With around half a million Jews, France is home to the third biggest community in the world, exceeded only by Israel and the United States. There has been a Jewish presence in France since the early Middle Ages. During the medieval period France was widely known for the quality of its Torah scholars, especially Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki. Known popularly as Rashi, Rabbi Yitzchaki wrote extensive commentaries on the Bible and Talmud, both of which have been studied by scholars and laymen alike for the better part of a millennium. Following the French Revolution, France became the first European nation to emancipate its Jews, although anti-Semitism persisted for centuries. In 1936, Léon Blum became France first Jewish Prime Minister. The French affiliate of the World Jewish Congress is the Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France (CRIF – Representative Council of Jews of France).
Jews have lived in France since at least the early Middle Ages, although there is evidence that Jewish settlement there can be dated back to the Roman period. During the Carolingian Period Jews were employed as merchants and were considered the direct property of the crown. Following the First Crusade in 1096, the Jews of France were subject to a century of violence and blood libel accusations, culminating in their expulsion by King Philip Augustus in 1182. Jews were allowed to return 16 years later. Over the centuries, various repressive measures would be enacted against French Jewry, including arrests and property seizures, leading to another expulsion, this time by Phillip the Fair, in 1306. Nine years later, Jews were again allowed to return, only to be expelled again in 1394, although Jews continued to live in Provence. However, Jewish life only began to reestablish itself in the rest of France in the early 17th century.
Following the French Revolution, France became the first European nation to emancipate its Jews, a practice it followed as it exported its revolution across Europe, abolishing ghettos wherever its forces went. However, despite Jews’ new-found freedom, a debate raged in France regarding their integration into French society. Complaining that Jews were not integrating quickly enough, Napoléon Bonaparte convened an assembly of important leaders of the Jewish community first to clarify their political and religious allegiances and loyalties in 1806, followed up a year later by the so-called Great Sanhedrin, leading to the establishment of the Consistoire Central Israélite de France (Central Consistory of French Jews) as the representative body of the Jewish community.
While French Jewry began integrating into the mainstream of society over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, anti-Semitism remained a persistent problem. In 1894 Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish artillery officer, was arrested and convicted of spying for Germany on trumped up charges, leading to a massive, decade long scandal. This period was marked by intense anti-Semitic sentiment as well as by a well-organized campaign for Dreyfus’ release by figures such as the writer Emile Zola, who famously wrote “J’accuse!,” an open letter in which he accused the government of anti-Semitism. Although Dreyfus was eventually exonerated, his public shaming inspired Austro-Hungarian journalist Theodore Herzl to decide that assimilation was an inadequate solution to anti-Semitism and, as a result, to establish the Zionist movement.
French Jews have long been involved in their country’s political, economic and cultural life. Adolphe Crémieux, a vice president of the Consistoire Central Israélite de France, was Minister of Justice in 1848 and again in 1870-71. Louis-Lucien Klotz served as Finance Minister from 1910 to 1913, and from 1917 to 1920. In 1936, Léon Blum became France first Jewish Prime Minister. Subsequent Jewish Prime Ministers included Pierre Mendès-France and René Mayer. The French branch of the Rothschild banking family has been a major economic and financial force in France since the early 19th century. Baron David de Rothschild today serves as Chairman of the WJC’s Governing Board. French Jewish Nobel Prize laureates included Henri Moissan (Chemistry 1906), Gabriel Lippmann (Physics, 1908), François Jacob and André Michel Lwoff (Medicine, 1965), René Cassin (Peace, 1968), Claude Cohen Tannoudji (Physics, 1997), Serge Harouche (Physics, 2012), and Patrick Modiano, the son of a Jewish father (Literature, 2014).
On the eve of World War II, there were 300,000 Jews living in France. In 1940, the Nazi invaded the country and, with the help of the collaborationist Vichy regime, began rounding up the country’s Jews. In July 1942, the French Police organized a round-up that came to be known as the “Raffle du Vel d’Hiv,” in which the Jews of Paris were temporarily confined in the city’s bicycle velodrome. More than 13, 000 people were arrested, including 4,000 children. In 1942, the Vichy Regime established the Drancy Internment Camp near Paris as detention camp to house Jews slated for deportation to the death camps of the east. It was under the direct control of the French police. 67,400 people were sent to the death camps from Drancy, including 6,000 children. In the unoccupied (Vichy) zone, the French authorities collaborated willingly with the Germans. In recent years, France has been forced to confront its record this collaboration and in 1995 President Jacques Chirac admitted the state’s complicity in the imprisonment and mass deportation of French Jews.
