By MARK DAPIN, SYDNEY MORNING HERALD—
Six weeks after the killings, armed police stand guard over the shuttered shopfront of the Hyper Cacher kosher superette in Porte de Vincennes, Paris, as if there were something left to defend. On January 9 this year, Amedy Coulibaly, a French-born gangster-cum-jihadist of Malian heritage, attacked the store with a sub-machine gun, among other weapons. Once inside, he murdered four Jews, declared his allegiance to Islamic State and took hostage the remaining shoppers and staff. He demanded safe passage for his friends Said and Cherif Kouachi, who two days earlier had murdered 11 people at the Paris offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
Coulibaly was shot dead in a commando raid which freed his surviving captives. In his car was found a map marking the locations of Jewish schools in Paris. Coulibaly had told the media he was defending Palestinians; he had told his victims that he was taking revenge for the actions of the Syrian government and punishing the West for its military incursions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Mali. Responsibility for all this, he seemed to feel, could be borne by the Jews of Paris and their children.
The police at Porte de Vincennes listlessly patrol the Hyper Cacher forecourt, which is cordoned off with crash barriers. Against the rails rest hundreds of white tulips and red roses under French and Israeli flags. Among the debris of grief sit signs reading “Je Suis Charlie” and in the same stark typography, “Je Suis Jonathan, Arieh et Gabriel Sandler, Myriam Monsonego.” Below the unfamiliar names are photographs of a rabbi, a three-year-old boy, a six-year-old boy and an eight-year-old girl, shot dead at their school in Toulouse on March 19, 2012 by Mohammed Merah, a French-born criminal with Algerian parents, who murdered them in response, he said, to Israeli killings in Palestine.
Today, thousands of Jews are leaving France, some for Israel but others for the UK, the US and even Australia. Danny Lamm, president of the Zionist Federation of Australia, says that until 2014, he was not aware of any Jewish migration from France to Australia, but last year he met three families. “All of them have settled in Sydney,” he says. “They’ve come because of anti-Semitism.”
Many of those leaving now made their decision in 2012 after Toulouse. They spent the intervening years searching for visas, jobs and arranging homes and schools because, they feared, once Merah grabbed eight-year-old Myriam Monsonego by her long, fair hair, then shot her through the head, all Jewish children might be Myriam.
Port de Vincennes is an arrondissement on the eastern fringe of Paris with a large Jewish population. Outside the Hyper Cacher, a woman kneels to light mourning candles. Next door to the supermarket stands Charles Traiteur, with its elegant window display of croissants, brioches and madeleines. The men who serve in Charles Traiteur wear kippahs. At mid-morning, a woman emerges from the store carrying a bag plump with bread and pastries. She gives it to a police officer, who has to leave his post to carry it to his car. The half-joke among the Jews of Paris is the police and soldiers who now guard every Jewish institution are getting fat, as Jewish mothers will not stop feeding them.
The police have nothing to protect at the Hyper Cacher, only the dead. On February 9, a man was arrested trying to burn an Israeli flag at the site of the slaughter. “What does it mean?” asks Holocaust historian Jean-Marc Dreyfus.
In one sense, the message is clear: “I hated you while you lived and I hate you still now that you are dead. It is time for you to leave.”
Roger Cukierman is president of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France (CRIF), an umbrella body for the 500,000 French Jews or, at least, that proportion of the Jewish population which identifies with the community’s established institutions. In 2013, 3195 Jews left France for Israel, a decision known to Zionists as “making Aliyah”. In 2014, the figure was 7231. This year, Cukierman expects the number to
“Enough is enough,” he says. “Everybody is asking himself questions. Jewish leaders should not tell them what to do. If they decide to leave, it’s a respectable decision. If they decide to stay, it’s also respectable.”
Is Cukierman optimistic for the future of French Jewry? “No,” he says. “A big part of the Jewish population will leave, and it will maybe half of the present.”
There is nothing new about French anti-Semitism, nothing novel about Jews being the target of terrorists. What is new, says Jean-Marc Dreyfus, is community leaders openly discussing the possibility of an exodus.
