Are the Jews of France Doomed?
Nice, France — I was getting out of our car with my wife and children on a main thoroughfare in Nice when a young French-Jewish woman walked over to us. Speaking in a heavily accented English, she practically begged us to either get back in the car or at least take our yarmulkes off. “I don’t want you to get attacked. This is not a good neighborhood for Jews.”
We were disturbed by the encounter. Not because we believed that we were in danger, but because of her state of alarm. She was genuinely scared for us. And when my wife and I were buying tickets to a French museum, the woman who was selling us our tickets asked my wife to please put away her Magen David necklace. “I am Jewish, too. I also love Israel. But it’s not safe.”
Welcome to France, the third largest Jewish community on earth, comprised of a secret society of 600,000. By this I mean that French Jews are vibrant, extremely well organized, passionate, and quite observant. There is one catch. You don’t know they are Jewish unless they reveal themselves to you.
While walking in St. Tropez immediately after France won the World Cup, with the entire city celebrating, a man on a scooter with his girlfriend started singing to us “Am Yisrael Chai.” He saw our kippot and outed himself.
We saw the same thing happening while walking the streets of Cannes the day before. Many people whom we did not know were Jewish would say, “Shabbat Shalom,” “Good Sabbath,” or just “Shalom.” I felt that our overt Jewish demeanor was bringing more people out of the woodwork.
This does not mean, by any stretch, that French Jewry is doomed. To the contrary. I was amazed at their vibrancy, Jewish commitment, and solidarity with Israel.
For all the reports that we American and Israeli Jews read about growing French antisemitism, especially emanating from sectors of the Muslim community, and for all the reports of French Jews wanting to either make aliyah to Israel or emigrate to Canada, French Jewry is still thriving.
What has changed is that it’s becoming more and more subterranean. Yes, you can still find large numbers of synagogues, kosher restaurants, and Jewish community centers. What you don’t see on the streets, however, is Jews. Or you see them, but you don’t necessarily know they are Jews. Overt, identifiable symbols of Jewishness — like a kippa, Magen David, or tzitzit — are disappearing from French streets and cities.
Why? Because French Jews are genuinely concerned about a possible attack.
There is one glaring exception: Chabad rabbis and community members who walk around with black hats, long black coats, and tzitzit flying, and the Chabad women dressed in clearly identifiable Jewish modest garb.
And how did I feel as an American Jew, walking around with a family wearing yarmulkes and tzitzit? I got some stares, to be sure. And truth be told, on the night that France won the World Cup semi-final, there were some stares at my Yarmulke that might have been interpreted as menacing.
But contrast that with the following story: I was walking in St. Tropez with my kids just as the World Cup final was beginning; we painted our faces in support of France. And there we were, clearly identifiable American Jews who had suddenly been transformed into fans of “Les Bleus.” Two hours later, as France erupted like a volcano upon their 4-2 victory over Croatia, we were swept up into the celebrations as people all around broke into “La Marseillaise,” lit flares, jumped into the water, sang, and doused us in champagne.
So how did it feel, for a brief moment, to be both French and overtly Jewish? Well, it felt like it’s something that could be pulled off — if only people could always live at the pinnacle of joy that comes from a World Cup victory.
It is utterly unacceptable that Jews in France should feel unsafe. The government must enforce the strictest penalties against all antisemitic attacks and safeguard Jewish areas to the highest degree. They must also teach about the Holocaust in all French schools — the French were official collaborators with the Nazis after their initial defeat — and the French government must always embrace a strong alliance with Israel. French Muslim leaders must preach love and friendship with their fellow sons of Abraham, and brook no incitement in the name of Islam toward Jewry.
But alongside all that, there must also be a stalwart decision on the part of French Jews to proudly wear their Jewishness on their sleeves.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the international best-selling author of 32 books, including Lust for Love, co-authored with Pamela Anderson. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.