An American dream for French Jews

A Kosher bakery in Paris. France has the third largest population of Jews, after the U.S. and Israel, but following recent attacks, many are considering a new home. (Photo from Flickr by Donald Jenkins)
A Kosher bakery in Paris. France has the third largest population of Jews, after the U.S. and Israel, but following recent attacks, many are considering a new home. (Photo from Flickr by Donald Jenkins)

Studying the photos following last week’s multi-pronged massacre outside of a kosher supermarket on the outskirts of Paris, I was forced to read the fine print. The woman with the olive skin and long, black hair, standing in her blue jeans at Place de La République with a solemn face — was she Jewish? Or Muslim?

In France the class, religious, and ethnic lines that run deep between Jews and Muslims come with an ironic twist — many of them come from the same countries, with shared foods and languages. And now, just as quickly as the Muslim population is climbing in France (now the largest Muslim population in the European Union), Jews are leaving.

Citing an uncertain future in the face of rising anti-Semitism, many French Jews are moving to Israel, where Jewish immigration is expedited and the country’s powerful army and iron dome offer a sense of security. A survey conducted by the Jewish Agency this past May estimated that 5,000 Jews would leave France for Israel in 2014, up from 3,270 in 2013. By the end of the year, the final number was closer to 7,000.

The entrance to a synagogue in Neuilly-sur-Seine, in the suburbs of Paris. (Photo by Anna Goren).
The entrance to a synagogue in Neuilly-sur-Seine, in the suburbs of Paris. (Photo by Anna Goren).

These Jews could leave a place where they have been traumatized by eerie reincarnations of wartime-era France, and move to a country where they’re a powerful majority.

But they won’t be escaping an environment where Jews and Arabs remain separate and pitted against each other — the perfect formula for rampant, mutual racism.

Sometime in the early 12th century in Islamic Spain, the poet Judah Halevi penned the now famous words about Jewish dispersal: “My heart is in the East and I am at the edge of the West”.

Halevi, of course, was referring to this Jewish longing for Zion, modern-day Israel. His poem has been sung by Zionists and Jewish immigrants for centuries, a rallying-cry for the quintessential Jewish experience of diaspora.

I have also heard this poem. “Next year in Jerusalem,” we promise each year at the passover Seder,  knowing full well we’ll still be at the same dining room table in Seattle.

Watching the lives of Jews in Europe unfold on the news, I’m beginning to wonder how long Halevi’s poem will ring true. For many Jews in Paris, my own family included, the prayer looks more like “next year in America” — and maybe that’s not a bad thing.

I have lived a privileged life as a Jew in the United States. I have enjoyed all of the benefits of democracy, class privilege, and whiteness. I have been freed to devote my energy to many of the other injustices in American society — racism, poverty, the environment — often with an entire group of organized Jews, while I am free to practice my religion without a second thought.

It wasn’t always the case for my family. From a small island off of Greece, my grandfather’s relatives dispersed to the Belgian Congo, Paris, Brussels, and Seattle throughout the early 20th century, dodging the Nazi takeover of Greece that left their Jewish community decimated. Last year, I got the chance to re-connect with the Parisian contingent, getting a glimpse of what my life might have looked like had the cards of diaspora fallen differently.

The author's relatives in Paris, where they immigrated in the early 20th century to work in the garment industry. (Photo courtesy Alise Tarica).
Yair and Victoria Tarica, the author’s great aunt and uncle, in Paris, where they immigrated in the early 20th century to work in the garment industry. (Photo courtesy Alise Tarica).

One relative, Géraldine, has two children with her Tunisian husband. At their son’s Bar Mitzvah last May, I was taken aback by the security guards flanking the synagogue on a quiet street on the outskirts of Paris. She talked about her desire to eventually move her family to the United States.

“You can show everyone that you are a Jew, without fear,” she wrote in an e-mail. She can’t imagine sending her son to fight in the Israeli army, either — a requirement were they to move to Israel.

