Alexander Aciman provides an antidote to the fashionable identity label ‘Arab Jew’ with this tribute to the powerful influence of French culture on Jews who went to the schools of the Alliance Israelite Universelle in Arab countries. But France can no longer protect Jews, he argues. Read his column in the New York Times.
have spent my entire life trying to explain to people why I speak French, why I
grew up speaking French with my father and grandparents, why at least half of
my phone calls involve some shouting in French. “Are you French?” they’ll ask.
“Sort of” is usually the best I can do.
confusing family history and the reason I speak French begins in the 1860s,
when Adolphe Crémieux, a Frenchman who would go on to become minister of
justice, founded a Jewish organization called the Alliance Israélite
Universelle and started what it called a “civilizing mission” aimed at teaching
Middle Eastern Jews how to speak French and inducting them into French culture.
The Alliance opened schools in Turkey and across the Maghreb, and by 1900 had
almost 30,000 Jews in its tutelage.
mission’s aftershock was that foreign Jews felt French even though some might
never even step foot in Europe. For French-speaking Jews around the world, the
Alliance promised something as powerful and as compelling as the American
it wasn’t just language that the Alliance gave to Jews. They read all of French
literature and studied the history of France as one studies their own national
culture and history. As a child in Alexandria my father read from a book called
“Ma première histoire de France,” “My First History of France,” a book that he
would eventually pass on me.
inherited this French dream. Though my siblings and I were born and raised in
the United States, my father made sure we spoke the family language. I feel
most at home when I am in France, where I get to speak the language that I
dream in. Like a sap, I get choked up when they sing “La Marseillaise” in
things are not so dreamy for Jews today in France. The country is struggling to
maintain and protect its large Jewish population, the third largest in the
world, which has been dwindling precipitously thanks to the wave of
anti-Semitism that has gripped the country over the past decade. In 2015 — the
year of the Charlie Hebdo attack — 8,000 Jews left France and headed for