Is the glass half full or half empty for France's Jews?

French Jews are suffering from a surge in anti-Semitic incidents, which have become increasingly violent but, at the same time, they have never done so well socially and economically

Muslims in France 521 (photo credit: CHARLES PLATIAU / REUTERS)
Muslims in France 521
President François Hollande and the upper crust of the French establishment flocked to be seen on March 20 at the annual gala dinner of the Conseil Representatif des Institutions Juives de France (CRIF), the umbrella body for France’s 600,000-strong Jewish community, Europe’s largest.
Hollande was accompanied by 11 serving cabinet ministers, while dozens of former ministers, serving parliamentarians, business and religious leaders made up half of the 900 guests. The other half comprised prominent French Jews.
Attendance at the dinner, organized by the CRIF at the glittering Pavillon d’Armenonville reception hall in Paris, is a must for anyone who plays, or hopes to play, a key role in French public life – in part, due to the massive media coverage the event attracts, and also because of the relative influence wielded in France by Jewish groups, and by some individual Jews, even on matters unconnected with specifically Jewish issues.
The phenomenon extends widely since former Pope Benedict XVI, speaking in Rome on December 21, 2012, publically lauded French Chief Rabbi Gilles Bernheim for his stance against same-sex marriage.
The CRIF dinner (“the place to be” wrote the Le Figaro daily – in English – the morning after) is unique in French society. It is the only non-state event attended and addressed by the president of France and at which participants include the full spectrum of leaders of all political parties – save for the ultra-left and ultra-right who are not invited.
Hollande, who was elected French president last May, appeared for the first time in his capacity as head of state. He pushed all the right buttons, saying things like “Without its Jewish community, France would not be France,” and “It is out of the question that Iran might ever have nuclear weapons.”
After pre-dinner cocktails, which allowed mingling among politicians, archbishops and foreign diplomats (including envoys from Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia), guests sat down for a strictly kosher meal washed downed by (equally Beth Din approved) Chateau Rollan de By vintage 2010 red wine from the Haut Médoc area near Bordeaux.
Guests then heard Hollande’s speech in reply to CRIF President Dr. Richard Prasquier, who formally addressed the president in the name of organized French Jewry. Prasquier, a 67-year-old cardiologist, arrived in France as a baby with his Holocaust-survivor parents, who managed to flee Poland as it was swept by pogroms in 1946. He will step down from the CRIF presidency in May after serving two successive three-year terms.
After the dinner, the most affluent guests, including members of the fabled Rothschild dynasty, waited for private chauffeurs to collect them from the hall’s tightly guarded entrance. Others walked to their cars parked nearby, or to the nearest Metro (subway) entrance, a few hundred yards away.
But beyond the security perimeter surrounding the event, every Jew who had worn a kippa (skullcap) inside the hall, seemed to have slipped it into his pocket and replaced it with less conspicuous headgear after emerging.
Why? Because despite all the honors afforded to the Jewish community, the hard fact remains that anti-Semitic acts in France leaped to 614 in 2012, from 389 the previous year. Most horrific of all was the gunning down of four Jews, three of them children, by a Muslim extremist outside a Jewish school in Toulouse on March 19 last year.
Although the French government goes out of its way to protect Jewish schools and institutions (Hollande said 500 such buildings were police protected), the streets of Paris and of other large French cities are potentially dangerous for anyone who can be easily recognized as a Jew. Spontaneous, unprovoked attacks against Jews, overwhelmingly carried out by young Arabs, have traumatized French Jewry. Young religious Jews on their own have been officially advised by the rabbinate to wear baseball caps instead of kippas when using public transport or in the street.
Here are some examples of what can happen, as listed by the annual report published jointly by the French Interior Ministry and by the Service de Protection de la Communauté Juive (SPCJ), the Jewish community’s own security organization.
January 22, 2012 – Montreuil (a tough Paris suburb): A 16-year-old Jewish girl is attacked coming out of the Metro after individuals notice she is carrying documents marked with Hebrew letters. She receives blows to the face.
