To be a Jew of France

To be a Jew of France


norman lebrecht

January 12, 2015

I have written an account of my family’s engagement with France as an op-ed in today’s Daily Telegraph. You can read it here.

My perception is that the transaction by which French Jews embraced the Republic in exchange for liberty, equality and fraternity has reached the point of breakdown.

A slightly longer (and more music-referenced) version of the article appears below.



In January 1992, I took my Uncle René to the Bastille. It was our last opportunity to go to the opera. René was about to join his daughter in Israel, ending three centuries of our family’s existence as French Jews – Jews who were as meticulous in their religious devotions as they were proud of their Republican heritage.


Our family lived in the ninth arrondissement and went to the opera at old Palais Garnier, a chandeliered relic of French pomp. René did not think much of the concrete Opéra Bastille. When I asked why he was leaving France, he said: ‘c’est terminé.’


For him, the glories of France were dead by 1992. The rift between the Republic and its Jewish citizens did not begin last week with Islamist attacks on cherished freedoms, on innocent families out shopping for the Sabbath. It has a longer history.


How proud was my family of being French? We trace our lineage back to the dawn of citizenship records, to 1727, in a village on the outskirts on Strasbourg. Our patriarch was Grand Rabbin of the Lower Rhine, the first Jewish preacher to deliver sermons in French. When the Germans occupied Alsace-Lorraine in 1870, we moved en masse to Paris. My ancestors were never going to live under any flag but the tricolor.


We founded an orthodox synagogue at the back of the Folies-Bergère. My Aunt Fifi would giggle as we passed display cases of half-naked entertainers, whispering to me what went on in there. A wooden board in the rue Cadet synagogue lists members of our family who gave their lives for France – who ‘fell on the field of honour’ in the Republican phrase – more than 20 at my last count, most in the First World War.


Aunt Fifi, born on August 2, 1914, would never marry; most French Jewish men of her generation were exiled or exterminated. The day she was born, my grandfather went off to the front, serving for the full four years, never omitting to wrap a Jewish talit around his French uniform at morning prayers.


In the Second War, a great-uncle, Samuel, was shot dead in the street by a German soldier. Other relatives were deported to death camps. My grandparents fled south, surviving by luck, wit and the kindness of strangers. Uncle René went underground with the Résistance. Peacetime or war, our loyalty to France was absolute.


I can barely imagine how their loyalty survived the Dreyfus Affair, when a Jewish army officer was falsely prosecuted for espionage, or the 1930s when large sections of French media promoted Nazi prejudices against Jews. But survive they did. For us, being Jewish and French are inseparable strands of identity. Our family tomb is in Montparnasse, at the very heart of French culture.


We embraced the Republic even when it impinged on core beliefs, requiring Jewish children, for instance, to attend school on the Sabbath day. We accepted the centrality of the state in exchange for its celestial values: liberty, equality and fraternal dialogue. The dogmas of the Republic were our guarantee of tolerance. We participated in the life of France, its culture, its economy. Some distant cousins became Christian; one is married to a Moslem. We were part of France until France ceased to be France.

And then we left.

Waves of North African immigration from the 1960s on were not a cause of our discontent. Those waves contained many Jews. Uncle René, annoyed by a young Israeli rabbi, stormed out of rue Cadet to form a new community with Moroccans and Tunisians. For a while, Paris seemed friendlier than ever and Jews a vital part of its élan. Bernard-Henri Lévy and Alain Finkielkraut, two popular TV philosophers, are avowedly Jewish. A celebrated bass-baritone at the Opéra, Laurent Naouri, belongs to a family of kosher supermarket owners.

But an alienated populace in the outer suburbs, ignored by the Republic and exploited by radical preachers, made Jews uneasy. Some streets were no longer safe to walk in a skullcap. Anti-semitic rhetoric was heard on the political right, on the left, and from the banlieus. Murderous attacks on Jewish schools aroused no national outrage on the scale seen in the past week. Economic decline accentuated the need to leave.

