Growing up as a Jew in Paris
For security the writer of this article wishes to remain anonymous.
I grew up in suburban Paris. Our suburb, Asnieres, was divided between a relatively poor Northern side, with a mix of people – Arabic, African, Chinese, Portuguese and French – lots of housing commissions, and a wealthier Southern side with a majority of French Catholics and pretty houses. I lived on the Northern side for 12 years with my family before moving to the Southern side.
In the late 70s, the communities in the Northern side lived together fairly well I believe.
I went to a local public primary school which was as socially mixed as the town. The local shops were equally mixed – French bakeries, Italian restaurants & grocery shops traditionally run by an Arabic family.
The high school was located in the Northern side, at the border with Gennevilliers. Gennevilliers was another culturally mixed suburb, just a little poorer and more “run-down” than Asnieres. This suburb was quite famous because the police were afraid to enter some of the housing commission sites. One of the brothers responsible for the Charlie-Hebdo murders lived in Gennevilliers.
When I started Junior High School in 1985, the Arab kids found out, I assume from my surname, that I was Jewish. I have never been religious, and never spoke about religion, but they knew.
They called me ‘the Jew’. It started in the play area where I faced a lot of intimidation and nasty remarks. On the bus home, they would regularly stare at me and talk about how much they hated my ‘race’. I never defended myself, they were older, stronger and I was afraid. It was limited to verbal abuse – they never touched me. I still hated going to school because of them. In the late 80s the Arab community was still a minority in the school.
I was a good student, and probably from a wealthier family than them. I think they mostly hated me for that; the fact that I was Jewish just gave them a reason to express their hatred. Islam didn’t seem important to them at the time. I think they were raised with traditional anti-Semitism through their parents, which was quite common among the North African Arabic community.
One of my friends who went to a very good public high school in a posh suburb told me that he was also called ‘the Jew’ by the rich French kids there. Traditional anti-Semitism among the French Catholic families also existed. I was told by some kids who attended Catholic teaching at church that the priest had taught them that the Jews killed Jesus.
The school environment degraded by the end of my 4 years of junior high school. Kids became more violent, there were fights between Arabs and ‘skin heads’, small gangs within the school, even gangs of girls, racketeering etc. I certainly didn’t want these new kids to know I was Jewish; they were far rougher than those picking on me before.
When my brother, 5 years younger than me, started at the school, he was attacked by a kid with a machete. His heavy winter jacket protected him. The offender was evicted and sent to a special school where, a year later, a teacher was killed.
In year 10 I started senior high school, located just across the street from the junior school. The principal of the high school was a terrifying man and he ran his school with an iron fist. He managed to filter out the bulk of the bad elements and had the best final year results for the area. The few Arab students there were mostly from good families and I never had any issues with them.
The only difficult moments for me occurred at lunch time. The canteen was located at the junior high school. As I walked past the school, I was bullied by kids hanging outside. Not because I was Jewish – they didn’t know – but because I was white, female, and nicely dressed. One held a pellet gun to my head in one instance, ‘for fun’.
I did have issues with the anti-Israel and anti-American pamphlets distributed by the Communist youth group at the gate in 1990. I think we all know now what really hides behind anti-Zionism but at the time, it was not commonly heard of. It was mostly expressed by those political minority groups and some leftist teachers. My history teacher in year 12 told us that the Jews kicked the Arabs out of Israel in 1948. I disagreed but was quickly shut up by the teacher and one of the communist kids. Those same kids called me a ‘Bourgeoise’, because my family had some money, a nice house, and also probably because I was good at school. Social racism. It was unpleasant but I wasn’t afraid of them.
After high school I went on to a very good business school in the North of France. I studied among French Catholics, Jews, foreigners and a few Arabs – mostly from wealthy families, born in North Africa and living in France to study. There was probably no one from the housing commissions. No Communist youth. No problems.
In 1998 I joined a large American IT consulting firm in Paris. Life was good. Paris was what it was. If you walked down the famous Champs Elysees at night, it would be likely that some individuals or gangs would try to hassle you or even steal your bag. If you took the suburban train, similar things could happen. If you knew the areas to avoid, you were OK.
