was the Dreyfus trial that made him a Zionist. Even if his emergence as a Zionist had multiple roots, it proved to Herzl and others that the promise of enlightenment equality for Jews had not captured the French heart.
It is worth noting however, that the falseness of the charge was eventually proved and many notable French figures (particularly the novelist Emile Zola) argued for Dreyfus’ innocence, sometimes at great reputational cost. Today a statue of Dreyfus holding a broken sword stands outside the Jewish museum, a tribute to the ambiguity of the French-Jewish legacy. He holds the sword, but it is broken. The museum exists…but is heavily secured. Almost a decade ago, I brought my then-15-year-old daughter and pointed out that it was a more secure entrance than the Louvre. “Of course, Dad,” she said, with a sad precociousness, “it is the JEWISH museum.”
Since I found myself in Paris during Bastille Day and Tisha B’Av (only five days apart this year), these questions preoccupied me. As the tanks rolled down the Champs Elysees and people cheered, I could not help but recall that some of the parents of these same people cheered when German tanks lumbered down that same renowned avenue in 1940. There was resistance, but there was also Vichy. Marshall Petain, the great hero of World War I, hated Jews and even Charles de Gaulle was not free of the blight of antisemitism, although his fierce French patriotism led him to an absolutely uncompromising fight against the Germans. In the end, Petain was tried and condemned for his betrayal of France. This is a tragic love story with plot twists. Very French.
France is unlike Germany in that it never fully turned against its own, but it is also unlike Germany in that it has been far less prepared to reckon with the sins of its past.
Tisha B’Av, the day on which we recall the destruction of the Temples, is the onset of exile. Therefore we are reminded of how the nations of the world received the Jews in their midst. Some stories are almost unrelieved suffering. Most are far more complicated. The story of France continues to frustrate easy formulas.
Alongside the periodic resurgence of the right (the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen has managed to make herself a far more “mainstream” figure than her father), the Muslim immigration has further complicated this story. While some attempts have been made to create harmony between the two communities, there has been hostility and even hatred directed at the Jewish community from segments of the Islamic community, and a number of acts, some brutal, that have shaken this country to its core. Where once Le Pen pere and his ilk were seen as the greatest threats, in his daughter’s time everyone I spoke with in France believed the greater danger to Jews was from the radical elements of the Islamic population.
France has the largest number of Jews outside of Israel and the US – about half a million. According to the 2020 AJC Paris survey, 70% of the Jews of France say they have been the victim of at least one antisemitic act and half have considered leaving France.
At the same time, the French Jews I spoke to here feel pretty safe and that life in France is good. There were kippot in evidence in the crowd on Bastille Day and no one seemed to care. In my meeting with the well-known French Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur, author of a bestselling book on antisemitism, I asked if I should worry about walking around Paris with a kippah. She told me (correctly) that I need not, and indeed I did not experience so much as an unfriendly glance. She further explained that her children go to public schools and have never met with an antisemitic experience.
As is so often the case, when one has once been robbed, every noise at night is an alarm. Denial is foolishness but fear is not always wisdom. And yet hearing the tropes of Lamentations on Tisha B’Av is a powerful caution; the land that gave us Proust and Perec, that created the Paris school from Jewish artists who flocked here before the war, including Chagall, Soutine and Modigliani, also gave us Vichy, alternately supine and eagerly obedient to the Nazi overlords. The services Jews had rendered to France, their extraordinary patriotism, and France’s own revolutionary ideals counted for little. The promises of the republic vanished in the fog of war. Close to 75,000 Jews who had been deported were murdered.
Yet three-quarters of France’s Jews survived, a percentage higher than most of the European countries. In so many places the Jews have lived, particularly in Europe, love has given way to betrayal. This is France: from Flaubert to Stendhal to Proust to Truffaut, love and betrayal are themes of French art. What we learn from such masterpieces is that the narrative is never simple.
Jews have left, many having made aliyah to Israel. Yet with those who stay behind — and indeed for many who have left — the love of French culture, its elegance and depth, its cuisine and language and visual splendor, remain deep in the soul. There are fears in this country in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the murder of Sarah Halimi and other atrocities that sound alarm bells to the vigilant. In true love stories, however, even betrayal is often not the final act. Love manages to sustain itself and rise from the wreckage, hoping against hope for a different story this time.