Beyond the Bounds

By Daniel Ben Simon

 
(C) reprinted with the permission of Haaretz Daily (English)

Shocked and angry, France is finding it difficult to mollify its Jewish citizens in the wake of hundreds of attacks directed at them during the past year. The heads of the Jewish organizations have been talking about a revival of anti-Semitism, and liberal Jews have been discussing the violence that has been directed toward them, the source of which is poverty. Most of the incidents, they say, have occurred in the poorer peripheral cities. Politicians and senior government officials have been whispering that Israel, because of it aggression toward the Palestinians, is the cause of this wave of anti-Jewish activity.

And there are also those who are certain that the attacks against Jews stem from feelings of anger that immigrants have with respect to their new country and its cruel attitude toward the newcomers from North Africa. This attitude is the bon ton in French discourse these days. Statesmen, journalists and especially intellectuals are expressing remorse and beating their breasts about the poverty, discrimination and oppression of the immigrants from North Africa.

Everyone mentions the soccer match between the French team and the Algerian team, the reverberations of which are still echoing through the country. This game exploded the illusion of the integration of the North African immigrants into French society. The millions of Frenchmen who watched the match discovered to their astonishment that the dream of the melting-pot was shattered at the rare moment when the former occupiers met the former occupied on the well-tended grass playing field.

The match between the two teams took place about two months ago and was declared an act of reconciliation between the two peoples. About 100,000 spectators filled the France Stadium where the World Cup soccer games were held about four years ago. The atmosphere was colorful and festive. The prime minister, government ministers and senior public figures sat in the VIP box, smiling with evident enjoyment.

However, when "La Marseillaise" - the French national anthem - was played, suddenly whistles and boos were heard. The high-ranking guests blanched. Throughout the game, the French fans from the North African countries whistled and booed every time the players of the French team touched the ball and sang songs to encourage the team from their native land. When the Algerians scored a goal, the immigrants cheered them.

And then came the moment that shook the French. In the 74th minute, immediately after the hosts scored their fourth goal, thousands of furious fans swarmed onto the field. They could not stand another defeat of Algeria by France, even if this was only in a friendly sporting context. Objects were thrown in the direction of the people in the VIP box and a beer bottle hit the minister of sport in the head. The children of immigrants, who were born in France, lay down on the grass wrapped in Algerian flags. The next day there were depressing commentaries in the newspapers about what had happened. The commentators spoke about a social malaise that has spread through France and about the miserable lives of millions of immigrants.

Jewish filmmaker Jacques Tarnero watched the game at home and was alarmed. He was born in Algeria and came to France in the mid-1960s, when he was in his twenties. He saw the explosive anger of the young people and imagined how, in other circumstances, this anger could be directed at Jews.

"The young people of North African origins are in a schizophrenic psychological state," he explained. "Even though they were born in France, they do not know what their identity is: Algerian or French, religious or secular. When they see on television how the Palestinians are suffering, they immediately identify with them and see them as a role model. What is happening to the Jews these days is definitely a problem of French society and not of the Muslims. The attacks on Jews during the past year is indicative of a profound crisis between France and two of its major communities: the Muslims and the Jews."

Most of the anger among the descendants of immigrants has exploded in the peripheral cities and the poor neighborhoods throughout the country that are home to millions of immigrants. It is an open secret that incautious entry into Muslim neighborhoods could end in a violent incident. Even police hesitate to enter the neighborhoods that the French call "out of bounds." Several weeks ago, police organizations declared a general strike - the first since the French Revolution - on the grounds that they were getting inadequate backing from the political echelons and the court system. They demanded strong-arm tactics in order to control the violence in the out-of-bounds areas, but were answered by embarrassing silence.

"This is France's No. 1 problem," says Denis Jeambar, editor-in-chief of the weekly L'Express, "and it is linked to France's ability to absorb the Muslim immigration. I can understand the outbursts of anger on the part of the people from North Africa, but in my opinion, they are directed at French society. I have no doubt that they are striking at Jews because they are established, wealthy, integrated into society and especially because they are identified with Israel."

Divided Loyalties

The increasing identification by Jews with Israel, especially since the outbreak of the current intifada, has made near-enemies of allies. Before they became established, the Jewish immigrants lived in harmony with their Arab neighbors in the suburbs. They had immigrated to France from the same North African countries, they spoke the same language, they experienced together the pangs of uprooting to a new country, and imported common customs and values from the lands of their birth. With time, the Jews improved their status and moved from the crowded suburbs into comfortable "French" neighborhoods. The Muslim neighbors stayed behind.

Olivier and Adel have been good friends since childhood. Olivier is a Jew whose parents immigrated from Tunisia; Adel is a Muslim whose parents immigrated from Algeria. They were both born in Sarcelles, a poor suburb of Paris inhabited by immigrants from North Africa, Muslims and Jews. They attended elementary school and high school together and enrolled in computer studies at the Sorbonne. They maintained a close friendship over the years and loved each other like brothers.

