Anti-Semitism seems to be as ancient as the Jewish people themselves. Hellenistic texts from 300 BC exude stereotypes regarding Jews’ physical traits and supposed love for money. Anti-Semitism, however, comes in many shades, depending on the local culture, just as being Jewish in the diaspora is a varied experience. Living in Paris and New York, I see this difference explicitly. When I first rented a place in Manhattan, I was flabbergasted by the mezuzahs attached at so many entrances, including of commercial establishments. Despite the recent outbreak of anti-Semitic attacks in New York, Jews are not a tiny minority in the city and have no reason to hide. In Paris, we tend to be more discreet; if we have a mezuzah, we will usually place it inside.
In New York, Jews are divided into distinct communities—Conservative, Modern Orthodox, Reform, ultra-Orthodox—not familiar in France. In Paris, where Jews are scattered around the city, the main distinction is between Ashkenazim—Jews with an Eastern European background—and Jews who came to France in the 1960s from Algeria and other North African colonies, following independence. This second group now constitutes a majority and doesn’t always see eye-to-eye politically and culturally with the Ashkenazim, especially on the question of Israel. French society, however, which promotes active laicization as a positive value much more vigorously than does America, has largely secularized all of us. The French generally do not attend religious services, except for weddings and funerals: on Sunday morning, churches stay mostly empty, and the same goes with most synagogues on Saturday. Paris’s Orthodox Jewish community is rather small and concentrated in specific neighborhoods of Paris and its suburbs.
The histories of anti-Semitism in France and in the U.S. are different, too. In France, before 1945, anti-Semitism was treated as a legitimate form of political expression. The Catholic Church was by and large anti-Semitic, as was the army—as witnessed most sharply in the Dreyfus Affair—many intellectuals, and, of course, the Vichy regime. After World War II, everything was reversed. The police arrested my parents in 1944; today, they protect Jews. The Church and all public intellectuals are pro-Jewish. The law protects Jews. France has no First Amendment; all public expressions of racial or ethnic animus, including anti-Semitism, are considered criminal and can land you in jail.
This may explain why traditional French anti-Semitism has disappeared. Even the far-right parties are careful to avoid anti-Semitic rhetoric or imputations. The only anti-Semitic violence in France is committed by young Arabs who replay, sometimes with bombs and guns, the Palestinian conflict. In 2014, Jewish-owned stores in Paris and its suburbs were attacked by so-called Palestinian activists chanting “Down with Israel”; they were reacting, supposedly, to the Israeli bombing of Gaza. Is this anti-Semitism or anti-Zionism? In the case of the 2015 attack on the Hypercacher kosher supermarket, which occurred in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the question became moot. In any case, the French government takes no chances: all synagogues enjoy permanent police protection, as do all Jewish schools. This may explain why France has not seen attacks against places of worship comparable to what happened in Pittsburgh.
Is anti-Semitism on the rise in France? Some statistics suggest that it is, though these data are not totally reliable: when a drunken hoodlum paints a swastika on a Jewish grave, should I fear for my life? Jihadists committed the savage attack against the Bataclan concert hall in 2015, killing 90 people, but their target was France and French youth, not Jews specifically.
I may be too optimistic, but if I compare the Paris of my parents with the Paris of today, I feel that I’m much better off than they were back then. I do fear the jihadists who target Jews—but I do not fear the police or my Christian neighbors. My parents did.
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