The Trauma of France’s Jews

PARIS – “Death to the Jews!” In Paris and other French cities, the hate-filled words ring out. Attacks on synagogues have taken place for the first time since the Dreyfus Affair at the end of the nineteenth century. In suburban areas near Paris, such as the town of Sarcelles, known for its climate of religious and ethnic tolerance, groups of young people have deliberately targeted Jewish properties.

Faced with the spectacular rise of anti-immigrant populism in France, and now with anti-Zionist demonstrations (which often coincide with an updated version of anti-Semitism), the French Jewish community is anguished and puzzled. Some of its members are quietly asking themselves whether there is a future for them in the land of human rights.

French Jews are rediscovering the dual trauma that they experienced during the twentieth century: the death-camp deportations of World War II and their flight from Algeria following its independence in 1962. It is to be expected that these episodes color – and tend to exacerbate – the emotions of the present.

French descendants of Eastern European Jews have not yet fully come to terms with a continent – including Vichy France – that they still associate with the Holocaust, whereas Jews from the Maghreb tend to resent the fact that even in France, they remain surrounded by “Arabs.” Indeed, a significant portion of the Jewish community in the south of France votes for the far-right National Front, which, under the leadership of Marine Le Pen, has concentrated its xenophobia on Muslims.