Jewish people in the French capital live in the shadow of hatred

Antisemitic comments allegedly made by the designer John Galliano come as no surprise in the Marais quarter of Paris

Like most Paris schools, the Ecole des Hospitalières-Saint-Gervais bears a sombre plaque. It reads: “165 Jewish children from this school, deported to Germany during the second world war, were exterminated in the Nazi camps. Do not forget.”

In this district, known as the Marais, the heart of Paris’s oldest Jewish quarter, gay bars rub shoulders with falafel cafés, kosher restaurants, synagogues and prayer rooms. Its labyrinthine streets have been home to Jews on and off since the 13th century. Ten days ago, however, it also played host to John Galliano.

The alleged infamous outburst of the Dior designer, who has now been sacked, in which he is said to have abused a Jewish woman and her Asian boyfriend, was offensive on many levels – not only because of what he allegedly said, but because of where he said it. It was in a bar just a few paces from the Hospitalières-Saint-Gervais that the couturier, who is British but has lived in the French capital for two decades, was arrested. And it was also where, last year, he was filmed telling two women he believed to be Jewish that he loved Hitler.

His reported behaviour has shocked France and the fashion world. Yet in what locals call the pletzl – “little place” in Yiddish – it provoked little surprise. Local residents and traders say that the insult “sale juif” (dirty Jew) is a fact of daily life; asking a local if they have suffered abuse provokes a quizzical stare as if you are trying to be funny. “Bien sûr“ (“of course”) is the most common reply.

“It’s stating the obvious,” says one kippah-wearing youngster in the Rue des Rosiers, the Jewish quarter’s main street. “We hear what Galliano said, or versions of it, every day, sometimes several times every day.” Like many I speak to, he prefers not to be named.

Standing in the doorway of a grocery shop, Dan points to his wide-brimmed black hat. “My 80-year-old neighbour told me that when she was growing up they used to say we Jews wore these hats to hide our horns, and long black coats to hide our tails,” he says, laughing.

“She would tell me not to let my boys wear their [skull] caps in case ‘they’ come back. More than 50 years after the war, she still thought it could happen again.”

At the Sacha Finkelsztajn pastry shop, famous for its apple strudel and cheesecake, two women shrug when Galliano’s alleged antisemitic diatribe is mentioned. Over the road in the Panzer, a grocery store, the shop assistant refuses to talk about Galliano. “We’re always being called ‘dirty Jews’; there’s always been antisemitism here and there always will be. It upsets me, but it doesn’t shock me.” Galliano was filmed telling the two women he thought were Jewish that their relatives would have been “fucking gassed”.

In La Perle, the trendy bar where the designer – who denies being antisemitic – was arrested after another alleged outburst, Jérôme says: “France invented the term ‘antisemitism’.”

He says he would like to write a book on “happy” events in Jewish history, but adds that he would need time to research some. “I find it depressing that whenever I talk to my son about Jewish history it’s just one long list of terrible events.”

Like a sore that never completely heals, antisemitism erupts in France, which has the biggest Jewish community in Europe, with depressing regularity. Toni Kamins, the American author of The Complete Jewish Guide to France, observes that since Roman times Jews have been subject to vilification and humiliation. It is a history scarred with mass expulsions, forced conversions to Christianity, crippling taxation, segregation and “both systematic and random physical violence and murder”.

The French revolution and the early 19th century saw the country’s Jewish citizens emancipated. But the undercurrent of hatred persisted, culminating in the Dreyfus affair in 1894, with the trial and false conviction of Alfred Dreyfus, a French military officer of Jewish descent, which is often described as one of the most influential events in the modern history of French Jewry. Dreyfus became a byword for antisemitism.

At the time of Nazi occupation in 1940, as many as 9,000 Jews lived in the Marais. Many of them were among the estimated 76,000 French Jews who were deported between 1942 and 1944 to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where most were exterminated on arrival.

In 1980, after a terrorist bomb planted outside the Copernic synagogue in Paris killed four people – only one of them Jewish — the then prime minister, Raymond Barre, spoke of “a heinous act” that had struck “innocent French people”. When a British-born rabbi, Michael Williams, tried to visit the injured in hospital, he says he was told: “Get the hell out of here. You’re responsible for this.”

Then, in 2006, a 23-year-old mobile-phone salesman was kidnapped and horrifically tortured for three weeks before being left for dead because he was Jewish and his Muslim attackers assumed his family had money.

Until recently the extreme-right Front National of Jean-Marie Le Pen was the political face of antisemitism in France. Since his daughter, Marine, became leader, it has moved away from historical revisionism and has its sights on France’s Muslim population.

In the Marais, many Jews now blame antisemitism on immigrants from France’s former north African colonies, and on the country’s traditional special relationship with Arab countries.

The Jewish community’s Protection Service documented 466 reported antisemitic incidents in 2010 – down from a 10-year peak of 974 in 2004 – but says many more go unreported. It says most attacks can be linked to Muslim fundamentalists.

Politically, the “Jewish question” is often a scratch from the surface in France. A fortnight ago Le Monde reported that French internet surfers searching for information on politicians typed a name followed by “Juif” (“Jew”) more frequently than in any other nation. Olivier Ertzscheid, an internet specialist at Nantes University, said this could “reveal the mentality” of the country.

A French newspaper website recently asked: “Is France ready for a Jewish president?” Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the International Monetary Fund and a potential candidate in next year’s presidential elections, was recently described by an opponent as “cosmopolitan” and “not the image of rural France”, both well-known French euphemisms for being Jewish.

Jérôme believes the idea of the “enemy within” – epitomised by the Dreyfus case – is a cause of antisemitism that is unique to France. “I think it makes some people angry that Jewish people are so well integrated that, while they know we are here, they don’t know who we are.”

He describes a Gallic attitude to its Jewish population that is two-faced: “The Jews who were deported and died during the second world war were mostly denounced by French people, but those French Jews who remained in France and lived were saved by French people.”

It is 4.30pm, and across the other side of the Marais from La Perle the bell rings at the Jewish school. Pupils do not stream out of the door. Instead, a nervous-looking man with a walkie-talkie propels them into waiting cars.

In his grocery store, not far from Goldenbergs, the restaurant that was targeted by terrorists in 1982 and is now a men’s clothing shop, Dan says that local people live in fear of attack. But he adds: “It’s a peaceful place on the whole. We have a Jewish saying: you can tell what’s in the heart of a man by how he behaves when he’s drunk, when he’s angry and when he has money. I think we have seen what’s in the heart of Galliano.”

• This article was amended on 10 September 2020. The bomb outside the Copernic synagogue in Paris was in 1980, not in 1982 as a previous version said.


Kim Willsher

The GuardianTramp

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