During the past year, something happened that cast a pall on their relationship. Olivier grew closer to Judaism and developed a total identification with Israel; Adel intensified his study of Islam in an attempt to become a better Muslim. A year ago, Adel completed his master's degree in computer studies and Olivier is due to complete his this year. About a month ago, Olivier came to Israel as part of a solidarity mission in which thousands of Jewish young people from around the world participated. He returned to Paris enthusiastic and full of admiration for Israel. During his stay in Jerusalem, perhaps in order to feel like a local, he wore a skullcap with a Star of David on it. When he returned to Paris, he decided not to take it off.

A week after his return, the two friends met at the Sorbonne with two other friends. Rudi, a Jew whose parents had immigrated from Algeria, and Amir, a Muslim whose parents had come from Tunisia. The four spoke about the deteriorating relations between Jews and Muslims in France.

Adel: "The violence is not just because of what Israel is doing to the Palestinians. The North African young people feel rejected by French society and they attack the Jews in order to protest the state's attitude toward them. The painful pictures of the Palestinians also have an effect."

Olivier: "If I were a Muslim, I'd also feel bad, and I can understand the Muslims after they see what is happening to their brothers. I remember that when they killed the boy Mohammed al-Dura, Adel felt as if his own brother had been killed. When the Palestinians lynched the two soldiers in Ramallah, I felt they had harmed my brothers."

Amir: "After September 11 there was a great wave of hatred against Muslims in France. Anyone who had a beard - people looked at him suspiciously and were sure that he was concealing a bomb under his clothes. This hurt us very much and we felt that once again we were being marked because we were Muslims."

"Why are the Jews blaming the Muslims?" Adel asked Olivier. "Does anyone have proof that they threw Molotov cocktails at synagogues? It could be that it is extreme right-wing activists who are doing this."

Rudi: "I'm certain that they want to cause strife between us and the Muslims, because it serves their purpose. They hate both Jews and Arabs. I think that it is good for them that the atmosphere is heating up before the presidential elections."

Olivier: "I myself have North African origins and it hurts me that France has treated us like garbage. On this, I agree with Adel."

Adel: "I don't like the word `integration' because it says that we have to assimilate to French values. And what about our own culture? And what about our Islam? Usually integration is done only to those who live on the margins of society. A priori, they relate to us like screwed-up people who need to learn how to live and how to behave. This is insulting."

Olivier: "Adel, you must admit that since the beginning of the intifada, there has been more hatred of Jews. Take me, for example. I've been wearing my skullcap in the street and I see how people look at me. If I weren't strong, it could be that I would get beaten up. I'm entitled to be Jewish and wear a skullcap, but why does this have to make me a Jewish settler in the territories?"

Rudi: "The newspapers are heating up the atmosphere. During the past year they have been writing about Israelis as if they are monsters and killers of children."

Adel: "I put myself in the shoes of those poor people whose houses were demolished in Rafah. I can understand how one of them could put on an explosive vest and go blow himself up."

Olivier: "And I identify with the Israel Defense Forces soldiers and [Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon."

Adel, angrily: "When I hear the name Sharon, I become full of hate. It's like Hitler for the Jews. We hate him, because during his whole life he has engaged in murdering Arabs. How can we talk with a man who hates us so much? I ask you, Olivier. Doesn't it hurt you that they're killing children, even if they are Palestinian?"

Olivier heard his friend's voice choking, and got up from his chair and went around to lay a comforting hand on his shoulder.

Narrow-Minded Rabbis and Imams

The Muslims' awakening and the Jews' outcry have cracked the France's sanctified republican shell upon which life in this country is based. For the first time since the founding of the French Republic, the fabric that weaves together the various communities has unraveled, to the point that Jews and Muslims have begun to define themselves on the basis of their origins. It used to be that everyone saw themselves as French. Now there are French Jews and French Muslims. In the identity crisis that has befallen these two communities, they have found refuge in their "origins": The Jews have strengthened their identification with Israel, and the Muslims with the Muslim world.

Ten years ago the Muslims who supported Saddam Hussein were excoriated and shunned, for fear that they would tarnish the French identity of their compatriots. Jews hesitated before expressing support for aggressive acts by Israel. Today, all the boundaries have been abolished.

"What was once accepted only by marginal groups has become the norm," explained Rabbi Rene-Samuel Sirat, formerly the chief rabbi of France. During the seven years he held that post, he worked ceaselessly to bring about rapprochement between the religions and tied to encourage discourse between rabbis, priests and imams. Those were different times, times of great closeness between Muslims and Jews. They were so close that Rabbi Sirat was invited to speak on the 27th night of the fast of the month of Ramadan to worshipers at the Great Mosque in Paris.

"Since then relations have deteriorated," added Sirat. "The days of preaching in the mosques on Fridays have been exploited to incite the masses against Western ways, against Judaism and against anti-Islamic phenomena. Europe is in great danger because there are 15 million Muslims living in it, and most of them are angry. It is impossible that such a large public remain like sheep without a shepherd and be left in the hands of fanatic, uncultivated imams. So it is no wonder that young people leave the mosques with hatred in their hearts."

