A year of struggle to preserve the “Copernic” Synagogue, Paris
For one year now, APPC (Association for the Protection of the Heritage of Copernic) has been struggling to preserve the historical synagogue situated in Rue Copernic, Paris. This place of worship has been operating without interruption since its construction in 1923-1924, and is one of the rare examples of an Art Déco style synagogue. It is also a place of memory, marked by the history of its century: many of its members were deported during the Occupation, and it was the object of two bomb attacks, first in 1941, then in 1980, perpetrated by the Abu Nidal group. In spite of these considerations, its directors have decided to demolish the synagogue, in order to replace it by a modern Center for Culture and Worship, designed by architects specialized in the construction of supermarkets.
The idea of a “New Copernic” dates back five years, when the current chairman of ULIF (Liberal Israelite Union of France) was elected. However the delaying tactics utilized by the board of directors – such as promises of a time for “reflection and dialogue” prior to any decision, and the insistence on the deceptive term “reconstruction” – allowed the board to dissimulate the danger of the synagogue’s total obliteration, while promoting a project whose total estimated cost is 23 million euros. The official presentation of the project at the time of the Jewish New Year and Kippur (October 2016) caught the community off its guards, while the first “informative meeting” for members (February 23, 2017: the very day candidatures for the board were closed), made it urgent for the APPC to take action.
Faced with the directors’ refusal to dialogue with those opposed to the project, APPC’s strove to create a breach in the wall of silence surrounding the community’s leaders: it was necessary to alert, by countless letters, the media and the communities highest dignitaries of the Jewish community, and on both national and international levels. With this aim, the creation of a web site offered the possibility of gathering all the available documentation related to the “Copernic Affair”. A Facebook page and a petition (over 5,000 signatures) succeeded in disturbing the directors, but were insufficient to make them consider an alternative that would be more respectful of their heritage. Many were those who, outside of the immediate “Copernic” community, proved to be receptive to our cause, particularly associations devoted to the protection of heritage, and the Ministry of Culture. As for the media, heritage as such hardly arouses their curiosity, since they are more interested in sensational news.
APPC exploited another line of action, alerting national authorities charged with matters of heritage. The DRAC (Regional Department for Cultural Action) was alerted and, on October 10 2017, sent a delegation with a mission to visit the edifice. Access was however refused, on the pretext that the latter was private property. This incident testifies to the board’s efforts to dissimulate the historical and aesthetic quality of the building.
Within the community, APPC’s slightest attempts at communication were prohibited, and even the association’s initiatives in independent venues came under surveillance. As for the board, its members are recruited by co-option, it thus remains impervious to any dissenting opinion.
In this situation of stalemate, ULIF’s annual general meeting took place, intended to render official the “New Copernic” (supposing the prior demolition of the current edifice), and the creation of a “cultural” association alongside the religious one: the former is intended to take precedence over the second, owing to its capacity to attract subsidies and tax-deductible gifts. During the ordinary assembly, a large majority voted in favor of the demolition, while the extraordinary assembly adopted the change in ULIF’s statutes, allowing for the creation of the new entity. This event unfolded in a carefully cultivated disorder, it can be supposed in order to stifle any opposition.
For those who defend the Copernic synagogue’s heritage, the judicial path is henceforth inevitable. The pending procedure supposes first the constitution of a complete collection of official exchanges with the directors of ULIF; on the other hand, it necessitates, in the short term, disputing the very legality of this annual meeting.
APPC’s action is thus engaged in several directions: – addressing messages to any public figure capable of sharing the news regarding the threat to the edifice; – alerting authorities capable of intervening and halting the demolition; – juridical action bearing on the functioning of ULIF, owner of the edifice. These are the directions our struggle is working on at present.
The Value of a Synagogue
The prestige that our patrimony once enjoyed is diminished today. Without evoking the ravages caused by war or religious fanaticism, we see peaceful and legal means used to erase our heritage: in France, religious edifices, fallen into disuse for want of congregations, are sometimes demolished or transformed; monuments and remarkable cultural sites are also delivered into the hands of wealthy foreigners.