Roger Cukierman, born in 1936, has twice been the head of CRIF. Asked when the current wave of attacks began, he says, “It’s every time I become president. I was elected in 2001, it was the beginning of anti-Semitic acts. I quit in 2007 and I came back in 2013, and it was approximately the beginning of the jihadists.”
There is a fiercely held belief in the Jewish diaspora that the actions of Israel can’t be blamed for ancient traditions of Jew-hatred. But it would be difficult to find anyone in France who did not date back these latest troubles to the Second Palestinian Intifada, which began in September 2000. When the children of North Africans in France watched television coverage of Palestinians dying at the hands of the Israelis, and saw only Jews killing Muslims, vengeful young men sought to take the fight to Europe.
There have been anti-Semitic murders in France before: four people died when a synagogue was bombed in Rue Copernic in Paris in 1980. The then-prime minister, Raymond Barre, infamously commented, “This odious bombing wanted to strike Jews who were going to the synagogue and it hit innocent French people who crossed Rue Copernic.”
Two years later, six people were killed in an attack on the Chez Jo Goldenberg restaurant in the Marais district. In those days, there was confusion as to who might be the culprits. The far-right National Front (FN) marched in the streets behind its founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, and in its slipstream travelled the more open fascists of the French and European Nationalist Party (PFNE), on whose behalf the Rue Copernic bombing was initially claimed. However, it seems likely now that both crimes were committed by pro-Palestinian militants.
PFNE eventually crumbled when it was revealed that three of its former members had been involved in the 1990 desecration of a Jewish cemetery in Carpentras in south-eastern France, when the body of a recently buried 81-year-old man was torn from the grave, stripped of its shroud and impaled on a beach umbrella, a Star of David left on its chest.
The young perpetrators of the Carpentras violation claimed to be paying tribute to Adolf Hitler, and marking the anniversary of Germany’s surrender in World War II, but their message was the same as the jihadists’ today: “We will hound you even after you are dead.”
But the far right is barely a problem for the Jews anymore. The FN, under its founder’s daughter, Marine Le Pen, eschews anti-Semitism in favour of Islamophobia and an unlikely commitment to protect jews. “My opinion is that Marine Le Pen hates both Jews and Muslims, but she hates Jews a little less,” says Gaelle Toledano, who has compiled a collection of young French Jews’ writings in response to the most recent killings. “We are defended by the
extreme right, so it’s not a good image for the rest of the population.”
Many French Jews have roots in North Africa. They grew up alongside Muslim youth in the banlieues, or outer suburbs of French cities, and relations between the groups were manageable. David Alia, 40, the Parisian managing director of an IT firm, was a banlieue boy. His father is Tunisian, his mother Algerian. His grandparents spoke only Arabic. As a child he was “insulted a lot of times”, he says. “ ’Dirty Jew’, and things like that. But it was just like they were fighting teams against teams: the Jews against the blacks, the blacks against the Muslims. It was not against the Jews because they are Jews. Nowadays, it’s against the Jews particularly.”
Sarah F, 29, who does not want her surname in print, works as a pharmacist in Paris. Her grandparents are Tunisian and she has a 10-month-old son. “When I was in school,” she says, “I was not afraid of being Jewish. And when the problems began with Israel and the Palestinians in 2000, it became more difficult. But it was not like today. Year by year, the level of danger is higher and higher.”
Sarah F, like many others, accuses the media. “There are a lot of problems in the world,” she says. “There is war in Nigeria, in Russia with Ukraine, but what they’re interested in is Israel. We don’t know why. Because it’s a Jewish country? In Syria, how many people have been killed? Two-hundred thousand? They talk about Israel every time one Palestinian is killed. When French people or Arab people hear this on TV, they say, ‘Ah, the Jews, they kill, they’re like Nazis.’ The only Nazis here are the Daesh, the Islamic State. They have no brain. They think French Jewish people are like Jews in Israel, and they want to kill us here because they can’t go to Israel to kill Jews.”
In 2006, a gang of Muslim youths, calling themselves the Barbarians, kidnapped Ilan Halimi, a Parisian Jewish mobile phone salesman, and, over a three-week period, tortured him to death. They wrapped his head in tape, then cut, burned and beat the life out of him, because they thought all Jews were rich that and the community would band together to ransom him. The leader of the Barbarians arrived in court shouting, “Allah will be victorious.” It was street crime but also a hate crime. They chose their victim because of what they believed about Jews.