A similar phenomenon has occurred among the Jews. When they passed away, the great rabbis took with them world-embracing knowledge, a broad Jewish culture and universal values. They have been replaced by narrow-minded rabbis who lack a general education and who have made it their aim to make all Jews newly observant and to lead their congregations. They have taught those who attend synagogue to hate the gentile and to hate the seed of Amalek.

In recent years, there had been a growing influence of Messianic trends in Judaism, such as Chabad, and of trends based on amulets and miracles, Shas style. Jewish radio broadcasts have begun to preach against anyone who dares to criticize Israel or to question its policy. Anyone who speaks about peace is perceived as nearly an infidel and anyone who preaches withdrawal from the territories is depicted as a traitor.

The climactic moment came the day after the explosion on the No. 18 bus in Jerusalem, at the beginning of 1996. Hundreds of French Jews, members of Betar - the youth movement associated with the Likud - swarmed into Muslim neighborhoods in Paris bearing Israeli flags and Betar banners, and screamed in chorus: "Death to the Arabs." The long friendship between Jews and Muslims was on the verge of collapse. Common sense foundered, and extremists in both communities set the tone and took care to perpetuate the deterioration.

"So is it any wonder we have come to this dangerous situation we are in today?" said Rabbi Sirat anxiously.

A Holocaust Complex

In the context of this charged atmosphere, the French media have become the punching bag of the Jewish community. The heads of the community have been accusing its reports of pro-Palestinian bias and incitement against Israel. The Jews have convinced themselves that hurting Israel is like hurting them. A few months ago, on the cover of the weekly L'Express there was a picture showing an Israeli soldier grabbing a frightened Palestinian youth by the neck. Several days later, the phone rang in the office of editor Denis Jeambar.

"The man said that he didn't know me," recalled Jeambar. "I said to him: `How can I help you?' He told me that he was a Jew and that he was living in anxiety and fear for his family. `I have three children,' he added in a trembling voice, `and I'm telling you that if anything happens to one of them, because of the article you published, I will come to the newspaper and that will be the end of you.'"

Jeambar realized that the Jews' anxiety was genuine and instructed his writers to be careful every time they wrote about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Jean Christophe Attias and Esther Benbassa also felt the heavy hand of the Jewish community. Even before they became a target of anger, they published a book critical of Israel entitled "Do the Jews Have a Future?" The heads of the community demanded that Jews boycott the book because of it contents. Jews students walked out in protest from the courses the two teach.

Attias was born to a Jewish father and a Christian mother, converted when he was 20, immigrated to Israel and years later returned to France. Benbassa, his wife, immigrated from Turkey to Israel and moved to France more than 20 years ago. Both of them are well-known lecturers there and teach subjects connected to Judaism at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes (EPHE), an institution of higher education associated with the Sorbonne in Paris.

The heightened anxiety plaguing the Jews has once again led to the shunning and boycotting of anyone who rebels against the sovereignty of Israel and the justness of its ways. Attias and Benbassa ran into trouble after they published in Le Monde an article where they repudiated accusations of French anti-Semitism and accused the Jewish community of sowing panic with the aim of frightening the Jews and causing them to immigrate to Israel.

"They have put the Jews into the atmosphere of Kristallnacht," related Benbassa in the living room of her stylish home in Paris. Apparently the couple are enjoying the community's attack on them and on their faces is a republican expression as if their ancestors had personally taken part in the French Revolution.

"The hysterical Jews have incited Israel and ultimately it will come crashing down on us," she added. "Lately all that interests them is anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. Even young people have been mesmerized by the burning of the Jews at Auschwitz and for them Judaism is connected only to the Holocaust, as if there were nothing else to it. I blame the Jewish leadership, which for years has been pushing the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. Someone has to put a stop to this madness, before the French say to the Jews: Thank you very much, we enjoyed having you with us, but if it's no good for you then go to your Jewish state."

Attias is certain that the scare campaign is a coordinated conspiracy between the Jewish Agency, the government of Israel and Jewish organizations with the aim of getting Jews to immigrate to Israel. "Tell the Israeli government that nothing will do it any good," he added. "The Jews are not about to immigrate to Israel and whoever does immigrate will do so because he lives on the periphery and he doesn't have a good life."

Both he and Benbassa have been accused of being Juifs de service - collaborators with the regime - as Jews were accused in the past of collaborating with the Vichy government. The two are certain that the community is sick, because otherwise it is difficult to understand the panic and the hysteria that have gripped the Jews.

"At first the Jews became newly observant," said Benbassa. "Then they elevated the Holocaust to the level of a cult and now they are dreaming at night that concentration camps are about to be erected near the Arc de Triomphe and near the Avenue des Champs Elysees."

The government of Israel, they say, is playing with fire, endangering its relations with France and playing with the lives of Jews. They are afraid that the day will come when French will get fed up with this and will demand that the Jews declare where their loyalties lie: with France or with Israel. This is the greatest fear of the French Jewish liberals who number among the elites. They love both countries as if they were two sides of the same coin. On the day when they will have to choose between them, they will go into mourning.

(Second in a series)


 

 

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13 Aug 2007 / 29 Av 5767 0