The hard-scrabble Sephardim of Sarcelles

  Rioting in Sarcelles in July 2014

It’s the economy, stupid. Or a social trend to combat globalisation, and its agents the Jews. That’s one good reason for Paris’s summer of antisemitic rioting, argues Robert Wistrich. But in this response in Mosaic by Neil Rogochevsky, the economy is part of a toxic brew of reasons why life for the predominantly Sephardi Jews of the working class district of Sarcelles is becoming a real struggle.

In the course of recent trips to France, I was fortunate to spend
time in and around the heavily Jewish, heavily Muslim, all-working-class
Parisian suburb of Sarcelles, site of some of the worst anti-Jewish
riots this summer. Developed in the 1950s to house French-Algerian pieds-noirs,
both Jews and Gentiles,seeking refuge from the raging civil war, the
town later absorbed waves of Jews expelled from Morocco and Tunisia.
Respectable, safe, and comfortable if not exactly prosperous, Sarcelles
began to decline in the 1980s. It is now a seething banlieue where a shrinking and aging Jewish community lives amid increasingly restive, hostile newcomers.

Many younger Jews do escape from Sarcelles—social mobility is still
not completely dead in France, and there is always the tantalizing
prospect of Israel. But the ones who stay are caught in a difficult
situation with little opportunity for employment, dreary marital
prospects, and few avenues of self-improvement. The kind of Jews one
meets here, as one might expect, are hard-scrabble—the ones I know are
cab drivers and boxers. For the less ambitious or less fortunate,
there’s always the unemployment line.

In short, this is the kind of Jewish community one hasn’t seen much
of in America for many decades. Even before this summer’s riots, Jews of
Sarcelles faced a humiliating run of vandalism, anti-Jewish graffiti,
insults, intimidation, and occasionally worse. One shudders to think
what would happen if gendarmes bearing automatic weapons didn’t keep the
Sarcelles synagogue under constant protection.

Needless to say, the Jews of Sarcelles are far more representative of
the Jews of France today than my dinner companions. Mostly Sephardi,
often working-class, and traditional if not strictly observant in their
religious practice, they either do not know or do not care about the
previously unwritten rule that one is expected to be quiet about one’s
Judaism in public. Besides, even if they wanted to, their many enemies
would never let them get away with it. So why deny it?

It is for such Jews, asRobert Wistrich’s essayacutely demonstrates,
that daily life is becoming a real struggle. To the moribund economy,
and the hapless governing class, add the now-frequent episodes of
barbaric anti-Jewish violence, and you have a positively toxic brew. And
so a more accurate sense of the actual situation than the one at the
dinner party came to me from a prominent Parisian rabbi who admitted
frankly that there seemed no way to stop the decline in the numbers of
French Jews—and he wondered whether it was even worth trying.  A large
part of his current task, he said, involved nurturing the already strong
Zionist impulses of the younger generation, of whom nearly 5,000 are
now departing for Israel annually (where, unlike in the case of previous
French waves, they seem largely intent on staying).

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