In the cafes of Paris, French Jews open up on antisemitism and their future in Europe

April 24, 2019 by Orit Arfa -
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My trip to Paris to canvas the mood of French Jews began in the idyll of an Israeli-owned restaurant, Balagan, near the famed Louvre art museum.

Visitors line up for Israeli-style falafel Le Marais in Paris on Aug. 17, 2016. Credit: Mendy Hechtman/Flash90.

Emmanuelle Mary, a non-Jewish Parisian fashion and lifestyle marketing professional and frequent visitor to Israel (by virtue of her Israeli boyfriend), took me there. The bar had that inimitably cool Tel Aviv vibe with friendly bartenders shouting “Shalom,” even though they weren’t Jewish, as they handed out free chasers over sexy music. Food offerings fused Mediterranean-Jewish-French favourites: hummus, chopped liver, roasted eggplant, fattoush salad. If attitudes towards Israel and Jews could be judged by how full the place got with stylish Parisians, there should be no cause for concern about rising antisemitism in France.

Michael Amsalem, new immigrant to Israel visiting Paris for a wedding, in the 7th arrondissement of Paris. Credit: Orit Arfa

Jewish media, Israeli politicians, and community leaders paint a picture of a France where Jews feel unsafe and are leaving in droves. Several incidents in recent years have triggered this perception: the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket attack that occurred in conjunction with the gunning massacre of staff at the Charlie Hebdo publication; the kidnapping, torture and murder of 23-year-old Ilan Halimi in 2016 by North African Muslims; the especially brutal murder of Sarah Halimi in her apartment in 2017; and the gruesome, allegedly antisemitic burning of an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor, Mireille Knoll, in 2018. More recently, anti-Semites affiliated with the mysterious “yellow-vests movement” verbally attacked French Jewish philosopher Alain Finkielkraut and, around the same time, 80 gravestones were desecrated with swastikas in the Alsace region.

Over a delicious meal capped by a Snickers chocolate-bar dessert concoction, Mary said she admittedly never thought much about Jews or Israel before she began working with Jewish clients three years ago as a personal trainer. She visited Israel for the first time last year. The average French person, she felt, doesn’t have any violent intention towards minorities, but may make a worrisome joke or two about Jewish money and power. Since then, she started paying attention.

“Feeling judged is just the beginning,” she said.

The French people, like other Europeans, have been inculcated from the media with distortions about Israel, which plays into attitudes towards Jews. On television and in newspapers, Israelis are regularly portrayed as aggressors indiscriminately killing Palestinian civilians.

“When you read the news, it’s always the Israelis guilty of killing Palestinians. It’s not that Gaza attacked, and Israel retaliated,” she said.

Mary hopes to learn more so that she could better argue against such distortions. At Balagan, however, there’s no arguing. Just Parisians enjoying a Tel Aviv outpost.

‘There’s antisemitism everywhere’

Vincent Boaz serves customers at Miznon. Credit: Orit Arfa

Another Tel Aviv-like hot spot has made its mark in the French capital (and in Vienna as well), this one in the Marais Jewish quarter, which, like many historic Jewish quarters in Europe, has become a funky retail and culinary tourist trap. The gourmet pita chain Miznon, founded by renowned Israeli chef Eyal Shani, gets packed daily with people eager to partake of increasingly famous Israeli cuisine—in this case, grilled goodies stuffed in pitas served with generous tehina served on ecological pieces of paper.

The bohemian-looking, tattooed French Jew sporting a chai necklace at the counter was not too fazed by warnings of rising French antisemitism.

“There’s antisemitism everywhere,” said Vincent Boaz, after serving a continual stream of customers. “We are Jews. French Jews can feel it in France,” though he does note that “American Jews and German Jews also feel it. But we’re still standing.”

Across the way from Miznon sits L’As du Falafel, considered one of the best traditional falafel joints in town. Non-Jewish Americans sitting next to me made it their first stop on the recommendation of a friend. Photos of Israel fearlessly decorate the wall. The crowd is international; I even spotted a woman in a hijab, which did not surprise the waiter, who said “cousins” come all the time.

Meir, a 23-year-old sitting in one of the booths, agreed to be interviewed on condition of anonymity, given that he recently served in the Israel Defense Forces as an immigrant to Israel. Upon finishing army service, he came back to Paris to be with family and to work. He wants to go back one day, he says, but out of love for Israel, not fear.

