Navigating neighborhood: Jews and Muslims of Sarcelle -reporter's notebook

The relationship between the Jewish and Arab immigrants from North Africa in complicated

July 15, 2019 21:39
3 minute read.

A French and Israeli flag are seen during a 2001 demonstration in Paris.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

PARIS – Sarcelle, a dreary suburb of 57,000 people located 16 km. north of the French capital, is home to a 12,000-strong Jewish community nicknamed Little Jerusalem.

“What happens here has a ripple effect for the rest of French Jewry. If it happens in Sarcelle, it’s symbolic for all of France,” explained the community’s president Moise Kahloun.

Over Monday, a delegation of journalists on a Jewish Agency for Israel tour visited some of outer Paris’s Jewish communities. Sarcelle stood out as  unique.

Built by the French government for North African immigrants, including Sephardi Jews, Sarcelle’s blocks of cheaply-built housing are akin to those built in the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s not pretty.

The tall buildings house small, boxy apartments, while the ground floor contain shops.

In the four streets that make up Sarcelle’s Little Jerusalem, almost all the stores are Jewish owned.

From Judaica stores to butchers, pharmacies and restaurants, it’s hard not to notice how Jewish this area is with its Stars of David, kosher signs and other insignia.

Unlike what I saw in Paris, Jews walk around here with kippot and tzitzit sticking out. In Paris, most keep their identities hidden until they’re in a closed space. I witnessed this several times while in kosher restaurants.

Sarcelle Jews proudly display their identity despite their tempestuous relationship with their Arab neighbors.

For years, Jews and Arabs in Sarcelle were on good terms. Their relationship changed in July 2014 during Operation Protective Edge, when Arab protesters marching through the streets of Sarcelle tried to burn down the synagogue complex, and looted several Jewish-owned stores.

Local Arab youth, who support the Palestinians, don’t differentiate between being Jewish and Israeli.

Jews are seen as Zionists, making the situation complex. In Sarcelle, anti-Zionism and antisemitism are the same.

Gangs of young immigrants with anti-Zionist sentiments roam the streets. In recent years, mediators who once belonged to those gangs have been trained and put in place to try and explain what is happening in Israel, as well the difference between Jews and Israelis. They go around in the streets chatting to these youth and educating them about the situation.

Residents explained that the relationship between the older generation Jews and Arabs still remains good.

We also visited the synagogue complex, founded in 1956, which has a large metal gate and security fences along the top of the walls.

My mouth dropped when Kahloun explained the complex houses 13 minyanim, and that on Shabbat some 800 people attend services.

One of the tall apartment blocks overlooking the synagogue complex houses a mix of Jewish and non-Jewish residents. Concerned about a sniper attack, the Jewish community wants to place a bullet-proof glass canopy to protect the synagogues’ courtyard.

Notwithstanding the talk of serious issues of antisemitism, on a day-to-day level, Jews here feel relatively safe walking around wearing kippot.

Arab immigrants and Jews walk past each other. Some greet one another, talking briefly. Some work together.

However, when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict flares up, there is usually an increase of tensions and violence in Sarcelle between local Arabs and Jews. The synagogue complex hires extra security.

Shop owners and community members explained that this is the life they’re use to, adding that although antisemitism has risen in France, everywhere in the world is facing this same problem.

The tour ended with meal at a well-known kosher restaurant, where I enjoyed the best entrecote I’ve eaten in years. Israeli music was playing loudly, and pictures of famous rabbis including the Lubavitcher Rebbe stared at us as we dined.

Once of my colleagues sitting with me joked, “This feels just like Israel.”

As we exited Sarcelle, I saw a mural on the side of an apartment block wall depicting the French flag and within a Jew, an Arab and a Christian playing together. The painting stood as a testament that in the suburbs of the City of Light, there is an effort to create an urban culture free of hatred.

The writer was a guest of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

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