Diaspora Affairs: The reality of antisemitism in France

‘The Jerusalem Post’ visits Paris with the Jewish Agency and takes an in-depth look at the state of the Jews in France

By
July 20, 2019 03:14
Diaspora Affairs: The reality of antisemitism in France

Jewish women in Sarcelles main synagogue complex wait to take part in a shiur.. (photo credit: ILANIT CHERNICK)

Antisemitism in France is rife: There is no doubt about it. But what is the day-to-day reality on the ground?

While on a visit to Paris with the Jewish Agency and a delegation of journalists, I noticed that the amount of antisemitism Jews are exposed to on a daily, weekly or monthly basis depends on where they live and the socioeconomic situation of that particular neighborhood or town.

This “theme” came up numerous times during the four-day trip in which we met with different people in the Jewish community – rabbis, leaders, youth and just ordinary Jews living life in the “city of love.”

While eating dinner at a kosher sushi restaurant on Sunday night, two regular Joes noticed that I was not French.

One was wearing his kippah openly when he walked in, the other was wearing a hat. Seconds later, he lifted his hat to wipe his forehead and revealed a kippah beneath it. They both sat down next to me and asked where I was from – first in French, then in Hebrew when I responded in English that I don’t speak French.

We started chatting and I told them I was from Israel, but am originally South African. The first said that while his father is Israeli and lives there, he is happy to stay in France for now, even though the situation for Jews is not ideal.

“The truth is, though: Where is there no antisemitism? In America there are problems; England and other places in Europe as well. France is no different,” he said, adding that he loves visiting Israel, but at this stage doesn’t feel the need to make aliyah.

The second man, with his hat still on, said that in the better neighborhoods antisemitism is hardly seen in France. “It depends on the financial state. If the people are wealthy, there is not much antisemitism. If it is a poor place, though, there will be problems.”

They both argued about whether French Jewry has a real dream of making aliyah.

“We’re very Zionistic, we love Israel, we stand with Israel – but it’s not our dream to live there,” the first one argued. “Most Jews are leaving because of antisemitism, and their love for Israel is what makes them decide to go there instead of other places.”

The second disagreed, saying that “all the Jews of France want to live in Israel, but sometimes they cannot for many reasons.”

“Some have elderly parents and they don’t want to leave them behind,” he explained. “Others can’t afford to do it because of financial reasons or because they have large families. Some are also scared because they have seen friends who went with millions come back with nothing. People also stay because they feel if they leave, what will happen to the community? They want to build and strengthen it.”

I asked the second man why he keeps his kippah hidden, and his response was that he does so because of antisemitism.

“I don’t want people on the outside to know I’m Jewish; it could lead to ‘problems,’” he said, adding that he is very proud of his Judaism, but keeps his religion for more private spaces, even in the safer areas of Paris.

Both agreed that antisemitism is not a daily occurrence, as some people believe.

THE HEAD of the Jewish Agency in France, Ouriel Gottlieb, also clearly pointed out the role socioeconomics plays in antisemitism. This was extremely noticeable in two Jewish areas outside of Paris, which are close in distance but worlds apart – Enghien-les-Bains and Sarcelles.

In Enghien-les-Bains, a wealthy and more upper-class town, residents are not exposed to antisemitism, although they have heard about it and understand its seriousness.

The rabbi of the central synagogue in Enghien, Ilane Toledano, explained that the area is a much easier place for Jews to live.

“There are several hundred families in our community,” he said, and when asked if it is still growing, he answered “Yes, as people from other areas are moving here.

“For the most part, we are looking to build a better future for our children here,” Toledano said, adding that not many have made aliyah. “Life here is good for the Jews. They’re not exposed to antisemitism. Yes, we know it’s there in the background, but they don’t feel the immediate effects of it... There is an internal immigration, people from Sarcelles and other parts of Paris coming because it’s not safe [there].”

Toledano stressed that he happily wears his kippah when walking around the streets of Enghien and has encountered no problems doing so. However, he does avoid going to the more dangerous areas of Paris.

He made it clear that for the Jews of France, the synagogue plays a central role in their Judaism, as this is where activities, classes and prayer services take place.

BUT IN Sarcelles, just a short drive from Enghien, it’s a different story.

With Arab and Jewish immigrants from North Africa living together, there are tensions, although antisemitism is not a day-to-day occurrence.

The area is one of the poorer cities outside Paris, with housing having been built specifically for North African immigrants in the 1950s and 1960s.

For years, Jews and Arabs in Sarcelles were on good terms. Their relationship changed in July 2014 during Operation Protective Edge, when Arab protesters marching through the streets of Sarcelles 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 someone Jewish and Israeli. Jews are seen as Zionists, making the situation complex. In Sarcelles, anti-Zionism and antisemitism are the same.

Every time there is a flare-up of violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, extra security has to be hired for the synagogue. And incidents do occur, according to Sarcelles Jewish community president Moise Kahloun.

