People stand outside the ‘As du Fallafel’ shop in the Marais district in Paris / Getty Images
The news from France is bleak: anti-Semitic sentiment is on the rise, violent incidents are piling up, and Jews are packing up and leaving for Israel.
Recently, I learned that one of my cousins, tired of feeling marginalized, was planning such a move. That got me thinking.
I lived in Paris for a three-month period in the summer of 2013. Even then, I felt that being Jewish in France was a whole other ballgame than my experience as a Jew in Montreal or New York. French Jews were either French people who happened to practice Judaism, or Jews who happened to be French. I felt that there was no, or little, French cultural Judaism such as the Woody Allen/bagel-and-schmear combo we’re used to. At the same time, I felt more kinship with the Jews in France than I do with most New York Jews — because Jewish culture in France is Sephardic and, well, incredibly French.
There is certainly cause for alarm when stores close their doors for fear of attack; when shul-goers need to hide from an angry mob like the recent events on Rue de La Roquette; and when Jews like my family, who have been proud French citizens for decades, feel the need to leave their homes. But in all that panic, it’s easy (and dangerous) to forget what a strong impact Jews have had, and continue to have, on French culture. Here are a couple of examples:
Given the amount of street style snaps and runway shots invading my Facebook and Instagram feeds, fashion seems like a good place to start. French Jews have always been involved in fashion. In fact, the cult classic “La Verite Si Je Mens” revolves around a non-Jew trying to pass himself off as an Ashkenazi Jew in “Le Sentier,” Paris’ garment district — which is inherently funny because, duh, everyone there is Jewish (and Sephardi, but more on that later).
More recently, Jews have left the shmatte for high-end luxury. French brands like Sandro, Maje and Claudie Pierlot have fashionista followings from London to New York. You may not know, however, that all three brands are owned by Jews — sisters, in fact. Judith Milgrom and Evelyne Chetrit were born in Morocco, and moved to France with their parents when they were kids, mirroring the experience of many French Sephardic Jews, who now outnumber the older Ashkenazi community. Both are vocal about their Jewish heritage. In an interview with The Telegraph in 2012, Milgrom even talked about not working on Shabbat: “About 20 years ago, I started to observe the Jewish Sabbath really seriously. From dusk on Friday until dusk on Saturday, I don’t do any work, don’t shop or look at my email or phone. It’s unbelievably therapeutic.”
On the more kitschy side of things, let’s not forget Yiddish Mama. As Laurent David Samama over at the Daily Beast shows, young Parisian designer Camille Vizioz-Brami is doing for French Yiddish culture what Mile End did for the New York deli. Boasting slogans like “Power Yiddish Mamma,” “Super Mensch” or “Chepselleh,” her apparel makes quite a statement in a time where Jews may feel compelled to mask their identity for fear of anti-Semitic reprisals.
Jewish and Muslim demonstrators advocate peace at a rally in Paris / Getty Images
Is it the spike in anti-Semitic acts or rather their growing banality that drives Jews in Paris, Lyon and Marseille to seriously consider emigration?
Maybe both. Caught between the rise of far-right movements like the Front National and the tide of anti-Semitism preached by Islamists, French Jews today look like they are once again stuck in an age-old historical trap.
After WWII and the massive trauma of the Holocaust, my country — France — tried to build a society free of anti-Semitism. Over the years, various pieces of legislation have prohibited Holocaust denial and racist acts in general. Several associations (SOS Racisme, MRAP and LICRA) have worked hard to erase differences between French citizens. Now, for the French Republic, you are neither Black, nor Asian, nor or Caucasian. You’re not Catholic, Jewish or Muslim. You are French. I grew up with this wonderful principle along with the Republican motto “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.” But our society is not equal to these principles and, sadly, it has taken only four decades for anti-Semitism to return to my country.
The result? My family is a good example. My Tunisia-born grandparents came to France in the late 1950s and had two sons; my father then had three. One of them now lives in New York with no plans of coming back to Paris, the other one studies in Spain and Sweden, and the last one is writing down these lines. Within months, I silently bore witness as a large part of my entourage made aliyah — including some of my friends and all of my girlfriend’s family. It was quite a strange feeling. I wouldn’t say that I felt abandoned, but I was definitely disappointed by all those people choosing to live a different life abroad.
