NEW YORK (JTA) — Through live interviews of prominent French Jews and clips from other media, “Being Jewish in France,” the new documentary film by French director Yves Jeuland, vividly demonstrates that life as a Jew in France is one of peaks and valleys.
The peaks sometimes reach beyond the successes of the American Jewish experience — France elected a Jewish prime minister in 1936, the equivalent of which has not been reached by a Jewish American — but the valleys bring into sharp relief the relative security of the Jewish community in the United States.
The three-hour film offers a good introduction to the French Jewish experience, but only for those familiar with the nuances of French politics and society. For those who aren’t, many underlying issues that Jeuland takes for granted could lead the uninitiated to a skewed understanding of this complex subject.
Strong on narrative but weak on context, the film opens with the Dreyfus Affair of 1894-1906, the episode of the French Jewish captain who, wrongly accused of espionage by the military, unwittingly became the epicenter of a political scandal rooted in vicious anti-Semitism.
Jeuland uses the Dreyfus case as a lens through which the audience is encouraged to view French Jewish history from then to the present. In doing this, he presents the French-Jewish experience in a vacuum, eschewing any discussion of the French political ideology that influenced the status of all minorities in France from the post-Revolutionary era to now.
In the absence of a discussion or even a simple explanation, typical French Republican practices such as the delegation of Jewish religious practice to the private sphere — something to which all religious and ethnic groups were subjected — take on misleading anti-Semitic overtones.
The film becomes particularly limiting when it turns to the present day.
Jeuland’s insistence on viewing contemporary anti-Semitism through the same lens as the anti-Semitism of the Dreyfus era is an overly simplistic view of France and French history.
The anti-Semitism in France earlier this decade that spurred alarm and concern in both France and throughout the Jewish world actually bore little resemblance to the Jew-hatred of the Dreyfus era, aside from some recycled rhetoric. To draw a direct link between the events is to create a false continuity.
By failing to address France’s colonialist legacy and the subsequent disenfranchisement of other minority groups within France’s borders, “Being Jewish in France” fails to place the latest violence into context. As a result, the film plays on the fears of those who see the modern-day attacks as simply the beginning of something larger.
Anti-Semitic attitudes are not formed in a vacuum; they are a direct result of political, social, religious and economic factors. Without that framework, it’s all too easy for audience members to come away saying, much as a couple sitting behind me did, that “The French will always hate the Jews. It is ingrained in them.”
As any Jewish publication will note, stories about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism always will attract interest. But “Being Jewish in France” had higher aspirations.
The film aimed to tell a broader story of a complex and fascinating Jewish community made up of Eastern and Western European Jews, of Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities with different traditions and customs who came to France seeking religious, cultural and intellectual freedoms that were unavailable to them elsewhere in Europe. They have made the French Jewish community among the most diverse Jewish communities in the world, second only to Israel.
In listening to the interviews with the 13 French Jews represented in his film, their attachment to both France and Judaism was equally clear. In fact, while all of the interviewees spoke candidly about their experiences of anti-Semitism, many of them insisted that France is not an anti-Semitic country — even those who lived through the Holocaust — and they all continue to live in France.
The next documentary I would like to see about French Jews would explore the why of this history.
Why have so many French Jews embraced the peaks in their history and disregarded the valleys to become the fourth-largest Jewish community in the world, behind the United States, Israel and Russia? Why did so many react with anger when then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called on Jews in 2004 to abandon France in the midst of anti-Semitic violence and seek a new home in Israel?
Jeuland missed an excellent opportunity here to go beyond the traditional narrative of anti-Semitism in France and probe deeper into the psyche of French Jewry. The consequences may be messier, and there may be inherent contradictions of assimilation, loyalty and pride, but that’s what makes the story of French Jews interesting.
(Symi Rom-Rymer writes about Jewish issues in Europe. She received her master’s degree in French cultural studies from Paris’ Columbia University. To find screenings of the film, go to www.brandeis.edu/jewishfilm/Catalogue/films/beingjewishinfrance.htm. )