As with the cinematic talkfest, the French pioneered the multi-culti mix. “Let the Jews find their Jerusalem in France!” Napoleon is quoted as declaring in Yves Jeuland’s three-hour tele-documentary Being Jewish in France, running for a week at the Walter Reade after sold-out shows at last winter’s New York Jewish Film Festival.
There’s a Yiddish saying: “Hard to be a Jew”; Jeuland’s film adds the qualifier “in France.” Unlike similar American docs, Being Jewish in France is neither a bittersweet nor a triumphalist tale of adaptation and achievement, featuring a roll call of prominent French-Jewish artists, writers, and industrialists. The history is less upbeat and more complicated. Whereas our PBS sagas suggest that Jewish immigrants brought out the best in America, Being Jewish in France exposes a fault line: From the Jewish perspective, France is two countries—the splendid republic of liberté, égalité, and fraternité and a vicious province of smug chauvinism.
France was the first European country to grant Jews full citizenship, and yet, as Jeuland makes clear, the Dreyfus Affair at the turn of the 20th century culminated 20 years of virulent political anti-Semitism. Later, France welcomed Jewish immigrants after America shut the Golden Door, nurturing a parallel Yiddish culture and even electing a Jewish socialist prime minister. But, in a return to anti-Dreyfus hysteria, the Vichy government then passed racial laws equal to the Nazis’ and took the lead in deporting foreign Jews. More impressionistic than analytical, Being Jewish details French complicity through the children of the deported, now in their seventies and here articulating their traumas—during the war and after.
Midway through the movie, these witnesses are joined by North African Jews who began arriving in the 1950s. Unique outside of Israel, this combination of Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews doubtless contributed to the extraordinary popular solidarity France expressed with Israel during the Six-Day War. But Jews are hardly the only, and far from the largest, group of North African immigrants in France, and, consequently, it is also the one country outside the Middle East where the intifada can be played out—with attacks on cemeteries, synagogues, and Jewish schoolchildren.
Such scapegoating may be specific to France, but it is also more universal. For all the distinguished public servants that Jeuland interviews, I missed hearing from French-Jewish intellectuals—Edgar Morin, Hélène Cixous, and Alain Finkielkraut, to name three. Gentiles, too: The identification of French Jews with Israeli policies reprises with a vengeance Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous postwar formulation, “The Jew is one whom other men consider a Jew.”