The Marais neighborhood in Paris’s 4th arrondissement has long been known as the Jewish quarter, though it is also popular with the gay community—most Jewish shops and businesses close for Sabbath. But on a recent Saturday on rue des Rosiers, at Florence Kahn’s shop, which is famous for its Russian and Central European Jewish cuisine, people were queuing, seemingly unaware it was Shabbat. “One apple strudel, a slice of cheesecake, and half a pound of pastrami please,” a mother of two said to the assistant behind the counter. Surprised, I asked her if serving meat and dairy together means the establishment is not kosher. “Of course, it is kosher!” replied the shop assistant, offended. “But not approved by the beit din, it depends on people: Some consider it kosher and some don’t.” An old man behind me joked that the fact that Florence Kahn’s shop opens on Saturdays might help protect them from anti-Semitic vandals.
Being a Jew in France is no longer easy. Anxiety is in the air even if the State has guaranteed our protection. Gripes about Jews being everywhere in the French media, banks, and “even in government” are commonplace. It became normal to demonstrate with pro-Palestinian slogans in the streets and blame French Jews for Israel’s actions, which are typically reported as monstrous. We are still a long way from the Dreyfus Affair, but there’s a new wave of anti-Semitism in France, which is often packaged as anti-Zionism, but employs all the classical tropes. It is easy to forget which kind of anti-Semitism is which. First there was stand-up comedian Dieudonné’s inflammatory act, which mocked the Holocaust, prompting Prime Minister Manuel Valls to ban his shows for racism and anti-Semitism. Many French people, particularly Dieudonné’s fans, saw this as a “Jewish conspiracy.” There are everyday physical attacks in the street. The result is a familiar kind of fear.
I remember very clearly the first time I felt this fear several years ago. It happened quite suddenly. I was shopping in the Galeries Lafayette department store. The vendor, a young Arab man, was very helpful and cheerful. I was trying clothes on while he was taking care of his other customers. At that period Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front was rising in the polls, and he asked me what I thought about Le Pen.
“What do you want me to think about Le Pen?” I asked him, laughing. “I would sooner forget she exists.” The young man seemed wanting to test me more: “She is the devil, but many Catholics in France admire her. Don’t you? You are Catholic and you don’t like her?” I was very surprised that discussion in a luxury shop turned so personal, but answered trying to make another joke: “Who told you I was Catholic?”
But the conversation stopped the very same minute. “Jewish!” he hissed and recoiled from me as if I was a leper. He went away and he asked his colleague to help me instead. Le Pen was no more a devil for him, but I was.
Should I have reacted that day, and how could I do that? It’s very bizarre that in Judaism so much is about the transmission, but there’s something else that most Jewish families pass on with their traditions, knowledge, and philosophy—it is this bizarre behavior when you prefer to accept aggression rather to fight it. It was that way for some in Germany during the Third Reich—when many Jews had no choice but first to accept some rules, then agree to wear a yellow star, then to abandon their homes and ultimately be murdered in the Holocaust.
In a different part of Paris, the 12th arrondissement, where French Jews are more discreet than in the Marais, kosher butchers have for security reasons removed Stars of David from their shopfronts. Gone are the Hebrew inscriptions and beit din certificates. None show their Jewish origins anymore. Most French Jews are Sephardim with origins in North African countries who still remember their families’ past experiences living in Muslim countries. Today’s France gives some of them a similar feeling.
Nobody could have imagined 10 or 15 years ago that Jews would once again have to hide in France. Today, after the January attacks on the Hyper Cacher supermarket and Charlie Hebdo office, and the November massacre in the Bataclan, French Jews fear once again for their lives, and this has prompted them to alter their habits and lifestyle as they have had to do in so many places at so many times in the past... Read more