There’s a joke among French-Ashkenazi-Jews (or what’s left of them) that says that Sephardim are the Jews’ best friends. If that saying is true, Meyer Habib, who was born in Paris to Tunisian parents 56 years ago, is unquestionably one of the best friends that French Jews have.
Habib is tall, muscular, and sympathetic. He is endowed with an unmistakably North African face, which is both heavy and sweet. CEO of the Groupe Vendôme, the French luxury jeweler, he also serves as a Representative in France’s National Assembly, and as his friend Benjamin Netanyahu’s unofficial representative in Paris. Like most Sephardim I know, he speaks French quite rapidly, so you have to make him tell a story several times if you want to get the details straight.
As the elected representative of French expatriates for the entire Mediterranean region, Habib fights for French Jews, as well as in defense of French Jewish doctors, dentists and lawyers—and their mothers—who try to settle in Israel, whether they are fleeing terrorism and anti-Semitism, or escaping France’s economic gloom and the heavy burden of French taxes. His epic battles to convince Israeli bureaucrats to recognize French professional diplomas without making new immigrants pass competence exams made him a hero to French Jews in both France and Israel, even as politicians and bureaucrats tried to explain that exams are, in fact, standard procedure in Israel and that immigrants from all Western countries, not just France, have to submit to them before they are allowed to practice.
Habib would have none of that. “A dentist with three years of experience who wants to make aliyah cannot work in Israel? He’s been given impossibly difficult exams? This is a shame! This is morally unacceptable, and it’s got to stop!” he warned the Israeli press last November. Or else? “Or else I will oppose the aliyah!” he threatened. “If in the coming three months there is no tangible progress, I will tell the Jews of France: Don’t come! Don’t come to Israel until your degrees are recognized!”
Perhaps moved by Habib’s heartfelt determination, the State of Israel gave in, at least partly. On Jan. 11 last year, at the Knesset, the commissions of Social Affairs, Health and Aliyah unanimously agreed on a law exempting dentists from the infamous tests—but only dentists. Which meant that the tribune of French Jewry had to pack his bags again and buy a ticket to Jerusalem to represent the lawyers and doctors.
But that same day something happened in France that required all of Habib’s attention. In the city of Marseille, a Jewish professor wearing a yarmulke was attacked by a teenager of Turkish background, who was armed with a machete. Although the professor succeeded in protecting himself using a Torah, the attacker’s intention to kill was unambiguous. He confessed as much to the cops, adding that his only regret was to have left his target alive. It was the third attempted murder in broad daylight in Marseille in three months targeting “visible Jews,” as French now call the traditionalists. Although all three victims had survived, the level of anxiety among Jews in the city was such that the leaders of the local community issued a statement asking their fellow Jews to stop wearing yarmulkes in the streets until things cooled off, which immediately set off a national uproar of confusion, embarrassment, and shame.
For the last 15 years attacks against Jews have been a daily occurrence throughout France. In 2014, according to government statistics. The already-high number of anti-Semitic aggressions rose 101 percent—to 851 from 423—which meant that more than 50 percent of racist acts nationwide were directed against a community representing less than 1 percent of the total population. Still, none of this moved French opinion the way the Marseille community yarmulke statement did. It seems that as long as Jews were protesting, things were all right. But now, suddenly, Jews were saying that they would not walk French streets any longer without hiding their identities. Hawkish defenders of French secularism, including Prime Minister Manuel Valls, went on TV and asked the Jews to please keep their yarmulkes on their heads. Op-ed pieces and talk-shows discussed and debated the issue. Jewish community officials publicly disavowed the Marseille community statement as a defeatist mistake, if not as a sign of flat cowardice, in response to which Serge Klarsfeld, the famous Nazi hunter, issued a statement supporting the Marseille leaders, on the grounds that the national Jewish officials were privileged bourgeois living under police protection, with no real idea of what ordinary French Jews were going through.
On Jan. 13, two days after the attack, Meyer Habib came to the National Assembly proudly wearing a yarmulke, accompanied by a non-Jewish Congressman, Claude Goasguen. It was a bold move. The Parliament is an institution of the Republic and as such, according to the French secularist compact known as la laïcité, it is a place where religious signs or symbols are not displayed. Invited to speak there a few weeks prior, on Dec. 22, Fatima Ibn Ziaten, the Muslim mother of Imad Ibn Ziaten, the first of the three soldiers killed by the terrorist Mohamed Merah in 2012 before he went on to murder children and teachers at the Jewish Ozer Torah school, had been booed by some members of Parliament for wearing a hijab. But Habib wanted to make a point.