The whole world watched the people of France apparently come together in condemnation of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, but only 1000 people marched for justice for Ilan Halimi, and there were no huge street protests after the Toulouse school shooting incident.
“Nobody would go outside for a demonstration for Jews,” says Alia. “This is normal. If there were an attack on a Chinese school, I’m not sure I would be outside to demonstrate. I don’t blame people not going outside for Jewish people. It’s not what I want.”
The Toulouse attack was “frightening because it was a school, with children,” says Alia, “but it was in the south of France … we didn’t feel the urgency to leave.”
In May 2014, a French citizen of Algerian descent shot dead four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, Belgium. Their faces, too, stare out from the placards in Porte de Vincennes: “Je Suis Alexandre Strens, Emmanuel et Miriam Riva, Dominique Sabrier.” Brussels is far closer than Toulouse to Paris.
“In the beginning, I didn’t want to leave France for anti-Semitism,” says Alia. “I wanted to go to Australia because it’s so nice. When I was in Sydney, I met a lot of Jews and some of them told me they were walking with a kippah on their head. In France, no Jew I know would do this.
“When I brought my wife to see Australia, she didn’t want to leave France. But when she came back, she said, ‘I’m convinced 60 per cent.’ When the thing happened in Vincennes, she said, ‘I’m convinced 95 per cent. We need to leave.’ ”
Many French Jews feel France is pushing them out, but the world is pulling them in. The migration of multi-lingual professionals such as Alia is, in part, simply a facet of globalisation. Israel, to some Jews, is just another country where they might live. The economy is healthy, the security situation is not dire and there are plenty of jobs in IT.
Another half-joke circulates among Parisian Jews about the “Boeing Aliyah”, by which businesspeople ostensibly move to Israel but actually maintain a home and office in France: it’s a five-hour flight, a manageable monthly commute.
Before the Toulouse shootings, the same killer had murdered three French soldiers in two separate attacks. The soldiers are also memorialised outside the Hyper Cacher: “Je Suis Imad Ibn-Ziaten, Abel Chennouf, Mohamed Legouad.”
Immediately after the massacres at Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher, the French government stationed troops at every large Jewish (and Muslim) site in France. “The soldiers sleep in the synagogues, they sleep in the schools,” says Alia. “It’s not really a problem, because we feel secure with the soldiers. It’s a problem because we know they have to leave. It is oppressive, because you cannot put a soldier behind each Jew all the time.”
There is more grief than anger in the community, he says. “We are not organised to fight. We don’t want to fight. We don’t want revenge. It’s not in our genes, it’s not in our culture. Our culture has been for a long time to let the wind blow and to bend.”
He says he loves France but, “I don’t want it for me, for my children anymore. I hope that in Australia it will be better.” He arrives in Sydney in April to run his company’s new subsidiary.
Sarah F thinks she will move to Israel eventually. “My child won’t have any youth in France,” she says. “The young people won’t know France as I knew it. I want to put him in Jewish school. I’m afraid because you don’t know when they’ll come to kill people. And if I put him in a non-Jewish school, he will have problems too, because they will say, ‘Ah, you’re Jewish.’ So what’s the solution? We don’t have a solution here in France.”
In july 2014, a Bastille Day demonstration against Israel’s war in Gaza culminated in hundreds of militants breaking away from the main march to storm a synagogue in Rue de la Roquette while a service was running. Today, soldiers stand by the temple’s tall iron gates, as the Friday-night worshippers leave in staggered groups of twos and fours. The first man to exit wears his kippah only as far as the street corner, where he removes it and stuffs it in his pocket. By the time they are 20 metres away from the gate, nobody is recognisably Jewish.
Samuel Ghiles-Meilhac, a Paris-based lecturer in modern Jewish history, calls himself “an invisible Jew”. He might wear a kippah twice a year, in the synagogue on high holidays. “And I think that’s a big difference,” he says, “Are you a visible or an invisible Jew? As a visible Jew, people have lived with fear for a certain number of years.”
