From an unsolvable dispute to a unifying compromise
Le Conseil représentatif des israélites de France, le CRIF, voit le jour dans la clandestinité à la fin de l’année 1943. Sa naissance est le résultat de l’union des différents groupes juifs présents en France.
Communistes, bundistes, sionistes et représentants du Consistoire, qui forment le CRIF, rédigent une charte, le programme politique juif français pour l’après guerre. La question sur laquelle un compromis est le plus difficile à trouver est le la position à adopter à l’égard du sionisme et de l’avenir politique de la Palestine. Les négociations, qui aboutissent à l’été 1944, illustrent les tensions et les désaccords, mais aussi la volonté de s’unir, qui traversent les mondes juifs de France, qu’ils soient immigrés ou Français juifs de longue date.
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- 1 The CRIF became the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France in 1972.
1Created by the Jewish underground in the winter 1943-1944, near Lyon, the Representative Council of French Jews, the CRIF1, is the symbol of the unification of the different cultural and political Jewish groups which were active illegally under German occupation. The history of the birth of this Jewish umbrella organization remains largely unknown.
2The creation of the CRIF followed the establishment, in July 1943, in Grenoble, of the Jewish General Defense Committee, which consisted of the Communist Union des Juifs pour la Résistance et l’Entraide, UJRE (Union of Jews for Assistance and Resistance), Zionists and Bundists. These groups represented the political diversity that characterized the Jewish immigrants who actively took part in the fight against the Nazis and Vichy, the pro-German regime in France. The CRIF was the result of the union between the underground movements of Jewish immigrants and the Consistoire, the historical institution of French Jews, created in 1808 by Napoleon.
- 2 The following books, all in French, deal with the creation of the CRIF: Adam Rayski, Le choix des (...)
- 3 Michel Lafitte, Un engrenage fatal ; l’UGIF face aux réalités de la Shoah, 1941-1944, Paris, Liana (...)
3This article will not go into detail regarding the various steps that led to the creation of the CRIF2. The failure of the Union Générale des Israélites de France, UGIF, the Jewish institution created by Vichy, the German invasion of the Southern part of France in November 19423 and, very likely, the news of the uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto played an essential role in the creation of this unprecedented political umbrella group known as the CRIF. Other initiatives, such as the establishment of the Center for Contemporary Jewish Documentation, in Grenoble, in the Spring of 1943, help us understand the different aspects involved in the creation of the CRIF, amidst the turmoil and despair that fell upon the Jews of France during the war.
4As soon as an agreement on the principle of creating a political Jewish umbrella organization was reached, the founders focused their energy on achieving an ambitious goal: to draw up, together a charter, a text that would become the political platform which the CRIF would present to the authorities, following the defeat of the Axis forces and the re-establishment of a democratic regime.
- 4 The archives deposited by Joseph Fisher in Jerusalem are available at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Res (...)
- 5 Jacques Fredj, La Création du CRIF, 1943-1966, MA thesis in History, Paris IV University, 1988, p. (...)
5Sections of files relating to the creation of the CRIF are stored at the Holocaust Resource Center at Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem4. The only written sources available are a dozen notes and typed or handwritten drafts of the charter. As Adam Rayski, who took an active part in this history as a Jewish Communist leader, put it fifty years later, “the different drafts of the charter are, for the most part, undated, which makes it impossible to establish a clear chronology”. Jacques Fredj, author of a thesis on the early years of the CRIF, shares this view, and points out the “numerous” and “contradictory” dates involved5.
6The only thing that is certain is that the discussions over the CRIF’s charter began in November 1943 and came to an end in the Summer of 1944.
7The main topics of the charter stem from the terrible events endured by the Jews during the war. In the first place, the CRIF unanimously decided to put forward a variety of constitutional demands aimed at preventing the repetition of any anti-Semitic state policy such as that instituted by the Vichy regime.
8The Jewish groups, unified in the underground, hoped that the re-establishment of the French Republic and democracy would nullify all the anti-Semitic measures introduced by the Vichy regime: the exclusion of Jews from public spaces and jobs, violence and discrimination against Jews, deportations of Jews.
