Few quotes can do a better job of expressing the state of French Jewry than a Jewish Paris barber’s comment to JTA on France’s Jewish Defense League (known as LDJ): “I used to tell my grandsons to focus on the studies and stay out of trouble, but now I sent them to join the LDJ and defend our synagogues against the scum.”
The comment perfectly encapsulates the frustration and fear felt by the Jewish community in France. The barber’s advice to his grandchildren had been the old adage: Don’t trouble trouble until trouble troubles you. Well, trouble has arrived. The barber added: “The Arabs own the streets now. We need make them lose the appetite for messing with us if we’re to survive here. LDJ is our Iron Dome.”
The JTA story is a marvelous piece of reporting. It’s also a testament to the fact that French Jews, who tend to be quite patriotic about their country–the JTA story even opens with a scene at which LDJ members are guarding a synagogue and singing La Marseillaise–have given up relying on the French state to protect them.
As the story explains:
Unable to reach the Grand Synagogues of Sarcelles, some of the rioters smashed shop windows in this poor suburb where tens of thousands of Jews live amid many Muslims. They torched two cars and threw a firebomb at a nearby, smaller synagogue, which was only lightly damaged.
“We sang to thank them, but also to remind them and ourselves that we are equal French citizens entitled to safety,” said Eliyahu, a member of France’s Jewish Defense League, or LDJ, who agreed to be identified only by his first name.
It was the ninth synagogue attack in France since Israel launched Operation Protective Edge in Gaza two weeks ago. To Eliyahu and many other French Jews, the attacks have contributed to a growing realization that, despite the extraordinary efforts of French authorities to protect them, French Jews need to rely mostly on themselves for their defense.
“The cops are here now, but it’ll be just us and the Arabs tomorrow,” said Serge Najar, a local community leader.
Nine synagogue attacks in two weeks is a full-blown crisis, especially considering the nature of the attacks and the threat posed had the LDJ not been there to supplement the French police. It obviously shows an angry anti-Semitism not based in Israel or Gaza or recent events; those have just been the convenient pretexts to express the hate.
But aside from French societal anti-Semitism, there is another failing of the French state that enables this. In his new book The French Intifada, the historian Andrew Hussey describes going through his normal metro transfer in 2007 on the day riots broke out in Paris led primarily by largely Arab and African immigrants. He arrives–without knowing the riots had begun–at the Gare du Nord station and sees that a gleeful, and terrifying, total breakdown of law and order is underway:
There is no word in French or English which expresses the opposite of the verb ‘to civilize’: the concept does not exist. But this was anti-civilization in action – a transgression of every code of behaviour that holds a society together. Like a terrorist attack or a football riot, the act of anti-civilization is a total experience: it undermines everything all at once. This is not an intellectual concept; it is a feeling. These kids were taking on the whole world around them – the police, the train authorities, passers-by – wrecking the station, the shops and the offices. And they knew exactly what they were doing.
And what were they doing? They were rebelling, but they were also taking advantage of a key weakness of Parisian order. At flashpoints, or geographic joints connecting different communities in the city, there is a precarious balance:
The Gare du Nord, at the heart of this district, is frontier territory. It is the dividing line between the wretched conditions of the banlieues, the suburbs outside the city, and the relative affluence of central Paris. It is where young banlieusards come to hang out, meet the opposite sex, shop, smoke, show-off and flirt – all the stuff that young people like to do. Paris is both near and distant; it is a few short steps away, but in terms of jobs, housing, making a life, for these young people it is as inaccessible and far away as America. So they cherish this small part of the city that belongs to them.
This is why the Gare du Nord is a flashpoint. The area is generally tense but stable: everyone in the right place, from the police to the dealers. But when the police come in hard, it can feel like another display of colonial power. So the battle cry of ‘Na’al abouk la France!’ is also a cry of hurt and rage. It expresses ancestral emotions of loss, shame and terror. This is what makes it such a powerful curse.
The outbreak of anti-Semitic violence in France is the result of a perfect storm of conditions. But those conditions are not new, and they are not rare, and they are not being adequately addressed. That’s why many Jews are leaving, and others are turning to the LDJ.