Avi Mayer
Assistant Executive Director, American Jewish Committee (AJC)
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Insecurity on the Seine

A shocking visit to Paris that found pervasive fear, secret synagogues and the need to conceil one's kippah
The Louvre. Photo by Avi Mayer.
Encountering the challenges of Jewish life in today’s France.

“Tu es d’où?” she asked. “Where are you from?”

I was on the Paris tram, having landed at Charles de Gaulle scarcely an hour earlier. I had spent the day roaming the chilly streets of Rome, swinging through the Vatican and enjoying lunch at my go-to kosher restaurant in what was once the Jewish ghetto, and was looking forward to an extended weekend strolling along the Champs-Élysées and munching on croissants in the City of Light.

I had noticed the woman as we waited at the Cité Universitaire station, where I transferred from the airport train to the local light rail. She was approximately my mother’s age and had been with three young people, probably around my younger siblings’ ages. By the time she turned to speak to me, only one of the three — apparently her son — remained.

“I’m from Israel,” I said with a small smile, as the son helped translate.

She nodded and then gestured at my head. “You shouldn’t wear your kippah here,” she told me. “It’s dangerous in France.”

My smile vanished. I hesitated for a moment, unsure how to respond. “What do you recommend?” I asked. “Should I wear a hat?”

She pointed to her son’s winter hat. “You can wear the kippah under your hat,” she said. “But it should not be seen.”

We traveled along in silence until they got up as we approached the next stop. “Shabbat shalom,” I said quietly. “Shabbat shalom,” they both responded before leaving the train.

When I arrived at my friend Deborah’s apartment, I told her about the conversation, slightly shaken. She seemed unsurprised.

Having spent most of my life in New York, Jerusalem, and suburban Maryland, I’ve never had to think twice about regularly wearing my kippah. I can count the number of times I thought better of wearing it on one hand: one was during a visit to Istanbul; another was in Vienna, the week Osama bin Laden was killed. I’ve worn a kippah since I was a toddler (the current incarnation is multicolored, infused with shades of purple). My kippah has graced my head in class, at work, and — yes — when traveling. Not once had I been urged by a total stranger to remove it. Not once, until that Thursday evening.

The timing was somewhat ironic. Only three days earlier, I had sat in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, as the legislative committee on Aliyah and diaspora affairs discussed the significance of the quenelle, a sort of covert salute that has been increasing in popularity across France and is widely understood to have anti-Semitic connotations. The hearing developed into a grim exchange on the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe in general and in France in particular, as the first counselor from the French embassy listened along gravely. When my time came to speak, I stated that French Aliyah was on the rise not because of anti-Semitism — or not solely because of anti-Semitism, a concession I made after being corrected by a Member of Knesset for Shas — but rather due to the robust Jewish and Zionist connections of those who opt to make their homes in Israel. “There is a view according to which the rise in anti-Semitism is the cause behind the increase in Aliyah,” I said. “We” — here I was referring to the organization for which I work — “believe that view to be mistaken.”

I went on to explain that while anti-Semitism may account for Jews’ departure from France, there are numerous other places they could go — Canada, for instance, or the United Kingdom. Jewish identity plays a significant part in the choice to make one’s home in Israel, and efforts to strengthen young people’s Jewish connections do, in fact, correlate with rises in Aliyah (while anti-Semitism, in many cases, drives young people away from both their Jewish identities and Israel). “We intend to continue strengthening each and every Jew’s connection to the Jewish people, to the State of Israel, and to Jewish life,” I concluded.

But over the course of just a few days in France, I caught a small glimpse of what may indeed be spurring Jews to go.

On Shabbat morning, some 36 hours after my arrival in Paris, I set out in search of a local synagogue. Armed with an address, I arrived only to discover a large, plain-looking apartment building. After walking around the building to see if there might have been a synagogue attached somewhere, I went in and started climbing the stairs. I went floor to floor, walking down the hallways and searching in vain for mezuzot, straining for the sounds of prayer on each of the building’s seventeen stories. Giving up, I walked out into the cold and turned to go back to my friend’s apartment when I caught a glimpse of a woman in a light-colored coat and a matching hat walking down a staircase at the side of the building, below street level. I followed her from a distance and saw her open a nondescript metal door, on the inside of which I spotted Hebrew lettering. I entered to find a large room filled with dozens of worshipers completing the week’s Torah reading — an underground synagogue, it seemed, in more ways than one. (In something of an amusing twist, when I took off my winter hat and revealed my kippah, I was handed a large black yarmulke with the explanation that mine was “too small.”)