9The CRIF expected, from a new democratic regime, “constitutional guarantees against any attack against the principle of equality” and the assurance that “all confiscated Jewish properties would be returned by whoever held them”. The CRIF also emphasized the need to “reintegrate Jewish employees” in their jobs in private companies and government services. It also demanded the re-opening of all Jewish institutions which had been closed or banned as a result of the Vichy regime’s anti-Semitic policies. The participants in the first meetings of the CRIF quickly agreed on all these issues. With the fear of being arrested, killed or sent to death camps now removed, Zionism became the main political issue that divided the draftees of the charter.
- 6 Pierre Birnbaum, Les Fous de la République : Histoire politique des Juifs d’État de Gambetta à Vic (...)
10Before presenting the debate on Zionism, it is important to recall the political diversity of the Jewish communities in pre-war France. French Jews, who obtained the right to citizenship in 1791, during the French Revolution, called themselves for two centuries, “Israelites.” As a Jewish leader once stated, this meant: “we are Israelites in our temples and French in the midst of our fellow citizens”. Enthusiastic supporters of the 1905 law separating Church and State, French Jews were, as historian Pierre Birnbaum writes, madly in love with the French Republic6. As such, French Jews did not form a community separate from the rest of French society, which was the reality before the Revolution that granted them citizenship.
11French Jewry became deeply transformed in the first decades of the twentieth century by the massive arrivals of Jewish immigrants from central Europe and Russia. Since the 1880’s, thousands of Jews made their way to France and the phenomenon increased after World War One. Some fled misery, pogroms and anti-Semitism, others the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the ensuing civil war. Then, in the 1930’s, following Hitler’s rise to power (1933) and the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany (1938), thousands of German and Austrian Jews arrived in France. From 1905 to 1939, 175.000 to 200.000 Jewish immigrants settled in France. These numbers, however, are under dispute. On the one hand, American historian David Weinberg, basing himself on various sources, asserts that 20.000 Jews arrived in Paris between 1880 and 1914, and 70.000 arrived between 1918 and 1939. On the other hand, French sociologist Doris Ben Simon and Italian demographer Sergio Della Pergola estimate the total number of Jews in France, in 1939, at between 250.000 and 320.000. In some instances, for example, a legal immigrant from Poland, who stayed for a while in France on his or her way to the United-States, was counted in these figures while illegal immigrants were omitted. This historical phenomenon during these decades did not specifically concern Jews. Waves of non-Jewish immigrants (from countries such as Poland, Spain and Italy) contributed to the diversification of the French population.
- 7 Paula Hyman, The Jews of Modern France, University of California Press, 1998, p. 151.
12Most Jewish immigrants settled in Paris, which became the heart of the French Jewish community. A smaller number settled in Alsace (North-East) and in the Rhône valley (South-East). Some French Jews displayed solidarity with their fellow Jews, helping them via a social committee, partly funded by the Alliance Israélite Universelle. But the immigrants, mostly Yiddish speakers, were generally viewed by French Jews as a threat to their own successful assimilation. The public participation of Jews in politics was also a source of tension. As Paula Hyman notes, in The Jews of Modern France, “while the native Jewish leadership was most comfortable with the politics of discretion and patriotic rhetoric, the immigrants and a segment of Jewish youth advocated a strategy of mass politics”7.
13Three main political movements became very active in the immigrant milieu: Bundism, Zionism and Communism. A French section of the Bund, the Jewish socialists, had been established, in Paris, in 1900. Its members advocated cultural and political Jewish autonomy in Europe and considered Yiddish as the national Jewish idiom. They were also hostile towards Zionism.
- 8 See Denis Charbit, Sionismes Textes fondamentaux, Paris, Albin Michel, 1998.
14Notwithstanding the debate on the influence of the Dreyfus affair over Theodore Herzl’s perception of European anti-Semitism and the need for Jews to create their own state and the common perception that the figure of Herzl was essential to unifying the different strands of Zionism and disseminating Zionist ideology, most of the intellectual Zionist thinkers came from Eastern Europe where anti-Semitism was acute and rampant. For instance, Leon Pinsker came from Poland, Ahad Ha’am and Yossef Haïm Brenner from Ukraine8. It was, therefore, no surprise that, with the massive influx of Jews from these areas, Zionism became a legitimate issue in France.
