Monday, June 12, 2006

Time for an oulpan

Anti-Semitism in France. Still going strong, apparently. From Haaretz: "The [Parisian] falafel stand owner said that they threatened to 'fuck all the Jews.'" Now of course, if "they" did do this, if the Muslim and Jewish communities made love and not war, perhaps the situation in the Marais--a largely old-Jewish, new-fashionable, Lower East Side-like neighborhood in Paris-- would be less hostile...although of course "fucking all the Jews" was also what used to be called a pogrom, and the reason for so many blond Jews or so the rumor goes....but moving on...

When in the Marais in 2003, I remember seeing signs about Jewish self-defense leagues, but this was before my obsession with all things French-Jewish was at its current level, so I didn't give it much thought. Daniel Ben Simon of Haaretz now clues us in:

The Betar Zionist youth movement is particularly active in Le Marais. The members of this movement seem to be unaware of the changes that have taken place in Israel over the past few decades, and many of them still call for a Jewish state on both sides of Jordan and for the expulsion of the Palestinians. In their eyes, all critics of Israeli policies are anti-Semites. A few years ago, the leaders of the French Jewish community were deeply offended when then prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu chose to begin his state visit to France in the company of Betarim and only afterward met with the community's official leadership.

Here is the link to the website of Betar's French division. The website itself is a bit hard to figure out, but I know this much: what I need, at least as much as any French Jew, is an "oulpan." An intensive Hebrew-language class taught in French, that would be ideal.

From what I can tell, Betar is a movement founded by Jabotinsky whose members are somewhat beyond "pro-Israel" as this term is usually understood. Given the history/stereotype of French-Jewish passivity in the face of anti-Semitism, it seems only fair that such a movement should exist, although I don't know enough about it to say whether I believe it is too radical for its/everybody's own good. But back to the Haaretz story:

After Ilan Halimi's murder last February, Betarim "captured" the Jewish streets in Le Marais and called for vengeance, adhering yellow stickers of the Jewish Defense League with that message on every available wall. Tribu KA [anti-Semitic gang] members picked up the gauntlet dropped by these Jewish fanatics and entered the neighborhood. "Where are the Betarim?" shouted the black cult thugs when they burst onto the Jewish streets. "We'll kill them and all of you," they screamed at Le Marais' alarmed residents. [insertion mine]

This all sounds awfully West Side Story, but a part of me is relieved to see that the Jews are fighting back. I can't help but think the fact that the state of Israel exists has something to do with the way things play out on the streets of Paris, both in terms of Muslim and Arab anti-Semitism and in terms of the confidence level behind the Jewish response. I fail to see, from the article alone, what makes Betar a "fanatical" group--they believe in a "greater Israel," just as their antagonists presumably would be happy to see Israel disappear from the map, neither of which is a moderate position. But if all they're doing in France is putting up stickers on walls, and have yet to torture someone from the opposing side, then I'm not sure if they can be called "fanatics." You have to look at the context. As Ben Simon himself points out, "
Thousands of Jews were forcibly removed from their homes here [in the Marais] 60 years ago by the Vichy authorities and were sent to transit camps, from which they were deported to death camps. The memories are still fresh, and the Jewish residents of this neighborhood still carry the scars from that era when the skies of France darkened." If this had happened, say, on the Upper West Side 60 years ago, I'd imagine there'd be a bit more "fanatical" sticker-posting and a bit less relaxed schmoozing over a Tasti d-lite.

As for the anti-Jewish gang-members, "
It is unclear what the cult wants. It has only a few hundred members who observe a cultic lifestyle, maintaining absolute secrecy on their operational methods. Their chief interest today is to beat the daylights out of the Betarim to show 'who's the boss on the block.'" I'm not sure what a "cultic lifestyle" is, other than proof that I need to take an "oulpan" and learn enough Hebrew not to rely on Haaretz's English edition.

The rest of the article describes the state of unrest in the French suburbs, which at least one suburban mayor,
Xavier Lemoine, sees as an "us versus them," with Jews as part of the "us." I mean, who knows. Islamic fundamentalism, glorification of Osama bin Laden, torturing random cellphone salesmen because they happen to be Jewish, all of this probably does conflict with French ideals, but part of what Lemoine minds is that immigrants wish to preserve their own culture. And Jews, at least those who go beyond being "of Jewish origin," tend also to want to do things differently. In theory, France permits this to a certain extent, but the Lemoines of France may not approve.

"I am a proud French Catholic and I have no intention of living as a 'dhimmi' (a non-Muslim enjoying protected status in a Muslim country - D.B.S.) in my own country. We are different from them, and these people do not represent France.".....

....[Lemoine] is sure the Muslim immigrants have declared war on France with the intention of bringing it to its knees. He considers the Jews allies in this confrontation. "I am pained by the thought that my country is ashamed of its culture and values. When France denies its own history and incessantly apologizes for slavery, for its conquests and for colonialism, is it any wonder that the immigrants are rising up against it and are showing no respect for it? Unfortunately, France has not demanded that they change. It has allowed them to speak Arabic and to cultivate their heritage at the expense of French culture."

While in this immediate situation, French Jews and "proud French Catholics" have a common enemy, Lemoine is confused if he sees Jews as on his side in general. Once France stops apologizing for its past injustice towards Arabs and Muslims, why not stop apologizing for its role in the Holocaust, a role France has only admitted relatively recently? But stepping back from Lemoine in particular, what interests me about the place of French Jews today is that they really are in a bind. Hated more than the proudly Catholic, "culturally-French" contingent by many in the Arab and Muslim communities, yet neither Catholic nor "French" in the sense that the Lemoines of the country would have it, they can side enthusiastically with neither "East" nor "West" in this conflict. For the time being, siding with the West may seem the way to go, moving east might also seem appealing.

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