Just this week, it was revealed that an Arab manager at one of the main grocery stores in the city’s Jewish area treats Jewish customers badly, accusing some of coming to steal and making anti-Jewish comments. He also refused to help a young man who fell in the store, seriously injuring himself.

Kahloun also said that there is man initiative taking place to bring Jews stuck in more dangerous and antisemitic areas – where synagogues have closed and Jewish life is dwindling because of internal migration – to Sarcelles, where they will be safer and can continue living a Jewish life. Antisemitic acts in Sarcelles are not a daily occurrence, and Jews walk around freely with kippot on and tzitzit sticking out; they don’t hide their Judaism at all.

The Jewish community in Sarcelles is 12,000 strong, and its Jews are proud of their Judaism and Zionism – something they do not hide.

When asked about why French Jews don’t usually show their religion outwardly, Gottlieb said that in French culture, people do not outwardly show their religion in the streets – it’s an etiquette thing.

However, he did say that over the years, as more and more antisemitic incidents have taken place – like the 2012 Toulouse attack, the 2014 protests in Sarcelles and the 2015 Hypercacher terrorist attack – Jews are also hiding their identity out of fear.

“I wear my kippah openly to show that people don’t need to be afraid to walk around with their kippah on,” he said.

THE YOUTH perspective on antisemitism in France is mixed.

During the trip, we visited Relev, a Jewish youth center housed at the Adas Yereim synagogue in central Paris.

The sound of laughter, talking and youth filled the building, which has been recently refurbished.

Students of all Jewish backgrounds between the ages of 18 and 30 are able to study here, attend classes and take part in fun activities as well. There are games and a relaxation area for the young adults, too.

Eli Dan, a medical student, said that he grew up in a middle-class area, Rosny-sous-Bois, located outside of Paris, and attended public school there.

“It was sometimes very difficult. I would feel lonely because it’s hard to share things about your culture with people who don’t understand you,” he said. “There were very few Jews in the city, and sometimes my classmates would make antisemitic comments like ‘You Jews are all rich’ – and they would say ‘Jews are the terrorists’ when speaking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Dan made it clear that it isn’t an everyday occurrence, but there is antisemitism in his hometown – and it’s rising.

“Today,” he said, “my wife sees it more. She works in the school system and there’s a [general] problem of antisemitism in public schools [in France]. Jewish parents are saying that their children can’t stay or go to public schools anymore.”

He said that although he tried to live in Israel for a year while studying, and hopes to go back one day, his wife is not yet ready to take the plunge.

Despite being religious, he also hides his identity while walking in the streets, depending on what area he is in.

FOR GUILLAUME Chneiweiss, he feels the issue of antisemitism in France is being blown out of proportion.

“There is no reason to panic or make rash decisions,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, these are isolated incidents; it’s not day-to-day or as often as people think. It’s the same as the Poway or Pittsburgh attacks in the US: it’s isolated.”

He grew up in a wealthy Paris suburb, attended public school there, and said that up until now, he has never felt any antisemitism or been exposed to any problems.

“Neither have my friends or family,” he said. “I went to a public school and it never came up; it was never a problem for us, and it still isn’t.”

Chneiweiss said that he sees no competition or contradiction in being both Jewish and French. “I am proudly both.”

He made it clear that he stands firmly with Israel and supports it, adding that he lived in Jerusalem for six months to experience what it’s like to live there, taking a job opportunity in the country at the same time.

“Life is hard in Israel; I don’t plan to ever live there permanently,” he said. “It’s hard to integrate for French immigrants, especially if you haven’t studied or done the army, and there are a lot of comforts in France that Israel does not have.

“I went to Israel also to strengthen my connection to Israel – and after living there I felt more French,” he said.

Chneiweiss made it clear that he has no reason to leave France and that the issue of antisemitism falls into “the greater security problems in France.”

“There are certain boroughs in France you can’t go to, because they are not safe for all types of people, not just Jews,” he said, adding that he stays away from those places.

He called on people not to make such a fuss about the issue of antisemitism, reiterating that it’s a problem, but only isolated cases.

However, for one 22-year-old young woman, who asked to remain anonymous, she sees no future for the Jews of France.

“I give it 30 to 50 years,” she said, adding that she had studied in Israel for a few years, and is now back in France to complete her degree.

“The situation here is really serious, and anyone who says otherwise is kidding themselves,” she said, adding that she’s seen a lot of antisemitic graffiti and had friends who have had antisemitic slurs directed at them.

“I can’t raise a family here, but I’m not sure Israel is the right place for me either. I don’t know; it’s just a matter of time for the Jews here,” she added.

A friend who joined the conversation said that she is currently studying at university and does not tell her fellow students that she is Jewish.

“I hide it because I’m afraid. Jews are not liked here, and I don’t know what would happen if people at the university found out about me. It’s dangerous,” she concluded.

The writer was a guest of the Jewish Agency.


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