In the decades following World War II, as France pulled out of its overseas colonies, it experienced a large influx of North African Jews. This wave of immigrants doubled the Jewish population of France. The arrival of Jews from North Africa coincided with a parallel influx of Muslim migrant laborers. While there were occasional clashes between these two immigrant populations, Jewish and Muslim immigrants often lived side-by-side in the early years in the same areas.
Beginning in the 1980s, however, tensions began to emerge, especially as the state failed to fully integrate the Muslim community into French society. Those tensions were only intensified by the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Since the early 2000s there has been a significant escalation in domestic anti-Semitism linked to global Islamic terrorism, with attacks against synagogues and Jewish residents. Recent incidents have included the torture and murder of Ilan Halimi in 2006, the 2012 Toulouse school massacre which killed four and the 2015 attack on Paris’ HyperCacher kosher grocery, which also killed four. As a result, French immigration to Israel has risen in recent years.
Hebrew University demographer estimated the French Jewish community to number 460,000 as of 2016. More than half of the Jewish community in France live in Paris and its suburbs, but there are other substantial Jewish communities in Marseilles, Lyons, Toulouse, Nice, Strasbourg, Grenoble, Metz, and Nancy. In addition, there are a dozen smaller communities, each with some 2,000 Jews, scattered throughout the country. Altogether, there are approximately 230 Jewish communities in France. In the 1950s and 1960s, the predominantly Ashkenazi community of France underwent a major demographic transformation with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of North African Jews. As a result, French Jewry is now 60 percent Sephardic.
The CRIF, currently the country’s primary Jewish umbrella group, was established in 1944 to serve as the political representative of the organized Jewish community. In 1986, the CRIF became the French affiliate of the World Jewish Congress. Today, the CRIF is the official organization representing French Jewry vis-à-vis the government, representing more than 70 organizations. Despite its size, the CRIF does not handle religious issues, which are still, according to the model set down by Napoleon, the responsibility of the Consistoire Israelite de France.
Many French Jews are either secular or traditional. The major organized religious denomination in France is Modern Orthodoxy. An estimated seven percent of French Jews are ultra-Orthodox, and an estimated five percent are either Conservative or Reform. There are currently over 120 kosher restaurants in Paris.
Every year there is a Jewish Book Week, a Jewish Music Week, an intellectual colloquium, and a variety of symposia and seminars on Jewish issues. Jewish dance and theatre companies are also very active
In Paris alone, there are more than 20 Jewish day schools, as well as multiple kindergartens and religious seminaries. There are also Jewish schools in Strasbourg, Nice, Toulouse, Marseilles, Bordeaux, Metz and Aix-les-Bains. Most French universities offer courses in Judaic studies, including courses in Yiddish, Ladino, and Hebrew. The Mercaz Rashi (Rashi Center) provides courses for academics and students. There is also a Rabbinical Seminary which ordains rabbis to serve in French-speaking countries. The Alliance Israelite Universelle oversees and funds an international network of French-oriented schools abroad.
All the major Zionist organizations are active in France and there are several local youth movements. Despite the variety of outlets for Jewish expression, only around 40 percent of the community is officially affiliated with, or members of, synagogues or Jewish organizations. Statistics show an increase in aliya and tourism to Israel in recent years. Alongside assimilation, there is also a noticeable tendency toward religious revival, including a growing ultra-orthodox community.
A lively Jewish press exists in France, featuring two weeklies and many monthly journals. Weekly Jewish programs are broadcast on both radio and television, and several local Jewish radio stations broadcast from Paris and in other major cities.
France is full of Jewish points of interest, including Paris’ Monument of the Deportation, the Marais District, the Jewish Documentation Center and Holocaust Memorial, the Museum of Jewish Art and History and the synagogues of Hector Guimard and Gustave Eiffel. Visitors with a more historical or religious bent will want to visit Rashi’s study hall in the medieval city of Troyes. Alsatian villages like Bouxwiller, Pfanhoffen, Ettendorf, Hagenau, Marmoutier, Goxwiller, Wasellone feature cemeteries, old synagogues and museums.
Israel and France have maintained diplomatic relations since 1949.
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