France Attacks Hit Home for Local Jews

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The recent terrorist attacks in France hit alarmingly close to home for local Jews with ties to the European country.

When Daniele Cohen Grossman makes her annual trip through Europe, she always stops in France to visit family and friends. But she can’t help but notice that the country where she spent the majority of her childhood after emigrating from Egypt has changed drastically since she moved to the United States more than 40 years ago to join her American husband.

“It’s not the same France we’re accustomed to, it’s like going to Hawaii and there are no pineapples,” said Grossman, a retiree now living in Bala Cynwyd.

She was referring to the anti-Semitic culture in France that many speculate has risen in recent years in tandem with a growing Muslim population there. Estimates vary, but there are roughly 6 million Muslims currently living in France. Like some other Western countries, France has seen a well-documented burst of anti-West sentiment stemming from more radical elements of its Islamic community.

This correlation has been brought painfully into focus in the wake of last week’s terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine, and the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket in Paris. The two attacks left at least 17 dead, including four Jews, and many more wounded.

Grossman is one of several Jews living in the Philadelphia area with strong French connections. For them, the events of last week hit especially close to home.

“I was horrified, I was totally horrified” to hear the news, Grossman said. But “I wasn’t all that surprised that it happened. It had to happen, something tragic had to happen to wake up Europe.”

Grossman recounted how her French-American friends all called one another after the attacks to inquire after friends and family living in France. A friend of a friend, she said, discovered that her mother had visited Hyper Cacher only a couple of hours before the Jan. 9 attack.

While Grossman said she doesn’t feel unsafe when she visits France, she has experienced a feeling of “unease.”

Jacques Dahan, too, said he has experienced a more volatile atmosphere toward Jews during the two or three business trips he makes to France each year.

Born in Morocco and raised in Paris, Dahan moved with his wife and three young daughters to the United States in 1994 for work. The family stayed and now lives in Voorhees, N.J. But as the president of the American branch of a French-based chocolate company, Dahan often travels back to Paris, where he also visits with his father and a large extended family.

“I’ve seen Paris change a lot, in the way that people look at you, at the way people act when you take the subway — you don’t feel really safe,” Dahan said, adding that he will be taking one of those business trips to Paris next week and plans to sit at the front of the subway cars to be closer to the driver.

“It’s only in the past few years that I’ve seen a different atmosphere, where you saw the Muslim population become more extroverted. You go into a normal supermarket and you hear Arabic music and you see the people, the way they look at you completely differently.”

He said he worries constantly about his father attending synagogue on Shabbat “because you never know, a crazy guy can just decide that they want to beat up a Jew.”

Though every one of Dahan’s family members currently living in France has toyed with the idea of moving to the United States or Israel at one point or another, he said, they have ultimately chosen to remain in France where their jobs, families and lives are so deeply entrenched.

Gabrielle Kaufman, 28, who grew up in Ardmore before studying abroad in Paris and staying on for six years in total, echoed the others’ lack of surprise at the attacks. Kaufman said the general feeling among French Jews about the attack on the kosher supermarket was that it was only a matter of time. She pointed to an incident last summer when Palestinian sympathizers rioted outside of the Synagogue de la Roquette in central Paris, trapping some 200 terrified people inside. A street brawl ensued between the rioters and dozens of Jewish men who arrived to defend the synagogue.

“Protesters were throwing Molotov cocktails into a synagogue in the largest Jewish European capital — that’s crazy,” said Kaufman, who moved back to the United States a couple of years ago. “And you hear every few months that a kosher bakery was attacked or a Jew walking down the street in a kipah. So everything that happened last week was horrible, but I think the Jews of Paris were waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

Theories about where the anti-Semitism stems from varied among those interviewed. Grossman said it might originate from radical Islamic imams finding a foothold with Muslims from tougher, low-income neighborhoods serving time in French jails, while Dahan offered that it may just be run-of-the-mill anti-Semitism that comes about whenever there are hard economic times and people are looking for a scapegoat.

Kaufman, who currently works as an events manager in Washington, D.C., said that whatever the reason, anti-Semitism runs deep in France. She recalled how her not-obviously-Jewish appearance made her privy to some uncomfortable rants about Jews from white Catholics with deep French roots. A romantic relationship was even soured by a French boyfriend’s family’s antipathy toward her Jewishness.

“I would just hear these really vicious things about Jews that sounded to my American ear like 1940s Nazi propaganda,” said Kaufman, a self-described Francophile. With the Dreyfus Affair as a backdrop for the historical roots of anti-Semitism in France, “You have Catholic, secular, white, French people that still hold these really anti-Semitic views that seem really medieval.”

On the bright side, Kaufman said, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls’ participation in a memorial rally for those slain in the supermarket attack shows that the administration is taking a stand against anti-Jewish sentiment.

Both Dahan and Grossman said that the relationship between Muslims and Jews in France has seemed to deteriorate only in recent years. Dahan recalled that his family used to find a lot in common with the Muslim families from Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, through their shared experiences as immigrants. Gross­man remembered a warm rapport with Muslim students with whom she attended law school.

Fond memories of good relationships in the past notwithstanding, Grossman said the country’s lack of support for its Jewish community is troubling.

“Unfortunately France’s Jewish community is dwindling,” she said, referring to the growing number of French Jews moving to Israel. “It’s sad for France, it’s a huge loss for France whenever a family leaves. We are part of the fabric of France, France doesn’t exist without Jews.”