A man demonstrates at a Hong Kong rally calling for an end to Israel’s war in Gaza / Getty Images
Since Israel launched its military operation in Gaza, other countries are seeing an increase in anti-Semitic hate speech and attacks. In France, synagogues are being firebombed. In Belgium, coffee shops are barring Jews from entry. In Chicago, leaflets threatening the Jewish community are being discovered on parked cars. In India, Jewish sites are being threatened with terrorist attacks. And all around the world, protests that start out as “pro-Gaza” or “pro-Palestine” or “anti-Israel” or “anti-Zionist” are quickly devolving into pure, old-fashioned anti-Semitism.
For many American Jewish liberals, this trend is deeply dispiriting — and confusing. They’ve spent years arguing that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are two different things, that the former isn’t necessarily rooted in the latter. But now, they complain, that argument is becoming harder and harder to sustain. The lines are getting blurry. If these protesters don’t actually hate Jews, they ask, then why do they keep conflating Jews and the Israeli government? Why are they resorting to this anti-Jewish — and not simply anti-Israel — rhetoric?
Or, in the words of recent Forward contributor Tova Ross:
When angry protesters shout “Death to the Jews!” at “anti-Israel” rallies in Antwerp, Berlin and London, and Jews are trapped in a Paris synagogue and firebombed by an angry mob, how can you honestly posit that anti-Zionism has nothing to do with anti-Semitism?
My response to that question is: Of course the two have something to do with one another — of course they’re uncomfortably intertwined — and are you really so shocked by that?
Is it really so hard to understand why — after Jews have spent decades telling every Jewish child that they are owed a free trip to Israel, citizenship in Israel, life and land in Israel purely by virtue of being Jewish — the world is slow to distinguish between Jews and Israel?
It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune.
I guess on the whole Israel thing, I used to be kind of pareve. Not so much on the country’s scenic landscape or its culture, which I loved and deeply appreciated: its vibrancy and sheer chutzpah; its gorgeous men who looked nothing like the pimply boys in my hometown of Flatbush, whether they were in uniform or not; its falafel. But on the whole ardent Zionist devotion to the Jewish homeland that characterized the majority of my Israeli relatives, both sabras and American olim, I hesitated to commit similarly.
I admit that this was largely due to my rebellious nature, which had me instinctively buck any familial trend. I relished my role as the token liberal in an almost-uniformly Republican family. I liked looking beyond my immediate circle and empathizing with people who weren’t necessarily Jewish, white, or upper-middle class. And when I made friends at age 16 with a left-leaning socialist who saw clearly the persecution of the Palestinian people by the state of Israel, I only grew more daring in my critiques of the Jewish state. The discussions with my father grew more heated.
“Tova, one of these days you’re going to grow up and realize that Israel is all the Jews have,” he said to me, banging the table for emphasis. I sneered at his naiveté. This was America, for God’s sake. It was 2004. Being a Jew was more than acceptable: It was cool. And I continued to routinely call Israel’s policies into question, because I was a good little liberal.
But, alarmingly, my father seems to have been right. Everywhere I look, there’s news of anti-Israel demonstrations that regularly devolve into openly anti-Jewish sentiment, weakening the position — which I once held — that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are separate entities. The line between the two is growing blurrier, and fast. When angry protesters shout “Death to the Jews!” at “anti-Israel” rallies in Antwerp, Berlin and London, and Jews are trapped in a Paris synagogue and firebombed by an angry mob, how can you honestly posit that anti-Zionism has nothing to do with anti-Semitism?
French far-right Front National party leader Marine Le Pen / Getty Images
Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s right-wing Front National party, is well known for her Islamophobic statements. This is a woman who has compared the presence of four million Muslims in her country to the Nazi occupation of France during World War II.
And yet, fully one third of the French population says it supports her ideas. Front National is expected to do very well in municipal elections this month and in EU parliamentary elections in May.
But what’s most worrying in all of this is that a growing number of French citizens see Le Pen’s ideas as acceptable, even if they don’t support the Front National. According to a poll released last month by Le Monde newspaper, 46% of the French population views the Front National as “the face of patriotic conservatives, with traditional values,” rather than as a party of the “nationalistic, xenophobic extreme right.” Only half the population thinks the party “poses a threat to French democracy,” while in the 1990s as much as 75% thought it did.
Le Pen’s party is now considered part of the democratic landscape; she has, in Le Monde’s words, a “normalized image.” Of course, what this really means is that Islamophobia is going mainstream. And that is — or should be — very disturbing from a Jewish perspective.
