PARIS – What’s the single most important issue affecting the Jews of France,
Europe’s biggest Jewish community and the third largest in the world? Ask two
Jews and you’ll get three opinions, right? Well, not quite.
president of the Consistoire Central, the body charged by the government with
organizing the community’s religious affairs, and Richard Prasquier, the
president of CRIF, the umbrella organization for Jewish advocacy groups, agree
on the big issues but disagree over their order of importance – just as you’d
expect from a leader who heads a religious organization and one helming a
nonreligious political organization.
In separate interviews with The
Jerusalem Post on Monday at their offices on opposite sides of the French
capital, the leaders of the French Jewish establishment outlined the challenges,
fears and hopes of the community as they see them.
assimilation is the biggest problem French Jewry has to take on.
half of France’s 600,000 Jews have no connection to Judaism,” he
“By Judaism I mean not only those who are observant and live it
every day but also those who go once a year to synagogue on Yom Kippur, hold a
Seder with their grandparent on Pessah, feel strongly about the Holocaust or
even go on vacation to Eilat once a year – I consider all this to be Jewish
About 200,000 to 300,000 Jews do none of that, and we have
to get them involved again.”
To achieve this, Mergui has set up a program
called Hazak, meaning “strong” in Hebrew, tasked with stirring up communal
activity mostly in provincial towns and cities where the Jewish communities are
“We went to Avignon and managed to get some of the local
Jewish community involved,” he said. “Recently I met a girl I remembered from an
activity who was initially reluctant to join. She told me she’s making
Prasquier, too, believes assimilation is an important issue worth
However, he believes the main problem facing the Jewish
community is the unholy marriage of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism by extreme
leftists, rightists and Islamists.
“My predecessor called it the
Red-Green Alliance,” he said. “Some on the left don’t mind being allied with
Islamic extremists like those who were on the Mavi Marmara [Gaza protest ship].
And many people in the center are being influenced by their views of Israel, so
much so that they question their own policy toward it.”
If Israel wants
to change this disconcerting trend it needs better “hasbara,” or advocacy,
Prasquier said. But is Israel’s problem a matter of style or substance? In other
words, should it reconsider the effectiveness of its publicity machine or
reevaluate its basic policies, especially in regards to the Palestinians, as
some prominent European Jews who formed J Cal, a “pro-Israel, pro-peace”
offshoot of the American J Street, recently argued in a public
“Some very notable Jews who I have a lot of respect for signed
the J Cal letter, but it was a mistake,” Prasquier said. “We have no legitimacy
in deciding internal Israeli politics and one has to bear in mind a critical
factor that this is not a conflict between the Czech and Slovak
My prime concern is caring for the welfare of
Mergui and Prasquier agree that Islamic veils completely or
mostly covering women’s faces are contrary to the notion of being French and
support the bill that would ban them in public. Yes, they both worry government
interference over Jewish issues like shehita ritual slaughter, which some animal
rights groups want to ban citing cruelty. But burqas are a another matter, they
“A majority of Muslims in France say these veils have nothing to do
with Islam,” Mergui said.
“To me it is a breach of the social contract,”
Prasquier said. “Women are separated from society in such a way that you cannot
even see their faces.”
Not surprisingly, the controversial conversion
bill being considered in the Knesset doesn’t whip up the same visceral emotions
with French Jews as it has among their North American
Most of Jews here are either nonreligious or Orthodox,
with only a small number belonging to a Reform movement locals call “liberal
Still, Prasquier and Mergui urged dialogue and debate between
Israel and the Diaspora over conversion.
"To me it is so obvious that we
need to listen to each other more on this issue,” Prasquier
Finally, when the conversation turned to the curious phenomenon of
a group called La Force du Nom that was formed by French Jews who want to return
to their old Jewish names.
Prasquier made an unexpected
“My father, too, changed our name from Praszker, which
sounded too Polish, to Prasquier because he thought it would hurt my medical
studies,” he said.
Prasquier promised to ask his friends in the French
Justice Ministry to see what can be done on behalf of those who want to return
to their old names but can’t because of an old law. He added that he had no
plans to return to his family’s old spelling.
After decades of keeping a
low profile, does the La Force du Nom phenomenon indicate that Jews in France
can finally wave their Judaism high with pride? In a world where the most famous
director is Spielberg and the most celebrated physicist’s name is Einstein and
countless other Jews are hugely successful despite the history of persecution
and the still very real challenges, why wouldn’t French Jews want their Jewish
names back? Or, to put it bluntly, is being Jewish in France suddenly cool? “In
French we have a saying, ‘Le vaut mieux faire envie que pitie,’” Prasquier fired
back in response to my question.
“It means it is better to be envied then