Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The hard-scrabble Sephardim of Sarcelles

  Rioting in Sarcelles in July 2014

It's the economy, stupid. Or a social trend to combat globalisation, and its agents the Jews. That's one good reason for Paris's summer of antisemitic rioting, argues Robert Wistrich. But in this response in Mosaic by Neil Rogochevsky, the economy is part of a toxic brew of reasons why life for the predominantly Sephardi Jews of the working class district of Sarcelles is becoming a real struggle.

In the course of recent trips to France, I was fortunate to spend time in and around the heavily Jewish, heavily Muslim, all-working-class Parisian suburb of Sarcelles, site of some of the worst anti-Jewish riots this summer. Developed in the 1950s to house French-Algerian pieds-noirs, both Jews and Gentiles,seeking refuge from the raging civil war, the town later absorbed waves of Jews expelled from Morocco and Tunisia. Respectable, safe, and comfortable if not exactly prosperous, Sarcelles began to decline in the 1980s. It is now a seething banlieue where a shrinking and aging Jewish community lives amid increasingly restive, hostile newcomers.

Many younger Jews do escape from Sarcelles—social mobility is still not completely dead in France, and there is always the tantalizing prospect of Israel. But the ones who stay are caught in a difficult situation with little opportunity for employment, dreary marital prospects, and few avenues of self-improvement. The kind of Jews one meets here, as one might expect, are hard-scrabble—the ones I know are cab drivers and boxers. For the less ambitious or less fortunate, there’s always the unemployment line.

In short, this is the kind of Jewish community one hasn’t seen much of in America for many decades. Even before this summer’s riots, Jews of Sarcelles faced a humiliating run of vandalism, anti-Jewish graffiti, insults, intimidation, and occasionally worse. One shudders to think what would happen if gendarmes bearing automatic weapons didn’t keep the Sarcelles synagogue under constant protection.

Needless to say, the Jews of Sarcelles are far more representative of the Jews of France today than my dinner companions. Mostly Sephardi, often working-class, and traditional if not strictly observant in their religious practice, they either do not know or do not care about the previously unwritten rule that one is expected to be quiet about one’s Judaism in public. Besides, even if they wanted to, their many enemies would never let them get away with it. So why deny it?

It is for such Jews, as Robert Wistrich’s essay acutely demonstrates, that daily life is becoming a real struggle. To the moribund economy, and the hapless governing class, add the now-frequent episodes of barbaric anti-Jewish violence, and you have a positively toxic brew. And so a more accurate sense of the actual situation than the one at the dinner party came to me from a prominent Parisian rabbi who admitted frankly that there seemed no way to stop the decline in the numbers of French Jews—and he wondered whether it was even worth trying.  A large part of his current task, he said, involved nurturing the already strong Zionist impulses of the younger generation, of whom nearly 5,000 are now departing for Israel annually (where, unlike in the case of previous French waves, they seem largely intent on staying).

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