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Around the Jewish World French Jews Fewer, Older and Intermarried — Yet Leaders Relieved

January 23, 2003
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The most comprehensive survey of French Jewry in more than a decade shows falling numbers, an aging population and increasing rates of intermarriage — yet the survey’s results have been met with a huge sigh of relief by French Jewish leaders.

That’s because French Jews said they felt like they belonged in French society, supported transferring their Jewish heritage to future generations and expressed solidarity with Israel.

In fact, French Jews appear to be little different from those in other Diaspora communities: While numbers decline, increasing resources are needed to meet the needs of an aging population and a community that wants to invest in education.

Results of the survey, “The Jews of France, Values and Identity,” have only recently been published. But the interviews with more than 1,000 heads of households were conducted in January 2002, a period that marked the beginning of a wave of anti-Semitic attacks on French Jews and community institutions.

At the time, Jews increasingly were concerned about their future in France — or so we were led to believe by a local Jewish press filled with advertisements for new communities in Israel and other countries, most notably in French-speaking areas of Canada.

However, while French Jews placed terrorism, anti-Semitism and racism at the top of their concerns, some 90 percent of respondents said they were happy and satisfied with their lives in France.

Government publication of statistics based on religious or ethnic identity is prohibited in France. The survey — commissioned jointly by the country’s principal Jewish welfare organization, the United Jewish Social Fund, or FSJU, and France’s United Jewish Appeal — placed the French Jewish population at around 500,000.

The figure rises to 575,000 if non-Jewish spouses are included. The FSJU’s director, David Sa’ada, said that confirms findings from other reports in recent years.

Nevertheless, it finally lays to rest what Saada described as “the 700,000 myth,” a figure widely quoted in French reference books as the country’s Jewish population.

“It’s not the number of Jews that matter,” Sa’ada told JTA. “This study shows we have a strong and diversified community but, most importantly, one that is happy and well-integrated.”

This hasn’t changed since the survey was completed, Sa’ada said, despite anti-Semitic attacks and the strong showing by far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen in France’s presidential election last year.

“I don’t think Le Pen’s success reflects a rise in anti-Semitic feeling among French people. If anything, a lot of anti-Semitic statements recently have come from the far left, from anti-globalization groups and the like,” Sa’ada said.

“A lot of Le Pen’s support also came from people who perceived a rise in crime, from people who felt insecure in their homes,” he said. “The government has started to do something about that now, and that feeling of greater security also exists among French Jews.”

Yet the survey clearly shows that France’s Jewish population has fallen by some 35,000 since 1980, leading sociologist Michel Wieviorka said.

The drop cannot be accounted for by aliyah rates in recent years, Wieviorka wrote in the Jewish monthly L’Arche. The survey did not show where the departing Jews had gone.

The survey’s 30 percent intermarriage rate was up sharply up from a 1988 study carried out by the same groups. For those younger than 30, the intermarriage rate increased to 40 percent, the survey found.

In addition, the survey confirmed the marked change in the demographic structure of the community since World War II.

Around one-quarter of France’s Jews died in the Holocaust. With the influx of Jews from former French colonies in North Africa in the 1950s and 1960s, the community was transformed into a largely Sephardic population.

Here too, the findings showed a continuing trend, with 70 percent of those interviewed describing themselves as Sephardic and 24 percent as Ashkenazic. The numbers from 1988 were 50 percent and 34 percent, respectively.

The survey provides valuable information for Jewish welfare organizations, most notably regarding the community’s educational needs.

Already in 1988, the community’s educational requirements were at the forefront of the fund’s concerns. But the latest study really places in perspective the huge increase in demand for Jewish schools.

Only around 15,000 children went to Jewish schools in 1988. The figure has shot up today to some 29,000, and Sa’ada believes it could double again in the next decade.

“This is a positive trend, because we see young Jewish families keen to impart a sense of Jewish identity and education to their children,” Sa’ada said.

But it doesn’t mean the community is becoming more inward-looking, he told JTA.

“Eighty-five percent of those children go to schools which are registered with the Ministry of Education. They follow the same secular curriculum as any other French child in a state school,” he said.

Traditionally, only a small percentage of French Jews have sent their children to Jewish schools, preferring the state-run system, an important plank in the country’s republican ideal of separating church and state in public education.

However, the peculiarly French notion of holding day-school classes on Saturdays — coupled with a Jewish community increasingly attached to its own religious institutions — has led the vast majority of Jewish parents to say that if there were a good Jewish school with free tuition, they would prefer it.

Such a “return to community” manifests itself in other ways in the survey as well. Only 22 percent of French Jews said they visited a community institution at least once a month in the 1988 survey, a figure that has risen to 30 percent in the latest poll. Those who said they never attended community institutions fell by half, from 35 percent in 1988 to just 18 percent in 2002.

Moreover, when respondents were asked to indicate which institutions they visited, synagogues far outpaced community centers, other Jewish institutions and study circles, reflecting another of the study’s finds — an increase in religious practice.

Fears of insularity largely have been dismissed, with the survey showing that Jews are as likely to donate to non-Jewish causes as are other French citizens.

On Israel, the reality differs from the perception in the French media, which have tended to portray French Jews as hard-line.

According to the survey, however, 48 percent of French Jews believe Israel should trade land in exchange for peace, while 39 percent do not. Another 13 percent said French Jews shouldn’t express an opinion on the subject.

On aliyah, there has been a polarization during the past 15 years. In 1988, 40 percent of respondents said they had no intention of moving to Israel, a figure that climbed to 58 percent in 2002.

On the other hand, those saying they would make aliyah “very soon” increased from 3 percent to 6 percent over the same period. Moreover, the figure rose to 12 percent among families with school-age children, and reached 28 percent among families with children currently in Jewish schools.

These figures were confirmed recently by statistics from the Jewish Agency for Israel, which showed that aliyah from France doubled in 2002 to more than 2,500.

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