BBC News

Being discreetly Jewish in Marseille

By Hugh Schofield
BBC News, Marseille

image copyrightAP
image captionThe attack on teacher Benjamin Amsellem left him with an injured shoulder and hand

No photographs of the Gan Ami Jewish school in the sixth district of Marseille will accompany this article.

That is because if you appear at the school with a camera, you will be courteously but firmly asked to put it away.

A crocodile of youngsters on an excursion is accompanied by two teachers. The teachers have walkie-talkies. At pick-up time, six soldiers with machine guns stand by.

These are Israeli levels of security. At the nearby office of the CRIF (the official non-religious Jewish representation), a Jewish security team mans the entrance. More soldiers patrol outside the synagogue around the corner.

No-one thinks this is overkill. It is simply what life is like now for a Jew in urban France.

In Marseille, security antennae are especially sensitive after a knife attack two weeks ago on a Jewish teacher.

Benjamin Amsellem said he was able to look into his attacker's eyes - it was a 15-year-old Muslim boy of Kurdish origin - and "I have no doubt at all that he wanted to kill me. His look was one of hate."

The boy subsequently told investigators that he was proud of what he had done, but ashamed that he had failed to kill.

Question of the kippa

The attack sparked a nationwide debate after Zvi Ammar, the senior Jewish religious figure in Marseille, said maybe it was time Jewish men stopped wearing skullcaps - or kippas - on the street. Simply as a measure of self-preservation.

media captionMichele Teboul, CRIF President: "We're going to be more discreet until it's safer."

Some Jewish leaders in Paris said this was tantamount to surrender.

But in Marseille I was told that the question of the kippa has long since been settled. And the answer is quite clear: better discreet than dead.

Outside the Gan Ami school, three 14-year-olds showed me the kippas which - once out on the street - they keep in the pockets of their backpacks.

They all had clear instructions from their parents to go bare-headed when in public, or to wear a baseball cap.

'Gut fear'

At the Ougat patisserie - where mothers gather ahead of pick-up - Stephanie, Corinne and Deborah shared their anxieties.

"Every day I have the same gut fear," said Corinne. "It was never like this before. But now when I wave to the children on their way to school with their father, I feel the wrench in my stomach."

image captionDeborah (left), Stephanie (centre) and Corinne say they and their children are afraid

"In the last two years, the situation has deteriorated very badly," according to Deborah. "In my own country, I feel more and more unsafe.

"When I go to Auchan (supermarket), my kid sees these women covered head to foot in veils - and he's scared.

"We used to say it's just a tiny minority of Muslims. I am not so sure any more. The new generation are steeped in it. They are brought up to hate us. It's social media, I suppose."

Corinne says that "a few years ago - do you remember? - you used to be able to go around showing the Magen David (Star of David). No-one even noticed. Now who would dare?

"We all know Muslims. Of course we do. When I was a girl I had a Muslim friend who came on sleepovers. But now I look at the woman who helps in my house - who I have known for years - and I say to myself, 'What is she really thinking?'"

Marseille's Jewish community

  • The city is home to some 70,000 Jews, the second largest Jewish community in France, after Paris
  • Following the German occupation of Marseille in 1942, thousands of Jews were arrested or went underground. By the end of WW2 the city's Jewish population had fallen to about 10,000 from 39,000 in 1939
  • After WW2 Marseille served as a transit port for Holocaust survivors and then for Jews from North African countries on their way to Israel
  • There are 44 synagogues, 17 Jewish schools and 20 Jewish study centres in the city

Source: Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People

'Drug gangs stopping jihadis'

Lunch in the CRIF (it stands for Representative Council of Jewish Institutions) brings a hearty helping of chicken, and a hearty helping of Jewish chat.

"Do you know that in the really dodgy neighbourhoods of Marseille - in the 14th and 15th districts where there are all these drugs murders - there is no problem of extremist Islam," says CRIF president Michele Teboul.

"Why? Because the drugs lords make sure any radical preacher is sent packing. They know that where the preachers go, French intelligence follows - and they don't want French intelligence snooping around on their patch.

"So Arab drugs gangs are stopping Arab jihadis. It is not exactly reassuring."

image captionThere are more than 40 synagogues in the city

Today talk is of the successful Holocaust Day event which has just been held, in which children (of all denominations) staged an evening of readings and dance.

According to Michele Teboul's friend Edith, it was a very moving occasion - only marred by a young Muslim child whose text "had to include a reference to what the Israelis are doing in Gaza. Why?"

Michele tells the tale of how she led a delegation to Israel, and after months of work had a deal ready to be signed twinning a Marseille lycee with a secondary school in Haifa - only for the scheme to be nixed by the teaching body at the French school.

She says it is hard to reach out to the Muslim community in Marseille. "Sometimes an imam comes for a meeting, to talk about Jewish-Muslim relations. But they always refuse to be photographed with a Jew. They are afraid of their own extremists."

Asserting their identity

For all of Marseille's 70,000 Jews, the question of whether or not to make "aliyah" (emigrate to Israel) is more and more acute. Everyone knows families who have gone.

image captionHabonim Dror, the Jewish Socialist-Zionist cultural youth movement, has an office in Marseille

But many Marseille Jews have been in France for generations. Those who came from North Africa in the 1960s do not particularly want to pick up and leave again.

For Michele Teboul, all the recent violence is encouraging a "repli sur soi".

The French expression means "falling back on one self" and is generally held to be a bad thing. The French ideal is a society without communities.

But against a growing physical threat, Marseille Jews feel the need to assert their identity. Maybe not in public - the kippa makes them a target - but privately.

"You know when I go to Israel, I let it all hang out. I drive on Saturdays, I don't keep kosher," says Michele Teboul. "It's because in Israel there is no need to say - look, I'm Jewish."

"But back here in Marseille, it is the opposite. Here we need to remember who we are."

Related Topics

  • Judaism
  • Anti-Semitism

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