French Jews hide their Jewishness


PARIS (JTA) – They started to pop up in clusters around town a few years ago: plain, black baseball caps made of thin fabric, pulled tight in the back and worn by men in nondescript, formal attire.

It was a noticeable change in the Paris fashion landscape, where caps usually are multicolored and reserved for casual wear.

Yet this slightly off-kilter Franco version of the American fashion accessory, the baseball cap, was meant not to attract attention but avoid it.

That’s because the men wearing them were French Jews interested in blending in, not standing out.

In 2003, France’s chief rabbi, Joseph Sitruk, recommended replacing or covering yarmulkes with baseball caps when in public to avoid attacks by anti-Semites.

Since then the practice has spread. After dark, on the metro or exiting the synagogue, Orthodox Jews commonly slip on their caps as a means of protection.

“I wish I could walk around without the hat,” said Daniel Tapia, 58, who recently started hiding his yarmulke out of safety concerns. “It has become a necessity. I’d rather be cautious.”

Jacques Slama, 47, says he’s not afraid of anti-Semitic attacks but covers his yarmulke with the baseball caps his wife brings him from New York because he prefers to go unnoticed.

“I don’t like people to say, ‘there goes a Jew,’ ” said Slama, a butcher.

The practice of hiding yarmulkes from sight is one salient sign of the degree to which life has changed in the past few years for French Jews. Some have grown accustomed to the daily precautions they take, but many say they are no longer comfortable in France. Some have plans to emigrate.

“Before, people paid less attention if they wore a kipah,” said Fortune Mazeltov, 50, who sells the caps to Jewish customers in a packed knickknack shop in central Paris. But now, she said of her customers, “given the tense times we’re going through, they’re afraid.”

Jewish women, too, have been hiding signs of their Jewishness. Many tuck away the Stars of David or Sephardic hamsa ornaments they wear around their necks before going out.

French Jews agree that the sea change happened earlier this decade, when France experienced a startling spike in anti-Semitic attacks that coincided with the surge of Israeli-Palestinian violence during the bloody years of the second intifada.

Many French Jews bifurcate their lifestyle into “before” and “after” this change. Before, they could send their children to public school, walk through any part of Paris with a yarmulke or leave a Jewish book on the car dashboard.

French Jews used to feel strong, said Sammy Ghozlan, head of the National Bureau of Vigilance against Anti-Semitism.

“But we were weakened. Since Jews didn’t defend themselves, they lost their initiative,” he said of lackluster Jewish and government responses to violent attacks on French Jews. “We’ll never again feel strong. We’ll never find the place we had before. Today the Jews are seen as the handicapped members of society.”

Even as crime against Jews has declined, the fears remain. Many say anti-Semitic violence has dropped only because Jews now are better protected, not because there is less anti-Jewish sentiment in France.

The total number of anti-Semitic crimes fell approximately 10 percent last year compared with 2006, according to the records of the National Bureau of Vigilance against Anti-Semitism. The Service for the Protection of the Jewish Community calculated a 30 percent decrease for the same period.

Ghozlan says the decline is the result of Jewish parents pulling their kids out of public schools, Jews fleeing suburbs where anti-Jewish violence has flared and the community transforming its institutions into “fortresses.”

“We reduced the anti-Semitic acts with our behavior, we changed our habits,” he said.”Still, a Jew that’s found alone on the street today is a potential target.”

Some French Jews are abandoning the country altogether.

Last year, 2,717 French adults immigrated to Israel, according to the Jewish Agency for Israel. The numbers were similar for 2005 and 2006, representing a tripling of the figure of annual olim from France compared to 2000.

Slama says he has been thinking of emigrating.

“I know that one day we’ll have to leave,” he said. “If my wife didn’t have her clothing business we’d leave sooner.”

Anti-Semitism has taken anchor in French society, Ghozlan says. Though the statistics seem to show a decline in anti-Semitic incidents, their increasingly commonplace occurrence means many incidents go unreported. Thus the statistics belie the reality.

Many French Jews say verbal and nonviolent insults against Jews have become commonplace and that harassment of Jews is rising. Meanwhile, the French media have been largely silent on the issue.

Jean-Yves Camus, a political scientist at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations, says Jewish life in France is flourishing despite a long tradition of anti-Semitism.

“The truth is that I see Jews wearing yarmulkes, there are Jewish schools, synagogues, community centers,” he said.

Camus wears a yarmulke in public, dismissing Sitruk’s advised defensive dress code as “absurd.”

Withdrawal, he says, is not the answer.

“If they see that Jews are weak, then they’ll treat them as weak,” Camus said. “At some point we have to stop complaining, or we can stay here and do what it takes to make it better. That is, show ourselves.”

Haniel Bennasen, 20, who was beaten up three years ago, says the defensive stance of French Jewry is justified.

Bennasen said it’s understandable “why a mother would want her children, who have to walk home alone or through a housing project, to hide their kipah. It’s completely normal. Things can happen.”

At a Jewish bakery and cafe in northern Paris, an area that continues to be the site of frequent anti-Semitic attacks, Danielle Msihid, 60, says the number of visible yarmulkes in her part of the city is dwindling.

During an interview, her voice suddenly drops to a whisper when she mentions the word “Israel.” The same thing happens when she uses the word “Jew.”

Asked why, Msihid smiles sadly.

“We were always discreet,” she said. “But it’s true, I didn’t use to lower my voice like that. I’ve gotten in the habit now.”

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