Young French Jews of 1968: Oral Histories
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Young French Jews of 1968:
Oral Histories

This article showcases the oral histories of four French Jews who participated in the tumultuous social protests of the late 1960s. The full texts of these interviews appear in An Uncertain Future: Voices of a French Jewish Community, 1940–2012, a compilation of oral histories edited by myself and Richard E. Sharpless.1 In order to contextualize their illuminating recollections, I have introduced this material with a general description of French Jewry during this turbulent time and the important events that shaped my interlocutors’ opinions and actions during the late 1960s and beyond. I have selected narratives that provide us with important clues as to how young Jews navigated the French environment during the 1960s and early 1970s, and how they understood the defining moments of the period, such as the 1967 Six-Day War and the 1968 student rebellions.

The young Jews living in France in the late 1960s were hardly a homogenous group. During this time, the French-Jewish population was comprised of five hundred thousand souls, roughly divided in half between Jews of European descent and Jews of North African background. Throughout this period, most of the French Jewish leadership was made up of Ashkenazic Jews, most of whom were quite acculturated to French ways. Jewish immigrants from Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria settled in France more recently than their European coreligionists; generally between the mid-1950s and the early 1970s. During this period of youth revolt, the newly arrived, and generally more ethno-traditional, North African Jews were also grappling with the disruptive process of adaptation and integration, and struggling with changes in their social and economic status.

The distinct backgrounds of young, French Jews influenced the ways in which they understood the events of 1967 and 1968. For the many Ashkenazic French Jews whose families had direct experience with the Holocaust, the history of the Jewish genocide in Europe, and their knowledge of the shameful collaboration of France’s Vichy regime with the Nazis, served as a foundational lens through which they viewed the youth revolt of the late 1960s.2 This did not necessarily play out in the same way for young French Jews of Middle Eastern descent, for whom the decolonization and emigration experience from North Africa had greater salience.

Generally, Ashkenazic Jews were raised with a more left-leaning orientation than Jews of Middle Eastern backgrounds, owing to the socialist and [End Page 179] unionist traditions of Eastern European Jews and the history of leftwing resistance to Nazism. In contrast, although some Maghreban Jews sympathized with the revolutionary nationalist decolonization movements, most realized that greater security lie with French control over North Africa and thus were pushed rightward.3 Young French Jews, therefore, wrestled with a variety of political legacies as they negotiated the youth revolts of the late 1960s and 1970s.

The repercussions of the Six-Day War tended to separate even many leftist Ashkenazic Jews from their non-Jewish, New-Left counterparts, many of whom began to view Israel as one of the many European colonialist enterprises that they objected to throughout the world. This, combined with President Charles de Gaulle’s infamous 1967 charge that Jews were “an elitist people, sure of themselves and domineering,” made many young Jews feel insecure about their position in French society.4

The following oral histories recall the experiences of three Ashkenazic Jews and one North African Jew, all of whom came of age during the late 1960s and lived through the student rebellions of the spring of 1968. The French student riots in May and June 1968 were part of a worldwide phenomenon, but were conditioned by particular French historical and cultural precedents, as well as by the horribly crowded, bureaucratic, and authoritarian French higher education system. These riots, which quickly gained extensive working-class and middle-class support, shook the waning de Gaulle presidency to its core and played a considerable role in the president’s resignation one year later, under the cover of a failed referendum.5 Indeed, the events of 1968 transformed French attitudes toward authority, youth culture, gender relations, and identity politics, and this was equally true within the...


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