Unease in Avignon (Extract)

Many Avignon Jews in southern France fear they have become a proxy for Arabs bent on venting their anger against Israel

17barakx (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Extract from an article in Issue 17, December 10, 2007 of The Jerusalem Report. For full story please subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here to subscribe. Off the left bank of the Rhone river in southern France lies one of the country's lesser known delights - the city of Avignon, whose charming squares and cascading water fountains create the feel of an open air museum that doubles as a city. Outside its medieval ramparts lie the remnants of the 12th-century bridge made famous by the song "Sur le pont d'Avignon," while within them are dozens of churches - some Gothic, others Romanesque. Apart from the bridge, the city is most famous for the Palais des Papes, the citadel built to house the popes who moved here from Rome in the 14th century. Many of the other churches are open only when they serve as theaters during an annual three-week summer festival that attracts tens of thousands of culture seekers, sidewalk merchants and party goers. The normally sleepy, little town takes on a Mardi Gras atmosphere with celebrations lasting throughout the night. One of the treasures is a reconstructed synagogue, originally dating to the 13th century. The Jewish community of Avignon survived the travails of the medieval Christian era, the tumult of the French Revolution, and the Holocaust, which took the lives of 91 of the several hundred Jewish residents. If there is a threat today, it doesn't come from the traditional Christian adversary but from the historically tolerant Muslims from North Africa. In the wake of the al-Aqsa intifada and the American occupation of Iraq, many of Avignon's Jews fear they have become a proxy for Arabs bent on venting their anger against Israel. Though the Jews of Avignon have not endured the violence that other French Jewish communities have suffered, some fear that the resentment, snickers and dirty looks they are experiencing are a prelude to a more bellicose expression of Arab passions. Yet other Jews, including the rabbi, discount these fears and say there is nothing to worry about. For their part, local Arabs counter that any resentment they may harbor reflects social frustration and stems more from the alienation they experience in France, coupled with local Jewish disdain for non-Jewish North African immigrants, than from a hatred of Jews and Israel. From the outside, the synagogue off of the square known as "Place Jerusalem" looks like yet another Greco-Roman style church, hardly distinctive if not for the tablets of the law above the entrance. During the month of August, the bespectacled gabbai or sexton - a Santa Claus look-alike with a bushy white beard and wide eyes - recounts the community's history to foreign visitors, in English, in the antechamber. Inside the sanctuary, cold cement gives way to striated stone Doric columns. Just above them in the women's section, Corinthian pillars hold up a chapel-like cupola. The oval structure with its creaking wooden benches and numerous lamps betrays the Christian influences created by its non-Jewish architect. The odd acoustics during communal chanting only adds to its unique character. Just off to the side of the ark a small staircase descends into the rabbi's office. Inside sits Moshe Sebbag, a garrulous man as eager to discuss Maimonides' theory of resurrection as he is to debate the ineptness of former Israeli defense minister Amir Peretz. Behind him, desiccated lulavs and etrogs hang on the mantel near an oven once used to bake matza. "There are no problems with the Muslim community," he responds when asked about Jewish-Muslim relations. "They are really nice. Sometimes I get odd stares when I walk home. But I don't think these Muslims are bad people. Some have been brainwashed." A dark, knitted kippa rests tilted on his head. His black hair is flecked with gray streaks and he looks far older than his 32 years. Religious texts ranging from Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef's "Yalkut Yosef" to the 8th century aggadic work "Pirkei De Rabbi Eliezer" hug the wall under the matza oven. Rabbi Joseph Caro's 16th century legal compendium "Shulhan Arukh" is open on the desk next to a digital recorder. Sebbag's PDA smartphone and the fax beep non-stop. "The Muslims sometimes rise when I walk by as a sign of honor, just like for their imams or leaders," he continues, seemingly pleased with the respect afforded him. "They invite me to drink coffee and tea. Sometimes I park my car in front of the synagogue and leave the engine running. And then the meter maid comes. The Arabs who own the kebab stand across the street immediately call me. Once they told me someone spit on the synagogue at night. They chased him away. They are our friends." Yet despite his reassurances, the view of the street is obstructed by the iron meshing of a protective gate. Near the secretary's desk, a large LCD screen beams four closed circuit images from cameras affixed to the synagogue's outer walls. A videophone opens the front door. When told that Israelis fear for their French brethren, Sebbag interrupts his visitor with a quick flick of his hand. "Israelis are simply blowing things out of proportion. There certainly is no anti-Semitism in France. But there are foolish people who do stupid things. I think the Jewish community lives very securely here. The French government does everything it can to ensure the prosperity and security of the Jews." Indeed, it was the Interior Ministry under Nicolas Sarkozy that paid for the sophisticated surveillance system that cost about 20,000 euros ($26,000), part of an expenditure of millions of euros to upgrade protection of synagogues throughout France. Now president of the Republic, Sarkozy has pledged to vigilantly defend French Jews against any attack. And according to Sebbag, local law enforcement officials are making good on his promise - "The doors of the chief of police and the [French] 'FBI' are always open to us. They come to visit. They want to help us as much as they can." The peaks and valleys of the tumultuous Jewish-Christian relationship in France have given way to a plateau of reconciliation. In the foreword to Jules Farber's "Les Juifs du Pape en Provence: Itineraires," published in 2003, the Archbishop of Avignon Jean-Pierre Cattenoz wrote, "Abraham is truly my father in faith. He continues to invite me to leave my homeland, my family and the house of my father to go where he leads me." Jewish and Christian prelates, along with their congregations, meet several times a year to discuss issues that bind the monotheistic faiths. The last gathering focused on the significance of the name Jacob. Though Cattenoz and Sebbag invite their Islamic Muslim counterparts, they rarely attend. Sitting on her porch with a Yorkshire-terrier at her side Evelyne Kalifa recounts the troubles she has experienced during her 45 years in Avignon. Her Moroccan maid, who had worked for her for many years, pilfered her jewelry when the al-Aqsa intifada erupted in 2000 - and she is convinced that if the maid had not identified Kalifa with Israel, she would not have stolen the jewelry. Twenty years ago, on Yom Kippur, a resident living near the synagogue blasted Richard Wagner's operas. Such incidents have left the 67-year-old grandmother weary of France. "I am afraid of Muslims here," she says as the gold around her neck clanks. "There is a lot of anti-Semitism in France. The Arabs don't adhere to the law here. They do what they want." Kalifa and her husband, Roger, fled Algeria in 1962 following the nationalist uprising against the colonial French. They thought they would find calm in Provence but the Kalifas feel just as insecure in Avignon as they were in North Africa on the eve of their departure. "We don't feel very safe here in France," she laments, as the hot Proven?al sun reflects off her rhinestone-studded Versace glasses. "The proof is that I no longer wear my magen david necklace. I would get stares from the Arabs and I don't want to feel afraid." For full story please subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here to subscribe.