The Troubling Question in the French Jewish Community: Is It Time to Leave?
“Do something! Do you see what is happening here?” the chairman said to a line of police officers watching the demonstration build to a frenzy. “What do you expect us to do?” one officer said, then looked away. For years, the chairman, a longtime anti-racism activist, has turned up at rallies like this one to see which politicians and which radical groups were present. (For reasons of personal safety, the chairman asked not to be identified for this story.) France’s endless demonstrations are a mainstay of the republic, a sacred right rooted in the legacy of Voltaire. But hate speech is a criminal offense—people may express their opinions, but not to the extent of insulting others based on their race, religion, or sex. The protest—against Israel’s Gaza policies—had been banned by the government, fearful of violence, following flare-ups in the preceding weeks. But if the police were to move in too quickly, the riots might continue all summer long—suburbs in flames, mobs in central Paris.
Photographs and videos of the swastika and its perpetrator, of protesters chanting “Kill the Jews,” and of the Palestinian, Hamas, and ISIS flags were sent in a rush to various groups in the Jewish community who assess threats. By early afternoon, some of these reached Sammy Ghozlan, a 72-year-old retired police commissioner who has spent his career working the banlieues, the belt of working-class, racially mixed suburbs that surround Paris. Ghozlan is a folk hero of the banlieues and has a nickname that is impossible to forget: le poulet cacher—“the kosher chicken.” (Poulet is slang for cop.) For 15 years, he has overseen France’s National Bureau for Vigilance Against Anti-Semitism—known by its French abbreviation, B.N.V.C.A.—a community hotline he founded that is funded by his police pension and whatever small donations he can come by. Its purpose is nothing less than to protect the Jews of France.
This past year, Ghozlan’s frequent bulletins—detailing attacks in parks, schools attacked, synagogues torched, assaults on the Métro—have clogged the in-boxes of reporters at Le Monde, Le Figaro, and Le Parisien, and of thousands of Jews throughout the banlieues. Ghozlan’s bulletins sometimes come twice a day, with claims that have also been backed up by hard numbers: according to a watchdog group, the Jewish Community Protection Service, or S.P.C.J., which reports statistics collected by the country’s Interior Ministry, there were 851 recorded anti-Semitic incidents in France in 2014, more than doubling the total from 2013. Ghozlan and his 19 volunteers are on the front lines in the most troubled areas, documenting, trying to confirm, hoping to get a reporter or a police prefect or a court to take action. There has been such an uptick, and such a flurry of alerts from Ghozlan over the past year, that there’s always a risk that his efforts will be shrugged off as yet another nuisance.
“I knew that if anyone could get the police to take action it would be Sammy and the B.N.V.C.A.,” Zenouda later told me. Only six police officers were assigned to be on demonstration duty that day. “We are waiting for the assault police to arrive,” one told a reporter at the scene. After an hour, a counterterrorism force rescued the chief rabbi, but everyone else was left inside, behind doors barricaded from the inside with chairs and tables. Outside, members of a special security patrol and a dozen members of the self-trained Ligue de Défense Juive began chasing off the demonstrators with chairs and tables from nearby cafés, working with a small unit from the security force. Together, it took them three hours to disperse the crowd and safely evacuate the synagogue.
Almost immediately afterward, the reports of the July 13 demonstration would be challenged and debated. The numbers would be skeptically parsed—were there really so many?—and questions would be asked about actions that might have provoked the violence, as if carrying iron bars and axes around central Paris might be normal. In some circles, there were even accusations that the Jews “brought on the behavior,” as they always do.
In the crowd—and many others that would turn the summer of 2014 into a summer of hate in Paris—were representatives of France’s political parties, both left and right. France’s Muslim population is estimated to be around 5 million, a potential voting bloc in a country of 66 million. (The Jewish population of France is in the neighborhood of 500,000.) Shimon Samuels, the director for international relations at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Paris—which combats anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial, and extremism, and, through a foundation, helps to fund Ghozlan’s hotline—witnessed some of the events of July 13. Among those he recognized in the crowd were a local concierge and bank teller, along with members of the current Socialist government.
Monitoring the footage later, Ghozlan was sickened to see the faces of political allies he had worked with for decades, mostly in what is known as Le Neuf Trois (“9–3”), the area of northern Paris suburbs that he once presided over as a commissioner of police. Le Neuf Trois is the rap name for this district, which has the honor of being, by reputation anyway, the most violent in France. (The name derives from the area’s postal codes, which all begin with “93.”) It is also where Ghozlan lived for 30 years in a spacious house surrounded by hedges on the Avenue Henri Barbusse in the relatively calm community of Le Blanc-Mesnil.
More than a million people rally to honor those killed in the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher terrorist attacks, Place de la République, Paris, January 11, 2015. By Nicolas Gouhier/Abaca Press/SIPA USA
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