Paris Undercover Reporter: ‘I’m Asked if I Was Scared. The Truth is I Was’
The curses, the spitting, the threats, and the lynch mob that was avoided. The video, documenting me – an NRG reporter with a kippah on his head on the streets of Paris, has garnered millions of views on YouTube, and has raised an issue that Europe needs to deal with: Should Jews be scared?
All hell broke loose after we published the footage: “10 Hours of Walking in Paris as a Jew” on our website, Facebook, and YouTube. Besides the millions of views, there have been reactions from senior officials from around the world and in Israel, and mainly, the raising of a painful point for the world community: it is scary to be a Jew in France.
The concept was simple: walk the streets of Paris with a kippah and tzitzit, a tiny microphone, and a hidden camera. The results: spitting, curses, and threats. The global media didn’t know what to do with this. How is it possible that a Jew would garner such reactions in the capital of France?
Let us rewind for a moment. The idea first arose when NRG’s new-media team thought about adopting a concept that had taken hold around the world. Approximately six months ago, Shoshana Roberts, a resident of New York, posted a video documenting herself walking the streets of the Big Apple and enduring countless sexist remarks.
NRG wanted to try this in Paris with a Jewish subject. As a reporter who specializes in the Jewish world, I was asked to assist with the production. “The Jewish Project” – that is what it was called – had the words “Strictly Confidential” written on all the preliminary documents.
“Maybe you could find a Jew who would be willing to walk the streets of Paris with a hidden camera,” suggested our digital manager. “He will sign a confidentiality agreement, and we will insure him,” she promised. But the journalist in me couldn’t resist. The Jewish world is my area of expertise, I write about Jews all over the world every day. Just a year ago, I wrote a magazine report about a Swedish journalist named Patrick Riley who walked the streets of Malmo with a kippah on his head, without a video camera, and the reactions he received. Since then, I had wanted to do something similar. I wanted to understand if I was exaggerating in my reports – are Jews in Europe really living in fear, and afraid to walk down the streets?
To succeed, we had to find a professional photographer who could walk ahead of me and film with his back to me, and a security guard who would be nearby and ensure no violent incidents occurred. It was not simple: We searched for professionals who could communicate with us in Hebrew or English. We finally found them – Israelis living in France. They also helped us build the route: Locating congregations of Jews and Muslims and classic tourist sites. The security person told us what we could and could not do.
The flights were booked, and about three weeks ago I was on my way. Other than my wife and my superiors, the “Jewish Project” was kept secret. I landed in freezing Paris, and in the lobby of a hotel in the 16th arrondissement, I met the Israeli-French photographer Dov Balhasan and the celebrity bodyguard Liran Cohen. The GoPro camera was placed in a backpack. We began walking, first in the calm quarters of the city – by the Eiffel Tower, the Champs-Élysées, and the arrondissements in which Jews live.
“What is he doing here with a kippah?”
I am asked if I was scared. The truth is I was. In January, four people were murdered just for being Jews in a Kosher store. Later, a volunteer guard was murdered outside a Jewish community building in Denmark. I, “with such chutzpah,” walked through the streets of Paris with a white kippah and long tzitzit. “Do you have a weapon?” I innocently asked the bodyguard. “I don’t have a gun,” he replied, “but I have every other kind of weapon on me.”
He then described the various means he had brought to protect me. This is a very painful point in Europe: The guards at the Jewish institutions cannot carry firearms, which makes security very difficult. After testing and checking the secret microphone and the camera in the bag, we began our journey. We filmed the project over two days. We walked around for five hours each day and filmed. I will openly say that we also chose areas that were more Muslim, areas in which the chances of garnering reactions were higher. But we did this gradually.
On the Champs-Élysées, I walked with pride. Heads turned towards me once in a while – some people stared, but there were no unusual incidents. We continued towards a Jewish neighborhood. A pedestrian mall with kosher coffee shops and Judaica stores. Anyone who hasn’t visited Paris in the past few weeks cannot understand how Paris has reached a situation in which French Military soldiers are stationed at every location that has a Jewish connection or carries a sign with letters in Hebrew. Two or three soldiers to be exact, across from every building. Sometimes more. There too, as expected, we did not encounter problems. The problems appeared when we began entering the Muslim neighborhoods in Paris, and the suburbs around it. Curses, spitting, and even actual threats constituted a significant portion of my strolls in these neighborhoods, which completely undermined my self-confidence. Until then, I thought we had come for nothing.
The scariest incident happened in a northern suburb, mostly Muslim. I entered a closed market. “Look at him,” shouted a Muslim merchant to his colleague. “He should be ashamed, what is he doing coming in here with a kippah?” His friend was less upset. “What do you care, he can do whatever he wants,” he said. On a nearby street, I was cursed at vehemently. At a coffee shop, I was given the finger by several people, and a few seconds later, two thugs were waiting for us on the sidewalk. The cursed me, called out “Jew,” and then spat at me too. This time, the photographer whispered “I think we’ve been made.” At another corner, two more young guys were waiting for us, who had apparently heard that there was a Jew wandering around their neighborhood. They made it very clear to us that we should get out of there, and so we did.
