Despite the 1,800 miles that separate Paris from Tel Aviv, Jews in France say they face ongoing repercussions from the ongoing Middle Eastern tensions. And it’s not only from the country’s large Arab population but perhaps even more so from na
Paris — Nestled among Parisian gefilte fish proprietors, pickled herring vendors and boulangeries stocked with chocolate rugelach, an Israeli restaurateur yanks otherwise oblivious customers into his teeming falafel palace while Chabad boys sell palm fronds for Sukkot across the cobblestone Rue des Rosiers.
In the Marais, the traditional Jewish quarter of the French capital, neon leaflets advertise Hebrew classes and nearly every shop window has a stamp of approval from the Beth Din of Paris.
“We are in our home here,” says Yomi, the owner of the popular falafel shop, L’as du Fallafel (The Ace of Falafel), who refused to give his last name.
But step outside the close-knit quarters of the Marais district, and France’s Jews will tell you they hardly feel at home and that a low-grade but chronic anxiety gnaws at them because of their Jewish identity.
And because of a persistent fear that tensions in the Middle East could escalate at a moment’s notice, leaving them vulnerable.
The war in Gaza ended 10 months ago, Hamas rocket fire into the southern Israeli town of Sderot is almost nonexistent and Iran, Israel’s existential enemy, is torn apart by internal political dissent. In other words, things are relatively quiet in Israel and the status quo is more than tolerable, say many Israelis.
Yet in interviews with dozens of French Jews from Paris to Lille to Nice over the course of 10 days earlier this month, a picture emerges of a French Jewish population walking on eggshells.
Despite the 1,800 miles that separate Paris from Tel Aviv, Jews in France say they face ongoing repercussions from the ongoing Middle Eastern tensions. And it’s not only from the country’s large Arab population but perhaps even more so from native French citizens and political leaders.
France, with a population of more than 62 million, boasts the largest Jewish population in Europe, as well as a growing Arab population — more than 600,000 Jews and an estimated 4 to 7 million Arabs, according to Time magazine.
“Even at university you can’t even show that you’re Jewish,” said Leah Soussan, 20, at a kosher sushi restaurant in the Marais, where she was catching up with five girlfriends home for Sukkot and Simchat Torah.
Soussan, who said she’d never dare wear a Star of David in public, decided to attend university in Israel at the Interdisciplinary Center of Herzliya, rather than stay in France. Perhaps the least traditionally dressed among her friends — she wore tight jeans while her friends all sported long skirts — Soussan actually attended a Catholic high school, where she said she tried to convert her Catholic friends into respecting her Jewish faith.
“Here there is no respect at all if they know you are Jewish,” said her friend Jessica Antunes, also 20. “It’s true that the French people are ignorant.”
Antunes explained that she and the other Orthodox young women all purposely shorten their lengthy skirts in an effort to conceal their Jewish identities, while men often cover their kipot with hats or just abandon wearing them at all.
“When I go out in the street, I wear a baseball cap over my kipa,” said Mordechai Lasry, who owns the Ohry Israel bookstore on Rue Richer, in the Jewish section of Montmartre.
“There are some places in the suburbs where it is sometimes safer to go without a visible yarmulke,” said Richard Prasquier, president of the CRIF, the umbrella organization for French Jewry. “These places are known. These are places where there is a large Muslim population.”
But Prasquier stressed that anti-Semitism is by no means limited to France and is widespread in the rest of Western Europe as well.
“Jews in France know there are problems, and they fight against these problems,” he said.
While the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are largely quiet at the moment, as soon as tension heats up in the Middle East or local clashes occur, French Jews live in fear once again, both inside and outside of Paris.
“I’m afraid when [the Arabs] hear me speak Hebrew,” said Dikla Fartouk, 27, an Israeli who lives with her French husband and two children in Sarcelles, a town just north of Paris. “I’m here seven years and there’s only one time that I went to the discotheque.”
In 2006, 23-year-old French Jew Ilan Halimi was lured by a French-Iranian woman into the hands of a largely Muslim gang, where he was brutally kidnapped, tortured and eventually murdered. His trial, which concluded in July, sentenced many of the gang members to long jail terms; the ringleader was given a life sentence. Still, many French Jews are frustrated with what they believe were sentences that were far too lenient.
“There was a lot of unity among all [Jewish] people in Paris [about the sentences],” Antunes said.
She and her friends remember the many demonstrations that occurred between then and now, where the Jewish community rallied to bring Halimi’s family justice and then pooled their funds together to send the young man’s body to Israel for burial.
To many French Jews who spoke with The Jewish Week, their country’s media is largely to blame for the anti-Semitism and anti-Zionist feelings they say pervade the French public.