A still from the Woody Allen film “Annie Hall” represents a fading paradigm of intermarriage.
These days, more American Jewish women than men are marrying out, as the Forward’s Josh Nathan-Kazis recently reported. The story’s headline, “Jewish Woman Is New Face of Intermarriage, Pew Study Data Reveals,” led me to wonder: If Jewish women have become the demographic “face” of the phenomenon, will we soon become its cultural face as well? Will “intermarriage” now imply a Jewish bride? Will we be hearing from Alexandra Portnoy?
As it stands, there’s no cultural stereotype about Jewish women intermarrying. We find individual representations, but no consistent script. We might think of the cringe-inducing plot line in “The Brothers McMullan,” involving an Irish-Catholic man’s broken engagement to a rich Jewish woman. And, if we go back further to “The Way We Were,” there’s Barbra Streisand falling for Robert Redford, as one does, and marrying him, as one does if presented with the opportunity. “The Nanny” comes to mind. Also “Rhoda.” But there are too few examples for a cliché to have formed.
Stereotypes of Jewish women — and there are plenty — have historically related to how (some) Jewish men see Jewish women, rather than how Jewish women are seen more broadly. The general culture doesn’t seem all that curious about what, if anything, goes on between Jewish women and non-Jewish men.
“Intermarriage,” unless otherwise specified, refers to men marrying out. A 2012 New York Times article about Jewish-Asian intermarriage mentioned seven such couples, all Jewish men married to Asian women, yet made no reference to gender. For those of us who grew up with Philip Roth, Woody Allen, and “Seinfeld,” this default can feel eternal.
Things weren’t always this way. In 19th-century France, depictions of Jewish intermarriage typically involved Jewish women. Jewish wives or fiancées appear in countless works, often with “juive” in the title: plays like Théophile Gautier and Noël Parfait’s 1846 La Juive de Constantine and Hippolyte Lucas’s 1849 Rachel ou la belle Juive, and fiction including Petrus Borel’s 1833 Dina, la belle juive.
Anti-Semitism in Europe is, once again, making headlines. In Paris, crowds sang, “Jews, France is not yours” at an anti-government protest last month. In Rome, a right-wing extremist mailed three pig heads to major Jewish sites, and Italy had its own anti-government protest — complete with anti-Semitic slogans — a couple of months ago. Plus, a recently released survey conducted in seven EU countries suggests that the perception of anti-Semitism is on the rise among European Jews.
As anti-Jewish hatred gains ground, some Jewish communities are growing more insular in response. In certain Jewish circles, there’s a growing perception of living “under attack” — a siege mentality that results at times in self-segregation. But resorting to self-segregation may just be another way of falling victim to anti-Semitism.
The French media are feasting on this week’s revelation that the fading star Gérard Depardieu, who brought to the screen such icons of French patriotism as Astérix and Cyrano de Bergerac, is settling in Belgium. The move, it appears, is dictated less by the scenery (there is none) than the lower tax bracket, an issue of sharpened interest now that the Socialist government has introduced a new marginal rate on the nation’s wealthiest citizens.
Amidst this distraction, the press has scanted the most recent triumph of a rising star: the Socialist Minister of the Interior, Manuel Valls. This week the country’s parliament overwhelmingly voted in favor of an anti-terrorism bill that Valls had championed since he took office in May. The legislation reinforces an already impressive array of police powers, allowing the state to arrest anyone who has attended terrorist training camps abroad even if they have not yet committed a crime on French soil.
The law was a direct consequence of Mohammad Merah’s horrific murder spree earlier this year in Toulouse. Merah had trained at such a camp in Pakistan — a fact apparently know to France’s intelligence service, yet not acted upon. The government of Nicolas Sarkozy, in power at the time, had proposed a similar law, but it was shelved then abandoned during the elections that brought the Socialists to power.
Though many French Jews worried at first if the Socialists would act with the same vigor as the Gaullists, they were quickly reassured. In part, this was the work of François Hollande, who has repeatedly reassured French Jewry that his government will do everything in its power to repel the growing tide of anti-Semitic activities and rhetoric. His recent speech at Drancy, marking the 1942 round-up of French Jews under Vichy, was one notable instance of this commitment.
Standing by Hollande’s side at Drancy was Valls.
The announcement, made by Laurent Fabius, France’s foreign minister, that his government will support the Palestinian Authority’s bid for “non-member observer status” at the United Nations next week is hardly news, but nevertheless newsworthy.
