Uncertain Future for Jews in French Provinces

Despite History, Signs of Trouble on Horizon in Dijon

Hold The Mustard: The Jewish population of Dijon, France, eagerly assimilated over the course of the 19th century.
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Hold The Mustard: The Jewish population of Dijon, France, eagerly assimilated over the course of the 19th century.

By Robert Zaretsky

Published November 24, 2012, issue of November 30, 2012.
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But the book’s particular revelation is the postwar experience of Dijon’s Jews. Already reduced by the trials of the occupation, the community dwindled further during the 1950s as younger members, eager to shed their provincial constraints, moved to Paris. The cunning of history, however, threw a lifeline in the early 1960s: the great wave of North African Jews who, following the independence of Morocco, Tunisia and, most dramatically, Algeria, resettled in France. For nearly 40 years, Simon Sibony has been Dijon’s rabbi. Like 80% of the community, Sibony is Sephardi — his family moved from Morocco to France after the Six Day War — but he has reached across the aisle to the older Ashkenazi members. With only a single synagogue and disquieting demographics, the Jews of Dijon — Ashkenazi and Sephardi, conservative and liberal, traditional and less traditional — made a virtue of necessity. So much so, as Sibony remarked, that one discovers that even the “non-religious also have important things to teach.”

But there is an unexpected exception: the Lubavitchers. With the arrival of a young missionary couple from Israel in 1993, an uncivil war began within the Dijon community. To their supporters, the Lubavitchers offered a firm religious identity they failed to find under the easygoing Sibony; to their critics, the rigid practices of the Lubavitchers offered only isolation. Despite repeated efforts, the two sides never found a compromise; like Jews and gentiles in more traditional societies, they now live in a state of mutual incomprehension and suspicion.

Startlingly, a community leader, Israel Cemachovic, insists there “isn’t much difference between [the Lubavitchers] and the Muslim dogmatists, except that the Muslim dogmatists are killing people and the Jews aren’t. But mentally, they are the same.” More than the Lubavitch presence, the radicalization of some French Muslim youths has created an uncertain future for Dijon’s Jews. Nearly all of Weiner and Sharpless’s interviews, which span the years from 1993 to 2005 (the book’s subtitle is, in this respect, deceptive), reflect this fear.

Indeed, there is a tragic arc to the interviews. In 1993, most interlocutors spoke of their peaceful relations with French Muslims — the existential threat then hailed from the National Front — but their situation had changed dramatically by 2005. The Second Intifada not only had a catastrophic impact on Jewish and Muslim relations in France, but for some interviewees, on their relations with many non-Jews. Malou Dressler, a retired teacher, declares she had once been French and Jewish in the eyes of her colleagues. Now, she believes, she is Jewish and French.

France’s future, perhaps, depends on again reaffirming the older order of adjectives not just for French Jews but also French Muslims. For this task, Jews and Muslims must together take the lead.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at The Honors College at the University of Houston and is the author of “Albert Camus: Elements of a Life” (Cornell University Press, 2010).


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