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How To Be a Jew in France

Four years after Mohammed Merah’s horrific shooting spree in Toulouse, can things get worse in Europe?

Elena Servettaz
March 11, 2016
Illustration: Michael Gac-Levin
Illustration: Michael Gac-Levin
Illustration: Michael Gac-Levin
Illustration: Michael Gac-Levin

The Marais neighborhood in Paris’s 4th arrondissement has long been known as the Jewish quarter, though it is also popular with the gay community—most Jewish shops and businesses close for Sabbath. But on a recent Saturday on rue des Rosiers, at Florence Kahn’s shop, which is famous for its Russian and Central European Jewish cuisine, people were queuing, seemingly unaware it was Shabbat. “One apple strudel, a slice of cheesecake, and half a pound of pastrami please,” a mother of two said to the assistant behind the counter. Surprised, I asked her if serving meat and dairy together means the establishment is not kosher. “Of course, it is kosher!” replied the shop assistant, offended. “But not approved by the beit din, it depends on people: Some consider it kosher and some don’t.” An old man behind me joked that the fact that Florence Kahn’s shop opens on Saturdays might help protect them from anti-Semitic vandals.

Being a Jew in France is no longer easy. Anxiety is in the air even if the State has guaranteed our protection. Gripes about Jews being everywhere in the French media, banks, and “even in government” are commonplace. It became normal to demonstrate with pro-Palestinian slogans in the streets and blame French Jews for Israel’s actions, which are typically reported as monstrous. We are still a long way from the Dreyfus Affair, but there’s a new wave of anti-Semitism in France, which is often packaged as anti-Zionism, but employs all the classical tropes. It is easy to forget which kind of anti-Semitism is which. First there was stand-up comedian Dieudonné’s inflammatory act, which mocked the Holocaust, prompting Prime Minister Manuel Valls to ban his shows for racism and anti-Semitism. Many French people, particularly Dieudonné’s fans, saw this as a “Jewish conspiracy.” There are everyday physical attacks in the street. The result is a familiar kind of fear.


I remember very clearly the first time I felt this fear several years ago. It happened quite suddenly. I was shopping in the Galeries Lafayette department store. The vendor, a young Arab man, was very helpful and cheerful. I was trying clothes on while he was taking care of his other customers. At that period Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front was rising in the polls, and he asked me what I thought about Le Pen.

“What do you want me to think about Le Pen?” I asked him, laughing. “I would sooner forget she exists.” The young man seemed wanting to test me more: “She is the devil, but many Catholics in France admire her. Don’t you? You are Catholic and you don’t like her?” I was very surprised that discussion in a luxury shop turned so personal, but answered trying to make another joke: “Who told you I was Catholic?”

But the conversation stopped the very same minute. “Jewish!” he hissed and recoiled from me as if I was a leper. He went away and he asked his colleague to help me instead. Le Pen was no more a devil for him, but I was.

Should I have reacted that day, and how could I do that? It’s very bizarre that in Judaism so much is about the transmission, but there’s something else that most Jewish families pass on with their traditions, knowledge, and philosophy—it is this bizarre behavior when you prefer to accept aggression rather to fight it. It was that way for some in Germany during the Third Reich—when many Jews had no choice but first to accept some rules, then agree to wear a yellow star, then to abandon their homes and ultimately be murdered in the Holocaust.

In a different part of Paris, the 12th arrondissement, where French Jews are more discreet than in the Marais, kosher butchers have for security reasons removed Stars of David from their shopfronts. Gone are the Hebrew inscriptions and beit din certificates. None show their Jewish origins anymore. Most French Jews are Sephardim with origins in North African countries who still remember their families’ past experiences living in Muslim countries. Today’s France gives some of them a similar feeling.

Nobody could have imagined 10 or 15 years ago that Jews would once again have to hide in France. Today, after the January attacks on the Hyper Cacher supermarket and Charlie Hebdo office, and the November massacre in the Bataclan, French Jews fear once again for their lives, and this has prompted them to alter their habits and lifestyle as they have had to do in so many places at so many times in the past.

‘Our synagogues are already protected by soldiers, our children’s teachers are attacked. Maybe we will have to leave France just as we left Tunisia.’

Incidentally, it was not widely reported in the media that the Bataclan’s owners were Jewish and an attack on this famous concert hall was originally planned in 2009, as a member of the group Jaish al-Islam confirmed to investigators. Yet after those Paris attacks, it seemed the French media preferred not to concentrate on the Jewish angle.

“Can’t you see that jihadists attacked normal French people as well?” Comments of this type were normal on social media, even among the politically righteous. Otherwise, normal French people would reproach the media for concentrating too much on the Jewish issue.

Almost two years ago in the center of Paris, demonstrators against Israeli policy carrying Palestinian flags shouted “Death to Jews” right in front of police. And the authorities did not react against these slogans. However, during the Paris attacks they immediately stated that there should be no conflation of Muslims and terrorists. By this logic, there should be a conflation of the State of Israel and French Jews who, like Israelis, have long suffered from a rising insecurity in their own country, impelled by attacks against synagogues, kosher shops, and Jewish cemeteries, not to mention anti-Semitic murders.

