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Jewish Social Studies 6.2 (2000) 156-176

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Decolonization and the Renewal of French Judaism: Reflections on the Contemporary French Jewish Scene

Michael Robert Shurkin

The public lighting ceremony in Paris on the first night of Hanukah, December 23, 1997, resembled battle. Chabad raised a giant menorah on the Champs de Mars and ranged around its flanks various siege engines: portable generators, a stage, a screen, batteries of speakers. The speakers boomed Hasidic marching music that rattled windows on the buildings facing the field. Then shrill young boys on stage shouted Hebrew verses into a microphone. Napoleon's grapeshot could not have done a more effective job of subduing a mob. The previously talkative crowd fell silent and gazed at the stage for what was to come next: first, a five-minute video biography of Rabbi Schneerson projected onto a large screen, then a satellite link-up with similar ceremonies in Crown Heights and Jerusalem. On cue, bearded cameramen turned to the crowd. People waved and cheered when their image on screen joined that of crowds in America and Israel. This was mixed with video of boys' choirs and stock footage of the Rebbe waving to crowds, as if to suggest that he was alive and actually participating. Then came the climax, the victorious raising of the flag: the Grand Rabbi of France, Joseph Sitruk, accompanied by a Chabad rabbi, rose aloft in a cherry picker. He pronounced a series of blessings into a microphone and lit the menorah. Paris was his.

The spectacle that night on the Champs de Mars has, arguably, less to do with Chabad's penchant for messianism and noise than it has to do with decolonization. Since emancipation in 1791, French Judaism has [End Page 156] defined itself according to its embrace of the Revolution's universalist principles and its disavowal of political, cultural, and doctrinal separateness. Now, however, a small but vocal minority of the North African Jewish immigrants who have settled in France during the past 30 years is challenging the 200-year-old consensus. All of the people involved in the Hanukah ceremony, including the Grand Rabbi, were Sephardic Jews of North African descent. Like the millions of other formerly colonized peoples, most of them Muslim, who have come to France and are altering its culture, their aim is to assert a more uncompromised cultural identity within an ethnic community less sympathetic to its historical concern for discretion. What is happening among Jews is thus only a subset of a larger, national process. The North African Jews have succeeded to the extent that Judaism, at least in the Paris region, is more vital than it has been since before World War II. And never in France's history have there been as many Jewish schools, yeshivas, synagogues, kosher restaurants, and ritual baths.

The revival of Jewish life in France because of the North Africans is also strengthening French Judaism in some less obvious ways. The North African Jews' activism has taken place amidst a national debate concerning cultural pluralism and the integration of African immigrant communities. The conjunction of communal and national issues has provoked responses from community leaders and Jewish intellectuals anxious to defend the Republican values of traditional French Judaism. While some go no farther than defend the historical status-quo, others endeavor to rethink French Judaism and bring it up to date. Two Jewish thinkers in particular, Shmuel Trigano and Rabbi Gilles Bernheim, are beginning to elaborate a French Judaism that reconciles the demand for a stronger Jewish identity with the values of the Republic. After first exploring recent developments in France's Jewish community and their relation to national debates, this article will examine the ideas of Trigano and Bernheim at length.

France has historically been ill at ease with its own diversity. France's monarchy, for instance, worried that religious diversity impeded political centralization and undermined the power of the crown. The Enlightenment interpreted cultural differences in terms of the persistence of atavisms such as tribalism and superstition, both of which...