“That morning of the 13th,” he told me, “I woke up thinking that the situation required a strong answer. That’s what came to my mind. I am against not wearing a yarmulke in public spaces, especially when Jews are under threat. Of course, I first called the Great Rabbi of France who’s a friend, to get his advice. And he did not stop me. He only advised me to not enter the amphitheater with the yarmulke, to leave this option for later if need be.” (The amphitheater is where the debates take place.) “So I went at the National Assembly and in the refreshment room, I came across Congressman Goasgen. I told him what I was about to do. It so happened that I had two yarmulkes in my pocket that day. I thought it was good to have a non-Jew at my side, and he jumped on the idea out of solidarity.”
In response to the objection that he and Ibn Ziaten had both betrayed the rule of laïcité, Habib answered: “On the contrary! To me, what I did was a way to reaffirm our attachment to laïcité—a true version of it. For what is laïcité? Laïcité is the Republic! Laïcité is freedom of conscience and freedom of religion! Laïcité is the right to wear a yarmulke as others wear a cross around their neck, or a hat or a headscarf!”
In fact, laïcité is what the country has been arguing more and more violently and confusingly about over the past 15 years, to the point that no two French seem to agree on what exactly the term means today. Depending on who you ask, the notion can encompass things as different and contradictory as religious neutrality on the part of public institutions and services; public institutions financing every religion; public institutions financing no religions; dry atheism; freedom of speech including blasphemy; the forbiddance of any religious or cultural signs in public; praising religious or cultural signs in public—or any combination of the above.
Predictably, not everyone agreed with Habib’s display. Perhaps even more predictably—since the situation in France around Jews is tense enough to make Jews themselves crazy—the worst reactions came from Jews. The extreme-right columnist Éric Zemmour, for instance, perversely compared the yarmulke to the yellow star imposed by the Nazis to the Jews during the Shoah, and concluded that Jews should get rid of it once and for all. (Once a talented political analyst, Zemmour had written a best-seller titled The French Suicide, in which he tried to rehabilitate the memory of the infamous Vichy regime including its policies toward the Jews.) On the other side of the political spectrum was one of the founders of Doctors Without Borders, the Israeli-born French citizen Rony Brauman, who condemned the public wearing of the yarmulke as a “sign of allegiance to the politics of the State of Israel,” a falsehood that also suggested that the victims bore some responsibility for what had happened to them.
In the following days, realizing, perhaps, that such an assertion looked callous and opportunistic, especially coming from a noted humanitarian, Brauman tried to backpedal. In doing so, he attacked Habib for having been one of the congressmen who booed Ibn Ziaten. It was a bad move. Habib and Ibn Ziaten are “very close friends” according to Habib: “I admire her,” he added in reference to the work she has undertaken since her son was murdered, traveling into french cités and ghettos to speak with Muslim teenagers. “To receive her at the National Assembly was a great honor. Of course I never booed her!” Habib then called his long-time friend and lawyer, the Jewish columnist William Goldnadel, and filed a libel complaint.
Meyer’s father Emmanuel Habib was born in Venice in 1920 a stateless Jew, from an Italian mother and a Libyan father who settled in Tunisia. After the death of their parents, Emmanuel, his younger brother, and his elder sister grew up together as orphans. In 1940, when Marshal Pétain established his government in Vichy, one of the first measures he took was to enact a policy preventing Jews from working, before beginning his active collaboration with Hitler. From 1942 on, as part of the war effort, a French system called Service du Travail Obligatoire (STO, Forced Labor Service) requisitioned civilian men and sent them to work in German labor camps. As part of the French Empire, Tunisia was subject to a similar policy, and Emmanuel was called for forced labor; instead, he went into hiding for the duration of the war. After the Liberation, Emmanuel Habib became an ardent Zionist militant.
