THE BLOG
12/19/2014 04:03 pm ET Updated Feb 18, 2015

What Is the Future for France's Jews?

Between emigration and multiculturalism, there's a third way: a Judaism open to the public.

France is suffering from a serious democratic crisis--a crisis that comes mostly from the chasm that has opened up between its political and economic elites on the one hand, and what we could call "the people" on the other. In this context, Jews seem in the eyes of many to be the incarnation of a group that has rights superior to--and concerns other than--those of most citizens. This notion gains traction on social networks, and spreads with the help of sensationalized videos. Behind the outcry against a gpverm,emtthat has been simultaneously shackled by and cut off from reality, each day hatred of Jews, who are presented as the embodiment of elitism, spreads.

Beyond the "viral" anti-Semitism that has developed on the margins of the political spectrum, the declarations of Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of France's nationalist National Front party, promising to "arrange an oven" for French-Jewish actor Patrick Bruel show once again how this important force in the political system emphasizes its anti-Semitic foundations. Marine le Pen's weak repudiation--denouncing a "political mistake" only because it weakened her strategy of "decontamination" (dédiabilisation), Le Pen's catch-all term for her her strong nativist, anti-immigration, largely anti-minority position--shows that the party hasn't changed at all. The presence of the old anti-Semitism is noticeable here, the "traditional" anti-Semitism that has some of its roots in Catholic persecution of the Jews.

Those anti-Semitisms of word and image would be unimportant today if they hadn't found a dramatic representation in reality. In some working-class neighborhoods--and on public transportation--the Jews of France are regularly insulted and assaulted, and "multicultural" institutions (synagogues and schools) are equally attacked: a kind of daily anti-Semitism that makes life impossible, and ultimately obliges us to live in a state of constant alarm. But it's also a banal, daily anti-Semitism, in the face of which numerous Jews--and non-Jews--no longer react.

These facts illustrate the anti-Jewish words and/or deeds that haven't stopped multiplying, as recent statistics show. This climate of banalized anti-Semitism foreshadows the transition to violent and even murderous acts. If the members of the "gang of barbarians" chose to kidnap Ilan Halimi, it's because he was Jewish. In their minds, Jews are obviously rich--just like in the imaginations of those who so recently committed that terrible robbery and rape in Créteil. We can't stop fighting these ancient stereotypes--like "Jew = money"--if we want to fix this intolerable situation.

French anti-Semitism takes a tragic turn when the young leave France's slums to go train for "jihad" in Syria or elsewhere, and when they come back with the notion of stepping up to actual terrorist acts, first and foremost against Jews. The shooting at a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2002 and the shooting in Brussels two years later perfectly illustrate the new danger experienced by French Jews in particular--and European Jews in general.

Battered by hatred, French Jews are getting scared. Some of them--and visibly more of them as of late--are no longer succeeding at writing themselves into the history of a country that they understand less and less, with which they have a hard time identifying. The result? Promises to emigrate abroad (including, but not only, to Israel) have increased significantly. Is leaving the solution for the Jews of France? Doesn't that partially validate the various anti-Semitic strategies?

To the contrary, shouldn't we keep writing ourselves into the public life of our great, beautiful nation?

At the brand new Collège Alliance ENIO (École Normale Israélite Orientale - the Eastern Jewish School), and in honor of the legacy of Emmanuel Lévinas--director of this school for more than 30 years after the Second World War--we want to propose this alternative: staying in France in order to build our lives and educate our children.

But if we want our children to be a part of France's public life, why choose to enroll them in Jewish schools? Partly, it's about assuring the safety of the Jewish students who are less and less at ease in state schools, where they are too often harassed, but another reason is just as compelling: it is very important to educate our children in a viewpoint that is both perfectly committed to civic ideals and yet at the same time permits them to know--indeed, to strengthen--their Jewish identity. Between the multiculturalism that would close a counter-productive, dangerous seal over ourselves and the republicanism that would efface their particular identities, there lies a third way: to proceed on to an alliance between Jewish and republican values--to teach a Judaism that's open to the public, and a citizenship respectful toward Jewish traditions. This is what Emmanuel Lévinas taught, in 1955, about the ENIO: "The special mark of this school is to eradicate from the heart of the adolescent the false notion that the modern world that France represents for him rejects the thousand-year-old Jewish civilization that the student has known in it."

Jewish thought and practice have always been compatible with the republican ideal. The "Jewish school" should be a republican school--one that offers safety to its students and aims to teach them about their Jewish identity, with respect to the values of liberty, equality, and fraternity--and also of secularism--that form the foundation of our "community of citizens." Today more than ever, it is fundamental to have two goals: to be Jewish in France, and at the same time, to be an enlightened citizen.