The news, of course, has been in the offing for quite some time. France’s Socialist Party, which has historically enjoyed closer ties with Israel than have the nation’s Gaullist and conservative parties, has long been an advocate for Palestinian statehood. In 1982, shortly after becoming president, François Mitterrand spoke to this very issue in a speech he gave before the Knesset. When he began his own run for the presidency last year, Mitterrand’s disciple François Hollande announced sixty campaign promises: the next to last was that he would support international recognition of a Palestinian state.
There was little surprise, as a result, when Fabius, during an exchange in the National Assembly, affirmed that France, one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, would “with coherence and lucidity” vote “oui” at the U.N. This desire for coherence applies not just to past commitments made by Hollande and the Socialists, but also public opinion: according to a recent poll published in the newspaper Le Figaro, nearly 80% of the French believe that Palestinians should have their own nation. As for lucidity, the bloodshed in Gaza, which tragically has burnished Hamas’ image while tarnishing Fatah’s, deeply concerns the Quai d’Orsay (France’s equivalent of our own Foggy Bottom). Mahmoud Abbas is the best hope for peace, they believe, but they fear this frail hope will collapse under the weight of recent events.
The Guardian cites a new report from Price Waterhouse Cooper Consulting saying the world is on track for an average global temperature increase of 6 degrees C (10.8 F) by the end of the century at current rates of carbon emission, with catastrophic implications for human life.
New research by consultancy giant PwC finds an unprecedented 5.1 per cent annual cut in global emissions per unit of GDP, known as carbon intensity, is needed through to 2050 if the world is to avoid the worst effects of climate change and meet an internationally agreed target of limiting average temperature increases to just two degrees above pre-industrial levels.
Such deep reductions in carbon intensity would be over six times greater than the 0.8 per cent average annual cuts achieved since 2000.
The report also confirms that greatest rises in greenhouse gas emissions came from the emerging E7 economies of China, India, Brazil, Mexico, Russia, Indonesia and Turkey, whose cumulative 7.4 per cent annual increase in emissions swamped record levels of reductions in the UK, France, and Germany.
PwC warns sustained economic growth in these countries could “lock in” high carbon assets that will make it significantly harder for them to decarbonise over the coming decades, a point likely to be raised at the UN-backed Doha Climate Summit when it kicks off later this month.
It also warns that industrialised countries must accelerate their partially successful efforts to reduce carbon emissions.
Aside from the latent anti-Semitism that motivates the European political fringe, there are two possible explanations for why Marine Le Pen felt it necessary to explain that if France is to proscribe the hijab or chador in the public square as she favours, “it is obvious that we must ban the kippa.” She added that both kosher and halal meat must be outlawed together, since the greater good of the republic must be placed above the wants and needs of any one community.
The first was unwittingly alluded to by Le Pen herself, in an interview given to French television.
“Jewish skullcaps are obviously not a problem in our country,” she said, but France has to “ban them in the name of equality.” Tellingly, she concluded, “What would people say if I’d only asked to ban Muslim clothing? They’d burn me as a Muslim hater.” French Jewry is innocent of any offence against the republic, but Le Pen has to offer up the kippa ban, lest she be suspected of only hating Muslims.
The other is that Le Pen made another outrageous and inflammatory statement in a sad bid to sustain her already overly-augmented national profile. Le Pen managed to finish third in the first round of the presidential election in April, and missed out on a seat in the National Assembly by only 118 votes in June by exploiting fears of rising crime and socio-cultural change amongst white working class voters. It is not coincidental, then, that this interview was given just before the start of the Front National’s summer conference, and at a time of cultural conflict between secularism and Islam regarding the cartoons mocking the prophet Muhammad that were published in a French satire magazine.
We all know politics makes for odd bedfellows. Just how odd, though, was revealed in this morning’s news. The presidential candidacy of Marine Le Pen, leader of the extreme right wing Front National, has just been made possible by a French Israeli citizen.
In order to run for president in France, an individual must secure five hundred signatures from elected officials serving in local or national office. This constitutional requirement was, in principle designed to prevent “frivolous” candidacies from making a mockery of the deadly serious business of electing a president. Given that this year’s candidates include Madame Cindy Lee, the scantily-clad nominee for the Party of Pleasure, and Dédé de l’Abeillevaud, the bee-costumed representative for a bio-diversity movement, the law has not quite had its desired effect.
Unless, that is, you are Madame Le Pen.
