Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Behind the Headlines the Jewish Community Infrance

July 10, 1980
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The tensions in the French Jewish community around the issue of political support for Israel described in recent Jewish Telegraphic Agency articles from Paris should be seen in the context of what has happened to the French Jewish community in the past four decodes.

When this writer joined the Joint Distribution Committee rescue team which was being assembled under the leadership of the late Dr. Joseph Schwartz in the spring of 1945, the French Jewish community comprised 80,000 demoralized survivors of the Holocaust out of the prewar community of 500,000. In the months and years that followed, tens of thousands of Jews fled the blood sooked soil of Central and Eastern Europe and poured into Francs, some to await the opportunity to emigrate, others eventually to resettle in France.

Despite its own huge post-war problems of shortage of food, fuel, housing and transportation, the French government made no attempt to stem this tide, although responsibility for care of these people rested on the shoulders of the JDC.


In later years came the flood of Jews from the former French North African colonies, especially Jews from Algeria, who like most other Europeans from that country had French citizenship and were given substantial financial aid by the French government to resettle in France. Jews from Tunisia and Morocco were also relatively freely admitted and usually given permission to work, but they did not receive governmental aid, and their integration has been a major responsibility of the JDC and the French Jewish community – a responsibility which continues to this day.

In addition, substantial numbers of Eastern European Jews have eventually been permitted to establish themselves in France, frequently with the help and intervention of the French Jewish community and the JDC.

In this manner, the French Jewish community now numbers over 750,000 and is by far the largest Jewish community in Western Europe, due to the simple but not well known fact that ever since the end of World War II more Jews have been admitted to France than any other country in the world, with the obvious exception of Israel.

It is understandable that the French government has absorbed Jews from North Africa who now constitute over half of the 750,000 Jewish community, because of their long-standing political, cultural, and economic ties to France. For example the French authorities for many decodes have provided subsidies to the JDC supported Alliance Israelite Universelle for their educational work in Moslem lands.


Even less well-known is the fact that on innumerable occasions in the past three decodes, the French government has responded helpfully and effectively when asked to use its good offices for Jews who found themselves in a precarious situation in certain countries, thereby enabling them to emigrate to Israel, the U.S., France, and other free lands. No country in Western Europe has been as helpful as France in providing such special assistance to Jews.

In recent years, the French government has also taken major responsibilities for care of aged Jewish refugees in institutions of Cojasor, the refugee assistance organization established by the JDC in France after World War II.

A few years ago the director of Cojasor, I. Fink, a naturalized French citizen of Polish origin, served as treasurer of the notional committee which organized a resettlement program for refugees from Indochina who came to France. The French committee included such distinguished personages as Couve de Mourville, former Minister of Foreign Affairs. Later Fink was given the Legion of Honor for his devoted and efficient service. Of course, many French Jews proudly wear the Legion of Honor ribbon.


How has all of this happened in a land where anti-Semitism is still frequently manifested, and where the government has pursued policies unfriendly to Israel during the past dozen years? This paradoxical, almost schizoid tendency in France is reflected by many events of the past century, and in the names of those who mark history’s pages: Dreyfus and Zola; Petain and Laval; Blum and Mendes-France; and there recently by DeGaulle, Pompidou, Giscord a Estaing, in contrast to Simone Weil, who is considered one of the most popular French politicians today.

French government leaders are certainly not insensitive to these disparate trends. The writer well recalls that in 1970 when Premier Pompidou came to Chicago during his state visit to the United States, he agreed to meet with representatives of the Chicago Jewish community under the leadership of the then president of the Jewish Welfare Fund, Raymond Epstein. At that time, Epstein, who speaks French fluently, and other members of a Chicago delegation presented their frank criticism of the French government’s attitude toward Israel.

In his response, Pompidou, after claiming the French position was in the long range best interest of Israel, made a very pointed reference to the role of the French government in assisting Jewish refugees.

The cross-currents in the situation were evident in that same period when many American Jews advocated a boycott of tourism to France and French products. Word came back that some leaders of the French Jewish communities found this counter-productive politically and economically since French Jews were engaged in many export-import enterprises and the boycott was said to stimulate anti-Semitism in France.


The ambivalence toward French Jewry and deterioration of relations with Israel are paralleled in some respects by the French government’s current lack of cooperation with the United States.

Last May, the French government declared that the 35th anniversary of V.E. Day was not to be an official holiday because there had been too many other holidays scheduled during the month of May ! (Was this to avoid reminding people of America’s role in liberating France?) That week, Le Figaro, the widely read French morning newspaper, ran a series of articles commemorating V.E. Day by describing the events preceding the humiliating defeat of France by the Nazis.

Although this was not a new story for anyone who had lived through that period, the details of cowardice, corruption and short-sighted stupidity of French leadership are still shocking and almost incredible. In one instance a member of the French air force who had shot down several German planes was disciplined by his superior officers who had given orders that such combats were not to take place. Top French generals gave funerals with military honors to Germans whose bodies had been recovered by the French army.

In Paris on V.E. Day, this writer and his wife who were completing a trip to Europe and Israel visited the Memorial to the French citizens (mostly Jews) deported by the Nazis. The Memorial is located just across the bridge behind Notre Dame Cathedral. A stone staircase leads down to an area constructed like a dungeon with the names of all the concentration camps carved in the walls. Also inscribed are the words in French, “They have gone to another end of the earth and they have not come back.”

Only two other visitors were present. There were floral wreaths from the United Socialist Party of Germany, from the American War Veterans living in France, and from a Spanish organization. None from any French group. We placed our own small bouquet on the Memorial, lingered a few endless minutes — remembering.

On the flight back to America two days later, this writer was reading a copy of the Sunday magazine section of Figaro which has wide circulation throughout France and Europe. The feature article described in sharply critical terms how the American Jewish community exercises undue political influence on behalf of Israel, especially during the Presidential election year. The implied warning was unmistakable that a similar situation was developing in France.

Recommended from JTA