In 1949, one year after the creation of the state of Israel, Emmanuel represented both the Tunisian branch of Herut—the Revisionist Zionist party founded in 1923 by Vladimir Jabotinsky—and of its youth movement, Betar, at the first World Zionist Congress, which was held in Tunisia. There, he met Menachem Begin, who was already famous as a collaborator of Jabotinsky and for having planned the attack on the King David hotel in Jerusalem three years earlier that had killed 28 English, 41 Arabs, and 17 Jews. The two men soon became friends. But in a Tunisia that was rapidly evolving toward independence, Emmanuel Habib’s involvement with the Zionist movement also earned him enemies. In 1956, a bomb directed at Emmanuel Habib wounded several passers-by, including a young girl who lost both her eyes in the explosion.
Emmanuel understood it was time to go. His idea was, of course, to move to Israel. But because he and his brother and sisters left precipitously, they had ended up in Marseille instead and then moved to Paris where Emmanuel met Meyer’s mother. Together, they made a life in France.
“I was born in Paris in 1961 in a very Jewish environment,” Meyer Habib remembered to me. “Jewish and Zionist. And French too, there was no contradiction. My father and his brother made wine. They had created Habib Frères (Habib Brothers), the first company ever to make kosher Champagne. You have to remember that when we arrived in France in ’56, there was no organized Judaism in France.”
“What?” I heard myself wondering.
“There wasn’t even a kosher restaurant.”
“Really?” I asked him. “Well, what about Ripstein, then? What about Goldenberg?”
“Well,” he answered, “ Ripstein was for people who were Jewish but who… It was after the war, if you will.” As for Goldenberg, he added, “It wasn’t kosher. It was Yiddish food, all right—kosher, if you will, in the sense they didn’t eat pork—but they weren’t beit-din-labeled.”
I was too young for Ripstein but Goldenberg’s is a different story. Set in Le Marais, a central quarter that Jews used to call the Pletzl, back when Ashkenazis from Eastern Europe were settling in the neighborhood, Goldenberg remained, until it shut down at the end of the 1990s, nothing short of an institution—at least for assimilated Ashkenazi Jews such as my family, or maybe especially for them. They had arrived from Ukraine at the turn of the century, and, in one generation, despite the Dreyfus case, despite the extreme-right Ligues of the 1930s yelling “death to the Jews!” in the streets, and despite Vichy, they had assimilated into a French-Jewish tradition whose roots are firmly planted since the Revolutionary Emancipation of the Jews two centuries earlier. A tradition that gave to France first, then to Europe, a secular, cosmopolitan Jewish culture. During the war, Bundists, socialists, Zionists and other various currents of French-Jewish life regrouped underground into a Comité Général de Défense Juive (General Committee of Jewish Defense) that tried to save Jews and refugees. Meanwhile, Jewish combat sections filled the Communist underground and the Gaullist movements. In 1944, the surviving institutions merged into the contemporary CRIF (Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France, or Representative Counsel of the Jewish Institutions of France), which to this day federates more or less happily secular strains of Judaism in France, while another structure, the Consistoire, appoints rabbis.
‘Laïcité is the Republic! Laïcité is freedom of conscience and freedom of religion! Laïcité is the right to wear a yarmulke as others wear a cross around their neck, or a hat or a headscarf!’ —Meyer Habib
But the majority of French Jews didn’t affiliate themselves with either institution. By and large, they wanted to forget what they’d been going through. Those were “the people who were Jewish but…” that Meyer Habib refers to, the people of my parents’ generation for whom the creation of Israel offered unspoken permission to put their Jewish identity away, on the other side of the Mediterranean sea. Judaism was “over there,” and safe now—which meant that they could walk away from the Jewish burden and simply be French, a decision that began to reverse itself again after the Six Day War, even as the arrival of Sephardic Jews from was North Africa was beginning to change the face of French Judaism. When I think of my own generation, born out of that amnesiac will to forget, cut off from a world we’d known only the last glimpses of, and therefore poorly armed to confront the new wave of anti-Semitism that hit the country, I think that nothing could be farther from Meyer Habib’s experience.
“At home, we were living at the rhythm of Israel,” he said. “Circumstances had made my father live in France but he had not given up the idea of moving there. Meanwhile, he helped build the first Parisian synagogue to obey Jewish Maghreb customs in Paris. And my uncle, whose name was Elie Lolo, was very much involved in Jewish charities for youth among the Sephardic community. From the Belleville quarter to Le Marais, they would take the kids, him and my father, they would put them into their wine trucks, officially no more than four or five kids at the same time but in reality more than two thousand, and they would take them to summer camps. They would hide them in tents in case of inspection. This is how along the years, my uncle helped to create the vacation center and social help for disadvantaged Sephardic children whose number was expanding as the ex-colonies—Algeria, Morocco—were becoming both independent and judenrein.