Her clothing is slashed with a knife while the aggressors proffer anti-Semitic insults. The victim is left in a state of shock.
February 16, 2012 – Paris 19th arrondissement (a relatively poor Paris district inhabited by both Jews and Arabs): A young man is mugged by four males who steal his wallet and coat. When they realize he is Jewish, one of them says, “This is what the Israelis do to the Palestinians.” The four punch him about the head while kicking him before running away.
March 8, 2012 – Montreuil (again): Three teens stop a young minor in the street and tell him they don’t like the kippa he is wearing, and they don’t like Jews. One of the three squirts a tear gas canister into the victim’s face.
March 26, 2012 – Paris 13th arrondissement (a lower-middle-class district): An 11-year-old wearing tzitzit (ritual fringes emerging from his clothing) is hit in the face and called a “Dirty Jew” a few yards from the entrance to his school.
April 30, 2012 – Marseille (France’s second-largest city with a very large Arab population): A young Jew is insulted in the street by a group of individuals. One of them says, “We are for Palestine and we don’t like dirty Jews. We’re going to kill you all.” The victim receives a blow to the head and falls to the sidewalk, where the attackers kick him repeatedly before stealing the Star of David chain around his neck. He suffers neck wounds, an internal hemorrhage and needs stitches near his eye.
The list goes on and on. French authorities were long coy as to officially identifying the attackers, saying they did not want to stigmatize an entire ethnic group (the Arabs).
But hard-line Interior Minister Manuel Valls, himself an immigrant born in Spain, and who is highly popular with the French public at large, including many Jews, now makes no bones about it. He says the vast majority of anti-Semitic acts in France are the work of young Muslims.
“Salafism (a form of rigorous Muslim ideology) has bred a new brand of anti- Semitism born from hatred for Jews, for Israel and for France and its values,” Valls said in a television interview in early March.
France is home to Europe’s largest Muslim population, which outnumbers the Jewish community by 10 to one. There are six million Muslims in France, a figure equal to that of Israel’s Jewish population. Most Muslims in France are Arabs born in the former French North African territories of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, and, increasingly, their Frenchborn children and grandchildren.
The Arabs began arriving in France in the 1950s, to undertake the menial jobs the French no longer wished to do. With parents overwhelmingly hailing from the illiterate, rural underclass of their home countries, the French-born children, or grandchildren, of Arab immigrants often do badly at school and unemployment is rife. Many have fallen into delinquency. Muslims make up 10 percent of France’s population but between 60 and 70 percent of its prison inmates. As a result, the French public at large is wary, if not often hostile, to young Muslims who, in turn, reject mainstream society. An opinion poll published early this year in the Le Monde daily indicated that 74 percent of the French believe Islam, as practiced in France, is “incompatible with French society.”
“We must be conscious that Jews are not discriminated against in France, but Muslims often are. That provokes the resentment which is the first step towards revolt,” CRIF president Prasquier tells The Jerusalem Report.
Young Arabs, mostly second or thirdgeneration French-born, have increasingly turned the areas where they live into ghettos, where outsiders dare not tread. A three-week outburst of rioting in such neighborhoods throughout France in late 2005 resulted in the burning of more than 10,000 cars and scores of businesses and public buildings.
Although many of the original immigrants shunned religion when they arrived in France, young French-born Muslims are now increasingly turning to religion to compensate for their lowly position in society. Anti-Jewish attitudes come with the territory. A recent opinion poll among French Muslims aged 18- 25 found that 39 percent believe “Jews have too much power in France.”
