On the streets of Paris, ADL chief glad to see yarmulkes, but senses fear

Editor’s note: This opinion piece was written on Nov. 12, one day before the horrific attacks in Paris that have left more than 120 people dead and scores wounded.

Jonathan Greenblatt
Jonathan Greenblatt

NEW YORK (JTA) — I have visited Europe many times, but last week I looked at it through a new lens in my first trip as CEO of the Anti-Defamation League.

I undertook the trip after an invitation to address the annual meeting of the CRIF, the representative body for the French Jewish community and a valued ADL partner. It was an intense learning experience, with reason for hope and cause for concern.

The hope came from hearing Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve speak forcefully at the CRIF meeting about the government’s intention to provide physical security and moral support to enable Jews to live openly and confidently in France. Also from visiting upscale neighborhoods of Paris with significant Jewish communities, where the moderate security at kosher restaurants did not seem to impose a burden on daily routines. Yarmulkes were a common sight. Walking these streets, it felt as cosmopolitan and safe as the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

And yet there was a general sense of foreboding. Many conversations turned to stories of people immigrating to Israel, America or elsewhere. Schools are protected by high walls and patrolled by elite military forces bearing heavy weapons. The same soldiers are stationed in front of synagogues.

One evening in Paris, our hosts received a frightening text message during dinner: There was a developing incident near a kosher sushi shop involving hooded assailants allegedly chasing Jews down the street. We rushed to the scene. When we arrived, we learned from police that the event had been misreported. Nonetheless, the very fact that our hosts believed that such a thing was possible reflected the pervasive sense of anxiety.

At the Alliance Israelite Universelle, a Jewish school in the downtrodden Paris suburb of Pavillons-sous-Bois, I listened as parents related stories of bullying and anti-Semitism that have caused Jewish students to leave the community’s public schools for AIU. Students talked openly about leaving the country of their birth after graduation. Authorities described an almost lawless atmosphere that intimidated police, let alone members of the public.

We saw a more complicated picture in Sarcelles, a working-class town outside Paris with large Jewish and Muslim communities. Last summer, anti-Israel riots plagued the town. Our tour included Jewish shops that had been firebombed, the synagogue that had been threatened by a mob and the downtown area where young Muslims and Jews had faced off with riot police separating them.

Local Jews described their relations with the majority of their Muslim neighbors as “proper, but not friendly.” Despite the unease, the most uplifting moment of my visit occurred in Sarcelles.

We ate lunch at a kosher Tunisian restaurant with Imam Hassen Chalghoumi, a rare Muslim leader who has been an active advocate for coexistence with the Jewish community. During our lunch, several Jews – customers and kitchen staff – came over to the imam. They took selfies and gave him hugs, expressing their appreciation for his leadership against anti-Semitism in the Muslim community. They reminisced in Arabic about Tunisia and showed a model of camaraderie, of what could be — and should be — in Sarcelles.

There were also two moments that underscored the vulnerability of the community. I paid respects at the Hyper Cacher kosher market where four Jews were murdered earlier this year because of their faith. And I sat with Ruth Halimi, the mother of young Ilan Halimi who was kidnapped, tortured and murdered in a horrifying anti-Semitic crime in 2006. Her strength was quite impressive.

At the CRIF meeting, Gilles Clavreul, the French government’s point person for the fight against anti-Semitism, asserted that it is time to consider new strategies and programs to counter anti-Jewish hatred. The challenges this entails are complex. But in cooperation with CRIF and the French government, ADL is prepared to be part of that fight.

Jonathan A. Greenblatt is the CEO and national director of the Anti-Defamation League.