Prayer for the French Republic antisemitism

Antisemitism: When your faith becomes a liability

Joshua Harmon’s play Prayer for the French Republic, on now at the Segal Centre, is a gripping tale about the weight of antisemitism across generations.

The best kind of art not only manages to successfully mirror our imperfect reality, but also dares to tackle it head on, sparking questions about what it ultimately means to be human.  

Prayer for the French Republic by playwright Joshua Harmon, presented at the Segal Centre until May 14, is a deeply engaging and thought-provoking play about antisemitism and the cost of living your faith openly. Even though the running time is close to three hours, the three-act, two-intermission multi-generational story of a French Jewish family managed to easily retain my interest. The last time I saw something this long provide for such effortless viewing was Mani Soleymanlou’s four-hour-long trilogy Un. Deux. Trois. at Théâtre Jean-Duceppe. 

The play’s title is a reference to a prayer that’s been recited in French synagogues since the early 19th century as an expression of loyalty. First, we see a Jewish couple in Paris, in 1944, desperately awaiting news of their missing family members. More than 70 years later, in the aftermath of the 2015–2016 antisemitic attacks in France (the shooting at a Jewish day school in Toulouse where four Jews were killed — three under the age of eight, the kosher supermarket in Paris where four Jewish customers died, stabbing attacks outside synagogues or of people wearing kippahs), we see that same family’s next generation trying to decide whether they’ll follow the exodus of French Jews to places they feel safer, including Israel. 

Seeking safety in a dangerous world 

Prayer for the French Republic antisemitism Segal Centre
Photos by Leslie Schachter

The playwright takes his inspiration from real events. After many high-profile violent attacks by Islamic terrorists occurred in France at the time, nearly 8,000 French Jews moved to Israel. Rising antisemitism in France continues to be a concern for the country’s Jewish population, with a recent study revealing that Jews in France, out of 12 European countries, are most worried about their safety. As a result, many avoid wearing visible signs of their faith. 

The play is set at a time when Marine Le Pen — president of the Front National (now rebranded Rassemblement National), an antisemitic, xenophobic and Islamophobic party — was a frontrunner for president of France. Coupled with the 2016 U.S. election campaign, which also shone a spotlight on rising far-right, anti-immigrant rhetoric, and it’s only normal that the couple’s great-grandchildren in the play eventually come to ask the same question their ancestors once did: “Are we safe?” 

As with any ethnic or religious group, the characters have diverging priorities. For some, their Jewish identity means much more to them than it does to others. And depending on how they define themselves, and what they prioritize, their perspective and perception of reality shifts. It’s no surprise then that we see a difference of opinion between the play’s patriarch and the matriarch. Charles Benhamou’s family fled Algeria decades ago to find safety in France. His wife Marcelle and her brother Patrick are Jewish-Catholic and have been raised in Paris. They’re Jewish, but not practising Jews and so they refuse to believe that rising antisemitism could affect them personally or their family’s safety. 

Hiding your Jewish identity 

Prayer for the French Republic antisemitism Segal Centre
Joshua Harmon’s Prayer for the French Republic at the Segal Centre

But Charles has already been forced to flee in the past and knows only too well how quickly hate and intolerance can manifest into violence. As a former refugee, he sees the signs before the others do and wants to protect his family by leaving. His wife, however, insists that if they can only put their heads down and don’t advertise their “Jewishness” (at one point she chastises her son for insisting on wearing his kippah, eerily reminiscent of many Muslim women I’ve interviewed here in Canada, who decided to wear the hijab against the wishes of their families, who were worried about their safety), you can continue living your life free of any danger. 

It’s a belief based more on resistance to reality than reality itself. No one wants to uproot their lives. If they just weather this storm, this temporary wave of hate, things will eventually quiet down and they can continue as usual. Many must have thought the same during rising Nazism in Germany. 

In the same way, the audience sees the distinct difference between the older generation of this family, whose father survived a Polish concentration camp, and the younger children, like Molly, a student visiting from New York who’s distantly related to Marcelle. Molly calls herself “Jewish by extraction” and is understandably less on edge about her safety and in many ways completely unaware of the dangers of antisemitism. 

