"Toi, Paris, tu m'as pris dans tes bras -- You, Paris, you took me into your arms." So sang Enrico Macias, an Algerian-born Jew, in his 1964 anthem.
The song was a big hit in France, especially among French Jews, and I remember my parents happily singing along with the catchy tune. France had welcomed my family with open arms after we were suddenly expelled from Egypt with nowhere to go, leaving our possessions and loved ones behind. Eventually my large extended Jewish family settled in Paris and the trauma of our exodus was eclipsed by our happy and successful integration into a new society. We were reborn.
I was only three years old when we were pushed out, too young for any memories, but my parents, who never regretted leaving Egypt, spoke with warm nostalgia about their families' lives there for generations. In the Egypt where they grew up, Jews, Christians and Muslims lived together peacefully. Jews thrived as an integral part of the fabric of society. They contributed heavily to the modernization of the country through their efforts in transportation, banking and commerce, as well as in their professions, the arts and politics. My family was happy and prosperous there. However, when the Arab/Zionist conflict emerged, Jews began to be viewed as enemies of the state, culminating in their forced departure under terrible circumstances.
But out of my family's tragic upheaval something beautiful arose: my lifelong love affair with France and my fellow countrymen. Growing up, my best friend was Catholic, and I was embraced by her family without question. My first boyfriend, Jean-Jacques (also Catholic), could not have been more French. Religion was never discussed, not because it had been a secret, but because it had no place in our conversations or our feelings toward one another. It was a private matter. Everyone had their own way of communing with God, and it never crossed our minds that those differences would be an issue.
When my parents decided to move to America in the early '70s, their motivation was a better life for their children, notwithstanding their ascent to solid French middle class status. I was 18 years old and was crushed. I even tried to run away! But after time, I came to love this country as well, forging a new identity for myself as a Jewish/American/French woman. I visited my family in France regularly. I had no inkling that there would ever be a "Jewish issue."
But over the past 15 years, I gradually started to hear growing dissatisfaction from my French relatives about their lives there. The youngest were the first to complain. One of them had been roughed up on the metro and her Star of David ripped from her neck. My cousin's case was a reflection of the growing animosity of Muslim youth (often girls) who harassed, threatened and even assaulted young Jews in the streets and subway. My young family members were indignant at their parents' requests that they remove their yarmulkes, Stars of David and any other kind of Jewish identification when in the street.
A few years later, it was my older, more established family members, many of them doctors and lawyers, who started to complain. The fascist, far right was on the rise. They did not like any of "the others," including the Jews, and made no bones about it. Now members of my family were avoiding revealing their Jewish identity to their French colleagues and clients, often lying about their summer vacations in Israel. They said they were being "prudent," and that upset me.
It wasn't just my family and other French Jews who were trying not to bring attention to themselves. Their homes and places of worship were also becoming inconspicuous. I was saddened when I attended a bar mitzvah in an upper class suburb of Paris ten years ago to find that the synagogue had no external Jewish markings whatsoever. It looked like any of the other houses in the neighborhood, except for the concrete barriers placed protectively in the street in front of it.
Today most members of my family are taking action. They are buying apartments in Israel and scouting Montreal, Miami, New York and Los Angeles for work possibilities. My heart goes out to the older ones, who had endured one painful exodus and are now facing another.
Are they overreacting?
I don't think so. With the hundreds of serious anti-Semitic attacks and even cold-blooded murders of late in France, I can no longer deny that Jewish life is becoming untenable there.
The French government has denounced each of these attacks and the media reports them, sort of; only the most sensational stories make the headlines. Where have the French people been in this escalating crisis? Are they marching the streets? Why aren't they demanding that French Jews be protected in their right to express themselves as they please in their dress, or their right to speak of their religious affiliation without fear? They are very aware of the Jews' self-censorship, yet they are saying nothing. Have they been so desensitized by the sheer number of attacks on the Jews that they just shrug their shoulders, somewhat annoyed by it all? C'est la vie.
I am glad that the country finally woke up in an uproar over the recent massacre in the Kosher grocery store, but I wonder if the attack would not have just passed as yet another incidence of anti-Semitism had it not been connected to the Charlie Hebdo murders. It is time for France to stop burying its head in the sand and to face this problem. Did I mention that of the 80,000 Jews that used to live in Egypt, only 10 remain? "Je suis Juif" must stand for something, or there will be no more Jews in France as well.