In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo/ policewoman/ kosher market killings here in Paris that took 17 lives last January, people have asked when they might expect to see a ‘point de vue’ on two subjects: whether daily life has changed, and whether antisemitism is on the rise in France. The two are terribly intertwined, for Jews and non-Jews alike. Were these acts ghastly aberrations, media-genic statistical outliers? Or, is antisemitism at their root and on the march? If it is taking ground, then by how much, how fast? By what measure? How much does one, can one know?
I only live here: in the Marais, the old traditional Jewish enclave. I don’t have insider information and I’m not even sure I think what I think. But everyone can have an opinion– and apparently everyone does. President Netanyahu of Israel expressed his when he invited the Jews of France to up and move en masse to that ultimate safe haven, the Middle East. (Bibi is showing a remarkable gift these days for meddling in other country’s sensitive affairs.) Madonna, obviously qualified since she doesn’t live in France, doesn’t speak French and rivals Sarah Palin in her disdain for basic facts, freaked out millions with her recent statement that France today ‘feels like Nazi Germany.’ With much more restraint, Roger Cukierman, president of the Jewish Federation in France acronymed as Crif, remarked that there are parts of town where Jewish men are today uncomfortable wearing a ‘kippa’ (yarmulke)– and that it is strange to drop one’s child off at a school door guarded by special troops bearing machine guns.
Indeed. I recently stopped at a synagogue entrance to ask the armored and armed to-the-gills protectors whether I could take a picture. ‘Sorry, that is forbidden, it would be too dangerous. Someone might kill us. Even press photos have to have the features blurred out. If it gets on the Internet– a colleague has already received threats…’ I thanked them. It must be hard, carrying all that weight, literally and figuratively. Nothing to do, while needing to stay on high alert every minute. One sees these young men and women everywhere, standing or patrolling in twos and threes.
In the weeks after the January 11th March of Solidarity, friends and I sensed a positive change in the streets and public places. People seemed jolted out of their blinkered paths, more mutually aware and caring of those who might need a hand, or directions, or even a hand-out. There were sympathetic smiles. Eyes met eyes with a not-so-Parisian warmth.
That effect has faded some, to be replaced by a jigsaw of anxiety and frustration. Millions of moderate Muslims fear reprisals and mounting mistrust and prejudice. The ‘ordinary’ (non-Muslim) French wonder where and when the next attack will land and clamor for more accountability and the reining-in of radicalizing imams. The far-right National Front is raking in new members who demand the borders be shut. The government has moved swiftly on a number of fronts: beefing up surveillance, changes in sentencing and the prison system, programs for Internet and social media activism, outreach in the schools (How late, how late. After all, that’s where the recent violence was nurtured over years.) Angry young Muslims vocally protest systemic disadvantage while rejecting the principles of laicité and embracing conspiracy theories according to which the Charlie Hebdo killings were a government plot meant to discredit Muslims, and/or were completely faked. And certainly some Jews, although not all, are feeling like they’re wearing targets on their backs.
So, a climate of fear in Paris? No. Not for the vast majority of people going about their lives, enjoying the spring weather and rambling around city streets well into the balmy night. Call it a climate of destabilization and intense searching: for explanations and urgently needed effective solutions to the alienation of a young, inflammable, often ghetto-ized and poorly educated demographic. It’s to them that the new radicalized antisemitism offers a dangerous focus. I’m not Pollyanna: similarities to the Nazis’ expert exploitation of frustrated Germans looking for a scapegoat in the Depression aren’t lost on me. But here is a bit of perspective: statistics for homicide in the most recent year available (2012) show the US at 4.7 per 100k inhabitants, and France at 1.0 per 100k. Even the murders of January 2015 won’t have moved that needle, or changed the fact that France is the vastly safer place to live and raise one’s children.
Fine, you may say, but does that still hold true for Jews? I think so. Recently Roger Cukierman stirred a p.c. hornet’s nest by stating a simple fact: that while certainly not all French Muslims are antisemites, all perpetrators of anti-Jewish violence have been Muslim. I wonder if he in turn would agree with my personal experience– that among non-Muslims, while antisemitism hangs on in some insalubrious minds of the older generation, it’s hard to find among those 50 and under. Jews in Paris do wear their kippas with style, provide leadership in politics, art and business, and toss confetti at dozens of glorious marriages every Sunday in the synagogue up my street. They’re French, to stay.
(Note: the photo, taken from top of the Pompidou Center, shows a black ‘Je suis Charlie’ banner draped from a building.)