He and his two friends, all of Sephardic descent, contrasted the Miznon hipster with their baggy, gangsta-type clothing, coupled with kipahs and air of bravado. They looked ready for a fight, especially if anyone started with them because of their religious adornments, which hasn’t happened—yet.

“In France, there’s a place for Jews, just as there’s a place for other religions. It’s a free country,” Meir said in Hebrew. “It’s dangerous everywhere in the world. Two years ago, there was an attack with more than 300 dead—not against Jews.”

He is, of course, referring to the massacre of music-goers at the Bataclan concert hall on Nov. 13, 2015, which left 130 dead and nearly 500 injured. The need for security in France, he said, mirrors the need for security in Israel. “We’re Jews.”

Within a short walking distance from this food quarter is the Museum of Jewish Art and History, as well as Shoah Memorial/Holocaust Center commemorating the roundup of around 76,000 of French Jews during the Holocaust by French authorities in collaboration with the Nazis.

‘In France, you have to be French’

But there’s consensus on one thing: French media seems to incite people against Israel, and by extension against Jews, with its skewed reporting.

Most French Jews and analysts, like British-born Dr Shimon Samuels, European director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, say Jewish physical safety is relative to location. In areas known as the “Banlieues,” or “suburbs,” known for a growing, low-income migrant population, Jews (and other ethnic groups, for that matter) have been pushed out, fearing antisemitism and general disregard for Western values that such migrants bring.

“There is a heavily Jewish population outside of Paris, Sarcelles,” he said from his office situated in the Jew-friendly 17th district at a heavily guarded multi-level Jewish community centre. “It was wonderful. Many synagogues from different communities. Today, Sarcelles is much more difficult. It’s a place where, for example, during the 2014 Gaza operation, you had huge marches in Paris.”

But, he warned on a more general level: “They’re basically afraid as ‘Jews’—as the Jewish individual. This isn’t a question of violence. As Jews, they’re self-effacing because of lack of neutrality for the word ‘Jew.’ ” The word ‘Jew,’ he said, evokes emotions—emotions present during the Alfred Dreyfus affair at the turn of the 20th century in which a Jewish military officer was wrongly convicted of treason and to the Vichy collaboration under German occupation during World War II—that go back centuries.

Within a mile radius of the centre are an array of kosher shops and restaurants. Michael Amsalem, a new immigrant to Israel visiting Paris for a wedding, pointed out how they’re all packed. If they don’t say “kosher,” it’s out of marketing savvy. We sat at the Cook Restaurant, where Modern Orthodox Jews like Amsalem can enjoy a kosher hamburger for 20 euros (about $22.50), surrounded by a portrait of Jerusalem and the accompanying peaceful dove.

Amsalem, an organizational consultant who is seeking to bridge French and American Jewish intellectual life, made it very clear that he left France out of Zionist values. He fears more for the spiritual safety of French Jews.

“You have a lot of hate on the Internet,” he said. “Against Jews and Israel. What do you do? Instead of simply complaining, ask for practical solutions.”

But Amsalem believes that solutions involve a transformation in how French Jews relate to Judaism, not necessarily leaving for Israel—a trend that is, in fact, in decline. According to statistics from the Jewish Agency, the peak of French aliyah occurred in 2014, with 7,240 olim (new immigrants) compared to 3,299 in 2013. In 2015, 7,892 left France, followed by 5,127 in 2016 and 3,556 in 2017. (No figures were given regarding how many returned to France.) It is estimated that about 500,000 Jews currently live in France.

According to Amsalem, affiliated French Jews relate to Judaism first and foremost as a religion or persecuted people, rather than as a thriving people or civilization. In France, he knows of few advanced institutes for Jewish learning that delve into the depths of Jewish philosophy, spirituality from a variety of perspectives. French-Jewish rights organizations are often afraid of coming out too strongly for Jewish interests.

“In France, you have to be French, officially French,” he said. “The only way Jews have access to public media is through antisemitism.”

French Jews, he said, must move away from a victim mentality, and start embracing and showcasing the richness of positive Jewish identity. American and British Jewish life can provide examples.

“The message of the Jews should not necessarily be antisemitic history. Instead of focusing on intellectual anti-Semites and antisemitism, we should focus on positive history—the good sides of Jewish history with France. There’s a positive history. You can’t only see the black.”

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