A place and a history
A threat of this nature looms today over the famous synagogue of rue Copernic, in Paris, built by the Union Libérale Israélite de France (ULIF) in 1923–1924. A unique construction—an example of Art Déco—this building dates from a time when, contrary to the great era at the beginning of the 20th Century, synagogues were no longer being built: the atmosphere was already starting to be oppressive for Jews. Art Déco synagogues are therefore rare in Europe.
The main room of the edifice today preserves numerous important decorative and structural characteristics: a stained-glass ceiling panel, bearing a radiating magen David (star of David), signed by Pierre-Jules Tranchant dated 1924; bas-relief friezes characteristic of Art Déco. Although it has not been scheduled for protection as a historical monument—an error—the present building is almost a century old.
One of the most remarkable aspects can only escape the eye of the non-specialist: in the central room, beams traverse a flat ceiling supporting a cupola, so that the weight of the latter is not distributed directly on the supporting walls. This construction is an architectural tour de force, created by the architect Marcel Lemarié (1864–1941).
A violent history
In addition to the architectural aspects, certain historical events surrounding this edifice remain in the memories of all. On 3 October 1941, acts of terrorism struck several Paris synagogues, among which the one situated rue Copernic. French militiamen set off a bomb, causing the partial destruction of the edifice, which the community subsequently rebuilt in 1946.
Then, on 3 October 1980 (anniversary of the previous attack), after the service, a bomb attack was perpetrated by the Abu Nidal group, resulting in the death of four persons, and leaving many wounded.
If the latter event gave rise to demonstrations of support all over the country, as well as internationally, the reactions of French authorities were more mitigated. To denounce the attack, Raymond Barre made an indecent distinction between “Israelites going to the synagogue” and “innocent French people crossing the street”.
Then an anonymous telephone call to Agence France Presse claiming responsibility for the explosion in the name of a small extreme right-wing group, offered an ideal pretext to turn the inquiry away from the Arabs of the Middle East. The French left-wing claimed that Valéry Giscard d’Estaing was an accomplice of the extremists, and the new socialist government continued to push the inquiry in the same direction. It was the antiterrorist judge Marc Trévédic who published an international arrest warrant for Hassan Diab, one of the suspected assassins of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, living in Canada, so that the latter was placed in detention in… 2008. Diab, who had become a lecturer in two universities in Ottawa, was extradited to France in 2014. He was incarcerated before being freed in 2016, after the audience of one witness shed doubt on his participation in the attack.
Demolition: a radical choice
In spite of the incontestable patrimonial value of this site, in 2015, the governing board of the ULIF—presided by Jean-François BENSAHEL, along with his two deputies Guy BOUAZIZ and Bruno FRAITAG—announced its intention to quite simply demolish the historic building, in order to remplace it by a new construction. Not only was nothing planned to preserve the patrimonial elements, but the means to finance the project remain shrouded in mystery: how is this small community supposed to come up with the trifle of roughly 20 million euros (almost $ 22 million) necessary to carry out this project?
Secrecy and haste seem to have governed the actions of Jean-François Bensahel, who has secured the support of the board members. It is true that the contributing members of the community were invited to a presentation of the project by the architects (23 February and 28 June 2017), but Bensahel avoided seeking the opinion of the community as a whole.
Of course, various arguments are put forward to justify this demolition, but they remain singularly specious. It is claimed that the building is no longer sound because of the 1980 attack. Such an allegation can hardly be considered seriously: the Paris town hall and the Architectes des Bâtiments de France organisation would have closed it down long ago. It is supposedly imperative to “comply with norms”. However, according to this reasoning, it would be necessary to raze all of France’s historic monuments; without forgetting that today’s norms will inevitably be obsolete in five years or so.
This synagogue testifies to the love, the devotion and the energy that men and women have devoted to the founding and preserving of this edifice. For example, when the stained-glass panel was shattered in 1980, the whole community invested in its restoration. Today however, its fate is deemed negligible: at best, it will be placed “in a corner somewhere”. Such points of detail reveal the true spirit of an enterprise: in this case, the scorn for past generations, for architectural heritage and today’s community.