‘’Our synagogues closed for three months earlier this year then reopened but with the imposition of strict sanitary measures. The number of people allowed was drastically reduced. So there was a much smaller audience in the synagogues. Donations, which occur on Shabbat and holidays, have significantly decreased during the pandemic. This has led to a crisis in donations. I can imagine that this is a global crisis that is not limited to France,’’ says Joël Mergui.
By Yossi Lempkowicz and Ethan Bergman, EJP
Joël Mergui is president of the Central Consistory of France, the representation of the Jewish worship in the country since Napoleon. There are several Consistories that have been created in Europe and particularly in France. He is also responsible for running the Consistory of Paris which is the operational management body for synagogues, places of worship in Paris and in France. The federation of Consistories is responsible for places of worship on the one hand and for the religious acts, certificates of Judaism, marriages, divorces, Chevra Kadisha (Jewish burial), kashrut (Jewish dietary laws), the Talmud Torah, religious education. All the ins and outs of Jewish life in France.
He has just launched an awareness campaign and appeal for donations among the Jews of France to, as he says, save the country’s synagogues which are in a dire financial situation due to the pandemic and the re-containment.
In a lengthy exclusive interview with European Jewish Press, Joël Mergui explains the objective of this campaign and how the coronavirus crisis has affected synagogues and Jewish life in general. But he also answers questions about the new wave of Islamist terror in France, security of the Jewish community, aliyah of French Jews, the fight against antisemitism, the proposed ban of shechita in some countries and the passing of Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.
‘’Our synagogues closed for three months earlier this year then reopened but with the imposition of strict sanitary measures. The number of people allowed was drastically reduced. So there was a much smaller audience in the synagogues. Synagogues donations, which occur on Shabbat and holidays, have significantly decreased during the pandemic. This has led to a crisis in donations. I can imagine that this is a global crisis that is not limited to France.’’
Mergui mentions that the particularity of the Consistory of Paris is to consolidate the action of 100 synagogues. ‘’This means that when there are fewer donations in 100 synagogue there is a smaller funding in total. Moreover, there is no financial aid from the government since there is a strict legal separation of religion and state in France.’’
‘’Despite this we have continued to pay the wages of the rabbis who were not able to benefit from partial unemployment. But costs remained roughly equivalent with lower incomes, without public aid and the fact that a certain number of French Jewish foundations, which are subject to the same rules of separation between state and religion, have therefore announced that they could not help worship,’’ says Mergui.
‘’This is why it seemed to me urgent to make the community aware of the importance and centrality of the synagogue. Because when the synagogues closes you realize how much they are crucial to Jewish life.’’ ‘’When we can’t pray in public, when we can’t do kaddish when we lose loved ones, when we can’t have weddings, we realize how important the synagogue is.’’
The Central Consistory has the responsibility of the majority of synagogues in France but some do not operate under any Consistory and are part of other networks. ‘’This is why I want to motivate everyone to support their local synagogues as to not lose a pillar of Jewish life, leading to a degradation of said life. I want also to tell the Jewish leaders in the world that we should not be ashamed to say that we need to support our synagogues,’’ he says.
‘’During these difficult times we have witnessed campaigns promoting support for culture, cinema, theatre, tourism, business, libraries…. We should not be ashamed as Jews to call for support for the essential structure of Judaism that is the synagogue. I call for an equivalent movement in all countries of Europe.’’
Despite Consistory request, the government insisted that the state does not help the worship. ‘’However, says Mergui, I told the authorities that even though the state doesn’t help worship it must help Jewish structures on the consequences of the Covid crisis which have affected everyone.’’ ‘’When soldiers are placed in front of synagogues, it is not an aid to worship but an aid against the risk of terrorism. Likewise, the state could have helped in the context of the current sanitary crisis. This has not been the state’s response yet and therefore it is fundamental that Jews take charge of themselves as we have always done in our history. We built our synagogues with our own money, we did not wait for anyone’s help, we keep our synagogues alive with our donations. Today, however, donations are no longer enough to keep synagogues alive. So it is important that we give more.’’
Could the EU help synagogues ?
‘’I attended a European meeting organized by the European Jewish Association about one month ago where I addressed members of the European Parliament about the need for Europe to also care about the synagogues. I don’t know if at some point I will be heard but it’s definitively an avenue to continue to explore.’’
What do you think the Jewish communities in Europe can do to overcome this economic situation which does not only affect France?