For several weeks, the FN candidate had been scrambling to find five hundred officials willing to sign her petition before Friday’s deadline. Le Pen’s mad dash has made great copy for the media. There was, after all, the striking disparity between Le Pen’s solid ranking in national opinion polls — shifting between 16% and 20% — and her difficulty in convincing a mere 500 officials, out of a pool of 42,000, to endorse her candidacy. Were officials reluctant to be identified with Le Pen? (By law, the names of those who sign are a matter of public information.) Was President Nicolas Sarkozy’s party, the UMP, twisting arms to prevent officials from signing? (The hemorrhage of traditional UMP voters turning to the FN has become an acute concern for Sarkozy.) Or was Le Pen simply gaming the system and waiting until the last moment in order to depict her candidacy as one the traditional parties wanted to suffocate before the voters could have their say?
The questions are now of a different order: Why did Sylvain Semhoun, who represents Israel as a deputy in the Assembly of French Citizens Living Abroad, elect to be the official to push Le Pen’s campaign over the bar of 500 signatures? According to Semhoun, the reason is simple: “Civic duty.” As he told a journalist from the magazine Le Point, “It would have been intolerable to see millions of voters deprived of their preferred candidate.” Semhoun added that political battles are best fought at the ballot box, not in the street.
This is the week that wasn’t — at least if you planned on attending the colloquium “New sociological, historical and legal approaches to the call for an international boycott: Is Israel an apartheid state?” Scheduled to take place on February 27 and 28 at the University of Paris VIII, the colloquium was quashed last week by Pascal Binczak, the university rector. Needless to say, Binczak’s decision, no less than the colloquium itself, have spurred tremendous controversy.
From the outset, the colloquium was less than colloquial. The conference poster depicts an Arab wearing a keffiyeh, walking along the wall dividing Israel from the West Bank. Superimposed on the wall is the colloquium’s title — the sort of framing that transformed the question “Is Israel an apartheid state?” into a rhetorical exercise. One need only imagine a poster with the title “Is Hamas a reliable interlocutor for Israel?” superimposed on the image of a terror-filled, blood-stained and body-strewn street in Tel Aviv, to understand that in neither case is a true exchange of views sought.
Moreover, the titles for the colloquium’s various panels — ranging from “Spatial Apartheid in the Occupied Zones” to “State of Discrimination in Israel” and “The Civil Administration of Apartheid” — seemed to promise declamation rather than dialogue. The same applies to the participants, most of whom are active participants in the boycott campaign or pro-Palestinian movements in France or other European countries, some of whom viewed the colloquium as a platform to demand the exclusion of Israelis from academic conferences held in Europe.
Charles de Gaulle famously observed that France had “la droite la plus bête au monde” [“the dumbest right-wing in the world”]. Events over the last couple of days reveal that the French Right continues to work hard for bragging rights to that dubious moniker.
At the start of the week Christian Vanneste, a deputy of the ruling UMP (Union for a Popular Movement), dismissed as a “legend” the deportation of homosexuals from occupied France. This was not the first time that Vanneste, who represents a district in northern France, proffered his views on homosexuality. In 2005, for example, he declared: “Homosexuality is a threat to the survival of humankind.” The difference, of course, is Vanneste was then holding forth as a moral philosopher, whereas he now pretends to speak as an historian.
Yet professional historians immediately gave the lie to Vanneste’s version of the “dark years” of the Occupation. Both the Foundation for the Memory of the Deportation, as well as the historian Mikael Bertrand, who published last year a scholarly work on gays under the Occupation, declared that the archives tell a very different story. The Nazis arrested and deported several dozen men accused of homosexuality from both Alsace-Lorraine (which had been annexed by Germany) and other regions during their occupation of France. In an interview, Bertrand added that since archival research continues, the numbers are not final.
The timing could not have been worse for the UMP. This week was to have been devoted to President Nicolas Sarkozy’s declaration that he was running for a second term of office. What had been, at worst, a non-event — Sarkozy started running for his second term the day after he won his first election—or at best a much-needed jolt for Sarkozy’s hopes — he trails by dramatic margins the Socialist candidate Francois Hollande — was suddenly overshadowed by Vanneste’s remarks. The party’s leader, Jean-François Copé (who happens to be Jewish), denounced Vanneste’s remarks, as did every other leading member of the party, including Sarkozy. Copé also announced that the party would not sponsor Vanneste in his re-election campaign for his seat in the National Assembly.