The French Connection, by Simone C.Nemon

My name is Simone, I am often asked if I am French. I reply that I am not. Next, I am asked, where I am from. When I say - "Egypt", the next question is - "why dont you have an Arab name?" I state, that I am Jewish of Spanish descent, and then they say but Simone is a French name ! This dialogue repeats itself so frequently, that I should answer ( in the spirit of Hadgadyah or This is the house that Jack built.- "It all goes back to the French Revolution!"

Besides the Church's accusation of having killed Christ , Jews in the Middle ages were accused of poisoning wells spreading disease, rituals laughters at Passover, to make matzos with blood, and were accused of all possible evils. In consequence we were ostracized, barred from most professions, in a state of apartheid.

Things changed, with the advent of the French Revolution when "Liberty, Equality, and Brotherhood" was declared for all; and the so French Jews got a headstart. Three Righteoous Gentiles also paved for the Jewish cause : A Lawyer named Duport, an avant garde clergy, Abbe Gregoir who preached equality for the Jews, and the abolition of slavery. and later there was Emile Zola who risked his own life in writing "J' accuse" to defend Dreyfus, an officer in the French army who had been wrongly accused of treason, by the French government.

A precursor to the Rotary Club was the Alliance Israelite Universelle, created by six enlighten young men who having themselves gotten an education, wished to emancipate less fortunate Jews in other lands. This organization was founded in 1860 by a Rabbi, an engineer, an educator, a business man, a lawyer, and a newspaper man. Their goal was the well being and the freedom from persecussion of Jews everywhere, individuals or communities. What prompted the establishment of the AUI was a Blood Libel incident in Damascus in which Jews were massacred; also in 1858, the Mortara case, in which a six year old Jewish child was kidnaped and raised in the Vatican, to become a priest, and the inability of the parents to get back their child.

In 1865 a College to train teachers and prepare scientists for advanced studies was founded in Paris, the Ecole Normale Israelite Orientale; And three years later in Palestine, Mikveh Israel agricultural school, which paved the way to Israel's economy. My father Michel Behar was a student at both these schools, and then became a teacher at Mikveh Israel . My Grandmother Luna Canetti had been a teacher for the AIU in Andrianople (Ederne).

I can't resist to tell this story! My Father also had an AIU scholarship to the Institut Agronomique, in Paris, which was attended by the sons of prosperous farmers. It was just following the Dreyfus case, when antisemitism was rampant. Everyt ime the name of a Jewish author or scientist was quoted, the class shouted in unison - "Juif !Juif!" (Jew! Jew!). Seated in class, next to my Father, was the son of a land owner, from the Pyrenees, and his name was Barnavon. Barnavon shouted loudly with all the rest. One day my father told him - " Barnavon, you should shut up! You are too ignorant to know about the Spanish Inquisition, and of your origins, but let me tell you that your name in Hebrew means "Descendent of the Prophet", a name you are unworthy of !"

Education was to be the means to emancipation. From 1862 to 1898 the AIU opened schools in Morocco, Iraq, Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Tunisia, Romania, Libya, Egypt and Iran. Not only, were the various countries to be persuaded to allow the setting up of these schools, but the AIU had to convince both parents and Rabbis who in the beginning strongly opposed them, fearing secularism, and also that children attending school meant children not working to contribute to the household. There was also competition from Christian Missionaries.

The first teacher to open a school in Palestine was Nessim Behar whose life was then threatened. In 1870, on the first day of school there was only one student. Three weeks later, fifty students were enrolled. Hygiene, medical care, and vaccination were received with great suspicion. Behar introduced vocational training which won the approval of parents.

A curriculum paralleling that of schools in France filled a void, in which there had been no education. The AIU gave the Sephardim education, emancipation, and a springboard to independence, but it simultaneously caused the demise of their Ladino language. So called "educated people" (the intelligientsa) chose not to teach Ladino to their children. And so my parents only spoke Ladino to their parents, or to each other when they did not want the children to understand. And so "Hadgadyah" my name is Simone!


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- Copyright © 1997 Moïse Rahmani <> -