|People watch on TV in a cafe as police mobilize during the standoff at Port de Vincennes on January 9. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images|
Francois and Marie, a handsome, well-dressed couple in their late 30s, the parents of three remarkably photogenic children, have lived in the United States for three and a half years. For the last year or so, they have called the Upper West Side home.
They are French Jews, in this country originally for his job – he’s a high-powered financial type – for the chance to expose their children to another world, for adventure. And, increasingly, they are in this country because they no longer think of their home as home. There is no safe haven for them there, they think.
To begin with, those are not their real names. Francois and Marie both have large families in and around Paris, and they do not feel comfortable being too public. Normally we at the Standard would try to talk them into using their real names, first and last, but not now. Not for this. We have seen what happened.
“All of our parents, our brothers and sisters, they were all so shocked by what happened,” Marie said. “I spoke to my best friend, and she was crying on the phone. They all feel that the situation is really bad for Jews.
“This is the first time she has talked about maybe leaving.”
“I was back in France on the Friday of the attack – I came back Saturday night,” Francois said. “I had Shabbat dinner with my parents and my cousins. I asked them – when is too much too much? When do you decide that you need to leave?
“For some people, leaving France might be easy, but for most people it’s difficult. My dad is 83. Can he quit France, even with a son in New York? He and my mother were both born in Tunisia. They were young then, when they were forced to leave – but can they leave again?
“My cousin is a pharmacist. It’s not like here, where you have places like CVS. There, it’s more like an old-fashioned chemist’s shop. It is not a portable job.
“He doesn’t speak Hebrew or good English. What could he do here?
“Some people are privileged to have jobs that can be moved, and if they have enough money, they can say ‘I want to live in Israel’ and just go, but those are a minority. I have a feeling that the people who already have moved are the people who can move. The ones who are still there are the ones who have the jobs that don’t allow them to move.”
Even if their parents want to move to New York to live with them, he continued, they could not. The family have visas that allow the parents to work, but they do not have green cards.
It is very different here than in France, Francois and Marie both said. “When we moved to New York, we realized that it is possible to live in a country without having protection.” Security guards, he meant, or police officers. “Since we were children, we could not wear a kippah on the street. Most of the time, the security service of the synagogue asked us to remove our kippah.
“There were some attacks in the past, so this is not completely new,” he said. (In 1980, a synagogue on Rue Copernic in Paris was bombed, and a Jewish restaurant in Rue de Rosiers was blown up two years later.) “Since then, Jewish people in Paris, in France, are always somehow under protection, especially on Yom Kippur. You see them a lot. This is not new.”
Shopping also is different in France, the couple said. It is hard, if not actively impossible, to get kosher products in regular stores. Hyper Cacher, the store where the four Jews were murdered, is part of a small chain. “It’s a real supermarket,” Marie said. “It’s like the Fairway of kosher products.” And of course it would have been very crowded at 1 o’clock on Friday afternoon, prime time for Shabbat shopping.
Soon after the Friday massacre, the French government announced that it would add about 5,000 police officers to safeguard Jewish sites. “We are glad that the government is making that move, but we feel it is crazy that we need it in France,” Marie said. The scale of the protection the government thinks it needs takes her aback, even given her lifelong experience in France.
Francois described the makeup of the Jewish community in France. “You have about 500,000 to 600,000 Jews,” he said, and they can be divided into three groups. “The majority are Sephardic, which means that they or their parents probably were born in Morocco, Tunisia, or Algeria, and moved in the late ’50s or early ’60s. Algeria got its independence in ’62. At the time, those territories were French, and at some point, about 100 years ago, the Jews there were given French citizenship. When the countries became independent of France, the Jews had to leave. There are a few Jews left in Morocco, protected by the king, but none in Tunisia or Algeria.
The second largest group is from central and eastern Europe, most of them displaced by World War II or descended from people who were, and the third – the French French Jews – can trace their French ancestry way back. Some are descended from families that fled the Spanish Inquisition.
The couple do not know what will happen, but they think that whatever will come, it is unlikely to be good. “It is very tricky now,” Francois said. “There are at least four different kinds of anti-Semitism in France now, and they are all joining forces, even though they are against each other. When it comes to being against the Jews, they align.
“The first is the historic Catholic kind,” he went on. “They see Jews as the people who killed Jesus. They were aligned with the Nazis during the ’40s. That kind of anti-Semitism isn’t strong, but it is still there.
“Second is the far right, the Front National,” the LePen family’s party, which traditionally has been anti-Semitic as well as anti-immigrant in general, and which is surging in popularity on the tide of its anti-Muslim rhetoric. “Ironically, the Front National is trying to convince Jews to join them, and we know some Jews who are voting for them. That is a big problem.
“Third is the far left. It’s anti-capitalism, anti-money, anti-USA, and for them Jewish people means capitalism, means money, means USA, means success, means everything they hate.
“Fourth, the Muslims. It is based on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but they are against Jews not only because of that but also because some part of the Muslim religion is against Jews.
“All these groups find common ground when it comes to Jews.”
The numbers make the Jewish future in France seem likely to be short and grim. “You are talking about 8 to 10 million Muslims in France – the official version is that there are less, but really it is more. Ten to 15 percent of France is Muslim. France has 60 million people. Not all of them are anti-Semitic, but a big majority of them is anti-Israel.
“The Front National got 25 percent of the votes in the last election – they were the number one party – and it’s unlikely that there is much overlap between them and the Muslims. So that is 40 percent. The far left is about 5 to 10 percent of France. So you get quickly to the big numbers.
“They certainly are not all anti-Semitic, but they have an issue with Israel, and that means that at the end of the day they have an issue with us.
“This summer, with Gaza, there were some protests in France, and we saw images with the Hamas flag, and people with signs saying ‘Jews out.’ There were at least 500,000 people protesting in Paris during Gaza.
“And then there is another layer of complexity that comes from the economic crisis in Europe,” Francois added bleakly.
Although they struggle to some extent with the guilt those of us who are safe feel when we think about those who are not, “we feel privileged to be here,” Francois said.
This part of the country feels very safe, he said. “On Shabbes, everyone wears a kippah. You have a mezuzah in front of all the stores. Of course, this is New York and it probably would feel the same in Los Angeles, or in Miami,” or of course in Bergen County, “but in the middle of the country, I just don’t know.”
One big difference between the United States and France is how minorities have been integrated, he said. “If you are Hispanic, African-American, anything, you feel like an American first, more than anything else.” That is not true in France.
And there are so many more Jews here. “The proportion is so different. There are six million Jews in the United States, versus 500,000 in France,” and there are proportionately fewer Muslims, too. “That makes a big difference.”