“They make up news or just emphasize [the Israeli-Palestinian conflict],” said Antunes.
Last year, while studying in Israel, she received a frantic call from her mother asking if she had made it safely into a bunker, after a French television station incorrectly reported that a bomb had exploded in Tel Aviv’s Azrieli Center, according to Antunes.
Philippe Karsenty, a well-respected media watchdog in Paris, argues that French media and government bias poses a huge problem for Jews there. In 2004, Karsenty published an article that exposed the Mohammed al-Dura hoax, in which France 2 aired fabricated footage of Israeli soldiers murdering a 12-year-old Gazan boy in a staged act four years before. After charging the news station with blood libel, he was sued by France 2 and faced years of fighting the French justice system before finally winning his case this year.
“In France there is no media competition and no independence. There is no diversity in viewpoints — the result is brainwashing,” Karsenty said to a New York audience last week in a talk organized by the Hudson Institute. “You can imagine the extent of this indoctrination when it comes to Israel and the Jews.”
Israel, he says, is depicted as the aggressor in every possible situation, and while French President Nicolas Sarkozy may personally be a friend of Israel, he has done little to increase public support for the Jewish state, according to Karsenty. Sarkozy may demand the return of kidnapped Israel Defense Force soldier Gilad Shalit, but he also requests that Palestinian prisoners be returned in exchange, an attitude that Karsenty feels is in line with Hamas policies.
The government, Jessica Antunes agrees, does nothing to combat such media bias or other acts of anti-Semitism.
“Here we know the government sides with the Arabs,” she said, expressing her own dissatisfaction with Sarkozy, despite her initial excitement about his familial ties to Judaism. “At the beginning, we voted for him.”
But a Muslim university student who spoke with The Jewish Week felt exactly the opposite, maintaining that Jews have a much easier time dealing with the French government and police force than the Arabs do.
“I dress well and I look like I’m Jewish. I’ve never been checked once in France,” said the 26-year-old student, Ismail Akacem, while working the night shift at Vintage Hostel in Montmartre, attributing the lack of police hassles to the fact that he does not look Arab.
“The Muslims who look like Jews sometimes wear a kipa so they don’t get checked,” he added.
“Because of what happened with the Nazis, Jews are all the time [perceived as] the victim,” he added.
French people are generally afraid to say anything against a Jew lest they be called a xenophobe, according to Akacem, who himself has many Jewish friends and says he supports Israel’s right to exist.
During the war in Gaza, the conflict not only fueled the fire between French Arabs and Jews, but also incited neo-Nazis and fascists to engage in anti-Semitic acts, according to Rabbi Eliahou Dahan, spiritual leader of the congregation in Lille, a city near the border of Belgium where he said only dozens of Jews remain. In mid-January, police found both a swastika and the acronym “ZOG” (which stands for Zionist Occupation Government) spray-painted on the exterior of his synagogue.
“We all thought that after Sept. 11 it would be quiet, but this was not true — it was the other way. [The Gaza war] gave the Arab people here more chutzpah and arrogance,” Rabbi Dahan told The Jewish Week, as he and his boys scrambled to set up their sukkah and the littlest son rode a palm frond, pretending to be a knight on horseback.
But he stresses that tensions only mount amid Israeli-Palestinian conflicts and that they remain largely quiet at most other times.
“If we look at our everyday lives, only when there are tensions in the Middle East do we have some problems here,” he said.
Lasry, the bookshop owner in Paris agreed, adding, “As soon as there is something happening in Israel they get excited. When nothing is going on, they don’t really budge.”
Rabbi Dahan, who himself hails from the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, sends his own children to Jewish schools in Paris and sees most of his community members fleeing to the capital city, if not to Israel. This year, approximately 2,000 French Jews will make aliyah to Israel, a slight increase from last year, as reported in the European Jewish Press.
Fartouk, the Israeli married to a Frenchman, particularly wishes that she and her family could return to her home.
“When Israel was attacking Gaza, we felt it in France,” she said, recalling a harsh protest against Israel just outside Place de l’Opera in Paris. “I was shocked — I told my husband that I want to go home. When you look in their eyes, you see how they hate us.”
But back at the kosher sushi restaurant along the cobblestone streets of the Marais, the six 20-year-old girls continued to chat away in perfect French, looking forward to returning to Israeli universities but maintaining their French identities all the while — albeit with caution.
“You can’t be afraid,” said Soussan, as they finished up their lunch.
But a third friend, Lea Benhamou, who until then had quietly been listening to the conversation, suddenly pitched in.
“I am,” she said.
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