After all, revolutionary and Napoleonic France was the first of the continental nations to grant Jews civil rights, that France's Jews amply repaid the favour, and that, for all the trauma of the past, Jews and Christians in France, as in western Europe, now face a common enemy.
100 years ago, shortly after the Treaty of Versailles, the new grand rabbin (chief rabbi) of France, Israel Levi, son-in-law of the famous grand rabbin Zadoc Kahn, and for many years grand rabbin of Paris, gave an interview to a representative of the London Jewish Chronicle (reprinted in the Sydney Hebrew Standard, 7 November 1919).
'You come to me', Levi told the reporter,
'when we have just celebrated our fête of victory, so that it is opportune for me to review that part which the Jews of France took in the great war. As you know, we have compulsory service, so that we naturally had large numbers of men serving from the outbreak of war, but the remarkable feature to note is that the number of Jewish officers was out of all proportion, and stiows the high standard of education attained by the French Jewish community. A very considerable number of Jews served in the Algerian regiments, which had a glorious record under fire....
The wide dissemination of the Jews among the various professional classes has been brought out by the special services held by various bodies in memory of those fallen in the war. Services have been held in the synagogues as well as in the Catholic and Protestant churches — a real union of the creeds. We never confined our prayers on these occasions for our own brethren, but for all without distinction. [Emphasis added here and below]
The war has hit French Jewry very hard. Many communities have ceased to exist because the towns in which they lived have been wiped out. Thus, the synagogue at Verdun was completely destroyed, and altogether ten places of worship met a like fate. The synagogue at Rheims was not altogether destroyed, but the inhabitants were compelled to leave. Several synagogues, including those in Rouen and Boulogne, were bombed from the air....
rabbis over military age, but if these proving insufficient, the authorities released a certain number of rabbis from the fighting ranks to serve as chaplains. Several of them fell on the field of battle, including the grand rabbin of Lyons [Abraham Bloch, Jewish chaplain attached to the
14th Army Corps], who, you may remember, was the hero of a very remarkable incident. A farmhouse [on Anozel Hill near Nancy], which was formerly used as a dressing station, came under shell fire, and the rabbi went about among the wounded reassuring them till their turn came to be removed. A poor fellow, who was dying, seeing a chaplain moving about, asked him for a. crucifix. The rabbi fetched one, and was holding it before the man's dving gaze, when he himself was killed. The incident created quite a sensation at the time and produced a profound impression in circles able to appreciate the line humanity of the rabbi's last service to his fellow-creatures....'
'[A] very large proportion of French Jewry comes from [Alsace and Lorraine, held by Germany from 1871 following the Franco-Prussian War until the Treaty of Versailles in 1919], and the Jews there, in common with so many Alsatians, retained feelings of the warmest affection for France and welcomed the return of the tricolor. Last December a solemn service was held in the synagogue at Strasbourg, which was attended by the President of the Republic [Raymond Poincaré], by M. [Georges] Clemenceau, Marshals Joffre, Foch, and Petain, and Generals Gouraud, Mangin, and Hirschauer. I may, perhaps, recall the words which M. Raymond Poincaré used in reply to an address of welcome on that occasion. He said: "I thank you for the welcome which you have been good enough to extend, in the name of the Jews of Alsace, to the representatives of the government of the Republic and the national representatives.
We know how faithfully the Jews of Alsace have remained to the mother country. I beg you to believe that France has never for one moment lost sight of them, and that it is not tolerance, to use your own expression, which she displays towards your community, but, indeed, a profound respect, which she has for your religious beliefs. The communities of the reconquered provinces expressed a, desire to join the Consistoire within a few days of the signing, of the armistice, and they will undoubtedly prove a source of strength."...' [Emphasis added]Regarding the future of French Jewry, Levi was optimistic:
"I am pleased to say that during and since the war there has been not a single manifestation of antisemitism. Many feared that the war would bring about a recrudescence of Jew-hatred, but their fears have been falsified. I may say that at the be ginning of the war there were many foreign Jews in France — Russians, Poles, Rumanians, etc. — who voluntarily enlisted in the Foreign Legion, but there were also a considerable number who did not, but even this fact excited no anti-Jewish comment. On the other hand, the part played by the Jews in the defence of their country earned many encomiums in his quarters. I believe the French have learned by experience that antisemitism is a superficial prejudice, which has no solid grounds, and the new feeling of national unity has doubtless obliterated the old hatreds."Furthermore:
"There has undoubtedly been a revival of religious feeling since the war, not only among those who have lost their dear ones, but generally. Our synagogues have been crowded and there are signs that this happy state of affairs will continue. On the other side of the picture is to be set the regrettable fact that there have been several mixed marriages between Jewish girls who have served as nurses in the hos pitals and their Christian patients or doctors. Still, the new era which peace has opened seems likely to be a fruitful one for French Jewry."In 1938, the year a menorial to Bloch was erected, French cabinet minister César Campinchi unveiled a monument at Verdun commemorating Jewish soldiers who served in the French and Allied armies during the First World War, declared. To quote report in the Manchester Guardian (reprinted in the Sydney Hebrew Standard, 18 August 1938):
'Out of 190,000 Jews of France and Algeria 32,000 were mobilised and 6,500 killed; 12,000 foreign Jewish volunteers fought in the French Army and over 2,000 of them were killed.
After recalling, the moving episode of the Grand Rabbi Abraham Bloch, who, mortally wounded, handed a crucifix to a dying Catholic officer, M- Campinchi said:
"The French Revolution proclaimed that men must not be judged by the blood in their veins but considered as according to their mortal intellectual merits The Republic will never abandon this high principle. France does net hound men because their ancestors, were not born within her frontiers. We do not believe in establishing ridiculous hierarchies among ourselves. We do not hold that this or that people must be reduced to slavery or be destroyed. We believe that every human being has a right to live whatever his features or his colour. We do not believe in 'inferior' or ''despicable' races.
The ideal for .which, .together with their feilow-countrymen, so many Jews of France, England, and the. United States have died remains ours. We shall continue to hope that it will become the ideal of the whole world, for history is patient.' [Emphasis added]The Vichy regime, of course, betrayed those Enlightenment-rooted idea of which Campinchi spoke, but they underlie the post-war emergence of a multicultural France, for good and, as we know in our generation, for ill.
Thus Dennis Prager observed last week:
'.... The two final deathblows to Christianity in Europe were the world wars. World War I ended most Westerners' belief in the nation-state and the West. Christianity, already weakened by the Enlightenment, was further weakened by World War I. German Christians were killing millions of French and English Christians, and French and English Christians were killing millions of German Christians. So the argument and sentiment against Christianity went. Then World War II saw even more death on the Christian continent as well as the failure of Catholic and Protestant churches in Nazi Germany to offer even minimal noncompliance with the Nazis' Jew-hatred.