Some, like 23-year-old Mohammed Merah, the French-born son of poor immigrants from Algeria, turned to radical Islam after a life of increasing delinquency, marked by prison terms. After travelling to Pakistan, Afghanistan and other Muslim countries (but also to Israel – no one has really yet explained what he did there), Merah showed up outside the Ozar Hatorah school in his hometown, the southern city of Toulouse, on March 19 last year, and shot dead Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, 30, his sons Aryeh, 6, and Gabriel, 3, before grabbing 8-year-old Myriam Monsego by the hair and shooting her point blank in the head. Just days before, he had shot dead three off-duty, unarmed French paratroopers, all of whom, like him, were of Arab immigrant origin. But they had fought for France against Taliban guerrillas in Afghanistan. “You kill my brothers, I kill you,” he told one as he shot him. Police tracked down Merah and killed him during an intense shoot-out at his home on March 22. Graffiti reading “Vive Merah” (long live Merah) has since been scrawled on walls in a number of mostly Muslim areas.
“Unfortunately, we believe there are dozens and dozens of potential other Merahs just waiting to act,” said Interior Minister Valls in a television interview on February 6. “They begin as minor delinquents, move into the drug trade, go to prison and then turn to radical Islam. We have to be ready, and to try to identify them and stop them before they act.”
Opinion polls indicate that two-thirds of French Muslims generally shun religion and politics altogether. But the remaining third, including thousands of members of shadowy Salafist groups, still comprises about two million people.
The 614 anti-Semitic incidents reported in France last year included threats and hateful graffiti, but also 177 acts of violence, compared to 129 the year before, with more than two-thirds of such incidents taking place in the street or on public transport.
The vast majority of incidents take place in areas where blue collar Jews live near large Arab communities. But there have been cases in which easily recognizable Jews, wearing kippas or sporting black hats and beards, for example, have been assaulted in shopping malls or entertainment areas in central Paris by groups of Arabs youths who fled afterwards into large crowds or into the Metro.
“What is especially worrisome,” Prasquier tells The Report, “is that statistics indicate that there seems to be a loss of inhibitions after the worst anti-Semitic attacks. There was a spate of anti-Jewish attacks after the Toulouse murders. Many immigrant youths felt egged on by the horrors that had taken place to stage new attacks on Jews. The problem is that beyond the existing groups of Islamic radicals, there is a far larger segment of the Muslim population ready to pass from insults to violence when they encounter Jews.”
So, is the glass half empty or half full? French Jews do indeed feel threatened; at the same time, however, most of the country’s Jews have never done so well socially and economically. Members of the community are present at the top levels in virtually every prestigious profession. Two senior Cabinet ministers are Jewish – Economy and Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici, son of a refugee from Romania, and Education Minister Vincent Peillon whose great-grandfather was a noted rabbi in eastern France. French Jews sometimes joke, “We even had a Jew at the head of the Catholic Church.” Indeed, Paris Archbishop Jean-Marie Aron Lustiger, who died in 2007, aged 81, was the son of Polish Jewish immigrants who hid him in a Catholic boarding school during the Nazi occupation.
His mother was later arrested and killed at Auschwitz. Lustiger converted to Christianity after the war but remained close to French Jewry and worked hard to improve Jewish- Catholic relations in France.
Just two years ago, a Jew, center-leftist Dominique Strauss-Kahn, was the outright favorite in opinion polls ahead of the May 2012 presidential election. But instead of becoming France’s first Jewish president, Strauss-Kahn, then Washington-based managing director of the International Monetary Fund, provoked his own downfall through sexual antics. In a major international public scandal, he resigned from the IMF in May 2011 after accusations that he had assaulted a hotel maid in New York. Further accusations followed. Much to the relief of French Jews, the country’s press studiously avoided mentioning throughout that Strauss- Kahn was Jewish.
Among those Jews most in the news in France recently was Morocco-born Serge Haroche, who won the 2012 Nobel Prize for Physics, shared with David Wineland of the US. Another French Jew of North African Sephardi origin, Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, won the same prize in 1999.
And in a country where leading intellectuals are quasi-deified, the names of Bernard-Henri Levy and Alain Finkielkraut are often cited as the country’s best-known philosophers. Both are strong and active supporters of Israel, but also center-left critics of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his policies.
“Yes, there are both reassuring elements and worrisome elements concerning the situation of France’s Jews,” says Prasquier.
