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Why France Matters: On Secularism and the Jews

The vanguard of secularism that taught the West how to live in liberty must now show it how to live in security

Now and again the clumps of people raised the cheer of the gratefully oppressed. Their sympathy, however, was for the blue cars – the cars of their friends, the French.
James, Joyce, The Dubliners

It is not just the Irish that felt a special relationship with the French. It is also the Russians, the Poles, the Czech, the Egyptians and…the Jews. France was the first major country to give the Jews full and equal civil rights (at the time the US was only a backwater). It was the only one that exported these across most of Europe, much of North Africa and wherever else its influence extended. True, it was also the land of the Dreyfus Affair, but what made it an “Affair” altogether was that it happened in a country that it was not supposed to. Had Herzl witnessed such a scene in Moscow and even in his native Vienna, chances are that he would never have batted an eye, let alone come to the conclusion that there was no future for the Jews outside of a Jewish State. For if Dreyfus could happen even in France, Herzl reasoned, it could happen anywhere.

Nor did the special relationship of France and Jewry end with Dreyfus. In the early days of the State of Israel, it was France and not the United States that was its major ally and arms supplier. It was France that was its major collaborator in the 1956 Sinai Campaign, something which the United States strongly opposed. It was also France that brought Jews to its highest offices and continues to do so, something that has still not occurred in the United States. Hence it is no accident that Israeli born Oxford scholar, Joseph Raz chose specifically France when he joked that former Chief Justice Aharon Barak’s understanding of what means to be a Jewish State could apply just as easily to France as it could to Israel. More than as a symbol, France remains secularism’s vanguard and, as such, plays a role far greater on the world stage than might be revealed by any of its more mundane statistics.

And on some level, the Jews have always been the test case for the success of France’s experiment with secularism and France has always known that. The idea that a state could provide the common ground for citizens of different persuasions and keep religion out of the political realm would be proven by the treatment given to the historically most vulnerable group, the Jews. And so it was that France often took pride in the accomplishments of its Jews. In some quarters, especially among the moderate left, this translated into philo-Semitism more generally, that same philo-Semitism that brought about official friendship with the State of Israel. This relationship was certainly not uncomplicated just as French society is not uncomplicated. And certainly it was precisely those components of society most at odds with the bourgeois liberalism of the secular state that had and, in same cases continue to have, it in for the Jews.

Hence what happens next to French Jewry is not really so much about the Jews. It is more about an important idea; it is about the future of political secularism. And in spite of Sunday’s impressive rally in Paris, the prospects for secularism are more clouded then they have been in a long time. Certainly there will be a backlash such as occurred in the aftermath of the last spurt of violence that brought Nicolas Sarkozy to power. Sarkozy had been credited with eventually bringing a quick end to the immigrant rioting that paralyzed the nation at the time. In the short term, a similar scenario is likely to happen but what about the long term? Are the ideals of the state, the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity enough to guarantee the fight against those fighting for community and for God? (And as a revealing aside, it is interesting that French Premier Manuel Valls has more realistically devalued equality to solidarity, making secular idealism just a little less appealing than it ultimately may have already been.)

I am hardly in favor of a return to the abuses of pre-Modern Europe. But I also believe that a nation without a true and profound sense of community, a community that is rooted in some spiritual vision, cannot survive in the long run. Like it or not, it is France’s ability to internalize that point and somehow work with it that will be the key to its future. And it is likely that – as in the past – as goes France, ultimately, so will go the rest of the West.

As for us here in Israel, we may want to review Joseph Raz’s unintended warning about our own state. If Israel is no more Jewish than France, meaning if Israel is no less secular than France, we will share its future. One does not have to be religious to understand this; indeed one does not even have to be Jewish. Alternatively, as long as Israel can continue to, in spite of all of our differences, transmit the sense of being a spiritual community, it will continue to survive challenges that are, frankly, much greater than those of France. If, however, it follows the path of the French, its future is just as questionable.

About the Author
Rabbi Francis Nataf is a Jerusalem-based educator and thinker. He is the author of the Redeeming Relevance series on the Torah and of many articles.
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