Jews fled in thousands – many to London, where two new communities have sprung up in my own neighbourhood. Some 3,300 left for Israel in 2013 according to official figures, rising to 5,000 last year. Many more acquired homes abroad.

France awoke too late to the exodus. Last September, the prime minister Manuel Valls, whose violinist wife is Jewish, put on a skullcap at a central synagogue and announced to the world that ‘a France without Jews is no longer France.’

This weekend, for the first time since the Nazi era, that same synagogue had to shut for the Sabbath because the state was unable to protect its worshippers. France is in a state of moral confusion. Yesterday a million marched in Paris and the impressive M. Valls declared: ‘We are all Charlie, we are all police, we are all Jews of France.’

How I long to believe that. My Jewish friends were out on the streets of Paris this weekend, hoping that, from this tragic moment, the tide will turn. Myself, I scrapped plans to attend the opening of the new Philharmonie on Wednesday, unable to pretend that life will go on as before. My history, as a Jew of France, is over.


© Norman Lebrecht



  • Julien says:

    Very sensitive testimony.
    My wife is Israeli and jewish, my daughter is jewish, and I want to believe that is still possible to live in this country as a jewish.
    The situation is horrible, but it was horrible during Affaire Dreyfus, Shoah…
    “L’espoir fait vivre”
    I understand that you don’t want to come on Wednesday for the opening concert. Hope you will come in the next months.
    All the best.

  • David Richardson says:

    Thank you for this personal testament,sad and moving its analysis of the recent history of French Jews and the historical context. I watched Manuel Valls’ speech at the synagogue, which was also very moving, he is an impressive person. Can I suggest that you repost the link on
    Slipped Disc? It is even more relevant and urgent now.
    best wishes,

  • Marc-Antoine Hamet says:

    Your testimony is moving, but how sad that you should decide not to be in Paris for the opening of the Philharmonie.
    Don’t let your (musical) neighbour down!
    You should share this painful time with us, and see for yourself France’s resilience.
    France has survived the Affaire Dreyfus and the Shoah.
    There are considerably more Jews in France, than after WWII.
    Look at it another way: 5 000 leaving, out of 600 000 Jews living in France, is this really an “exodus”?
    All the best,

  • Michael Schaffer says:

    So Norman, now I am a little confused. I thought you were born and have grown up in England. When did your family leave France? From the text it appears in the 1960s. Can you elaborate the chronology a little here?

    By sheer coincidence, I watched “Monsieur Klein” last night, and that reminded me that when it came to persecuting the French Jews during WWII, the cooperation of French authorities and large parts of the population with the German occupation forces appears to have been rather more enthusiastic than what one would normally expect from people under occupation and “just following orders”. That doesn’t seem to play a role in your article though, how does that fit into the overall historical picture?

  • Olaugh Turchev says:

    To mix Bernard-Henri Lévy (of bombing Libya, arming “moderate” Syrian rebels -the future IS- and as special friend of Porochenko, playwright performing in Odessa while bodies were still fuming) and Alain Finkielkraut is totally unfair to the second, a real philosopher.
    Here is a definitive video about BHL

  • Gonout Backson says:

    Friend of Porochenko, democratically elected president of a sovereign country – you don’t say! Shame on him!

  • Commentator says:

    Perhaps- just perhaps – all those who commented on last year’s ‘Klinghoffer’ controversy on this website might read your poignant piece……

  • Stephen says:

    “My history, as a Jew of France, is over.” I sincerely hope this does not turn out to be true or it would mark the end of “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité”, values of which decent French people have always been proud. Many foreigners lent their support on Sunday and I hope Norman will continue as a cultural ambassador here.

