In Sarcelles, a French suburb awash with forbidding 1960s architecture, graffiti, and gangs, one metallic blue rectangle looks much like any other French street sign in Paris’ grey outer suburbs. But this particular street sign is special, especially now.
Last Sunday, a crowd gathered around a street sign that reads “Yohan Cohen Square (1994-2015) Victim of anti-Semitic attack at the Porte de Vincennes.” The sign serves as a symbol of remembrance for Yohan Cohen, the 22-year-old student and part-time worker at the Hyper Cacher supermarket who was murdered, alongside three other victims, by a jihadist gunman last January just east of Paris. They were buried in Jerusalem shortly thereafter.
There to pay tribute at the memorial’s unveiling ceremony were Cohen’s friends who remembered him as a smiling young man, someone who listened and was tolerant. “[He was] the friend everybody dreamed of having,” one of them said. French politicians also showed up, such as Claude Bartolone, the President of France’s National Assembly. Sarcelles’ deputy mayor, Francois Pupponi, praised Cohen’s bravery. “He died a hero protecting those he could in the store,” he said, referring to Cohen’s effort to save a 3-year-old by tackling a gunman. “We owe him this fight for the victims of terrorism. Yohan died because he was Jewish and French.”
Bernard Cazeneuve, France’s Interior Minister, gave a speech of tribute to the Sarcelles Jewish community, “famous for its synagogues, for its schools, tea houses, restaurants, kosher shops,” he said. “But mostly it is known for its tolerance, fellowship, and friendliness.” Sarcelles, sometimes called “Little Jerusalem,” is home to Europe’s largest Jewish population. Jewish schools, delis, and synagogues are plentiful here. But tolerance, fellowship and friendliness have largely given way to an atmosphere of fear and self-preservation in what has become an increasingly hostile, anti-Semitic environment. At the moment, in light of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, the Sarcelles area is effectively in lock-down, or Vigipirate, a state of high alert in which armed police, complete with flak jackets, automatic weapons, and body armor, patrol the streets of this suburb, or banlieue.
“We know [the Jewish community is] a target,” sighed Alain Bensimon, a community leader and president of one of the synagogues that has come under regular attack. “We now know the message of the Islamists and we know things cannot get any better.” Bensimon is convinced that January’s terror attacks on Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher, and even the recent wave of terror in the center of Paris, could have been foreseen as far back as the summer of 2014, when “everything changed.”
The day Bensimon speak of occurred on a mild Sunday in July 2014. A pro-Palestinian demonstration started out from the Sarcelles Railway Station, defying a ban by the local government. The crowds rapidly swelled to many hundreds of young men, openly shouting: “slaughter the Jews.” Groups of youths set rubbish alight and burned cars. Six shops were looted, all but one belonging to Jewish owners. Rioters broke into a synagogue and caused $4,000-worth of damage. Haaretz declared the riot “the first Pogrom of 21st-century Europe.”
Back at the newly named Yohan Cohen Square, Minister Cazeneuve reaffirmed the government’s commitment to “track down all the perpetrators and prevent attacks.” “If he had survived,” Cazeneuve said, “Yohan could be also in cafés or at the Bataclan. For he loved life, his friends, meetings. It was youth, freedom, everything that terrorists abhor.”
That message is echoed on the brown stone monument that was then unveiled. It translates, starkly, “Assassinated on 9th January 2015. Because he was a Jew.”
Under the watchful eye of the police, the crowd recited kaddish. Then, spontaneously, someone started the Marseillaise, which was taken up and sung by all who were present.
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Lisa Sanders is a writer and investigative documentary maker based in Israel.