The Jews Who Are Determined to Stay in France
After the murderous siege of a kosher supermarket and many other anti-Semitic flashpoints, Jews were reported to be leaving France en masse. Others are resolute about staying put.
A young woman with long, raven-colored hair sings the classic Jewish love song Tumbalalaika while accompanying herself on the accordion.
On this quiet Sunday the lyrical Yiddish fills the air of the Marais, the historically Jewish neighborhood in Paris that also is one of the hippest and trendiest shopping districts.
The woman sits in front of a bakery that smells of sweet challah and rugelach and a store called Diasporama, which has silver Shabbat candles and carefully crafted menorahs in its window.
A few meters away, a restaurant selling the best falafel one finds outside of Israel has a line stretching down the street.
You almost forget you’re in Paris, except for the fact that the falafel restaurant’s menu is in French and the bakery sells delicious cheese brioche in addition to its more traditional Jewish fare.
And members of the French army equipped with massive bulletproof vests and machine guns stand guard.
I am in Paris almost six months to the day after Muslim extremist Amédy Coulibaly held people in Hyper Cacher, a kosher supermarket, under lethal hostage, hours before the start of the Jewish Sabbath.
Occurring days after the Charlie Hebdo attack, Coulibaly’s brutal assault not only claimed the lives of four hostages, but stamped an indelible imprint of fear on the Jewish community in Paris, a community which has been witnessing a cycle of threats for decades, and really, centuries.
As a result, French Jews are leaving, more each year than the previous one.
Last year, 7,000 French Jews made aliyah, or emigrated to Israel, according to the Jewish Agency, which tracks Jewish emigration to Israel.
In 2013, 3,293 made aliyah, after 1,917 left for Israel in 2012.
Based on the phone calls it received following the Hyper Cacher attack, the organization predicted that around 15,000 would emigrate to Israel by the end of 2015.
There are about 500,000 Jews in France, the third-largest total population of Jews, following behind the U.S. and Israel.
A loss of 15,000 Jews from France would be a 3 percent decrease in just a year.
While the kosher supermarket was located about 5 kilometers from the Marais in Porte de Vincennes, the Marais still bears the lethal stains of anti-Semitism.
A boutique clothing shop now operates where Chez Jo Goldenberg sold Jewish food before it was attacked in 1982 by Palestinian extremists wielding machine guns and grenades. Six were killed and 21 were injured.
A plaque marks the tragedy and the Goldenberg awning remains.
“It’s not the same as the plaques around the city that give you a sense of the city and its culture. These are the phantom plaques, the plaques of the demons that live within the Jewish soul,” says Shimon Samuels, the director for International Relations at the Simon Wiesenthal Centre.
The trendy, bustling streets of the Marais are, unfortunately, filled with these demons for Jews whose families have lived in France for decades, if not longer, explains Samuels.
“These are streets where Jews were rounded up in 1941 and 1942,” he says. “For the Jews it evokes the burning of the stores, Nazi German and Vichy France. The phantoms are still there.”
To many, the January attack against the kosher supermarket set off alarms about anti-Semitism in Paris.
In reality, those affiliated with the Jewish community in Paris were well aware that anti-Semitism was manifesting itself in various frightening and lethal forms for years, if not decades.
But the rest of the world was not attuned to the gravity of the many smaller attacks that proved anti-Semitism was alive and well in France.
“If there had not been an attack on Charlie Hebdo days earlier, I believe the attack on the supermarket would have gone into that same black box of oblivion,” says Samuels.
According to the French Interior ministry, 51 percent of all racist attacks were against Jews in 2014. They make up less than 1 percent of the country.
“What begins with the Jews never ends with the Jews. With Hebdo, it was no longer a Jewish issue. It became a national issue. When it becomes a national issue, the government cracks down,” Samuels says, explaining why the government began providing military security in the Marais after the January attacks.
The security presence like the one I witnessed the Le Marais is the norm outside synagogues or Jewish schools and organizations now.
Samuels describes how around his own office in Paris, “soldiers play football in the yard with children,” but there are also “three soldiers with machine guns at the entrance. Two in the back. Five looking in. Now, it is almost a state of war.”
He outlines three waves of anti-Semitism in recent decades. The first was 1979 to 1982. It encompasses the Goldenberg attack, but also the bombing of the Rue Copernic Synagogue in 1980, which resulted in four fatalities and over 40 injured. It remains unclear who the perpetrators were.
