September 15th, 2011
07:08 PM ET
By Jessica Ravitz and Saskya Vandoorne, CNN
“Jew or not Jew?”: That is just part of the question.
An iPhone app bearing this name has been yanked from Apple’s App Store in France amid threats of a lawsuit and demands for its removal.
The app, still available elsewhere, pulls together a database of thousands of famous Jews – including movie stars, musicians, Nobel Prize winners and more – and offers insights into their backgrounds. Jewish mother? Jewish father? A convert? For $1.99 in the United States, app owners can know.
In an iTunes store description, it says: “Hey, did you know that Bob Dylan is Jewish? Of course I did! But was Marilyn Monroe really Jewish? And what about Harrison Ford? How many times have we had this conversation without being able to know for sure? You can now find the answer.”
The intention was all in fun, app creator Johann Lévy told Le Parisien. The 35-year-old research and development engineer, who is British, French and Jewish, said he doesn’t understand the outcry.
“I’m not a spokesman for all Jews, but, being Jewish myself, I know that in our community we ask ourselves often if this or that celebrity is Jewish or not,” he told the French newspaper. “For me, there’s nothing pejorative in saying publicly that this person or that person is Jewish. Instead, it’s something to be proud of.”
But no matter Lévy’s personal background or motivation, compiling details about peoples’ identities without their consent is against the law in France. And that was all Apple needed to know to swipe “Jew or not Jew?” from France’s App Store shelf.
France’s secular nature and adamant separation between state and religion is something that’s “very difficult for American people to understand,” said Richard Prasquier, president of CRIF, an umbrella organization for French Jewish institutions.
If an individual shares with someone his or her religion, that’s fine, he said. But if that person’s faith is recorded in a public file, that crosses a legal line.
“What is public is public, and religion is private,” Prasquier said, and by its very virtue this app makes people’s religion public. “In France, it is absolutely impossible for a president to give any kind of religious speech. Swearing on the Bible would be absolutely inappropriate.”
Another concern is how to determine who, in fact, is a Jew.
“The issue of Judaism and ‘who is Jewish’ and ‘who is not’ is particularly complex. Nobody has the authority to decide on the Jewishness of others,” Marc Eisenberg, president of Alliance Israelite Universelle, said in written statement. “The fact that (the app) was created by someone who is of Jewish faith does not excuse a thing.”
Part of the French Jewish community’s discomfort is rooted in the country’s history, suggested Rabbi Michel Serfaty of Paris.
“This census of Jews resembles France’s time under Vichy,” he said, referring to the government established during World War II, which collaborated with Nazi occupiers to identify and deport Jews to death camps.
Le Parisien prodded app creator Lévy along these lines.
“The idea of selling information on Jews never appeared shocking to you?” the paper asked.
“Anti-Semites don’t need my app to determine who is Jewish,” he answered. “As for the question of a file – it recalls the Second World War, but that was 65 years ago! … This information was already public record.”
For app shoppers elsewhere, they can continue this Jew or not Jew exploration. They can peer into award-winning actress Jennifer Connelly’s life and learn that she was born to a Jewish mother. They can explore stats, facts and the most viewed Jews. They can click a “Random Jew” button to discover celebrities they never knew were in the club.
Indeed, in the United States, where the First Amendment reigns, it doesn't look like this app is going anywhere.
The whole business, while slightly odd and “somewhat distasteful” to him, just isn’t something the Anti-Defamation League will complain about, said Ken Jacobson, the agency’s deputy national director.
“Maybe it reflects my age,” Jacobson, who’s been with the ADL for 40 years, said with a laugh. Reality TV, the obsession with online social networking – it’s just a different world.
“Everyone is sharing their whole lives with everyone else,” he said. “That’s not the way things used to be.”
CNN’s Alanne Orjoux contributed to this report.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.