I moved to Sydney for work in 2001. I spent 3 years there and met my Aussie husband. Being in Sydney was a very strange experience in that no one cared about my religion so I felt really safe as a Jew there. In France people need to know who you are, what your religion is and where your parents were born – especially when your name doesn’t sound French.
I returned to Paris in 2004. I had never had Arab colleagues before, but on my first project upon returning there were quite a few. They were born in North Africa, highly educated and in France to get work experience before going back home. We had a few conversations about politics – not unusual in France. Some of them told me that there was a tradition of anti-Semitism in their country, especially among the older generations. They themselves didn’t seem anti-Semitic at all. However talking about Israel was much more difficult. I tried very hard to have an exchange with those I considered I could. But it was almost impossible. They always came back to the ‘Deir Yassin’ massacre or videos they would have seen of Israeli soldiers torturing Palestinians.
I completely disagreed with their point of view, but I could understand why they felt compelled to have a strong opinion on the matter being fellow Arabs/Muslims.
With the French (non-Jewish) colleagues on the other hand, it was much harder to understand why they cared so much about that issue – and seemingly no other. I would have to dig very deep to find any similarity between someone born in France or Gaza. I now think it goes back to the French traditional anti-Semitism. They cannot stand to see the Jews having their own independent place on earth. Believing that the Israeli Jews kill Palestinians may relieve them of their guilt of being Nazi collaborationists during WW2.
I remember spending hours in the evening researching on the internet and reading books to try and ensure that I had the ‘right’ argument for these often heated exchanges. It was exhausting and so unfair. I don’t believe any other people are guilty by default like the Jews and need to defend themselves like we do. In the end I just gave up and avoided the subject.
Then there was Ilan Halimi in 2006. A young Jewish man kidnapped in Paris by a gang of ‘barbarians’ – that’s what they called themselves – because they thought all Jews were rich. He was held captive in the basement of a housing commission and tortured for 3 weeks until he was left for dead on the street. Around me and in the media they tried by all means to prove it was not an anti-Semitic act. They couldn’t stand that if it was actually anti-semitism. They focused more on the killers than the victim to try and find excuses. They also blamed the Israeli prime minister for asking the Jews to leave France. Sound familiar?
My husband and I had our first daughter in 2007 and decided to buy a house in Colombes, a suburb close to Asnieres. This suburb had a very attractive centre with small houses, but was surrounded by housing commission buildings. When we were kids, it was a scary place. It used to be a communist suburb, but with real estate pricing going through the roof in Paris, the suburb started to attract young working families. The local council then shifted to the right wing.
At one point, we decided to go to Israel for a holiday. I hadn’t been there in almost 10 years and my husband, who is not Jewish, had never been. I have never flown to Israel from any other place but when you fly from Paris, it is a very strange experience. The check-in is at the very end of the airport, completely isolated from all the other check-ins. Several soldiers with machine guns escort you there, and are present every 5-10 metres through to the door of the plane. The lack of visible soldiers or police on arrival into Israel seems to indicate that there is something really wrong back home.
After our holidays, my husband mentioned our trip to his work colleagues. They attacked him with indignation – how could he go to this murderous country! They were not Arabic or Muslim, just French. My husband was shocked by the comments – especially coming from those he had become quite close to. He had never experienced something like that in Australia. He was having to defend his choices.
When our first daughter started kindergarten in 2010, her school was very much like my primary school but with many more Arab children. The parents, however, seemed quite secular and didn’t show any religious signs. It was a pleasant environment and everyone was getting along. That was before the council had switched back to the socialists, and the demographics in the town changed.
There had always been a high number of Arab Muslims in Colombes, but in just 2 years since the Socialists had taken over, many if not all of the Muslim women on the street were wearing a veil or a more traditional outfit, and you could see many bearded men with Afghan style clothing.
A friend of our family who was a teacher at my primary school had told my mother that foreign extremist Muslim groups were paying women to wear a veil – and that was 25 years ago. That’s probably when it had started and how long it took to spread.
