December 14, 2018

Would I leave France?

When we discussed the cover headline for the Journal’s story this week on the troubled Jews of France, we debated two options: “Should Jews leave?” or “Would you leave?” The first option was about “them,” while the second was more about us.

In the end, we went for clarity and chose the first one because our main stories are really about the Jews of France. But the second, more personal, headline speaks to something equally important and perhaps even more intriguing: How would we, as Americans, react if we were in the same shoes as our French brothers and sisters?

It’s a complicated question, because, generally speaking, American Jews are not used to being afraid of showing their Jewishness.

I can’t imagine, for instance, being afraid to walk to Young Israel of Century City while wearing my yarmulke, as I did last Shabbat on the yarzeit of my father. Ironically, it was my father who decided, 50 years ago, that we should not move to France when we left Morocco. Why? As my mother recalled, when my father returned from a visit to Paris in 1963, he spoke about an incident where a friend asked him to take off his yarmulke when he came out of a synagogue on Shabbat, just to be safe.

That may well have been the tiebreaker that made my father choose Canada over France — he wanted his children to grow up with no fear of showing they were Jewish.

The four Jews murdered at the kosher market in Paris certainly didn’t hide their Jewishness. What’s more Jewish than rushing on a Friday afternoon to get your last-minute Shabbat supplies? Coming after a decade of anti-Semitic attacks, the trauma of that tragedy has left the Jews of France feeling apprehensive as never before.

“It’s not a life,” Laetitia Enriquez, national correspondent for Actualité Juive, a prominent French Jewish weekly, told me on the phone from Marseille, where she lives with her husband and young children. “Almost every Jew I know talks about leaving, and that’s even before the latest attacks.”

While Enriquez and other French Jews are grateful for the outpouring of support from the French government, with extra security and armed guards now stationed at Jewish schools, synagogues and other Jewish establishments, there’s still a bitter aftertaste.

“Who wants to live like that?” she asked. “Who wants to live surrounded by guards, when you’re always afraid for your children? What’s really scary is that the government is on our side and we’re still afraid.”

Beyond the obvious cost of living with fear, Enriquez brought up another burden on the French-Jewish community that I hadn’t heard before.

“Because everyone talks about leaving, the community is paralyzed. We’re not talking about building things, about new projects. We’re like an apple that is drying up.”

This state of limbo is one more price French Jews are paying for their anguish: They’re neither here nor there, always talking about moving to Israel or elsewhere, but mostly staying in France and living in continuous anxiety.

Maybe my father intuitively understood 50 years ago that the fear of showing your Jewishness could paralyze not just a community, but one’s own life.

Of course, he probably also understood that there’s no such thing as a life without fear. We may talk a good game, but let’s face it, we all have basic fears that lie deep in our souls — the fear of failing, of becoming ill, of being alone, of rejection, of loss of close ones — even, as a rabbi friend once remarked, of living a life without meaning.

That is, perhaps, the hidden curse of anti-Semitism — it sucks up our energy from dealing with the everyday dramas of life.

Maybe, in the end, that’s what kept my father from taking us to France — he knew that even without chronic anti-Semitism, life is difficult enough, so we might as well live in a place where we’ll have one less hurdle to overcome. 

I’m guessing the fear of anti-Semitism is not the only one paralyzing French Jews as they agonize over whether to stay or leave. There’s surely also the fear of the unknown, of missing the French culture they so love, of failing in their new lives. These are human fears, not uniquely Jewish fears.

That is, perhaps, the hidden curse of anti-Semitism — it sucks up our energy from dealing with the everyday dramas of life.

What would I do if I were in the shoes of my French brethren? I’m not sure, but I’d probably be doing the same thing they’re doing — agonizing, kvetching, worrying and talking incessantly about leaving. And at times when I’d be afraid to wear my yarmulke as I walked to shul on Shabbat, I’d probably be swearing to myself that, right after sundown, I’m calling El Al.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at