“It was very colorful, very alive,” Habib continued. “I was living in the middle of it. I went to a Jewish school. I got myself involved in Jewish organization such as Betar and I fought extreme-right gangs in the streets or in demonstrations.”
Habib studied engineering at the Technion in Haifa. Back in France, he joined Citizen, a watch-making company where he created the trademark Citi Or. He is married, with four children. But Jewish religion, Jewish politics, and Jewish affairs remain at the heart of his life.
May 25, 2013, was election day at the French Parliament for the seat that Habib now occupies. It was also the day where the CRIF elected its new president. Habib hesitated between the two posts. He had wanted to be president of France’s leading Jewish institution for years. So, which office should he campaign for? “At the end of the day I let my wife choose which candidacy was best,” he told me. At the National Assembly, he campaigned against 18 other candidates, came in second in the first round, and was elected representative of French expatriates six weeks later, on a center-right list.
French expats are divided into eleven administrative zones of 150,000 people each; each zone gets one representative in Parliament. Since the stated number of French in Israel is under 100,000, Habib officially represents a “Mediterranean zone” that also includes Turkey, Malta, Cyprus, Samarin, and the Vatican, which lets him say that “the three monotheisms” are contained in his district. Still, by his own admission, his campaign mainly focused on the Franco-Israeli electorate—the one he knows best, and the one that knows him best. Netanyahu, whom he met in the early 1990s through his father and whom he claims as one of his closest friends, officially supported his candidacy. A look on his official Facebook page shows that Israel and Jewish matters remain, as a congressman, his main concern. In addition to his seat at the National Assembly, Habib is also a member of a Commission against Terrorism at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
In December 2014, the French government discussed a resolution aiming at an “official acknowledgment” of a Palestinian state by France. (The resolution was passed, to no effect other than pleasing France’s Muslim electorate.) On a TV talk show, Habib debated a socialist congressman named Jean Glavany, who openly accused Habib of “double allegiance.” Each time Habib spoke, Glavany would paternalistically criticize what he called his “disturbing intensity.” When Habib mentioned the Toulouse terrorist attack in which three Jewish children were assassinated in 2012, Glavany mocked Habib’s “uncalled-for passion” on the subject, and suggested he should maintain his self-control. The Socialist Party politician’s rhetoric undoubtedly displayed what can only be called a cultural—if perhaps unconscious—anti-Semitism.
Habib’s merger of religious and political involvement would’ve been unthinkable in secular France only 30 years ago—and it does raise a question. I asked him if, in his mind, there’s a contradiction between being French and being the sort of Jew he is—who also carries an Israeli passport. He said no.
“I became Franco-Israeli, but I was born French,” he explained. “My children are French and so is my wife. I believe that Jews have given a lot to France, and France has given a lot to Jews. I don’t see any contradiction there. To be Jewish and to be a Zionist is in my DNA. But I feel French. I love France; I was born in France and French is my maternal tongue.”
What does he think of what is said to be a new wave of French Jewish aliyah driven by anti-Semitism? “I think it is a real problem if Jews feel obliged to leave France,” he answered. “Aliyah should be a choice, not an escape. The huge majority of French Jews are going to remain in France, I hope. The question is what France is going to become.”
There is no doubt that Meyer Habib represents one of the new ways to be Jewish in France. A more assertive way—a more politically ambiguous way, to say the least. (It does say something that Habib’s long-time friend and lawyer, William Goldnadel, has in recent years also served as legal counsel for personalities such as Sarkozy’s ex-adviser Patrick Buisson and Florian Philippot, the No. 1 collaborator of Marine Le Pen.) Whether this new, edgier, more unabashedly Jewish, more right-leaning way is the cause or the consequence of the situation of the country at large is hard to say. But it’s hard to deny that the Jews of France need more friends like Meyer Habib these days.
Read more of Marc Weitzmann’s reporting on European terror from France here.
Marc Weitzmann is the author of 12 books, including, most recently, Hate: The Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism in France (and What It Means for Us). He is a regular contributor to Le Monde and Le Point and hosts Signes des Temps, a weekly public radio show on France Culture.