As always when affected, we need to have a sense of solidarity. In all countries of Europe great Jewish voices have been raised for all sectors of society that have been affected by the crisis. I believe that it is very important that great European Jewish voices say that we must support the structures of the Jewish community, particularly the synagogues. We need also the solidarity of each member of the community. We have experienced in Europe the effects of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism which have led us to protect our synagogues, to invest much more money in the preservation of our synagogues. Moreover, there is the aliyah also affecting funding of communities as very active members left some European countries to go live in Israel. Hence, it is crucial now to stand in solidarity through generosity. The Jewish principle of donating 10 percent of revenues should be taken into consideration.’’
France has recently experienced new Islamist terror attacks. Are you worried about the Jewish community even if it was not directly targeted?
‘’Yes I am worried because we are part of a society that is affected. The community has not been directly targeted by the latest attacks. However, it should be reminded that the Toulouse Jewish school terrorist attack in 2012 was the first action of radical Islamism in Europe. Since then we had a number of attacks against the Jewish community by radical Islamists, including the attack against the HyperCacher kosher supermarket. Yes I am worried about the Jewish community. But I am worried for France and for Europe in general. We have a new scourge, a new totalitarianism which is affecting France, Europe and the world, namely radical Islamism, about which the French Jewish community warned numerous times in the past.
Europe took a long time to realize this scourge which first affected the Jews and was going to affect the whole of Europe. Now I have reason to hope. The awareness is clearer in the minds of Europeans, in the minds of French leaders that this fight must be waged. I hope that now the means will follow. We are in democracies, it is difficult to put in place real means because we are always blocked by legislative and democratic processes such as freedom of the press, freedom of expression, the difficulty of managing internet networks… We must find laws that are sufficiently restrictive and strong to fight against this scourge before it does more damage.’’
“France is at war against Islamic terrorism,” said Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin. Does the response of the government and the President meet your expectations?
‘’ What I see is that there is awareness at all levels of the state. This is already fundamental. A few years ago we did not hear so easily in the mouths of the leaders that the war against radical Islamism is declared …. For it to be successful, it is only the results that will tell us if the means have been put in adequacy. Results mean that radical Islamism was defeated in Europe. It will take time, a lot of energy, to find solutions on internet incitement, freedom of expression, freedom of press and on some legislative aspects.’’
Are you satisfied with the level of security of Jewish community sites across the country?
I know that there can’t be maximum security of all sites. We have regular meetings with the ministries in order to ensure careful and extensive protection of all the sites of the Jewish community which include synagogues, schools, kosher shops, all places of life of the Jewish community. We are in a permanent process of requesting resources from the state. There is also a significant investment by the Jewish community. We should not underestimate the number of thousands of volunteers, whether in France or in Europe, who are protecting our community centres. This is a significant investment. The number of permanent staff is also a cost for all the structures of our community. So there is a permanent demand to the French state and in general to European states to provide the necessary means. Even though the latest attacks did not target the Jewish community, it unfortunately remains a privileged target of radical Islamism.’’
Do you fear a new wave of Islamic terrorism in Europe?
‘’We’re in one. We live it. Will there be more attacks ? All Interior Ministers are saying there will be more, but it is not clear when. So yes I think the Islamist terrorist wave is here. We must protect ourselves as much as possible if we do not know how to fight it.’’
The Jewish population in Europe has shrunk by 60% over the past 50 years, according to a recent study. France is not spared by this phenomenon. Are you worried? What are the reasons for this in your opinion?
‘’I told several French Presidents from Jacques Chirac to Nicolas Sarkozy, François Hollande and recently Emmanuel Macron that there will be less and less Jews in France in a few years for different reasons: firstly, there is the problem of assimilation. Jews who lose their identity. This is true in France as in other countries in Europe and the world. Furthermore, there is the departure of the Jews from France. The phenomenon of aliyah over the past 50 years but especially in the last five or ten years. There are fewer Jews in France today than twenty years ago. This is obvious and it is true for many countries in Europe. Now this is a demographic reality, but at the same time there have never been as many Jewish structures, Jewish schools, courses, restaurants to answer the desire to live your identity in the Jewish community. So yes there are fewer Jews but also at the same time there is a desire to continue to develop the structures of the Jewish community. I am talking to you here from the European Center of Judaism in Paris that we inaugurated exactly one year ago in the presence of President Emmanuel Macron. It is one of the largest developed structure in Europe. It is proof that despite terrorism, despite the attacks, despite the demographic decrease we have the duty – and I say this to all the countries of Europe – to continue to build and develop these Jewish structures. Because every Jew is important. To reach every Jew we need structures of education, transmission, culture, identity to reverse the trend of assimilation. We need human and financial resources to have programs that help develop the identity of every Jew in France and in Europe.’’
