A Frenchman or a Jew?

In a working-class neighborhood of the 20th arrondissement in Paris, on a rainy, lead-gray morning last month, the housing blocks looked like sodden cardboard. But inside Brigitte Stora’s apartment was an explosion of scarlet, ocher and flame gold, of Israeli and North African textiles, of pottery and a brass menorah. Stora, an Algerian-born Sephardic Jew, is a slim, impish-looking woman in her early 40’s with a mop of black hair. She was wearing baggy jeans that revealed a strip of designer-style Jockey shorts, and she sewed a ripped camisole as we talked. In the kitchen, her teenage daughter, home sick from school, cooked herself a plate of pasta.

A former Trotskyite who quit a career in journalism to raise her three children, Stora belonged for decades to a political movement devoted to the cause of equal rights for Arab immigrants. French Arabs were her friends and political allies, and the integrated neighborhood in which she chose to live reflected those commitments. In the last three and a half years, though, Stora’s perspective has changed. Since the beginning of the second Palestinian intifada in September 2000 and the subsequent rise of Ariel Sharon to the premiership of Israel, France has suffered what is widely considered the worst epidemic of anti-Jewish violence since the end of the Second World War, much of it at the hands of young Muslims. According to S.O.S. Verite-Securite, an anti-Semitism watchdog organization, 147 Jewish institutions — schools, synagogues, community centers, businesses — have been attacked. There have been reported instances of rabbis being assaulted. Secondary schoolteachers, under pressure from Muslim students, have canceled classes on the Holocaust. On the last Saturday of January, during a concert attended by the wife of President Jacques Chirac, a Jewish singer called Shirel was heckled by a group of French North African youths, who shouted: “Filthy Jew! Death to the Jews!”

There are about 500,000 Jews in France — the largest Jewish population after those in Israel and the United States. There is a reason Jews have come to France from places like Eastern Europe or North Africa: ever since the French emancipation of the Jews in 1791, the country has — with infamous lapses — provided an enviable model of equality, an enlightenment ideal, enshrined in the French Republic, according to which individual difference is subordinated to common citizenship. But today this ideal is threatened by a tide of ethnic harassment and challenged by a surge of religious pride and self-identification among France’s Jews and Muslims alike.

Although the frequency of anti-Jewish incidents is said to have abated somewhat in the past year (thanks in part to more vigilant policing), many French Jews remain frightened, angry and dispirited. In 2002, the number of French citizens emigrating to Israel more than doubled from the year before to over 2,000. Like many of the country’s secular Jews, Stora finds herself reconsidering the venerable French assumption that she and her family must be French first and Jewish second. For a thoroughly assimilated Frenchwoman (her husband is a deputy mayor of Paris), it is no small turnabout in her self-conception.

“I’ve always loved our neighborhood, its mix of African, Arab, working-class French,” she said. “For years, we lived in what I now realize was an illusion of solidarity. In kindergarten, my son learned to cook African dishes; my daughter was taught Arabic calligraphy. Now that’s finished. The young mothers picking up their children from preschool wear head scarves; teenagers born in France speak Arabic in the streets — before, never. Their spirit of rejection is absolute.”

Secular French Jews of Stora’s generation have felt the impulse to return to their roots before. As Stora pointed out, she, like thousands of girls born around 1960, was named after the cinema sex kitten Brigitte Bardot, but for her own children she chose names from the Hebrew Bible. “I suppose I felt the need for my own moorings,” she said. Even so, her children have embraced a much stronger form of Jewish self-identification — one that is all the more militant for finding itself besieged. “Because of anti-Semitism,” she said, “my children feel more radically Jewish than I ever did. Their attachment to Israel has become absolutely primary.”

At first, Stora was gratified to see her children drawn unselfconsciously to their Jewish identity. Her son asked for a bar mitzvah; her daughter wore a Star of David made of sequins to parties __ a gesture Stora said she could not have imagined making in her own adolescence. But her gratification has faded. “Now,” she said, “my heart sinks when my children come home saying, ‘Mama, it’s hard being a Jew.’ For them, it means a constant low-level barrage of hazing, blows. These days, my daughter hides her Star of David under her shirt.”

Hanna, the teenage daughter, explained: “If I wear it, my friends jump on me: ‘Where do you think you’re living? Take that thing off!’ At school, it’s cool to be anti-feuj “- feuj means Jew in verlan, a popular street slang. “Kids say, ‘This pen doesn’t work; it’s feuj.’ In the cafeteria, it’s ‘Why are you eating alone like a feuj?’ It’s just a way of kidding, but I find it hard to live with.” Stora said that when she complained to Hanna’s teacher about the anti-Semitic remarks, the teacher was dismissive. “Of course it’s because of Sharon,” Stora recalled the teacher saying. “I’m surprised your daughter takes it so personally.”

The worsening of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has created painful rifts among French Jewish intellectuals, aggravating the relations between those who feel dutybound to condemn Israel’s human rights abuses and those who maintain that support for Israel is a prime obligation of diaspora Jews, especially in a political climate rife with anti-Zionism. Even if they are critical of Sharon’s leadership, many French Jews resist what the lawyer and activist Serge Klarsfeld has called the pressure to become “political Marranos” — Jews called upon to renounce Israel much as Jews during the Spanish Inquisition were compelled to renounce their faith.

For the complete article: https://www.nytimes.com!2004/02/29/magazine/29ANTISEMITISM.html
Fernanda Eberstadt is a novelist who lives in France. Her most recent book is ‘ ‘The Furies.”


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