“A few more minutes and there would have been a lynching here,” said the bodyguard when we got in the car. This was a scary moment, stressful, but also defining. The only reason I couldn’t walk there was the kippah on my head and my Jewish appearance. Our photographer, Dov, wasn’t attacked at all. No one looked at him. Later, the bodyguard told us that he saw more and more young guys in the area who had apparently heard about the “Jew” stranger who had come into their neighborhood, and were coming in our direction. “If we would have stayed, the situation would not have ended like this,” he said.
There were more incidents, some were not filmed properly, and some were not heard on the recording. But my personal conclusion is: A Jew cannot walk around every neighborhood in Paris as he desires. A few hours after filming, Balhasan the photographer still hadn’t calmed down. “I just spoke to my ex-wife,” he told me. “I told her I had always thought there were areas in France that were ‘No Go Zones’ for non-Muslim French people, and even more so for police, but now I understood that this is not entirely right. There are areas that are strictly ‘No Jew Zones.'”
The ‘No Go Zones’ term was addressed extensively in the global media in relation to the attacks in Paris. Some in the American media claimed that there were areas in France that were “for Muslims only.”
“Can I get an exclusive interview?”
Editing was difficult. We had to locate all the incidents we had experienced, and meanwhile discovered others that we hadn’t even noticed while filming. The video editors found several concerning examples of what had happened – a reflection of Paris in the year 2015. The clips were edited. We matched the sound that was recorded on the microphone that was attached to my chest. The mission was complete.
On Sunday night, the day of the attack in Copenhagen, the video was posted online. From that moment until writing these words, my phone has not stopped vibrating, and the world has not yet fully digested it: the video attracted wide attention, I was invited for interviews with all the significant media outlets in the world like the Washington Post, two interviews on CNN (they wanted me to come in for a third interview on Saturday, the Sabbath, but I explained that this thing with the kippah is because I am actually religious and observe the Sabbath), a few interviews for BBC radio (“our public loves your video,” the producer explained, “a lot of people are clicking on the report on the BBC website, which is why we are calling you almost every hour to put you on the air”), Fox News (“can we get exclusivity please?”), national Japanese television, a leading, homepage headline of the Daily Mail was about the story, and there were reports in Germany, in newspapers like Der Spiegel and others. Every few seconds, a comment arrived from another follower on Twitter and Facebook or a request came from a journalist. I couldn’t respond to them all.
In an interview with the Russian news channel RT in English, they hinted to me that “Jews can be radical too” and showed part of a Muslim demonstration that members of the Jewish Defense League came to in order to hurt the Muslim demonstrators. This made me furious: “Have you seen a Jew kill a Muslim in Europe in the past few years? Until that happens, you cannot compare these things.”
On CNN, they tried to understand why we did not show dialogue with Muslim passersby that ended positively. “We stuck to the format, which was to walk quietly through the city streets,” I answered. The media in France, where the story opened the newscasts, called me nonstop. “You only walked around Muslim neighborhoods, it is not representative,” they told me. I responded right back. “We also walked around the city,” I said. “And besides, why can a Christian walk with a cross in these neighborhoods, while Jews cannot walk around like this?” The French questioned it. Not all the members of the local Jewish community were excited about our project either. The ones who moved to Israel were supportive, “maybe they will finally open their eyes and understand there is a problem.”
Other websites hinted that “we had produced a Zionist propaganda film” showing how bad it is abroad and how important it is for Jews to move to Israel. In almost every interview, the European journalists mentioned Prime Minister Netanyahu’s statement, calling upon Europe’s Jews to move to Israel following the two attacks. The Europeans cannot understand this unusual statement, which calls for mass immigration from their countries to a small country in the Middle East.
“What do you think about the Prime Minister’s statement?” I was asked, “Do you agree?” I responded that “as a Zionist Jew, I believe that all Jews belong in Israel, but I also recognize the value of the Jewish presence in Western countries, to help with Israel’s foreign policies.” I explained that as the son of immigrants from the U.S., it was important to understand that the process is not easy, and is not suited for everyone. “There are poor Jews, there are those with a complicated family situation that does not enable moving.”
The reactions kept flowing in. Friends and colleagues from Australia, New Zealand, Europe, and even South America sent me messages of support. Taxi drivers yelled to me in the street; there were also violent and anti-Semitic responses from Muslim and anti-Israel surfers.
“We were on the verge of tears when we saw your video,” I was told by Michela, a producer from a main televsion show on the American Fox Network. “I was moved by watching you walk silently, while being treated like that.”
What did I learn from this article? Ten hours with a bodyguard is a nice project that films well, but after that, I returned home, and here I can wear my kippah without any feeling of fear. For the Jews of France, my short video is a frightening reality. Even after the cameras are shut off.