- 9 Lisa Moses Leff, Sacred Bonds of Solidarity: The Rise of Jewish Internationalism in Nineteenth-Cen (...)
15In the first years of the twentieth century, the Zionist movement was weak, divided and marginal in France. French Jews were highly suspicious of the movement and they expressed their doubts and opposition to a political project that aimed to create a Jewish state in the Middle East. They feared Zionism would rupture their unshakable link with France. A good example was the strong opposition of the Alliance Israélite Universelle to Zionism, which was seen as a threat to the unique Franco-Jewish bond. Created in 1860 by Jewish intellectuals, the Alliance Israélite Universelle was a key player in Jewish public life across Europe and the Mediterranean area. It developed an impressive French-speaking educational network. Its schools brought French culture, language, symbols of universality and modernity to places such as the Moroccan Atlas mountains, Palestine and cities such as Cairo, Alexandria and Istanbul. In 1914, no less than 48.000 young Jews were incorporated in French-speaking schools spread across the Mediterranean region. The Alliance also dedicated its energy to fighting for the rights of Jews and for freedom outside France’s zone of influence. As such, it represented “sacred bonds of solidarity” which united the Diaspora9.
- 10 Catherine Nicault, La France et le Sionisme, une rencontre manquée ?, Paris, Calmann-Levy, 1992, p (...)
16French historian, Catherine Nicault, describes, in her book La France et le sionisme, une rencontre manquée? (“France and Zionism, a Missed Encounter?”) the Zionist movement in France, during the 1920’s, as weak and “impotent.” It was only in the 1930’s, as a result of the achievements of the Yishuv, Jewish settlement in Palestine, and the fears generated by the alarming news coming from Nazi Germany, that Zionism found its place in French Jewish politics10.
17As an umbrella organization for dozens of Jewish immigrant groups, the Federation of Jewish Societies in France, created in 1924-1926, played an important role with regard to the Zionist movement. One of its leaders, Marc Jarblum, was a Zionist activist and a close friend of Leon Blum, the leader of the SFIO, the French Socialist Party.
18Bundists and Zionists disagreed over the location of a future Jewish homeland. The Bundists wanted it to be in central or eastern Europe, where the vast majority Jews resided before World War II, while the Zionists believed that a Jewish political entity could only be established in Palestine. Their goal was to give a political reality to the Jewish prayer repeated every Passover, “Next year in Jerusalem”. However, from the point of view of French Jews, the Zionists and the Bundists represented a similar threat, since they encouraged the public expression of Jewishness through political means, namely, a complete change in the paradigm of French Jewish identity.
19Then came the Communist Jews, who were found mainly among the ranks of immigrants. These were members of the French Communist Party, which itself was a member of a broader movement established by the Soviet union. Thus, in 1926, a special department was created within the Communist Party for immigrants, named the “Main d’Œuvre Étrangère” (MOE), the foreign work force, which changed its name in 1932 to “Main d’Œuvre Immigrée” (MOI), the immigrant work force. The different groups within the MOI were organized according to their mother tongues and a Yiddish section of Jewish immigrants played a vibrant part.
20Inspired by other anti-Fascist movements created in Europe, this very politically-divided world of immigrant Jews attempted to unite together in the mid 1930’s. The United Jewish Front was an organization where Communist Jews, Bundists of the Medem Ring and Zionists of Poale Zion tried to work together. The unity did not last more than a few months in 1934, the failure being due to the strong divisions between the different groups. Political agreements leading to real unity were only made possible during the war itself, first by the establishment of the General Committee of Jewish Defense, the precursor to the CRIF.
21Who were the key players in the negotiations over the issue of Zionism in the CRIF’s charter? Fajvel Shrager spoke for the Bund, Joseph Fischer for the Zionists through the Federation of Jewish Societies in France. Adam Rayski was the delegate of the communist Jews who merged their forces in the Spring of 1943 in the Union des Juifs pour la Résistance et l’Entraide, UJRE (the Union of Jews for Resistance and Mutual Assistance). The Consistoire, the historic French Jewish institution, was headed by Leon Meiss who took over from Jacques Helbronner, when the latter was arrested and deported by the Nazis in October 1943.
