French Jewish Community Living in Fear

Friday’s antisemitic terrorist attack didn’t rattle the already nervous Jewish community, but it did instill genuine heartache and concern.
• Paris’ major synagogues suspended their Shabbat services for the 1st time since World War II.

By Boaz Bismuth


The last time I saw a Jewish minyan relocate from a synagogue to a private residence for security reasons was in 2010. I was in Rayda, Yemen, where the Jews were still reeling from the assassination of Moshe Nahari, the brother of a prominent rabbi.

I never thought I would find myself at the same exact same setting in Paris, only four years later.

A private residence in Paris was turned into a makeshift synagogue because of security concerns – Photo: Boaz Bismuth

On Friday night, I attended Shabbat services just off Place de la Republique in Paris. The services were supposed to be held in a synagogue, but the ongoing crisis made that impossible and they were moved to a private residence. Just hours earlier, the French security forces had freed the Jewish hostages from a kosher supermarket. As a precaution, authorities urged Jewish merchants to close for the day. They also approached Jewish leaders and asked them not to hold Shabbat services at the city’s synagogues.

Shabbat is supposed to be a festive occasion. But the atmosphere in the makeshift prayer house was anything but celebratory.

The gatherers had that same look I see anytime I travel to Jewish communities in Arab states: a worried look. Jan. 9, 2015 will go down as a day of infamy in France. French President Francois Hollande has called the attack on the Jewish deli a “appalling anti-Semitic act.”

Roger Cukierman, head of France’s leading Jewish organization, CRIF, told me he was not surprised by the attack on the Jewish grocery shoppers. “French Jews are in danger, as I have noted before,” he lamented on Friday, just before the rescue operation went underway. It was clear that he was worried about how things might unfold and whether the hostages would survive.

“After French Jew Ilan Halimi was kidnapped and tortured to death in 2006, I said the Jews of France were all in danger,” he said. “In 2012, when three children and one man were killed by a gunmen at the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse, I doubled down on that statement. We must realize that there is a full-fledged war between two civilizations in France. Our democracy and our values are in the jihadists’ crosshairs, and the Jews are on the frontline because they represent some of the values terrorists want to destroy,” he continued. “I believe we are in the midst of a Third World War; the spillover from the battles in Syria, Iraq, and Mali has reached France. The Jewish community, which had already been nervous prior to the attacks, is now even more concerned. The situation is dire. What we have seen is jihad being waged against journalists, free speech, against symbols of the republic, like the security forces, and against us, the Jews,” he stated.

I was walking the streets of Paris on Friday. None of the Jews I met told me that they were surprised by what happened.

In my many visits to France, my Jewish acquaintances told me that rising anti-Semitism will ultimately result in violence. It was just a matter of time, they warned. Friday’s attack did not jolt the already-nervous community, but it resulted in real concern and grief.

The Jewish businesses at the historically Jewish Marais district began to close as a precaution shortly after Amedy Coulibaly launched his attack at the supermarket. Jewish establishments in the Sentier district, formerly the epicenter of Paris’ garment industry, were also advised to close ahead of schedule.

At the evening services at the end of Shabbat, I met Joseph (Joe) Marciano, who has run a shop at the Sentier district for many years. He told me he complied with the authorities request to close his business for the day. “Why take the risk,” he told me. “My 17-year-old son won the national Krav Maga championship in France,” he said. “He will soon make aliyah. The number of people who make aliyah will increase even further in the wake of Friday’s attack. It is sad. We have no reason to stay here,” he added.

Michel Edry, 60, stood next to him. He also runs as business at the Sentier. “I want to make aliyah too — but only when I feel it is right, not when the jihadists decide for me,” he tells me. “This is just outrageous — I love France, and so do my children, what have I done to deserve this constant worry about the lives of my kids to the point that I have to relocate?” he asked rhetorically.

Raymond Haddad, owner of the famous Jewish restaurant La Boule Restaraunt did not heed the security warning and remained open for business. I dined there on Saturday and talked with him. He explained that his restaurant serves Kosher food but never closes on Shabbat, especially since some of his workers are of Arab descent. He insists that his restaurant caters to all French people.

Jewish landmarks such as the Grand Synagogue of Paris on Rue de la Victoire (in the 9th arrondissement) and the synagogue on Copernic Street (in the 16th arrondissement) closed their doors on Friday for security reasons. But on Saturday worshippers came back and tried to move on.

On Saturday morning I made my way to Agoudas Hakehilos Synagogue, situated in the Marais district on Rue Pavee. The morning services were led by Rabbi Mordechai Rottenberg. “I know you want me to provide you with an answer on whether you should leave or stay,” he told the crowd. “But frankly, I am at a loss for words,” he conceded.

A member of the French security forces and Jewish worshippers in Paris over the weekend – Photo: Boaz Bismuth

One worshipper told me that at no other time since World War II did synagogues across Paris suspend their Friday services. “Just look at how much of an impact the jihadist have, and this is all because the French Republic let them,” Emil, an eye doctor, told me. “I hope they [the authorities] wake up, but I am not sure this would happen. Last summer, the Muslim radicals joined forces with the extreme right and marched in the streets of Paris. This was a demonstration against us. The Jews are the easiest target, and most importantly, they are the first target. Of course, the French media is partially responsible for this because it has demonized Israel, and of course the Muslims here believe the Jews should be held accountable for all of Israel’s actions. I am a big boy but on Friday I cried. I am already 60. Of course I am planning to make aliyah, but I never thought I would ever leave France like this,” he told me.

Meyer Habib, who was elected to the French National Assembly, was also at the synagogue on Rue Pavee. He told me he hoped the French will now realize that Israel was part of the solution, not the problem, and that “the war against Hamas is part of the fight against jihadists in France and beyond.” “But our parliament was too busy endorsing the creation of a Palestinian state, and this only made the anti-Jew sentiment on the street more pronounced,” he lamented.

Thousands of Jews and non-Jews gathered near the supermarket as soon as Shabbat ended, holding a makeshift rally in solidarity with the victims. They sang “La Marseillaise” and some, the Jews, recited the Kaddish prayer. Prime Minister Manuel Valls made an unusual gesture by joining the demonstrators, along with Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve.

Valls, who is married to a Jew, conceded that the authorities could of have taken more meaningful steps after Toulouse attack in 2012. “Today, we are all Charlie, we are all police officers, we are all Jews of France,” Valls told the media. As it happened, Valls sat down for an interview with Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg prior to Friday’s events. According to Goldberg, Valls told him that “if 100,000 Jews leave, France will no longer be France. The French Republic will be judged a failure.”

The media reported extensively on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s comments from Saturday, which included a call on French Jews to immigrate to Israel. In the ensuing debate some Jews said they have had it with France, others said they will defiantly stay and wouldn’t leave just because of some jihadis.

Hollande was expected to meet Jewish leaders on Sunday just before he and other world leaders were to march in the streets of Paris. The march has been dubbed the “Unity Rally.” But after the dust settles, we can safely assume that the schism in French society will once again be on full display. Friday’s events will linger as open wounds that will fester for some time. They will be noticeable everywhere you look.


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