PARIS — Defying rumors that Paris's public menorah lightings would fall victim to terrorism fears, thousands of the city's Jews gathered before the Eiffel Tower on Sunday night for a Hanukkah celebration that involved live music, traditional treats, and an incongruous visit from Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Armed guards patrolled the area and a cordon of metal gates was erected around the event space, where guests and their belongings were subjected to searches before being granted entry.
“This is the first time they made me open up my coat,” Alexia Laskart, 43, who had attended the public celebration numerous times in the past, told The Daily Beast. “It is very secure.”
Inside the gates, guards also kept a close eye on the crowd and even approached me at one point, demanding to know what I was scribbling in my notebook.
Despite these unsettling reminders of the city's ongoing state of emergency, the mood was festive. A group of young people hawked beignets and other holiday goodies, while a Hassidic rock band belted out Hebrew songs. Children chased each other through the crowd and a man handed out boxes of Hanukkah candles. Beside the illuminated Eiffel Tower, a 30-foot menorah loomed over the crowd of revelers.
“I thought there would be less people tonight,” Michael Nejar, 37, a journalist and screenwriter told The Daily Beast. “But there are as many as last year.”
“I go almost every year,” he added. “I am not afraid. As soon as I learned that the celebration was actually going to happen, I decided to go.”
Paris police had originally tried to halt the festivities for security reasons, but Beth Loubavitch, the group that organizes the event, was ultimately able to get the go-ahead.
As various Jewish community and religious leaders addressed the crowd, they spoke of defying terror and enduring dark times.
“Fortunately the authorities authorized this gathering, because we need to show that we are not afraid,” said Roger Cukierman, president of CRIF, France’s umbrella group of French Jewish communities. “We will resist [terrorism] because liberty, equality, and fraternity are values we cultivate, and we will not let them be extinguished by barbarism.”
Ariel Goldmann, president of the Jewish social and cultural group FSJU, also spoke of resistance in the face of terror.
“It’s been thousands of years that we haven’t been afraid,” Goldmann said. “The enemies that we have known haven’t been called Daesh. They have been called the Pharaoh, Haman, Torquemada, and Hitler. They have all disappeared. And us, the Jewish people, we are still here.”
Haim Korsia, the Chief Rabbi of France, lit the first candle on the huge menorah and the band broke into a lively rendition of the ancient Hebrew song “Maoz Tzur.”
In a bizarre twist, Arnold Schwarzenegger unexpectedly took to the stage and offered his support to stunned onlookers.
“The menorah to me means light,” said Schwarzenegger, who was in town for the COP21 climate conference and decided to drop by the ceremony.
He continued in Terminator-esque fashion: “It is very important that light prevails over darkness and good prevails over evil, and I stand there with you!”
Schwarzenegger then left the stage to join in a celebratory dance with a group of rabbis.