22Should French Jews look for a brighter future in Palestine? Will their expression of solidarity with the Jewish homeland alienate their fellow French compatriots? Should the CRIF take a position on international topics such as the Palestinian question? These were some of the numerous and sensitive issues which the CRIF tackled, as recorded in few archives available at Yad Vashem. The meetings of CRIF delegates marked the first opportunity to deal with the ideologies of all the different groups and for Jewish leaders to define, in very difficult times, a common position on Zionism. The delegates were unaware of the exact scale of atrocities suffered by the Jews of Europe, but it was clear that the debate on the necessity of a Jewish state was conducted in a very different mood from that which took place in the 1930’s.
23What can we learn from these exchanges?
24First of all, it should be noted that two different names were used to qualify the Jewish umbrella organization during these negotiations: the Representative Council of French Jews, CRJF, and the Representative Council of French Israelites, the CRIF.
- 11 The Jewish Autonomous Oblast was established in 1934. Yiddish and Russian were the two national la (...)
25One text, under the title CRJF, advocated the creation of a Jewish state outside of Palestine: “The CRJF will give its support for the establishment of Jews – by immigration or colonization – in territories where the conditions of good colonization can be meet, in the USSR or elsewhere”. The mention of a Jewish homeland in the Soviet Union is surprising and is not followed by any explanation. It is unclear whether this was a reference to Birobidzhan, the region close to China which Stalin allocated for the settlement of Jews in the mid-1930’s11.
- 12 The British White Paper was a measure taken in 1939 to dramatically restrict the number of Jews al (...)
26Some CRJF members were very skeptical about the creation of an independent Jewish state in Palestine, particularly without an accord with the Arabs. One draft paper read: “When it comes to Palestine, the CRJF will support free immigration and colonization by Jews and the abolition of the 1939 British White Paper, which is a unilateral and discriminatory measure that does not meet the desires of the Jews nor those of the Arabs”12. They advocated that “the rights and security of Jews should be guaranteed in Palestine and a solution should be found to the immigration issue through an understanding between the Jewish and the Arab populations”.
27The paper then stated that the CRJF would favor “all efforts that aim to realize a broader agreement between Jews and Arabs in Palestine”. This proposal could have been written by the Communists who were trying to promote a federal solution where Jews and Arabs would live together instead of the Zionist notion of a Jewish state. The Communists tried to draw a comparison between Zionism and other territorial issues. In one document, they stated that: “Zionism should not be mentioned in the CRIF’s charter, just as the Polish question is not discussed”. In their strategy, the Communist Jews were looking for allies against the Zionists led by Joseph Fisher. Adam Rayski pointed out the “hesitations” of the Consistoire on this issue, in an attempt to reduce the support accorded by the CRIF to the Jewish Agency, the Jewish political body in Palestine, which would become the mold of the first government of the State of Israel.
28One issue raised by the Communists in their attempt to prevent the CRIF from expressing clear support for Zionism was that of the official language in Palestine. They asserted: “If the Jewish Agency declares the Jewish language as the national one [in Palestine] we will not accept this”, without stating whether they meant Yiddish or modern Hebrew. Adam Rayski clearly stated that, if the CRIF “pledges allegiance” to the Jewish Agency, the Communists would have no choice but to leave the new Jewish umbrella organization. He insisted that the “Zionists” should “show good will” in order to maintain the unity of the movement.
29In a paper, drafted by the Zionists in response to these criticisms, Joseph Fisher emphasized the need to obtain “political guarantees” in Palestine and he reminded his colleagues that the Jewish Agency was a legitimate body because “it is the only official one, made up of Zionists and non-Zionists”, asserting that it was the relevant body for all matters related to Palestine, and that: “the only ones not taking part in it are those who are not interested in Jewish issues”. He then pointed out that, if a Jewish state had been established before the war, the destiny of European Jewry would have been dramatically different: “if our platform had been accepted, millions of Jews could have been saved” from death.
30In a letter, titled “to the delegates of the conference for the CRIF’s creation,” dated June 20, 1944, more than six months after the beginning of the negotiations, Adam Rayski, again expressed his opposition to the Zionists’ demands, which he viewed as the main blocking issue in the talks. He wrote: “the CRJF could well accept the point of view of the Zionists but, in that case, it would not be the Representative Council of French Jews but the Representative Council of Zionists”. He repeated the need for “an understanding with the Arab population” of Palestine in order to avoid conflict and noted that the interests of “ French Jews” were more important to him than foreign “territories”.
