France, the Jews and the Arabs


Can everyone live comfortably?

This morning when I logged on to my laptop, the first thing that appeared on my screen was an article about a shooting in a Jewish school in Toulouse.  My heart sank and I found myself awash in a familiar conflict about my “other home.”  While in college I lived in Paris for two years and traveled throughout western Europe.  Those years were among the happiest of my life.

Paris was a place where I forged myself an identity in which I was extremely comfortable.  In the two years I lived there I learned to speak like a native French woman.  Within the confines of my student budget, I dressed, ate, socialized, walked and thought as much like a native Parisian as I could.  It was altogether wonderful.

That was 40 years ago and France has changed dramatically.  A few years ago I spent two weeks vacationing in Lourmain, a village in the Luberon region of Provence, just north of Aix.  It’s a lovely landscape of steep mountain roads and medieval villages clinging to cliffs.  I was sorely disappointed, though.

While people watching from a cafe in the village centre, I saw lots of nationalities, few of them local.  Germans, Spaniards, English people, a few Italians.  It was October, so hardly high season, and I hadn’t expected tourists.  But the sampling of the European Union wasn’t tourists – they were people who’d moved to Provence for one reason or another.  At some abstact level, it was nice to see the Luberon becoming more diverse, but practically speaking I felt robbed of the “typically French” experience I had hoped for.

Over the years I’ve also traveled to Paris on business, and there everything is different too.  The coffee, the baguettes and the “plats du jour” are still unparalleled treats.  But the people-watching brings home the fact that in the past 40 years the influx of Arabs has increased disproportionately in comparison to other ethnic groups.

The Paris of my college years was certainly home to immigrants from the former colonies: Algerians, Tunisians, and Moroccans.  What’s happened since seems to be that other nationalities, having heard about the sizable Arab community, have come in search of a better life.  Iraquis, Iranians, Lebanese, Syrians, and Eqyptians have joined the north Africans in huge numbers.

Arab immigrants flock to more or less affordable housing around the outskirts of Paris and seek work in the city.  Unemployment is extremely high and discontent is rife.  Young people face the same dearth of opportunity they fled at home, and feel humilated in addition, since they’re economically excluded from the city of light, and have to live in the equivalent of ghettos that cling to the margins.

France has one of Europe’s largest Jewish populations and I’ve always considered it a haven, in spite of the degree to which occupied France collaborated  with the Nazis during World War II, turning Jews over to their captors.  At the very same time, France absorbed thousands of Jews who fled eastern Europe during the holocaust, and many descendants of those immigrants have put down roots.  A substantial number of them are successful and live comfortable lives.

To return to the news article that greeted me this morning, it’s not at all evident that an Arab opened fire on Jewish school children in Toulouse.  All that’s known about the perpetrator is that he was dressed in black and rode a motor scooter.  A person of similar appearance has also killed two French soldiers in Toulouse in apparently unprovoked attacks, and the police aren’t even guessing about motivation in any of the incidents.  I don’t know if the attack on Jewish school children was random or a hate crime.

Even given the lack of specifics regarding the attacks, my fears about Arab-Jewish relations in France flare up like a toothache.  It happens every time a synagogue is vandalized or a “black hat” Parisian Jew  is harassed for his appearance.  I would love to return to Paris for a long stay at some point during my retirement, yet the image of a city surrounded by angry Arabs, many of whom are citizens, haunts me.

I think of Israel where the poorest are Arabs, often people forcibly displaced from their homes who cannot find work.  Thankfully, Parisian Arabs aren’t subjected to the endless obstacles to mobility that plague Israeli Arabs.  Yet the tensions are similar: Arabs find themselves excluded, poor, and endlessly frustrated, while living side by side with comfortable Jews who’ve found a mainstream place for themselves.

Unlike the Israeli authorities, the French walk a bizarre tightrope between their Arab and Jewish populations.  Like Americans, they would like to be seen as unconditional friends of Israel, and protective of their Jewish citizens.  However, they also retain vestiges of a paternal attitude toward their former colonies, and thus toward their Arab citizens.  The unspoken French party line about Arabs is “they’re extended family and we take care of family.”  American Jews often say the French are afraid of their huge Arab communities.  I’m not sure that’s true, but they certainly have a sense of obligation.

So here I am, safely ensconsed in the US, wondering if France is “good for the Jews.”  Is an age-old antisemitism is about to rear its ugly head?  Has it already done so?  Will the French government protect French Jews?  What are they doing to help the legions of unemployed clinging to the outskirts of Paris?  Is Paris the site of the next major terrorist attack?

There are no easy answers, so I just make do with a permanent wariness about the country of my alter ego.  It’s part of being Jewish, I guess.


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