During the first part of my visit, Deborah would pause for a moment each morning to consider whether our plans for the day would take us to areas in which displaying my kippah might be particularly ill-advised. By the time I left, it was no longer an issue — my black wool hat (knitted for me by a family friend when I was serving in the Israel Defense Forces and crafted according to military specifications) went on with my jacket, and anytime I went out in public, so did it.

And so I enjoyed my vacation much like any other tourist in Paris — learning the difference between a patisserie and a boulangerie, and between a boulangerie and a boucherie; craning my neck to take in every inch of the breathtakingly beautiful Palais Garnier; losing myself in the Louvre. As I confided in Deborah while we walked through the Trocadéro, waiting for the Eiffel Tower to glisten with strobe lights as it does at the top of every nighttime hour, there was something pleasant about the anonymity afforded by the hat. The protracted glances generated by my kippah can get old. Once in a while, I told her, it’s nice to blend in, free of the weight of others’ preconceived notions.

But it was a guilty pleasure. Forced anonymity is ultimately an ugly thing, particularly when you feel compelled to conceal who you are out of fear. Over burgers at a New York-style deli in Le Marais, a historic area crammed with kosher restaurants and bakeries, I kept noticing patrons putting on their kippot when they entered the restaurant and removing them as they left. A nearby synagogue is trapped behind a foreboding iron fence. An area Jewish school is kept under constant watch, with security cameras keeping a close eye on the street outside.

The morning before I left France, the Metronews daily reported that anti-Semitic slogans had been found on the Wall for Peace, a monument created by artist Clara Halter, the wife of French Jewish writer — and Holocaust survivor — Marek Halter, and inspired by the Western Wall. The site is located on the Champ de Mars, a green expanse abutting the Eiffel Tower. It was here that Alfred Dreyfus was stripped of his ranks and had his sword broken as 20,000 of his fellow Frenchmen screamed “Death to the Jew!” on January 5, 1895. The site had been found defaced with phrases mocking the Holocaust and hailing the quenelle. I had been there the night before, without realizing that it was the 119th anniversary of Dreyfus’s humiliation. One suspects the attackers may have had a keener, and crueler, sense of history.

The more people I tell about my experiences in Paris, the more I hear about others who were not as fortunate as I: the teenagers who have been subjected to verbal abuse on busy streets, the shop owners who have found swastikas daubed on their storefronts, the girl who had her Star of David torn from her neck in the Métro.

And yet, I experienced no violence, verbal or physical.

What I encountered in France was a profound sense of insecurity, a strange disconnect between the vitality of the world’s third-largest Jewish community — home, it is said, to more kosher restaurants than Manhattan — and the inability to celebrate that vibrancy in the open.

According to a recently released report by the European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Rights, a staggering 70% of French Jewish respondents said they feared becoming the victims of harassment due to their Jewishness. 74% said they avoid wearing kippot or Stars of David at least occasionally, with 51% saying they avoid doing so frequently or all the time.

And it seems as though that insecurity is indeed beginning to take its toll. As one French Jewish student told me, “very few young Jews see a future in France.”

Perhaps most of all, my brief visit to Paris was a lesson in humility. I have been fortunate never to have lived in a place where I felt that I couldn’t express my Jewishness openly. Though I, of course, knew that there were places — even in the West — where proudly asserting one’s Jewish identity might be risky, it took a visit to precisely such a place to hammer that knowledge home.

A recent article about the challenges of Jewish life in Turkey included a dark joke that could just as easily have been told in Paris as it was in Istanbul.

“Do you know why Jewish men always wear a hat?” asks a member of the Jewish community. “Because they don’t know whether they’ll be coming or going.”

About the Author
Avi Mayer is the Assistant Executive Director and Managing Director of Global Communications at the American Jewish Committee (AJC). He lives in Jerusalem.
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