31The talks continued for a few weeks but we lack the necessary documentation to enable us to understand not only the issues at stake, but also the balance of power between all the political groups taking part in the talks. We know very little about the role of the Consistoire and of the Socialist Bund in the debate which, according to available sources, was very much a fight between the Communists and the Zionists on the question of Palestine.
32A definitive version of the charter was adopted in the Summer of 1944, with the final section devoted to the rights of Jews in Palestine. The CRIF demanded the “immediate abolition of the 1939 White Paper”, which limited the number of Jews allowed to immigrate to Palestine. No one, including the Communists, rejected the right of Jews to settle in Palestine. As noted, the major issue centered round the “political status of Palestine”. The CRIF found a compromise by stating its support for “the demands of the Jewish Agency and other relevant bodies”.
33This a minima formula avoided many other issues discussed during the negotiations, such as the choice of a national idiom and the option of a Jewish homeland in the USSR. The CRIF hoped for “national coexistence and friendship between all parts of society” in Palestine, for the “broadest understanding with the Arab population” and for equal rights for the “non-Jewish residents of Palestine”. Last but not least, the CRIF stated that the political decisions concerning Palestine’s status should not endanger or modify the rights of Jews as citizens in other countries. This was a way of ensuring that Jews living in the Diaspora would not be accused of double loyalty.
34Which ideologies or political trends emerged victorious and reinforced from the debates and compromises reached in the CRIF charter?
35The Communists were undoubtedly in a strong position. Having played a key role in the unification movement of French Jewry, which led to the creation of the CRIF, they gained a decisive symbolic legitimacy. This political victory was reinforced by the fact that the Consistoire had accepted them as an integral part of French Jewish public life. The Zionists also had good reasons to be satisfied. Even if all their demands for outright support for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine had not been completely met, the charter pledged its support for certain essential demands: free colonization and immigration to Palestine and recognition of the Jewish Agency as the relevant political body for Palestinian Jews. In consequence, Zionism appeared to have won the legitimacy it had sought to receive, for decades, from French Jewish institutions.
36The first public, legal meeting of the CRIF took place in Lyon on September 5, 1944, just two days after the city was liberated by the American army. While, during the negotiations over the charter, there had been ambiguity regarding the use of the term Israelite or Jew, it was now decided that the organization would be known as the Representative Council of French Jews. Misunderstandings, distrust and divisions between native and immigrant Jews were no longer relevant, since the suffering and despair shared by all Jews in France created a new situation. The CRIF became the symbol of this reconciliation.
37The CRIF had a hard time finding its place in post-war France. The Consistoire maintained its official function as the religious representative of Judaism while new social institutions were created: the United Jewish Social Fund, FSJU, and the Jewish Committee for Social Action and Reconstruction, the Cojasor.
- 13 Catherine Nicault, “L’Alliance au lendemain de la Seconde Guerre mondiale : ruptures et continuité (...)
38One major Jewish institution was left out of the process which led to the creation of a new political body of French Jews: the Alliance. The Alliance, historically opposed to Zionism, saw itself as the sole French Jewish body with the ability to take action in diplomatic matters, such as the question of Palestine or the protection of Jews overseas. But the CRIF’s charter was very explicit: the new umbrella group would speak in the name of all French Jews to public authorities and would act on the international scene. Writing about the post-war situation of the Alliance, French historian, Catherine Nicault, notes that the Alliance feared a challenge was being made to its historical missions and key members of the organization, such as Maurice Leven, viewed the CRIF’s position on Palestine too close to that of the Zionists13. Leven believed there was a high risk that such a position would give to the French public “the impression of serving the interests of an ethnic group different from the rest of the French [national] community”. The debate about whether or not the Alliance should join the CRIF began at the end of 1944 and continued for several months. CRIF members, such as its first chairman, Léon Meiss, and their counterparts from the Alliance knew each other well and were aware that it made little sense for the Alliance not to take part in a Jewish umbrella organization that had succeeded, during the dark days of the war, in overcoming political rivalries.
