Passover in Paris, and the Slow Destruction of French Social Harmony

Paris. – Last week, the Jewish celebration of the Passover holiday rekindled tensions that have recently divided Jewish and Muslim communities in Paris. Public celebration elicited visible hostility in the streets of the 19tharrondissement, a neighborhood that contains one of the largest Jewish communities in France. Following a period abroad in New York, the neighborhood has recently become my home as well.

This odd Northeastern section of Paris is characterized by its proximity to Boulevard Périphérique, the ring road that acts as the boundary between the city proper and the suburbs beyond, and by its renovated Canal de l’Ourcq, which is frequented equally by athletic runners and strolling families. Though it is far from my comfort zone on the opposite side of the capital, the neighborhood attracted me with its beauty, especially the canals and the Parc de la Villette.

To me, this section of the city seemed to encapsulate the so-called “diversity” of Parisian communities in a single neighborhood. The area is lively yet family-friendly. It is secluded from the madness of the city center yet active in its own right. It is not overly gentrified. Residents vary greatly in age and income level.

The neighborhood seemed to exude the social harmony that is desperately lacking in French society at large. From my outside perspective, I truly believed it to be a living example of that long lost dream. That is until last week.

As I returned home the other day, I passed by a Synagogue where worshipers gathered to celebrate Passover. I have to confess that I was unaware of these celebrations and their importance in Jewish culture. My eyes merely stopped for a second to examine the great crowd of men dressed-up in black suits wearing kippahs.

My interest grew when I noticed a group of cops anxiously walking around the entrance of the building. A couple meters away from the Synagogue, I was passing by a small bar, when I heard someone say angrily, “When I see them all together like that, I understand why Merah took a gun to shoot them all.” It took me a few seconds to process these words. My blood froze in my veins. For those who may have missed the reference, in March 2012 Mohammed Merah, a young French Muslim, shocked the nation in a series of attacks in the southern city of Toulouse. Over several violent episodes, Merah shot and killed three soldiers, three Jewish schoolchildren, and a Rabbi, before being killed by local police.

In the week following the Jewish holiday, Parisian policemen lingered in the 19tharrondissement. Their presence was nothing but helpful. At one point I witnessed police stop a fight between Muslim and Jewish teenagers.

My vision of the perfect French neighborhood collapsed in a couple of days. The fantasy was finally struck down when a friend of mine, after listening to my story, passed along an article that dealt with these precise issues. This article was written before the events described here, but nevertheless describes the irresolvable tension mounting between French communities of Muslims and Jews as a result of the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

To be clear, I take no side in this conflict. Neither community is right or wrong. Unfortunately, this is one among many tragic cases of social division amidst growing prejudice. Though the aggression may be unconscious, this conflict exists because of mutual, active participation on both sides.

While the state of Israel may be building a physical wall around Palestine, the invisible yet impregnable wall that now stands between these two French communities is held in place by hands on both sides.

Personally, this particular incident has highlighted the decaying sense of community in France. I feel that everything in France is falling apart; that everyone here grows apart from everyone. It is as if the very fabric of French society were crumbling.

I can’t help but connect these incidents to the recent victimization of the Roma population. Similarly, this tension reminds me of growing concern over the alleged impact of “gender theory” on children. Even in the safest areas of Paris, it seems that two men or two women cannot hold hands as easily as they once did. Recently, I felt the need to hide the title of my book Insult and the Gay Self as I read on the subway.

I wrote an email explaining this feeling to my mother. She replied with only three words, which now seem so ominous but so true, “It is degrading.”

Marc Goëtzmann is LJP’s French managing editor. He lives in Paris, France. The opinions expressed in this editorial are his own and are not indicative of LJP’s views.

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