The View from France: French Jews Shaken but Rallying

By Rachel Level

I was 3 years old when my parents, Jews born and raised in France, decided to immigrate to the United States. Although they never looked back on their decision, every summer we try to spend a month in France with our relatives. I was always aware that there was anti-Semitism present in France, but this summer I witnessed the situation first hand. 

Over the years, I had noticed that the Muslim population is very large and seemingly becoming more observant. The Jewish community witnesses repeatedly the French media blaming Israel for its policy toward the Palestinians, but until recently it seemed that, although French Jews live in a rather pro-Arab country, anti-Semitism was not a real threat. Of course, there have been several anti-Semitic attacks, the worst being the one at a Jewish school in Toulouse, but these incidents involved Arab extremists and were largely condemned by the French. 

This summer, however, the situation and the tension worsened, at least from my point of view while visiting my grandparents, who live in Lyon. Every radio and television station reported the conflict in Gaza by portraying the Palestinians as victims and Israel in a criminal light. 

Journalists never spoke of the rockets launched by Hamas into Israel and never expressed the justification Israel had in defending itself. Hamas’ use of schools and mosques to build tunnels was never reported, while Israel’s defense against these same schools and mosques was always condemned. By always portraying Israel as the culprit and the Palestinians as the victims, the media contributed to the anti-Semitism that has showed its ugly head in France this last summer by spitting oil into the already-burning flames.

Incensed by the situation in Gaza, rallies were organized in several French cities to show the support of the people toward the Palestinians. Although the majority of the people attending the rallies where French Arabs, many French “liberals” were there as well, to show their solidarity with Palestine.

These rallies quickly revealed that the real goal of these protestors was not to support the Palestinians, but rather to express their hatred of Israel and the Jews in general. Signs with “Freedom for Palestine” were displayed alongside “Gas the Jews” and other clearly anti-Semitic slogans. A lot of people even displayed the “quenelle,” viewed as a Nazi salute. 

Even worse, synagogues and Jewish shops were attacked and burned in a violent raid by the protestors.

The French government acted swiftly and denounced the anti-Semitism of these rallies, forbidding others to take place. But the French Jews were shocked by the virulence of these attacks and the open anti-Semitism of the people behind it. Their message: Not only is it Israel that these people blame, but the Jews as well. 

In response, some French Jews have decided to leave the country; the vast majority of these go to Israel. Others have decided to fight back and protect synagogues and Jewish centers. They formed a new organization, the SPCJ (the Society for the Protection of the Jewish Community), of which the goal is to physically protect the French Jewish community. But mostly, on a day to day basis, I have seen how the younger generation has become closer to Israel and Judaism. 

Instead of ‘hiding” their Judaism, people my age tend to become more observant, very supportive of Israel and ready to fight for their identity. On July 31, the Union of French Students for Israel (l’ Union des étudiants juifs de France) organized the first pro-Israel rally in Paris since the beginning of the conflict in Gaza. After weeks of dangerous pro-Palestinian rallies that resulted in violent anti-Semitic actions, 5,000 people peacefully gathered around the center of Paris. Signs and chants denounced the terrorist group Hamas for its use of human shields and criticized the French media for biased reporting. The crowd observed one minute of silence in memory of the soldiers that had fallen for Israel before listing their names and their ages in front of French journalists.

Although there have been many pro-Palestinian rallies where hatred against Jews was heard very strongly, there was an absence of anger expressed toward the Palestinians that day. According to Roger Cukierman, one of the leaders of the Union of French Students for Israel, the demonstrators focused their anger on the terroristic group that sought the destruction of Israel and expressed their sympathies for the human losses on both sides of the conflict. 

This rally in support of Israel was certainly not unique. In Lyon, about 1,000 people gathered in front of the city’s largest synagogue in support of the Jewish state. A few days before the rally in Paris, another 4,000 people gathered in Marseilles in support of Israel. 

All three peaceful demonstrations were met with hostility by a few dozen pro-Palestinian activists who attempted to brutally disrupt the rallies. These aggressors injured at least a dozen protestors in total and expressed themselves by mimicking the Nazi salute and chanting “Gas the Jews.” Even after these aggressions, the French Jewish community’s support in Israel did not waiver thanks to the help of the individuals who have the most at stake for the future. These are the Jewish teenagers who have grown up in France and will inherit it after their parents. 

Many French Jewish teenagers feel free to be themselves at home and with their friends, but have learned to be cautious in showing signs of their Jewish identity in public. For them, the danger is never out in the open; the French government is strict in working toward limiting anti-Semitic dialogue and action.

Nevertheless, these efforts do not negate the tension between the Jewish and Arab communities. The Society for the Protection of the Jewish Community’s figures suggest that anti-Jewish violence in France is seven times higher than in the 1990s and that 40 percent of racist violence is against Jews, despite making up just 1 percent of the population. 

As a result, Jewish teenagers are aware of the risk of being Jewish in a pro-Palestinian environment. For many, this very risk awakens a passion for Israel. To them, Israel is much more than a promised land; it’s an escape from the tension and anti-Semitism that they face at home. 

Rachel Level hails from the Lehigh Valley and is a student at Vassar College. 


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