39René Cassin, President of the Alliance, met on several occasions his counterpart Léon Meiss in order to reach an agreement. He won the assurance that the CRIF would not be seen as a pro-Zionist group and, most importantly, he obtained a guarantee that the Alliance would keep its prerogative in diplomatic affairs, as per its historical tradition. In a letter to the Alliance, the CRIF stated that the Alliance would remain in charge of all matters “concerning Jews outside France’s borders”. The Alliance voted to join the CRIF on July 25, 1945.
40The bitter debate over Zionism during the drafting of the CRIF’s charter and the difficulty on the part of the Alliance to adjust to the new institution show that the issue of defining the nature of their relationship with a Jewish homeland in Palestine was not a simple matter for French Jews, still traumatized by the horrors they had suffered during the war. It is, for these reasons, that the CRIF kept a very low profile during the period 1944-1948, when the political situation in Palestine was getting more and more chaotic and violent, ultimately leading to the declaration of independence by the State of Israel in May 1948 and the first war between the new Jewish State and its Arab neighbors.
- 14 Maud Mandel, In the Aftermath of Genocide; Armenians and Jews in Twentieth-Century France, Duke Un (...)
41There is no evidence to show that the CRIF played, or tried to play a role in the diplomatic debates over the policy France should adopt in the Middle East crisis. During the first years of the State, Israel was not at the center of the daily life of French Jews. In the late 1940’s, French Jewry and the CRIF were focusing on the painful consequences of the war and of the Holocaust, trying to find a beloved relative who had been sent to the death camps or rebuilding a shattered community. It was a time of reconstruction, not of political activism. As American historian, Maud Mandel, points out, “a strange silence” accompanied the “return to Republican order” in post-war France14. This would explain the CRIF’s low-key profile. Ardent solidarity and a sense of common destiny with Israel would emerge later, in 1967, when the impact of the Six-Day war dramatically reshaped French Jewish identity.
1 The CRIF became the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France in 1972.
2 The following books, all in French, deal with the creation of the CRIF: Adam Rayski, Le choix des Juifs sous Vichy. Entre soumission et résistance, Paris, La Découverte, 1993; André Kaspi, Les Juifs pendant l’Occupation, Paris, Le Seuil, 1991; Annette Wieviorka, Déportation et génocide, Paris, Hachette, 2008.
3 Michel Lafitte, Un engrenage fatal ; l’UGIF face aux réalités de la Shoah, 1941-1944, Paris, Liana Levi, 2003.
4 The archives deposited by Joseph Fisher in Jerusalem are available at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Resource Center. The classification mark of these files is O.9/297.
5 Jacques Fredj, La Création du CRIF, 1943-1966, MA thesis in History, Paris IV University, 1988, p. 12.
6 Pierre Birnbaum, Les Fous de la République : Histoire politique des Juifs d’État de Gambetta à Vichy, Paris, Le Seuil, 2000.
7 Paula Hyman, The Jews of Modern France, University of California Press, 1998, p. 151.
8 See Denis Charbit, Sionismes Textes fondamentaux, Paris, Albin Michel, 1998.
9 Lisa Moses Leff, Sacred Bonds of Solidarity: The Rise of Jewish Internationalism in Nineteenth-Century France, Stanford University Press, 2006.
10 Catherine Nicault, La France et le Sionisme, une rencontre manquée ?, Paris, Calmann-Levy, 1992, p. 52-53.
11 The Jewish Autonomous Oblast was established in 1934. Yiddish and Russian were the two national languages. Jews never formed a majority in this territory and now represent less than 5 % of the population. Robert Weinberg, Stalin’s Forgotten Zion: Birobidzhan and the Making of a Soviet Jewish Homeland: An Illustrated History, 1928-1996, University of California Press, 1998.
12 The British White Paper was a measure taken in 1939 to dramatically restrict the number of Jews allowed to immigrate to Palestine. It was a gesture to appease Arab resentment against the Zionist colonization and it prevented many Jews fleeing Nazi Germany from making their way to Palestine.
13 Catherine Nicault, “L’Alliance au lendemain de la Seconde Guerre mondiale : ruptures et continuités idéologiques”, Archives juives, 2001/1, n° 34, p. 23-53.
14 Maud Mandel, In the Aftermath of Genocide; Armenians and Jews in Twentieth-Century France, Duke University Press, 2003, p. 52-85.Haut de page
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