Often, the attacks are worse during conflicts in the Middle East and Samuels notes that the second wave began during the start of the Second Intifada in 2000.
“There were disaffected youths living in the slum ruins around Paris and other European industrial cities,” Samuels explains. “These kids had transcribed the Middle East conflict to French soil. Their game was Palestinians versus Israelis. They were the Palestinians, and the Israelis were generally poor working-class Jews in these neighborhoods,” he said.
He believes the third, and most recent, wave of anti-Semitism began with the kidnapping of Ilan Halimi in 2006.
The 23-year-old cellphone salesman was kidnapped and tortured for three weeks by a group of Muslims that called themselves the “Gang of Barbarians.”
Thinking that Halimi’s family would be wealthy because they were Jewish, they also tried to extract a ransom.
He was found naked and handcuffed with 80 percent of his body burned by gasoline and acid. He died on his way to the hospital.
Just a few examples: a man was assaulted with a stun gun in March 2014 when he walked out of a Paris synagogue, and a Jewish teen was assaulted with a taser at the Place de la République in June 2014.
Ironically, that is where millions gathered as a sign of national unity days after the Hebdo attack.
On Bastille Day in 2014, thousands of protesters chanted “Death to the Jews” and “One Jew Some Jew All Jews Are Terrorists” among other anti-Semitic remarks.
However, as Jewish publication Tablet noted, the march was “described in AFP releases as a well-mannered demonstration except for a few incidents,” but “was in fact a hate-fest against Israel and the Jews.”
The list goes on and on, but perhaps the attack that drives the greatest fear for families is the tragedy in Toulouse in 2012.
Mohamed Merah attacked the Ozar Hatorah school, murdering seven, including three children.
When French Jewish parents read about how Merah grabbed 8-year-old Miriam Monsonego by the hair and shot her in the head, it is no wonder they want to leave France.
But behind the stark emigration numbers and the many stories about Jews fleeing France, there are many committed to staying.
“I don’t want to be looking at myself as part of the last generation of Jews in France before they pack and go to Israel,” Mathias Dreyfuss tells me as we sit in a café in the Marais. “I’m not willing to leave.”
Dreyfuss, 35, was born and raised in Paris. He is the educational director at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme (Museum of Jewish Art and History) while writing his dissertation, which is also related to the history of Jews in France.
While his mother’s family emigrated from North Africa, through his father’s side he is related to Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish artillery officer who was infamously arrested on trumped up anti-Semitic charges in 1894. Dreyfuss does not consider himself religiously observant.
“Even though I have been involved in the Jewish world for many years, I never defined myself firstly or only as a Jew. I have the Parisian identity, the historian identity,” he says.
For Dreyfuss, being a Jew in Paris is not merely tied to religion, but intellectualism and liberal values, much as it is for more secular Jews in the U.S.
In fact, the bloody week in January that brought the Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher attacks felt like a double affront.
“You had the impression that two sides of the Jewish identity had been attacked: freedom of speech on one day and just because they were Jews on the other.”
However, Dreyfuss admits that the specific attack on Hyper Cacher marked a dramatic change for him, especially since he happens to live around 200 meters from it.
“Of course, it was not the first anti-Semitic attack, but as a Jew living in Paris, working at a Jewish museum, I never had this feeling,” he says. “[January] was the first time I realized I could be threatened personally. I never went to this supermarket [but] I realized that as a Jew I could have gone there and been in this attack.”
Dreyfuss does think his Jewishness is more prominent in his identity than he once believed. “Now, I have the feeling that I, myself, and other people think of me as a Jew. I necessarily have a specific point of view and anxiety,” he says.
Still, he is compelled to stay in France.
“I have a feeling we [the Jews of France] are at a turning point,” he says. “It’s difficult times, but I am convinced we have to work on dialoguing with people and not just saying everybody hates us. That’s not the case. People can change.”
I interviewed other Parisian Jews like Dreyfuss, who are in their 30s, identify as Jewish, but are not necessarily traditionally religious.
This subset of French Jews has unique pushes and pulls to stay or leave, explains Rabbi Stephen Berkowitz, who has served congregations in Paris and Strasbourg.
“In their 20s and 30s, they are the most mobile,” he explains. These Jews’ ability or, more accurately, their need to leave France may not be related to anti-Semitism.
He points to the fact that due to the struggling economy, French nationals, regardless of religion, have been leaving the country in relative droves in recent years.
