An American Jew in Paris
It wasn't the Louvre, it wasn't the French food. It wasn't the image of "gay Paree." No, my reason for visiting Paris now was that Jews were again being killed because they were Jews.
The American media have been diligent in their coverage of the violence visited upon French Jews. Reports have covered attacks on young Jews on their way to religious schools, the painting of swastikas and anti-Jewish slogans on religious institutions, the bombing of the synagogue on Rue Copernic, and the murder of the owner of a Jewish travel agency. But the media treatment, painted with broad brush strokes, seemed to me to miss the human aspect. I wanted to know how the average French man and woman were affected by the traumatic events.
My conversation with an American official was, for the most part, off the record. He was blunt. He had a clear simple analysis of the anti-Jewish events:
The violence could be laid at the door of two policies of the government of France: its dependence on the Arab nations for oil, and a nagging reluctance in the hearts and minds of some French officials to consider French Jews as bona fide Frenchmen. Because the French authorities seemed to fail to consider the anti-Jewish violence as a threat against France, they encouraged the neo-Nazis and right-wing elements to carry on their open attacks on Jews and Judaism. By repeated public statements inferring that the attackers were "from outside of France" (that is, the PLO), the French agencies seemed to be saying that it was beyond their control.
As evidence, the American official referred to Raymond Barre's statement that ". . . though the attack was aimed at Jews, two innocent French persons were killed." France, he said, would do anything and everything to protect its source of oil.
An Israeli official had a different analysis. He painted a more serious picture. He agreed with my American contact about the position of the government of France. Oil was king. Oil was Arab. Ipso facto, Arabs and oil came before Jews. However, he also noted that the Jews of Paris had a streak of fear. I was told that young Jews in Paris had stopped wearing the kipah (skullcap) when walking on the streets or riding the metro.
He seemed to be correct. In a week of metro riding and wandering the byways of Paris I did not see a single person, young or old, with a skullcap on his head. I was also told that French-Jewish professionals, doctors and attorneys, had removed their professional signs from the outside of their buildings, hoping to lessen the likelihood of violent, murderous attacks upon them or their families.
Yes, the Israeli said, there had been massive public demonstrations against the anti-Jewish violence, but the non-Jewish participation had been predicated on internal French political realities, left against right, Communist against neo-Fascist, and each trying to feather its own political nest. The French government, he said, would do little or nothing that might upset its delicate relationship with the Arab oil-producing nations.
The Rabbi of Synagogue Rue Copernic was fascinating and open. The Jews of France, he told me, were at opposite ends of the spectrum from the Jews of the United States. In his opinion, French Jews considered themselves to be more French than Jewish. Because they represented less than one percent of the French electorate, they believed that they could exert little influence upon their government.
Nevertheless, in his view, given the many political parties and the narrow edge of the French political victories, they could be influential. Would they take advantage of the opportunity? Not in his opinion. Were the French Jews frightened? He did not believe that they were panicked. That French Jews were removing their nameplates from their buildings and not wearing skullcaps on the streets were not indications of fear, but of prudence.
Was the government doing all that it could, or should, to apprehend the criminals? He reminded me of the police in front of his synagogue, armed, in force. He reminded me that this protection applied to all Jewish institutions in Paris. But there we were, he continued, weeks after the bombing, and not a single indication that the police had any solid leads to the perpetrators of the crime. His Gallic shrug of shoulders seemed to say it all.
Finally, I spoke with a member of the French Foreign Ministry. The bottom line of our conversation was narrow and well defined. In his opinion (although the matter, he indicated, was not within his jurisdiction), the crimes against the Jews of Paris had been committed by "outsiders." Jews, he said, were accepted as full citizens of France, and the media suggestion that the French police were infiltrated with neo-Nazis and right-wing extremists was totally false. France of 1980 was not the France of Vichy-World War II days. Yes, France supported the rights of the Palestinians, including the right to self-determination and a homeland. Yes, France did have official contacts with Arafat and other PLO leaders, but this in no way diminished France's determination to protect the welfare of all of its citizens, including its Jewish citizens.
As an American Jew in Paris, I came away with a feeling that, though these times are not those of Vichy France, French Jews are in danger. One day the police guards will be withdrawn from the Jewish institutions. Paris may not be burning, but there is a smell of smoke in the air.