Another relative, Valérie, recalled receiving threats and insults in university, as a part of the Jewish Students Union. She tied the rise of incidents like these to the unraveling conflict in the Middle East, the turning point being the war in Lebanon War back in 1982. The public equated Israeli treatment of Palestinians to Nazi treatment of Jews, she says.

“When I was a kid, life was very easy at school, with friends, with teachers… Jews and non-Jews were together and no one cared,” she wrote.

But events like the kidnapping of Ilan Halimi in 2006, the shooting of a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012, and the most recent attacks on a kosher supermarket, make a future in France feel tenuous for Jews like Valerie and Géraldine.

Such grim stories of anti-Semitism were told to American Jews like me as folklore: powerful vestiges of the war, pointed to as evidence of the urgency of religious community and tradition. We were told to be proud Jews, and easily we were. But aside from the peripheral extremist, it mostly wasn’t something that happened to us.

Hearing stories about the Jews of France in recent years has been a wake up call.

Emily Heppner, a Jewish Canadian now living in Paris, pointed to the distinctness of this new brand of anti-Semitism in Europe, different from that of Nazi Europe.

“People equate anti-Semitism to the growing Muslim population…it’s tied to the politics [in Israel].”

And just like in Israel, Jews and Muslims — many of whom have been pushed to the poorer outskirts of the city — do not mix with each other, according to Géraldine.

“They are feeding off of that fear [of the other],” noted Heppner, who said that she generally didn’t feel uncomfortable in Paris expressing her religion, though wasn’t surprised when she found out that this month’s attacks had targeted Jews.

There is also a legacy of isolationism in France that is unwelcoming to both parties. Heppner found the words “death to the foreigners, death to the Jews” scrawled onto the wall on her first day of graduate school in Normandy.

France’s long-held secularism has been challenged by both Jews and Muslims.

“Our parents’ main goal was integration, but my generation and the next seem to want to stand out specifically as Jews,” Julien Kojfer wrote in an e-mail from Paris. He sees many of his counterparts keeping kosher and giving their children Hebraic names. He, on the other hand, remains less religious.

“I have Muslim friends,” he commented. “But we’re not religious and [we are] open-minded, so it’s never been an issue.”

The American melting pot is far from a perfect model. But as an alternative to perpetuating what is already a microcosm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by moving to Israel, Jews seeking a way out should come to America, and America should welcome them

Julien Kojfer joined friends and family at the Unity March. While participants were united against radical Islam, they also resisted the extreme nationalism of Front National party president, Marine Le Pen. (Photo courtesy Julien Kojfer)
Julien Kojfer joined friends and family at the Unity March. While participants were united against radical Islam, they also resisted the extreme nationalism of Front National party president, Marine Le Pen. (Photo courtesy Julien Kojfer)

Here, they would not only be free to practice religion without fear, they would be free to be Jews among Muslims, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, and in Seattle, some nice agnostics who practice a lot of yoga.

In turn, Jewish communities in the United States, overwhelmingly of Eastern European descent, might be forced recognize an often invisibilized minority of Jews who come from North Africa and the Middle East.

Here, French Jews might have more access to an Islam that is not synonymous with extremism, and Muslims might see Jews who look like them. Neither would stick out as religious groups in the same way that they would in France, where secular zealots like Marine Le Pen are “saving secularism” by forcing Jewish and Muslim school children to eat pork for lunch.

Kojfer, whose family has been living in France since the 1920’s, said that the first time he really felt French was at a spontaneous gathering the Place de la République, for a ‘Unity March’ following this month’s attacks.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he wrote. “So many people converging, a whole country standing up for its values, supported by so many other nations. It was both terribly sad and incredibly hopeful.”

Back in Seattle, watching the news unfold about Charlie Hebdo and the attacks that followed, I felt shocked and saddened about events far away. I tried picturing the provocative cartoons in circulation here, and couldn’t. I tried imagining a place where I felt unsafe as a Jew, and couldn’t.

Strangely, and for the first time, I felt pretty American.

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