The most highly visible Jews in Paris are the ultra-orthodox Hasidim, still dressed in their black hats and long coats, and they continue to practise their religion in public, encouraging passers-by in Le Marais to stop and wear tefillin in the street, strapping black boxes containing Torah verses around their head and left arm. For the Hasidism, persecuted for centuries, nothing will change the way they live. But they are few: most French Jews cannot be identified, and are becoming more circumspect by the day.
Both Ghiles-Meilhac and Dreyfus look back with dry nostalgia to the days of fighting Le Pen. “I was young in the 1990s and life was easy,” says Ghiles-Meilhac. “As a Jew, in front of me was the extreme right, the National Front. It was easy to identify: it had a leader, it was a party, we knew what they represented in terms of history, and we could build an easy coalition against them. We had the feeling that being a Jew was not a problem, we’d build a happy, multicultural society, there was the peace process in Israel and there was some hope. And then, by different steps, we entered a very different atmosphere.”
While many Muslims and Jews marched side by side against the FN, their ideas turned out to be different. Left-wing secular Jews promoted assimilation, while the North Africans wanted justice and recognition. Some Muslims believed Jews could express their religion more freely than Muslims in France, and it was clear Jews did not face discrimination in housing and employment like the children of North Africans. It finally proved impossible to avoid discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a proportion of Muslims came to blame the Jews for their problems, both overseas and in France.
“We were in a kind of denial,” says Dreyfus. “Because, you know, the immigrants, the working-class, they are the heroes if you’re on the left. They are the poor, they are the people we have to help and respect.”
The Jews generally agree that the government of France has done everything it can to protect them. When in January French PM Manuel Valls said, “France without Jews is not France,” they heard and understood. The old Catholic establishment’s anti-Semitism, which was embodied in the pro-Nazi World War II Vichy regime, has lost any public expression. It is not the powerful who set themselves against the Jews today; it’s the powerless.
“This is a new kind of anti-Semitism,” Dreyfus says. “We need more research to analyse that. How is it linked directly to the Middle Eastern conflict? Who are the people who target synagogues?” They say they are driven by solidarity with the Palestinians but, “Those people are not activists. They are not marching in the streets.”
Ghiles-Meilhac says the Jews are trapped by forces they cannot change. “They are, in a way, the collateral damage of the failed assimilation of a certain number of Muslims, of the history of colonialism, of Islamism. And, in fact, I don’t think the Jews can do much.
“Jews can protest the policies of the state of Israel, but it’s not going to change what is in the mind
of somebody who is ready to kill Jews. You’re not going to have any influence if you stay here and say, ‘You know, I’m in favour of the Palestinian state.’ Okay, good. I’ve done that a lot. It doesn’t really have any impact.”
While many Jews despair, others hope, and the majority probably hope and despair simultaneously. Intellectuals look for economic answers. Alienation, high unemployment and social rejection have encouraged young Muslims to seek an identity in their religion. “I believe if you had 3 per cent of people unemployed,” says Ghiles-Meilhac, “all these identity questions would be less powerful.”
And although the number of anti-Semitic incidents in France has risen to about 1000 a year, it’s a country with half a million Jews and 10 times as many Muslims. “How massive is it?” asks Dreyfus. “It’s still not November 1938. It’s still not Kristallnacht.”
Sophie Jabès, a Paris-based novelist, says, “If I felt that I should leave, I would’ve already left. But if I stay, I should fight. So my real question now, since I’m still here, is ‘What should I do to fight for my country?’ ”
Martine Cohen, a researcher, says she, too, must fight. But when I ask what they mean by “fight”, they mean the opposite. They believe they have to make friends, reach out to the banlieues, workshop, educate, co-operate, and unite with Muslims of good will to live in harmony.
“I should be more like Martine,” says Ghiles-Meilhac. But, he asks, “Do you talk to people because they look like you, and they’re fully integrated and secular? Okay, you can have a nice chat with them, but are they the ones with whom you should have a difficult conversation?”
The Hyper Cacher reopened in March, but many Jews still share CRIF president Cukierman’s pessimism and expectation that many more of their people will leave France. “What’s terrible,” says Ghiles-Meilhac, “is the two options might be Jews leaving for Israel, or all Jews becoming invisible. And if you have a minority who have to turn completely invisible to feel safe, it means that the society we are in is sick.”