Six months after the aforementioned demonstration, the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher shook France and the world. Then, an anti-terror rally took place in Paris on Jan. 11, 2015, with the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urging French Jews to return to Israel as “this is their home” and French Prime Minister Manuel Valls stating that “France would not be France without the Jews.” It was a nice sentiment. But France’s Jewish community is no longer large (about 550,000 people—less than one percent of the total population) so any mass departure of Jews would hardly have a profound effect on the country. According to the French Interior Ministry and the Jewish Community Protection Service report, in 2015 there were more than 800 anti-Semitic acts in France. Needless to say this figure is not exhaustive, as not every victim of an attack has filed a complaint to the police.

A few weeks ago I was discussing the Holocaust with an acquaintance in Paris when he suddenly asked me: “It was really horrible, but I still can’t understand how they were able to recognize Jews. Probably because of their noses?” he told me, in all seriousness.

Oftentimes, the focus is not on the attack itself but on ancillary events. When a Jewish teacher was recently attacked in Marseille, the media commented more on the suggestion by local Jewish authorities not to wear yarmulkes in the street rather than on the avowed anti-Semitic act itself. It starts like that: Today one stops wearing the yarmulke in the street, tomorrow one is forced to use special corridors for walking because only certain streets are safe, and later one’s children are locked in ghettos … back to the dark days.

That’s why today’s aliyah—the return by Diaspora Jews to Israel—it is no longer seen as a solely religious step. After the latest attacks, some do it out of vital necessity, so as not to become “a pariah” or “a target.” Eight thousand French Jews made the choice to leave France in 2015. It’s a negative point for France when it’s clearly seen that one population can suffer because of their religion, culture or origins. One-third of French Jews are thinking about making aliyah because they believe that French Jewry is under threat.

Back to the 9th arrondissement in Paris, where the Great Synagogue of Paris is located, generally very few people attend the Shabbat service, but the synagogue staff remain very active on weekdays and offer various other functions to keep it alive. The sun shone through the large stained-glass windows depicting the Star of David while the heroes of the Torah watched over those few who still had come to listen to the Rabbi Moshe Sebbag’s speeches of peace and wisdom. The law of talion—an eye for an eye—has no place there.

“We have just installed bulletproof glass here,” one of the employees of the synagogue explained. At the entrance to the synagogue the metal detectors, installed long ago, no longer seem to surprise anybody. This Great Synagogue has only closed once since World War II when Paris was under Nazi occupation. Back then, like today, many seats were empty.

The 150-year-old building still welcomes the men and women who come here to pray and to share their emotion after the Paris attacks. The women listening to the service, seated in close proximity but on separate benches, discussed the fact that very few kosher shops remain open and that Jewish schools are under military protection. “We feel more secure in Israel,” one lady joked.

A few years ago the 9th arrondissement was still crowded with Jews enjoying this colorful part of the city where France’s two largest synagogues are located. Unfortunately today one can count on two hands the number of Jewish shops still open. This is not surprising.

“The French Republic has not been able to resist the explosion of anti-Semitism,” said Simone, 70, who arrived in France from Tunisia in 1986. “In Tunisia, my ancestors were protected by law. They had the dhimmi status under the Turkish Ottoman Empire until 1881. Though not equal to the rest of the population, as Jews they had the right to practice their religion and manage their institutions. After this date we were protected by the French protectorate. But it was still exceptional for Jews to hold a government job or be appointed to high ranking administrative positions,” she continued.

In Tunisia, Simone and her husband and their four children lived next to the Great Synagogue of Tunis, and she remembered well how it was under constant police protection. “We spoke French at home and if necessary we could speak Arabic outside. We never displayed our origins in public. Most of our neighbors did not know we were Jews,” she explained. Her family was one of the last to leave Tunisia for France. “We were considered insane for still living there when most of our friends and relatives had left the country a long time ago.”

Every time there was tension between Israel and Arab countries, Jews in Tunisia faced anti-Semitism. “In 1967, the Arabs took the Torah from the Great Synagogue and unrolled the scrolls of the Torah in the street. There were other trying occurrences in 1973 and 1982,” Simone remembered. The new French anti-Semitism is different from the one Simone had faced in Tunisia because it has multiple sources: Rooted in Islamism, it is also a way that the far right and far left conceal anti-Semitism beneath disagreement with Israeli policy. Still, the feeling it induces is quite similar. “Today after the Paris attacks I am wondering if we are becoming the ‘new dhimmis’ in France?” Simone said. “Our synagogues are already protected by soldiers, our children’s teachers are attacked. Maybe we will have to leave France just as we left Tunisia.”

At the end of the service, Simone and others left and said goodbye to the police standing outside the synagogue and then crossed the street where a police van was parked, and barely nodded their heads to them. Sixty yards further on, the men took off their yarmulkes and folded them neatly in their pockets so that they could blend into the Parisian landscape, with the normal French.


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Elena Servettaz is a Russian-French journalist at Radio France Internationale (RFI), based in Paris. Her Twitter feed is @EServettaz.