A British Jew — in Jewish France

It has been a steep learning curve. Jewish men, having finished Shabbat morning services, rush to remove their kippot from their heads before they even leave the secure grounds of the building. A visit to synagogue requires airport-style questioning before being allowed to enter. It is little surprise. After all, French anti-Semitism has experienced an undeniable renaissance following this year’s deadly attacks in Toulouse.

For one year only, I’m a temporary French resident living in Bordeaux. I’ve always found that being Jewish in Britain has caused me few problems. Certainly, intolerance exists everywhere in the world, but all things considered, life is very comfortable. Here across the Channel, however, being Jewish seems to be a whole different ball game.

Anti-Semitism in France has long since progressed from words into actions. In the past few weeks alone, a Parisian kosher shop was firebombed and, only a few kilometers away, blank cartridges were fired at a synagogue in Argenteuil. A police raid on suspected protagonists resulted in one suspect dead in Strasbourg and the discovery of a hit list of possible Jewish targets. This country has seen a worrying 45% increase in anti-Semitic acts in the first eight months of 2012 alone.

When I asked a young Jewish resident of Bordeaux what represented the overwhelming concern of French Jewry, her reply was “la politique.” French politics is known to be less than friendly towards any religious group and secularism has been at the root of governance since the French Revolution over 200 years ago.  Nowadays, it is the success of the extreme-right, and notably the Front National party, which is often a cause for concern. It’s nearly a decade since religious clothing was banned in French state schools.

There’s an understandable culture of mistrust within the Jewish community here, and it’s not without reason.  France, unlike some other nations, eventually confronted the more shameful parts of its history in recent years, described in strong words by former-President Jacques Chirac as the nation’s “inescapable guilt”. In 2009 the Conseil d’Etat, France’s highest court, recognised the state’s responsibility for facilitating the deportation of 76,000 of their own people to Nazi concentration camps under the Vichy regime.

Closer to my current home, the recent history of the Jews of Bordeaux is a tragic one. The greatly impressive Grande Synagogue was used as a detention centre before the deportation of two-thirds of the town’s Jewish population in the 1940s. Sadly, the magnificent building was later destroyed. Following the end of the war, the few remaining survivors worked tirelessly to return it to its former glory.

The small but vibrant Bordeaux community has been incredibly welcoming and generous since I arrived in this beautiful riverside town in the south of the country, surrounded by vast acres of vineyards. I highly recommend a visit, if only for the locally-sourced wine and cheese. For those of a more disciplined nature, the architecture is stunning too. The weather isn’t bad either. I digress.

On Rosh Hashanah, the rabbi’s sermon contained a list of the troubles of the previous year but, more importantly, delivered an empowering message of hope for the year to come. The congregants responded with an ‘amen’ that was full of sincerity. As the community prayed for a peaceful year, the depth of meaning in those words was as great and honest as any prayer I had ever spoken.

The hope and unity of the community here is of great encouragement. Although it isn’t always easy to be Jewish in France, every Jewish community in the world has its own difficulties.

I am certain, however, that it is not the difficulties but rather the hope and an unbreakable unity that ultimately defines this Jewish community. And it is this hope and unity that makes me very proud to be a part of French Jewry, even if it’s only for one year. These are attributes that every community should look to possess, and I know that they will stay with me long after my time in France is over.

About the Author
Eytan Halon, a former combat medic in the IDF, is a Law with French graduate from the University of Birmingham (UK) and a former Campaigns Director of Birmingham Jewish Society. @eytanhalon