According to a 2014 article in The Independent, around 2.5 million Frenchmen were living abroad that year with the expat population set to grow at about 2 percent a year.
“Young people feel stuck, and they want interesting jobs,” Hélène Charveriat, the delegate-general of the Union of French Citizens Abroad, told the publication.
Berkowitz says he knows young French Jews who fit this profile.
“They leave France and go to Israel not because they are afraid of anti-Semitism or because they are religiously observant, but because of the desire to be in a start-up country with high-tech jobs.
“What’s happening in France is not just anti-Semitism and fear, but the question of jobs and opportunities.”
Still, he does admit that there has been an increase in discussions about emigrating to Israel since January.
“Definitely, the conversations [about leaving] are on everyone’s lips,” Berkowitz says. “But talking about it doesn’t mean they will leave.”
How long a person’s family has been in France may be another large factor in the decision to emigrate.
Around three-quarters of the Jewish population in France consists of immigrants from North African countries, like Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia.
Many of these families arrived in France only relatively recently, in the late 1940s through the early 1960s.
“If you’re a traditionally [religious] family in Toulouse and your parents left Algeria and you’re only first generation and your kids go to the school that was attacked, those will be deciding factors,” Berkowitz says.
But he also offers examples like his 26-year-old stepdaughter, who he describes as a “secular Jew who is totally assimilated.” She and others in her cohort “are sensitive to anti-Semitism,” but they “don’t feel specifically threatened.”
Berkowitz believes that too often, the nuances in the Jewish community of France are ignored in the media because there is so much coverage of anxiety and fear. “Each one sees the noonday sun at their own front door. They [French Jews] will judge things according to their own contexts,” he says.
Simon Fleury-Schindler, a 34-year-old living in Paris, is one of those relatively secular Jews who is deeply aware of the growth of anti-Semitism in France, but also feels no urge to leave.
“I feel deeply French, for sure, so I want to stay in France. Even if I have family in Israel, I feel French and Jewish,” Fleury-Schindler says.
Still, he understands the desire to leave France, especially once people have children.
“It changed with Toulouse. It was the first time since World War II that Jewish children were killed in France. In Jewish schools, you have military. For some children, it’s very hard to see this every day in front of their schools,” Fleury-Schindler says. “For them, it’s commonsensical they want to leave.”
Florian Hohenberg, 30, expressed concerns that Jewish schools will be the only option for his future children.
“My major worry for the future is the school issue. I never thought I’d send my kids to private school,” he says. “Ten years from now, I don’t know if I will feel secure sending my kids to public school because maybe I will fear they will be harassed for being Jewish.”
Since Hohenberg is only technically half-Jewish on his father’s side, he is actually in the process of formally converting to Judaism for his impending nuptials to Sarah, who asked only to be referred to by her first name. The act of conversion is a sign of a significant commitment to Judaism for this couple.
Yet, at the same time, as devoted as they are to Judaism, they are both devoted to staying in France.
“We cannot picture ourselves outside of France. For sure, we would not make aliyah,” Sarah tells me.
While she has encountered anti-Semitic remarks, Sarah worries that the same threats she and her family face in Paris would be as bad, if not worse, in Israel.
When the topic of Jewish children in France having to deal with armed security on a regular basis comes up, she simply says, “In Israel, it will be the same.”
Samuels was not surprised when I told him I encountered a number of Jews in Paris who felt compelled to stay in their country.
“Of course, there are those who say, ‘I’m French. I’m European. I’m staying here.’ It goes back to the Warsaw Ghetto. It’s saying ‘We are demonstrating we are here because we have the right to be here,’” he tells me.
“You always have that among Jews. You have the whole gamut. That’s the strength and vitality of the Jewish community.”
While Samuels very much believes anti-Semitism is a growing problem in France, he is not worried that the Jewish community in France will wither.
“Even if you’re a pessimist, you have half a million Jews in France. Let’s say 150,000 leave. You still have a very large community,” he says.
As for the Jews who decide to leave France or Europe or the other regions where anti-Semitism is on the rise, Samuels believes they will still endure and thrive.
Unfortunately, that is something they’ve gotten used to over their history.
“We carry the Jewish library on our backs. It’s something that’s a bundle, whether it’s books, history, or music. Many European Jews feel that way. They have a bundle and carry it,” he says.
“It often means moving on, but it gets stronger and survives.”