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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.


Universal heritage


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.


Llewellyn Brown

Originally published in French by the Metula News Agency

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