My two oldest daughters had teachers of Arabic origins. They were great. One day one of the bearded Muslim fathers, who had a beautiful little girl in my youngest daughter’s class, had an argument with the teacher. He asked her not to take any photo of his daughter. If they were doing group activities, she had to be placed aside so she wouldn’t be in the photo. She couldn’t have her photo in her notebook or on the coat hanger like the other kids. The teacher was trying to explain to him that it was not necessarily helpful to exclude her from the group photos, as it meant excluding her from the class activities – and school was supposed to include everyone. He didn’t care. Even though France is secular and the school was secular, the teacher had to give in. She was outraged. But she told me the director wouldn’t back her up, and she was afraid because she lived in the same housing commission as them and they would find her, damage her car or worse.
The school gave in to their requests. The canteen started serving ‘no meat’ meals (when I was a kid, ‘no pork’ meals were offered to accommodate Muslims and Jews but ‘no meat’ was now for Halal). When I asked if my daughter could have ‘no dairy’ meals because she had allergies, they said that she needed to bring her own meal. The school festival was organised by the parents association – which was politically associated with the left wing – and the barbecue was Halal.
Maybe this is not easy to understand, but the issue is not so much that in a school, where a majority of kids are Muslim that meals are served to accommodate them, it is about France being a secular country. It’s a big deal for the French, and we have no religion at school and yet some groups try to impose the way they want to eat, and ultimately the way we all should eat, and also bring inequality between boys and girls into the school. The same issues arise in the hospitals, sports centres, holiday camps etc.
We had some issues with holiday camps organised by the town during the Ramadan. The majority of the young educators were Muslim and even though they were not supposed to, they fasted during the camp. When one of them fainted it finally raised security issues about taking care of the kids when they were physically unable to. They were made redundant. It outraged the Muslim community, so they were paid and reintegrated.
At school, I told my daughters never to mention that we were Jewish or that we had been to Israel. I was scared for them.
In 2012 there was the terrorist attack in Toulouse against the local Jewish school. When my youngest saw the picture of the little girl who was killed she said: “Anne is on the TV!” Anne being my oldest daughter, she looked just like the victim, blond with blue eyes. That little girl, Miriam, wasn’t just shot, the killer grabbed her by the hair as she was running away and shot her in the head. It was a horrible awakening. It was the last straw for me – we needed to leave France. And I was not even in the population ‘at risk’; my daughters didn’t have Jewish names and didn’t go to a Jewish school.
I imagined that the killer could have been any one of the abusive or violent Arab kids I had grown up with.
We had always thought that we wanted our children to grow up in Australia, and the Toulouse attack triggered the action.
We sold our house and moved in with my parents for a few months where I had grown up. Regarding the Northern side of the town, it had completely lost its cultural mix to become almost entirely North African. The food shops had become Halal eateries or dedicated web and phone cafes to contact North Africa. You could be walking on the streets of Morocco.
One day as I was walking on the street near my parents’ house with my daughters, I ran into one of those ‘kids’ – who was now fully grown up – the same one who was calling me ‘a Jew with a dirty race’ at school. He didn’t look like an extremist but then none of the terrorists did.
Paranoia set in. What if he attacks us on the street? He could be one of them – he knows me, he knows who I am, he has seen my kids. I felt like I was taking a risk. It was hopefully a very extreme reaction, but the Toulouse killer didn’t look like an extremist and grew up in a suburb just like mine. I was afraid again, and I promised myself I would never let my daughters be afraid as I had been as a child.
We finally headed to Australia and things have been much better since. Very rarely I have had arguments here. There is some anti-Israel propaganda but it hasn’t reached the level of France yet. In general I feel that people are more open about Jewish people and about Israel.
I still feel I was pretty lucky during my childhood. Today I hear there are almost no Jewish children in public schools, even in the centre of Paris. It has become very difficult to teach about the Shoah even though it is part of the curriculum. Jews cannot walk in Paris wearing a kippah for fear of being attacked. During the last Gaza operation in July 2014, mobs took the streets of Paris screaming ‘Kill Jews’, burned Jewish shops and attacked a synagogue terrorising those locked inside.
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