NEW YORK (Dec. 27)
In 1971 French Jews displayed a remarkable degree of self-confidence, heightened consciousness and intensive vigor, unity and dedication in terms of aiding Israel, embarking on aliya, strengthening its communal activities and participating in struggles on behalf of Soviet Jewry.
French Jews contributed some $10 million for Israel, about 6,000 persons went on aliya, more than ever filled the synagogues throughout the country during the High Holy days, and increasing numbers eagerly sought and purchased books written by Israeli and French Jewish intellectuals about life in Israel and in the diaspora. It was the year of the self-liberation of French Jewry and its rededication to Jewish values.
Michel Topiol, prominent French Jewish communal leader, businessman and Zionist, recounted this development during an interview a few days ago. “The Jewish community displayed shtolz (pride) in being Jewish,” he said shifting from English to Yiddish in order to better articulate the nuances of his enthusiasm. “This shtolz was expressed on every level of thinking and action.”
The zenith of this pride was expressed when Soviet Communist Party Secretary Leonid Brezhnev visited France and thousands of Jews – old and young – poured out into the streets to proclaim their solidarity with their Russian brethren and to demand of Brezhnev that he “Let Our People Go.” Topiol leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes, savoring the recent memory of the event. “We decided to demonstrate and there was not one word about what the goyim will think, or what the government will think or what the Communist Party will do. We had a task, a commitment to do what we had to do, and we did it.”
OPTIMISTIC ABOUT FUTURE
The year 1971 was significant in other ways too, Topiol noted. It was the year in which the Jewish Telegraphic Agency launched its Daily News Bulletin and established its European Bureau, thereby providing the Jewish community with incisive information about its own ongoing activities and those of world Jewry. It was also the year in which the United Jewish Appeal of France (Appel Juif Unifie de France) headed by Guy de Rothschild, the United Jewish Social Service Fund (FSJU) and the Conseil Representatif des Israelites de France (CRIF) expended increased funds for education, youth programs, local Jewish needs, integration of North African Jews, and Israel.
The energetic, exhuberant and articulate cochairman of the UJA, European president of the Confederation of General Zionists, and member of the JTA Board of Directors observed “If 1971 was any indication of what French Jewry can do, 1972 should be even better.”
At the age of 60, Topiol scans the ebb and flow of the French Jewish consciousness and activities and expresses unbounded optimism about the future role of French Jewry as a leading one in the world-wide Jewish community. His optimism is based on an objective evaluation of the French Jewish community during the past 40 years, from the time he arrived there from a small town in Poland and immersed himself in Zionist organizing.
Topiol recalled the days when Jewish immigrants from the Pale were regarded as strangers and interlopers by the native-born French Jews. “There was a wall between us and the French Jews,” he said, “They didn’t accept us and we didn’t look to be accepted by them. Our Jewish life was molded by our ghetto existence. This wasn’t the fault of the French Jews. We simply kept to our own organizations, outlook and culture,”
The newly arrived immigrants spoke Russian and Yiddish. There was no cultural or linguistic mix between the immigrants and the French Jews. Yiddish writers like Edmond Fleg (Flegenheimer), the exponent of Jewish renaissance, found little empathy among native French Jews. At the same time, Topiol recalled, the native French Jewish writers and intellectuals were viewed as “goyishe Yidden” by the new arrivals.
ALGERIAN JEWS HEIGHTEN CONSCIOUSNESS
But the distance between the two Jewish groups dissolved during the occupation of France by Hitler’s army. “Suddenly we were all Jews in the terrifying realization that we all face annihilation. The occupation gave us a common destiny and common consciousness as Jews, but Jews who were physically united by a physical danger, but not yet spiritually united as Jews. We felt ourselves part of the French nation but not yet Jewish Jews.”
For a fleeting moment he lingered on his activities during World War II in the underground Committee for Jewish Defense and the decimation of half the total pre-war Jewish population of 500,000. After the war, Topiol said, the French Jewish community began to rebuild its homes and lives but a new Jewish community developed with the influx of Jews from DP camps. Later, beginning in 1956, when Algeria won its independence from France, the emigration of Algerian Jews provided a new catalyst for Jewish consciousness. The immigration from Western Europe and North Africa restored the French Jewish population to its pre-war level.
The Algerian Jews were French citizens and conversant with French culture. But they also had a solid religious education, Topiol said, and viewed France as their home rather than their exile. A cultural mix occurred, and the Algerian Jews, with their own life styles and habits, with their need for religious schools and synagogues, created a new and stronger Jewry.
Unlike the earlier immigrants from Russia and Poland who settled in major cities where Jewish life was already in existence, the Algerian Jews settled in small towns and opened synagogues that had been closed for as long as 200 years and developed a network of Jewish schools and institutions, Topiol said. This spread also expanded the activities of the UJA, FSJU, CRIF and established the Association of Jews of Algerian Orgin (L’Association des Juifs d’Origine Algerienne).
CENTRALITY OF ISRAEL
Continuing, Topiol observed that the Algerian Jews, many of them well educated, created a new intellectual ferment and expanded the market place for Jewish ideas. Their intellectual level and preferences imbued the younger generation of French Jews with an enthusiasm for ideologists like the Tunisian-born Algerian university-educated Albert Memmi whose writings on Jewish liberation and his trenchent analysis of the colonizer and colonized provided a new approach to the vital quest of liberation of an oppressed people.
Many younger French Jews, weaned on left wing ideologists who captivated their intellectual pursuits with theoretical strictures about the plight