  • william osborne says:

    According to most scholarly, independent studies, France does not particularly stand out for Antisemitism – a fact that seems confirmed by having the largest — and one of the oldest — Jewish communities in Europe. See pages 57 and 58 of this large cross-national, scholarly survey of xenophobia in Europe:,%2BPrejudice%2Band%2BDiscrimination.pdf

    We see that France isn’t so much worse than the UK.

    One of the most common anti-Semitic tropes is that Jews living outside Israel are disloyal to the countries in which they live. Here are some percentages from the study for the number of people who hold such a view in eight EU countries:

    Germany: 29.4
    UK: 22.5
    France: 25.8
    Netherlands: 20.4
    Italy: 26.9
    Portugal: 54.2
    Poland: 56.9
    Hungary: 50.9

    Again, France does not stand out, and isn’t much worse than the UK. I worry that when unnecessarily hostile and undifferentiated calls are made for Jews to leave their country and go to Israel (which has been the case from a number of high profile sources of late) processes of postwar Jewish assimilation that took decades to build are weakened. The vast majority of Jews in France are happy to live there. In an interview with iTele, Haim Korsia, the chief rabbi of France, emphasized Jews’ 2,000-year history in France. He said, “We dream in French, we think in French, our culture is French, our language is French. Obviously France is our country.”

    Ironically, a survey was recently made in the USA to measure the reverse: Jewish loyalty to Israel. It showed that the largely liberal American Jewish community is not particularly supportive of Israeli policies, especially among younger people. See:

    These studies are examples of how Jews are often singled out and dichotomized in their various societies. And they show the dangers of drawing broad and unfounded conclusions about Jews and their positions in society, especially when they reinforce harmful, pernicious stereotypes.

  • Gonout Backson says:

    The French Jews feel funny since the day a French Prime Minister (and not the silliest of them by far) said, commenting the attack on the synagogue rue Copernic (1980) : “they wanted to strike Jews, and they it hit innocent French people”….

    • Olaugh Turchev says:

      “they wanted to strike Jews, and they hit innocent French people”
      That can also be interpreted as making no difference between French practicing Jews and French people, hence a precursor to the French claiming “Je Suis Charlie” regardless of origin or confession.
      Besides, this whole affair was used by Mitterrand during the presidential campaign and his friend, Bernard-Henri Levy, who wrote articles accusing the “new right” of the crime… (the real assassin as it happened, was a Palestinian militant who only now is supposed to be extradited from Canada).

      • Gonout Backson says:

        Nice try, but no : it cannot be interpreted that way, and it wasn’t.

        • Olaugh Turchev says:

          Nice try yourself: explain why not.

          • Gonout Backson says:

            At your service. The original phrase is longer, and there it is : “…cet attentat odieux qui voulait frapper les Israélites qui se rendaient à la synagogue, et qui a frappé des Français innocents qui traversaient la rue Copernic”. The opposition between “Israelites going to a synagogue” and the “innocent French people crossing the street” cannot be clearer.


          • Gerhard says:

            To Gonout Backson above, because of the missing Reply button:
            The ” Israélites” of the quotation and the “Français innocents” are two descriptions of exactly the same victims. I thought the whole world would have understood that. But obviously not.

          • Gonout Backson says:

            A poor choice of words then, to say the least, since among the four victims two were Jewish, and two weren’t. Maybe the phrase was misunderstood, but the misunderstanding is on the speaker (whose later declarations about the “Jewish lobby” being after him didn’t help). What remains in the collective memory (the phrase is still being quoted) is not the subtle meaning you suggest.

          • Olaugh Turchev says:

            @Gerhard, exactly my point.

          • Gonout Backson says:

            Sorry, still not convinced. Note that the phrase uses not one, but two oppositions, and that the second (synagogue/street) adds to the first (Israelites/French people).

            Unless one imagines Mr Barre to be very clumsy in his choice of words – not likely; the French high political personnel at the time were all literary snobs; would be easier with a Sarkozy – one has to admit there is something wrong here.

            And here’s more : Papon, Jewish lobby, the whole shebang.