Jean-Yves Camus, a noted French sociologist and author specializing in extremist movements, says Arab anti- Semitism feeds tensions in France. “The more they are anti-Semitic, the more they create a negative picture of Islam and of Muslims in French society. And, as their image becomes increasingly negative, they react in turn by further identifying themselves with Islam and by becoming even more anti-Semitic,” he tells The Report.
Camus, who is Jewish, says there is also a strong feeling of community identification among French Sephardi Jews of North African origin, including a return to religion that has seen tens of thousands of them turn to ultra-Orthodoxy, often of Ashkenazi inspiration like the Lubavitcher movement.
“Before the 1967 Six-Day War, there were three Jewish day schools in all of France.
Today there are more than 150. There are 100 times more synagogues and kosher restaurants today than there were as late as the 1980s,” says Camus.
Camus says threats from Arabs in mixed neighborhoods, together with the economic success of the children of Jews who arrived here from North Africa, have resulted in a major physical movement – or flight – of Jews out of neighborhoods, where they had been since settling in France in the early 1960s.
“In Algeria, for example, many Jews worked for the state in low-paid jobs – teachers, postal workers, even prison guards.
When they came here in the 1960s as relatively penniless refugees, they moved into high-rise, low-income areas in the far Paris suburbs. In recent years, these areas have seen other waves of immigrants move in, some not friendly to Jews,” he says.
Although a tenth of the community is poor, many North African Sephardi Jews have recently moved in large numbers to wealthier areas, as younger generations achieve exceptional economic success. Thousands have become well-to-do doctors, lawyers and prominent entrepreneurs, like Alain Afflelou, son of a baker in the small Algerian town of Sidi-bel-Abbes, whose name is synonymous with France’s biggest chain of opticians.
Afflelou’s personal fortune is estimated at 180 million euros (235 million dollars).
Sephardi Jews now make up three-quarters of French Jewry and are the vast majority of the community’s activists. “Perhaps it’s because we are more religious than the Ashkenazim and more present in synagogues, which they have more or less abandoned,” Jean-Luc Illouz, 54, a typical French Sephardi Jewish success story, tells The Report.
“I came to France from Morocco when I was 14,” says Illouz, a well-to-do pharmacist and the deputy mayor of the Paris suburb of Chatillon. “We were poor on arrival. My father sold grain in Morocco and if I was able to get to where I am today, it is thanks to the scholarships received from the French Republic, which paid for all of my studies.”
Illouz, whose quick smile makes him highly popular among his clientele, owns a large home in Chatillon. He vacations with his family in Biarritz on the French Atlantic coast, where he is an avid golfer, and in the Israeli city of Ashdod, where he owns a seaside apartment.
There are about 1,000 Jews out of a total population of 35,000 in Chatillon, where he lives. “Virtually all the Jews are Sephardi, like me, and 80 percent are, also like me, products of the French ‘social elevator’ – i.e., we came from poor families, but we’re now doctors, dentists, lawyers, building contractors and so on thanks to our own efforts. We’re all very attached to Israel and many of us have holiday homes there. But we know Israel is certainly no El Dorado. The Israelis we know are the first to say so,” he says.
“No, I don’t see myself making aliya,” he adds.
Just under 2,000 Jews emigrate from France to Israel each year, but possibly up to 25 percent return within five or six years.
“My pharmacy is in Fontenay-aux-Roses, an adjoining neighborhood, and elderly Arabs – not the young French-born ones, but the old, first-generation immigrants – come from far away, asking to be served by me, not by my employees. Why? I receive them with courtesy, not as elderly illiterate foreign workers. I speak to them partly in Arabic, and help them understand prescriptions and complicated official documents. Do they know I’m Jewish? Why would they wish me a happy Passover otherwise?” he says.
What about the young, French-born Arabs? “A Jew can be entirely assimilated into society around him, but he is never completely sheltered from a problem. The younger Arabs are unhappy about the way they are treated in France, and they take it out on the state, but especially on us Jews. They are jealous of our success, so we have become their targets,” he says sadly. 