Do Jews in France continue to leave the country for Israel and other countries around the world due to anti-Semitism?
That’s a tough question. I have always said that we make an aliyah of choice, not an aliyah to escape…. Now it’s obvious that among the motivations for aliyah there is also the wave of anti-Semitism. There are people who lived in dangerous neighbourhoods – the so-called lost territories of the Republic – that also exist elsewhere in Europe, places where radicalism has taken hold and where we are in danger. These people sometimes, instead of moving to another more safer neighbourhood, choose to simply leave the country. But many people make aliyah either for business or professional reasons or for ideological motives : they want to join their family in Israel or live their spirituality. But without any doubt, there are also people who left because of anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and fear of Islamism.’’
Do you think Europe is doing enough to combat anti-Semitism in all its forms?
‘’First of all, you can’t say that antisemitism is homogeneous across Europe. And I am not qualified enough to have an analysis of every country in Europe. At the European Center of Judaism last January we had a meeting of European leaders on the topic of anti-Semitism in Europe. We discussed and compared the situation in various countries with variables such as radical Islam, far-right and far-left extremisms. There are several categories of hate that affect different countries in Europe. It’s difficult to have a generality. But it is clear that the recent years have shown the grow of radical Islamism, anti-Zionism and the boycott of Israel. There is a real will on the part of the majority of European heads of state to fight anti-Semitism, perhaps a little less anti-Zionism. Are the means adequate? I think that we need a combination of increased legal, financial, repressive and diplomatic means if we really want to reduce anti-Semitism, radical Islamism, the surge of extreme violence and anti-Zionism. I don’t want to separate it all. I don’t want to have friends who are pro-Semitic and anti-Zionist, friends who are pro-Israel but anti-Semitic…
Shechita, ritual slaughter, is under attack in some European countries, such as Belgium and Poland. Is there a danger of a similar situation in France?
‘’The danger has been constant since the animal welfare lobbies have set in motion, more on halal slaughter than on kosher slaughter. It is clear that we are permanently in a dialogue and explanation to maintain the ritual slaughter. It would indeed be a catastrophe for Europe if the very foundations of Judaism does, i.e. ritual slaughter and brit milah, were questioned, which would mean: ‘leave the countries of Europe’. It would be a very bad signal for Europe if 70-80 years after the Shoah the Jewish population of Europe continues to decrease. It would be a very bad signal for European democracies. So today I think that the countries that want to retain the Jews need to give themselves the means to fight the restrictive laws, to fight anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. To allow freedom of worship, to have synagogues, to be able to carry the kippah, to eat kosher and perform brit milah. Weakening Judaism in Europe means weakening European democracies.’’
U.K. former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sachs has passed away. What implications for Europe. What is your reaction to this death?
‘’He’s one of the great Jewish voices in Europe. He was a highly respected personality in Great Britain but also around the world for his knowledge, his conscience, his way of expressing things, his spirit. At this time, when we need great voices to defend Judaism in Europe, his voice will certainly be greatly missed in the European Jewish world. Everything he was able to say on any subject was imbued with respect for those who listened to him. It is always difficult to lose a voice of this importance. May his memory be blessed and I believe that each of the community activists that we are across Europe has been inspired by his reflections and his courage. It also shows something: when we say things with conviction, when we live things with conviction, we inspire respect. We should not be ashamed of our convictions. Our religion, Judaism, has been throughout history a vector of brotherhood, peace, integration. We should not be ashamed of our synagogues where there are only messages of love that have been delivered. We went through hatred, pogroms, the Shoah, we are going through a crisis. When we meet in the synagogues there is not a rabbi or a community president who address the audience and say: “Hate the others, go fight, hate…” We always had an element of moderation in our synagogues. This was true during the 3000 years of exile. We were scattered around the world and no matter what country we lived in, the synagogue was a vehicle for transmitting messages of love and peace even though the environment was hateful. Chief Rabbi Sachs was the flag-carrier of this message, who was integrated into society but always defending our values without complex. So I would like us to be proud of the values we carry because they have never been in contradiction with the civilizations and societies in which we have lived and in which we live today.’’