In this way, the play deftly underscores the need for education and constant vigilance. As Holocaust survivors around the world die off, soon there will be no more first-hand accounts and witnesses to one of humanity’s worst chapters. Education remains vital so we don’t repeat the atrocities of the past and we keep the memory of more than six million Jews and all victims of Nazi persecution who died in the Holocaust alive. 

Montreal, too, the target of antisemitic attacks

Montreal synagogue Bagg Street Shul antisemitic vandalism
Bagg Street Shul. Photo by Jason Schwartz

The play may be set in Paris, but current events in our hometown render it as poignantly relevant as ever. Antisemitism and Islamophobia have been rising around the world, and the continued Israel-Palestinian conflict in Gaza has only managed to fuel that hate. Far-right rhetoric, increasing nativism in many countries, as well as the weaponization of secularism against those who wear visible signs of their religion, continue to affect Muslims and Jews around the world. 

Montreal, which became home to the world’s third largest community of Holocaust survivors outside of Europe when close to 20,000 emigrated to Montreal between 1947 and 1954, is no different. 

Just four weeks ago, Montreal’s Bagg Street Shul was defaced, with large swastikas spray-painted in black on the two windows of the front door. The Bagg Street Shul, at the corner of Clark and Bagg Streets since 1921, and open to everyone, is Quebec’s oldest synagogue building. It has long been recognized as a heritage site by both the provincial government and the city of Montreal. It holds great historic and sentimental value for Jewish Montrealers and seeing it vandalized sent shockwaves through the community. 

Last week, an online video showed a young teen removing five large flags from the fence around the elementary Hebrew Foundation School in Dollard des Ormeaux on Montreal’s West Island, and then burning them. Police investigated it as a hate crime and later arrested a 16-year-old boy. 

Holocaust education necessary

Many in Montreal’s Jewish community have urged the Quebec government to introduce mandatory Holocaust education in schools to help stop rising antisemitism. 

Jewish organization B’nai Brith says 2021 was a record year for reports of antisemitism across Canada, with the number of violent incidents “increasing by more than 700%, from 9 in 2020 to 75 in 2021.” While reports of antisemitism (many of them online statements of hate) declined slightly in 2022, the change is “almost insignificant.” 

Quebec had the most reported antisemitic incidents in 2021, with 828 incidents, up from 686 the year before.

A visit to the Montreal Holocaust Museum, where visitors can listen to testimonials of Holocaust survivors and reflect on the destruction caused by prejudice and racism, should be a mandatory part of all children’s education. It’s imperative that people remember and understand the importance of speaking out against bigotry and indifference and acting against it when required. 

Great season for Montreal’s English-language theatre

The Segal production is offered with French surtitles throughout the run and features a solid Montreal cast. Sure, the play can occasionally go off on long tangents, but the dialogue is fast paced and engaging. And considering the heavy subject matter, it remains amazingly funny and light on its feet. It comes at the tail end of a local theatrical season that saw both of Montreal’s main English-language theatres (the Segal Centre and the Centaur Theatre) produce some very poignant and socially relevant plays. 

Prayer for the French Republic is a fictionalized story about a family grappling with their sense of identity and the place of faith in their lives, and what those dilemmas could potentially entail for their safety. In many ways, it also serves as a cautionary tale about what kind of world we produce when we forget our shared humanity. 

No matter where you live, you shouldn’t be afraid to live your truth. And it’s a tragedy that so many are. ■

For more on Prayer for the French Republic, which continues at Segal Centre (5170 Côte-Ste-Catherine) through May 14, please visit the theatre’s website.

To enhance the experience, Segal has collaborated with the Montreal Holocaust Museum to enable educational support and expanded outreach for the spring production. The collaboration involves a full curriculum developed around the production, including study guides, talkbacks, free museum admission for all ticket buyers, and supplemental program planning that underscores Holocaust education and contemporary antisemitism today. This is made possible by Federation CJA’s Working Together: Community Impact Grant.

On May 8, the Segal will also present a pre-show talk with a Holocaust survivor at 6 p.m.

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis.