Navigate to News section

Battles of Paris

Anti-Semitism in the 19th arrondissement, a neighborhood with a recent history of violence

Lea Khayata
February 11, 2010
The Michkenot Yaakov synagogue on Boulevarde Belleville in Paris.(Owen Franken)
The Michkenot Yaakov synagogue on Boulevarde Belleville in Paris.(Owen Franken)

A father and his three sons enter the metro on a winter Monday morning in Paris. Wearing backpacks, raincoats, and caps over their blond hair, the kids, from 3 to 6 years old, are set for school. The man finds a seat for the two youngest children, but the eldest has to stay standing, quietly holding his dad’s hand. He exchanges a knowing smile with his father.

“OK, we’re getting out at the next stop, time to stand up,” the father says. He is wearing a cap, too. The family looks like a sports team. That’s when I notice the tzitzit sticking out from the youngest kid’s coat. They’re not wearing caps because of winter, or because of some peculiar stylistic taste, I realize. They’re wearing caps to cover up their kippot. That’s what it takes for a lot of Jews in Paris to ensure they have a peaceful subway ride.

In a single year, the number of anti-Semitic incidents has doubled in France, jumping from 399 in the first nine months of 2008 to 704 over the same period of 2009. According to the French home office, 123 of these incidents were acts of physical violence. “Although those high numbers are worrying, they have to be considered cautiously, bearing in mind that vigilance against anti-Semitism in France is really effective and a big concern for the whole society”, explains Guillaume Ayné, head of SOS Racisme, an anti-discrimination group. But specific events tend to leave a much deeper impression than either numbers or words

Ilan and Rudy

In January 2006, Ilan Halimi, a 23-year-old Sephardic Jew, was kidnapped by the self-proclaimed “Barbarians,” a goup of 25 people of different ages and origins, allegedly led by Youssouf Fofana, a 26-year-old French citizen of Ivory Coast extraction. The Barbarians asked for a ransom of 450,000 euros ransom, then about $550,000. “You’re Jews, you have money,” was how the kidnappers explained their actions. Twenty-four days later, Halimi was found in agony near a railroad, and he died on the way to a hospital. His body was covered with second-degree burns; he had scars and stab wounds on several parts of his body. During their trial, his perpetrators admitted taping his head, leaving only a tiny hole to feed him with a straw, beating him with sticks, burning cigarettes on his head, scratching his skin, stabbing him in the neck with a box-cutter, and inflicting other tortures. Fofana was sentenced to life in prison. Halimi’s ordeal shocked the whole country.

“This story traumatized me,” says Rachel Lebhar, a real-estate agent with rectangular glasses and black slick hair—a wig. “I’ve been more wary of non Jewish people since then.” I met Lebhar on Rue Petit, outside of Beith Hanna, a Lubavitch school and the heart of the Jewish community of Paris’s 19th arrondissement. Situated in the northeastern part of the city, the neighborhood counts more than a dozen synagogues, the most important concentration of Jewish places of worship in Paris.

The 19th arrondissement is far from resembling the picture-postcard views that tourists commonly associate with Paris. The buildings here are more functional than picturesque. The core of the Jewish community is concentrated around a few streets of religious bookshops and kosher butchers, supermarkets, and restaurants.

Other parts of the neighborhood are more diverse. On Saturdays, young Jews often spend Shabbat afternoon in Les Buttes Chaumont, a park they share with African and Arab boys. The 19th arrondissement is one of the most diverse areas of Paris, but there are no official numbers that break down the population of the district by ethnicity or religion, as such statistics are forbidden in France. The mix of different ethnic and religious groups in the district is unstable and triggers periodical clashes.

Halimi’s case was hardly representative of anti-Semitic violence in the 19th arrondissement, but it terrified many Jewish residents, and frequent anti-Semitic aggressions here regularly rekindle the trauma. The latest such incident happened in June 2008, when a kippah-wearing 17-year-old orthodox Jew named Rudy Haddad, was beaten by young Africans and Maghrebis on a Shabbat afternoon and then left unconscious on the street. Haddad was then taken to the hospital, where he spent three days in a coma.

“The atmosphere was really tense in the area in the seven to eight months following the attack on little Rudy,” says Rachel Touitou, a young mother of two. She lives a few blocks away from Rue Petit, where she’s waiting for Shirel, 11, and Alône, 6, to finish their school day at Beith Hanna. She recalls the aftermath of the attack on Haddad, a dart of fear in her bright blue eyes: “People coming to pick up their children were asked to hurry in order to avoid important gatherings in front of the school. I would take off my son’s kippah before getting in the subway, just in case. I never discussed it with other mothers, but I soon realized that many of them were doing the same.” She pauses, hesitating for a minute, and admits that she’s thinking about moving to Israel soon. “It has become really difficult to live here,” she says.

An average of 1,400 French citizens leave the country for Israel each year, according to the Jewish Agency. While the number of French Jews making aliyah had diminished in the last few years, it is gathering steam again with the recent rise of anti-Semitic violence. “We registered a peak during the second Intifada, but as the situation got better in Israel and therefore in France, less people felt the need to leave,” says Oren Toledano, head of the Jewish Agency’s aliyah department. “However, it would be an exaggeration to directly link aliyah with the rise of anti-Semitism. It may be an accelerating factor, but departures are first and foremost motivated by culture, religion and ideology.”

Two days later, Rachel welcomes me at her home, a modest two-bedroom apartment in a big complex on one of the busiest avenues of the arrondissement. This time, her husband, Stéphane, is there. He insists on telling me about their life in Paris and the reasons why they are planning a move to Israel. We sit around a wooden dining table standing in the middle of a minimally furnished living room, and he offers me kosher tahini-flavored chips. “It comes from Israel,” he says. “Try it!”

Stéphane, 42, grew up in Israel and then in France. His father comes from Libya. He moved to the 19th arrondissement 10 years ago. “I get insulted once to twice a month by young people when I’m walking,” he says. “‘You dirty Jew,’ that’s what they whisper when I pass by them.” He refuses to react. “I try to keep a low profile because I have kids, and because it could lead to the whole neighborhood erupting into violence. I’m staying quiet, but I’m really fed up. Jews don’t feel good anymore here. Jerusalem or New York are more welcoming cities.” Because he doesn’t speak English, he says, he opted for Jerusalem. The family is hoping to move in July.

I meet with the Touitou family one last time on a Friday night; they’d invited me over for Shabbat. I knock on the door, but soon realize that isn’t necessary: the television is on. Stéphane and Alône are wearing their kippot—a black velvet one with delicately embroidered yellow ducks paddling in a light blue pond for the 6-year-old. The family gathers around the table and stand in silence while Stéphane pours grape juice in a glass and recites kiddush. From time to time, Rachel takes a quick look at what is happening on TV, and Alône stares at me with a wide smile, a witty spark in the eyes. The adults go wash their hands and come back to pray again and share the salted bread that Stéphane ripped apart and threw to each of us.

Over dinner, I ask Stéphane about his childhood, and he tells me that he grew up in Israel but left the country to avoid the draft. What about Alône, I ask—would Stéphane want him to join the Israeli Defense Forces? “Of course,” he says. “If I had had a choice, I wouldn’t have left back then. I want him to be able to defend his country.” Later in the evening, however, while talking about IDF, Stéphane adds: “I wouldn’t hurt a fly, let alone a man. Life is sacred.” Before I leave, the whole family gathers around the computer to show me on Google Earth the neighborhood they are going to live in once they move. “Look at all the palm trees,” Stéphane says. “It’s even better than the Côte d’Azur.”

Even though Stéphane’s take on the situation is pretty radical—only 6 percent of the estimated 500,000 Jews in France (70 percent of whom are Sephardic) was planning to leave for Israel in 2002, according to a survey by the Fonds Social Juif Unifié, or the Jewish United Social Funds, France’s equivalent of the U.S. Jewish Federations, he appears surprisingly moderate when asked about the people responsible for the insults he suffers on a regular basis. “They’re just young Arabs and Africans who mix up everything: Jews and Israelis, a political conflict and a religious war,” he tells me. Indeed, Stéphane is proud of his numerous North African Muslim friends, and never misses a chance to tell how his grandfather was saved by Muslims in Algeria. “When the French army came to take him and his family, they hid him in their house,” Stéphane says. “I wouldn’t be here today without them; I always bear this in mind.”

Jews, Money, and Israel

The violence that Jews are facing today in Paris has more than one cause. Sammy Ghozlan, a stout former police superintendent in his 60s, monitors aggressions for the Bureau National de Vigilance Contre l’Antisémitisme, or Anti-Semitism Watch National Office, which he runs. I meet him at a coffee house in the 19th arrondissement one afternoon. The weather is exceptionally cold, and it’s freezing even inside. Ghozlan keeps his black overcoat on, and immediately apologizes for not having shaved. “I’m grieving for my mother,” he explains. His untrimmed salt-and-pepper beard meets with his abundant hair.

“Jewish boys disturb the young people,” Ghozlan tells me. “Their boldness—speaking loudly and wearing tawdry brands, triggers jealousy.” This was the main motive of Halimi’s torturers. But Ghozlan is more concerned by what he sees as the links between the Middle East conflict and French anti-Semitic violence. “People think attacking a Jew is to take it out on Israel,” he says. France has a large Muslim immigrant population from Africa, about 5 million people, and some of them identify with the Palestinian cause.

Ghozlan’s solution to what he sees as a tinderbox is to campaign for the complete halt of what he calls “Palestinian propaganda”—which in his view ranges from wearing a Palestinian scarf to promoting an Israeli products boycott. “From solidarity to incitation, there’s only one step,” he says. While Ghozlan’s view of the threat may be too broad, there is also evidence to support his idea of a link between Muslim immigrants, the Middle East conflict, and violence against Jews in the streets.

A case in point is the anti-Zionist candidate list for the European Parliament elections of June 2009, created by Dieudonné, a famous immigrant comedian. It wasn’t a joke. It’s program was simple: to fight the interference of Zionists in the internal policy of France. While performing in one of Paris’s most prestigious theaters in December 2008, Dieudonne invited a French historian who denies the Holocaust, Robert Faurisson, on stage. A technician mimicked a Jewish prisoner interned in a concentration camp by wearing pajamas with a Star of David on them. Dieudonné, whose father is from Cameroon, later declared: “I don’t agree with all of Faurisson’s theses. But as far as I’m concerned, it is the freedom of speech that counts.” He was later fined 10,000 euros for the anti-Semitic insult.

The Representative Council of the Jews of France has recently denounced the fact that “daily anti Semitic talks and actions, often using the pretext of anti Zionism, have become dangerously ordinary.” Still, the situation in the 19th arrondissement has actually improved during the last year and a half. The test period was the Gaza War. While anti-Semitic incidents were common in other parts of Paris, the 19th was surprisingly calm.

“It was almost worrying,” says Rabbi Michel Bouskila, head of the Jewish Communities Council of the northeast region of Paris. Sitting behind a massive and elaborately carved desk in a vast empty room on the upper floor of his son’s clothing factory outside Paris, Bouskila smokes cigarette after cigarette as explains this unexpected turn in the situation: “During Ramadan, Muslim and Jewish religious leaders of the 19th met several times, united by a common ambition,” he says. “We would fight the plague that afflicts both communities, which is our ignorance of each other.”

Looking Forward

Laurent, a tall and thin middle-aged man with glasses and a thin dark beard, works in a shop on Rue Petit. He arrived in the 19th arrondissement as a child and never left it. His six children go to Beith Hanna too, but unlike the Touitous, who plan to leave for Israel as soon as they can, Laurent loves it here, and the thought of moving never crossed his mind. When I ask him to tell me about his daily life in the 19th, he was quick to answer, in a half-reproaching tone. “We don’t have any security issue here, if that’s what you are searching for,” he says. “We’re beyond this discourse now, looking forward instead of in the past.” I ask him about the attack on Rudy Haddad. “There was nothing anti-Semitic in this aggression,” he answers. “People got confused and misjudged it.”

I tell him about Rachel Touitou hiding her son’s kippah before getting on the subway. “I will never conceal my Jewish identity,” he says. “You only hide things you’re ashamed of. But I don’t want to criticize her; I understand she got scared for her child. You know how Jewish mothers are.”

Just before I leave, he adds, “Of course, if some incident should happen tomorrow, I would tell you the complete opposite of what I just told you now.”

Lea Khayata is a 2011 graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.