French Jewish leaders tackle anti-Semitism, burqa ban

"Half of nation’s 600,000 Jews have no connection to Judaism;" Assimilation major problem.

france israel foundation 311 (photo credit: Yonith Benhamou)
france israel foundation 311
(photo credit: Yonith Benhamou)
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.
Joel Mergui, 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.
Mergui believes assimilation is the biggest problem French Jewry has to take on.
“About half of France’s 600,000 Jews have no connection to Judaism,” he said.
“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 involvement.
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 slowly fading.
“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 aliya.”
Prasquier, too, believes assimilation is an important issue worth reckoning with.
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 letter.
“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 republics.
My prime concern is caring for the welfare of Israel.”
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 say.
“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 coreligionists.
Most of Jews here are either nonreligious or Orthodox, with only a small number belonging to a Reform movement locals call “liberal Judaism.”
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 said.
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 revelation.
“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 pitied.”