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Why calling a Jew a Jew is still taboo in France

Apple removed an iPhone app naming Jewish celebrities from its French store Wednesday, following legal threats from conservative Jewish activists. The app’s creator, who is Jewish himself, says it’s time for French Jews to come out of the closet.


“What’s wrong with calling a Jew a Jew?” asks French software engineer Johann Lévy, who created an iPhone application that lets users consult a database of celebrities to find out if they are Jewish or not. “I’d challenge anyone to call me an anti-Semite,” he says. “I am Jewish myself.”

But a month after he launched the “Juif ou pas juif” (Jew or Not Jew) application in France, Lévy has fallen victim to the collective ire of Jewish and anti-racism activists. On Wednesday, his app was removed from the French Apple Store, after repeated threats of legal action against the California giant.

“The app violates local law and is no longer available in the app store in France,” Apple spokesperson Tom Neumayr said on Thursday.

Sammy Ghozlan, head of the National Bureau against Anti-Semitism (BNVCA), an anti-semitism watchdog, described the app as “dangerous” in an interview with FRANCE 24. “To categorise somebody by whether they are Jewish or not Jewish could result in hostile behaviour against those people. It’s putting Jews in a category apart; we are absolutely against doing that,” he said.

Ghozlan’s group was joined by the International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism, the Union of French Jewish Students (UEJF) and the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions (CRIF) in berating the app for its apparent disregard of French law. While Ghozlan accepted that Lévy probably meant no harm in creating it, “it was, above all, illegal,” he said.

Don't mention the Holocaust

According to French law, classifying people by race or religion is punishable by a five-year prison sentence and a fine of up to 300,000 euros. The current law came into force in 1978, but the theory supporting it carries a historical legacy and is considered part of modern France’s national identity. “Not identifying people by an ethnic or religious category is a policy that goes back to the French Revolution, when both the state and the [Catholic] church were being fought against,” explains Tom Heneghan, religious editor at Reuters's Paris bureau.

Support for the policy strengthened after the Holocaust, during which 76,000 Jews were deported from France. “When it comes to the classification of Jews, because of the memory of the Holocaust, it is all the more sensitive,” says Heneghan. “No matter how trivial this app might seem, it goes against a very deep-seated policy.”

Lévy, who described his app as “a bit of fun”, thinks it’s time for a change. “The Jewish question is still considered taboo in France; something negative that relates to 60 years ago,” he says. “While in the US and the UK we can proudly call ourselves Jewish, in France, it’s still considered dangerous.”

Lévy, who spent the last eight years living in the UK, says he would never have launched the app in his home country if he had been aware of an infringement of the law. Nonetheless, he doesn’t think that keeping quiet is the answer to France’s “identity debate”.

“For France’s 600,000 Jews, being told to keep their religion 'secret’ is only counterproductive,” he argues. “I hope that this whole controversy will provoke some positive, open debate about the identity question.”

A France-based religious historian, who spoke to FRANCE 24 on condition of anonymity, thinks that young French Jews “are more confident in openly talking, even laughing, about being Jewish,” but that “the older generation, both Jewish and non-Jewish, think that merely mentioning the word turns you into a right-wing anti-Semite.”

He believes that this is just the latest in a string of identity-focused disputes troubling France. “This is part of a series of steps towards more open identification in France,” he says. “But the trend doesn’t go well with the older generations. They can’t see why your religion or race should be relevant in any situation.”

‘A guilty pleasure’

While musing over the “Jewishness” of celebrities has proved unwelcome in France, Lévy says it’s a common pastime among Jews in the English-speaking world. “You often hear the phrase ‘did you know so and so is Jewish?’”, he says, admitting that his app was part-inspired by an American website with the same name.

Founded by two Jewish Americans in 2006, the “Jew or Not Jew” website is described by its creators as “an extension of the guilty-pleasure of gossiping about whether someone famous or infamous is Jewish or not”. The website has only ever received a handful of ill-informed complaints, despite counting around 2,000 visits each day. “We have been commended by various international publications, as well as Jewish organisations,” founders Zev and Yakov told FRANCE 24 in an email interview.

Lévy’s app is still available on the Apple Store outside of France, where it boasts of five-star customer reviews. One excited review, from the Jewish iPhone Community Website, stressed that "this app is only intended for fun. Nothing more!”

Follow Sophie Pilgrim on Twitter @sophiepilgrim.

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