Fig Leaves Won’t Protect French Jews
When a teenager claiming to act for Islamic State attacked a Jewish teacher with a machete in Marseille on January 11, Zvi Ammar, president of the Consistoire religious association in Marseilles, advised the city’s Jews to stop wearing kippot in public in order to avoid similar attacks in the future. “Given the gravity of the events, we must take exceptional decisions, and for me, life is more sacred than any other criteria,” Ammar said.
This advice sparked a furious debate. French Chief Rabbi Haim Korsia said that calling on Jews to remove their kippot was “not very dignified” and “tantamount to admitting that wearing a kippah is a provocation,” and such thinking will “require rabbis to shave off their beards tomorrow.”
Official France also came out against the advice. President Francois Hollande called the idea that Jewish people should need to hide their identity “intolerable.” Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, Marseilles Mayor Jean-Claude Gaudin and Xavier Bertrand, regional president of the center-right Les Republicains party, all spoke out against it.
”It is surely not the advice that I personally would have given [not to wear kippot],” Vallaud-Belkacem said, adding that although Ammar obviously “intended to protect his people,” “this is not the message that should be expressed.”
Bertrand said, “Everybody understands why the president of the Jewish community in Marseilles made that decision; he is afraid, he fears for the Jews, he fears an attack. … But if we bow our heads, if the Jews of Marseilles give up on wearing the kippah, then France will not be France any more. …Tomorrow we will have the same question facing Muslims, facing Catholics.”
A social media campaign was also launched on Twitter, posting photoshopped pictures of celebrities — and cats — wearing kippot. The campaign was started by two French women, Sophie Taieb, who is Jewish, and Kerima Mendes, who is not. “There was black everywhere, so we wanted to do something funny,” Taieb told the BBC. “The idea is that everybody — Jewish or not — should wear a kippah, because if everybody wears one, nobody is a target anymore.”
The debate is a curious one, particularly because its ferocity and its extreme belatedness reflect a denial of an already long existing reality on the part of those who claim outrage in the face of Ammar’s well-meant advice; French Jews and European Jews have been hiding their Jewish identity not for days, weeks or years but for decades. Anyone pretending that Ammar’s advice represented a new and radical departure from what most Jews already do is simply denying the reality as it has been unfolding for European Jews for decades.
In Europe, it is practically the norm for Jews to either remove their kippot as soon as they leave synagogue or to wear a cap on their heads to hide them from view. According to The Jerusalem Post, in a 2013 study by the EU’s Agency for Fundamental Rights, a third of Jews polled said they refrained from wearing religious garb or Jewish symbols out of fear, and 23% avoided attending Jewish events or going to Jewish venues.
There is something rather tasteless in the way that official France has now come out against the advice of this Jewish communal leader, who was simply acting out of concern for his fellow Jews and as a response to the reality he lives every day in Marseilles. Not only because official France is light years away from that reality and has no concept of what it means to be a Jew in Europe today, but because it is official France that is responsible for the predicament that France’s Jews find themselves in. They fail, repeatedly, to protect the Jews, as is their state duty. No other group in France experiences the troubles that the Jews do. France’s Jews represent less than 1% of the country’s population. Yet in 2014, according to the French Interior Ministry, 51% of all racist attacks targeted Jews. The statistics are similar in other European countries.
It is hypocritical for official France to blame a man for voicing his concern in the form of this advice when in fact French authorities have looked the other way, belittled and avoided taking responsibility for the Jews’ plight, as previously described in this column.
One particularly nasty example: In 2006, a young French Jew, Ilan Halimi, was held prisoner and tortured for 24 days by a gang of Muslims, then dumped, naked and handcuffed, in a field to die, French police were not even treating the incident as an anti-Semitic crime and surely no French people thought of donning a kippah in solidarity. In Europe this story was barely even reported and indeed the BBC still reports anti-Semitism in France as something that is only just now “rising.”
When in the summer of 2014 Jews had to barricade themselves in a Parisian synagogue because an anti-Semitic mob wanted to descend upon them as part of their “march for Gaza,” official France was silent. When another mob marched though the streets of France, yelling for Jews to get out, official France was silent. But when all these events finally accumulate and make a Jewish communal leader voice his most natural fear in public — then official France finds it opportune to chime in and voice how it finds the reality, which its actions and inactions helped create, to be “intolerable.”
According to a poll from the European Jewish Congress, a third of all European Jews — that is, 700,000 Jews — are considering leaving Europe. In France, 75% of Jews are considering leaving and 15,000 French Jews have already left in the past two years alone. Official France should have voiced its concerns about the ability of its citizens to be Jewish in public two decades ago. Today, in the face of this mass emigration and the nearly constant verbal and physical attacks on its Jewish citizens, such statements are utterly meaningless and serve only as fig leaves for the French establishment’s failure to protect the Jews of France.
Judith Bergman is a writer and political analyst living in Israel.
This article was originally published by Israel Hayom.