Years ago, I was having a conversation with some French women who had recently moved to Miami. They told me, quite emphatically, that one of the reasons for their move was that they were frustrated by the anti-Semitism they continually encountered in their homeland. I was stunned by this declaration, particularly because the scenario they painted made it seem as if they led an almost violent existence there.
Fast forward to the beginning of this month, before Charlie Sheen’s non-stop media meltdown eclipsed the news from Paris: fashion icon John Galliano, who had rescued Dior and made it relevant again, had been arrested after an anti-Semitic diatribe against a couple at La Perle in the Marais. Shortly afterwards, a video of him praising Hitler went viral on the Internet.
My first thought after watching this grainy video was, “Doesn’t Galliano know that Hitler hated homosexuals almost as much as he hated Jews?” It made no sense to me that an openly, flamboyantly gay man could be a Nazi fanboy.
But then friends of mine started asking me about the incident and its relevance to the bigger picture: is there anti-Semitism in Paris? Is there a lack of tolerance, in general, in Paris?
For those who don’t know La Perle, it’s a chic little place in the heart of the Marais—which happens to be the city’s Jewish quarter. Head to the famous L’as du Falafel on the rue des Rosiers, and you’ll see kosher delis, synagogues and Orthodox rabbis strolling along in deep conversation. So it’s more than ironic that Galliano made his racist rant in this particular neighborhood. It’s disturbing.
Back in 1982, Jo Goldenberg’s was where the Jews of the quartier flocked for latkes and the like. This deli was known to the Jewish community as their “Pletzl”—their “little place.” But Goldenberg’s was hit by a grenade and machine gun attack (by Palestinian terrorists), and six people were killed. This was, in my memory, the last known public act of violence against Jews anywhere in the French capital.
In fact, in all my time in the city, I haven’t seen any evidence of anti-Semitism. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, but the physical proof just hasn’t been visible to my eyes. While I was born into a Jewish family, I never practiced the religion (or any religion, for that matter), and the name I took from a brief marriage belies my true heritage. So when I hear that there’s anti-Semitism in Paris, I wonder if I’m blinded to it because I don’t present myself as a Jew.
But there is a growing prejudice against Muslims—and not just in Paris, but all across Europe. This isn’t because of any religious intolerance, per se, but more due to the fact that Europe has been in the crosshairs of Islamic fundamentalists and the resulting terrorism. The U.S. had 9/11, which was shocking in its scope. But Europeans have had numerous attacks throughout the years. And while, in the heart of Paris, there are no outward culture clashes or signs of religious intolerance, I do sometimes wonder if the unrest that has hit the banlieues—the suburbs surrounding the French capital where many North African immigrants reside—will someday find its way into the 20 arrondissements that comprise Paris proper.
What do you think? Is there anti-Semitism in Paris? Have you encountered racism in the French capital? Please share your thoughts and stories with us in the comments section below.