Soujourn in France: MSU student looks at violence in France through Jewish eyes.
My fingers twitch slightly as I try to light my cigarette. It’s the first time I have ever smoked to try and ease my stress, fixated on a tragedy I had read about that morning.
There was another terrorist attack the night before. A policeman stabbed to death in his home, his girlfriend’s throat slit in front of their young son. The vicious attack was carried out by a French-born jihadist who had pledged allegiance to ISIS just three weeks prior.
I found myself dwelling on that child, only 3 years old. He was robbed of his innocence by someone consumed by hate. I still wonder if that child, seeing such malice firsthand, would give into it himself.
That tragedy arrived near the beginning of my two-month stay in Vichy, France, to learn French. It was the beginning of a string of incidents that seemed to feed into the narrative of a violent and demented world surrounding me. The irony of it all is that, in this progression of terror around Vichy, I came to feel safer and more secure within it.
Some historical context is needed to fully grasp this irony.
Following Nazi victory over France, the nation was split in two. There was the northern zone occupé, under full military control of the German Nazi regime. The southern zone libre was governed and run by Frenchmen, though they still collaborated with the Nazis.
Vichy became the de facto capital of this collaborationist government. Its many hotels were co-opted as housing for the new administration, taking on roles such as Ministry of the Interior or Ministry of Propaganda. These ministries were largely responsible for French-Jewish deportation and justifying such actions as beneficial for French national recovery.
You can see here why a Jew visiting France would find Vichy to be subtly oppressive. It’s a surreal feeling to walk the same streets as policy makers who had made it their mission to hand over Jews to the Nazi death machine or just discard them in concentration camps out in the countryside.
Today’s Vichy is far removed from its bleak past. The French in Vichy are extremely welcoming, kind people. I freely expressed my Jewish heritage to many of them, the worst reaction being a complete indifference to this new information.
This isn’t to say that extremism is completely absent from Vichy. On numerous street light poles are stickers bearing the insignia of a far-right group known as Action Francaise (AF). Branding itself as a pro-Catholic, pro-monarchist movement, AF has an uneasy history of anti-Semitism given that its philosophical figurehead, Charles Maurras, was himself an outspoken anti-Semite.
Almost like a tasteless joke, I stumbled upon Vichy’s sole synagogue after spotting one of these stickers. It had been placed over the street sign leading to the shul with more than likely a deliberate intention.
I attended Shabbat services a few days later there. The congregation had 50 or so in attendance, a small yet intimate group. I found myself repeatedly distracted by the imposing black marble murals along the synagogue walls commemorating Vichy Jews slain during the war.
After the service,
I was invited upstairs for Kiddush and conversation by the rabbi, a Sephardic Jew of Moroccan descent named Daniel El-Haddad. At one point, with the image of that AF sticker still fresh in my mind, I asked if he ever feels threatened to go out dressed very obviously as a Jew or frightened about any reprisal for his beliefs.
“I have never had a problem with who I am,” he said without hesitation. “I have always kept my kippah on my head since my childhood. Everyone knows that I am Jewish, and a lot of people respect me for that.”
In spite of this, he still warned that we must all remain vigilant of nationalist extremism. He is right, which is why I decided to speak with a member of AF directly to understand this extremism more intimately.
Separate The Cultures
Waiting outside a quaint patisserie while sipping a cappuccino, I was surprised when a young man approached the table and asked, “Allo, êtes-vous Ian? Je m’appelle Amaury.”
We spoke for a little under an hour, covering everything from him explaining AF’s raison d’etre to the ongoing refugee crisis, liberalism and French identity.
During the course of our interview, I interrupted Amaury to ask him if it was at all possible for a non-native to become French.
When I followed up later by asking what defines a Frenchman, he gave a coy response.
“That’s an unpopular question, a complicated question… It’s not just that someone is white, is Catholic, but someone who believes in French values. But Republican values, they’re not French because they’re not good.”
The motto of such Republican values is and has always been: “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” These were the same values that granted French Jews full citizenship under Napoleon Bonaparte.
To Amaury, this slogan undermines his belief that it would be best if all cultures were segregated, believing that each one has a respective homeland to go to. I refrained from bringing up Israel as an example of how difficult this idea becomes in practice.
Still, if we lend credence to Amaury’s argument, especially after the recent assassination of a French priest by Islamic extremists, would that 3-year-old mentioned earlier be so wrong to believe Muslims are incompatible with French society?
He is only 3; he doesn’t know any better.
We know where this route leads when our base instincts categorize what is foreign as hostile. We who have lived through centuries of persecution should know better than anyone how quickly such demonization descends into barbaric madness.
I am reminded of a passage in Exodus, a mitzvah, which reads: “And you shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, since you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
It is imperative, now more than ever, that we take stock of our own history and heed the lessons therein. If we refuse to see how the hatred once spewed at us is now being thrown against another, we will fail that 3-year-old.
We will fail him if we ignore our history in favor of the immediate sense of safety we feel today. Two paths stand in front of that child, one of hate and one of understanding. Which one will we lead him down? @
Ian Wendrow, 21, is from West Bloomfield. He is an International Relations graduate from Michigan State University where he will begin a master’s in journalism this fall.