Recent Jewish Federation missions to France gave participants a peak into the life of European Jewry.
“Liberty, equality, fraternity” — the centuries-old motto of France — is being severely tested these days amid rampant anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment that are alive and well in the European nation.
How pervasive is it? Just ask members of the French Jewish community — as well as some of the local Jews who got a chance to ask them directly as participants in recent missions that were sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Agency for Israel.
Carole Landis, a local philanthropist, psychotherapist and life coach, has visited Paris five times, always before charmed by the “city of lights.”
This time, however, as the lone representative of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia on the national JFNA mission in February, she embarked on this trip sensing the city’s gloom, its vast darkness.
“It felt like I was going to a funeral,” she said of how she perceived the city, which has seen an increase of Muslim-fueled anti-Jewish and anti-Israel feelings.
Landis, who is a member of Federation’s Board of Trustees, said she has been incensed at events the past few years targeting Jews and anyone daring to criticize extremist Muslims in Paris.
She cited the popularity of comedian Dieudonné and his anti-Semitic diatribes; and the deadly attacks on the offices of the satirical publication, Charlie Hebdo, as well as on the Hyper Cacher market in January.
The attack on the magazine, especially, she said, was shocking and “left me rocked to my foundation.”
In her talks with French Jewish officials during the three-day mission, she heard reports of threats which she says never made the news, including a march by Muslims who reportedly approached a synagogue in the Parisian suburbs intent on damage.
Alerted, the synagogue officials “formed a human chain around the synagogue,” making sure children were secure inside, deterring the would-be rioters, who, thwarted, then disbanded.
Then there was the visit to Hyper Cacher, where four men were killed and others were taken hostage soon after the attack on the Paris magazine.
“It was shuttered like a mausoleum,” said Landis, who joined the group in saying the Mourner’s Kaddish at the site. The mission was addressed by Sandy Charabi, one of those held hostage, who recalled her ordeal “hiding in the toilet during the attack.” (The market reopened on March 15.)
Meanwhile, Jeffrey and Michelle Barrack, also both active in Jewish communal life and the Philadelphia Federation, participated in a Jewish Agency for Israel mission to France soon after the January attacks.
The visit included meeting with 12th-grade students at Tora Emet Girls Jewish Day School in Sarcelles, part of France’s Orthodox Ozar Hatora network. Discussions with the girls “left the indelible impression” that they were enduring an oppressive situation “not unlike Jews in the former Soviet Union,” said Jeffrey Barrack, a local attorney who serves as chairman of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia’s Center for Israel on Campus.
Michelle Barrack, who had gone on the 2013 JFNA mission to Ethiopia that witnessed the final aliyah of that nation’s Jews, spoke of the fear those Sarcelles students expressed and their desire for a safer haven.
The despair reached such a level that “even the principal said his bags are packed,” said Barrack, a member of Federation’s Board of Trustees.
The Parisian suburbs differed greatly from the central part of the big city, she said.
“It was surprising how, arriving in Paris, it felt like any other city.”
Parisian Jews feel less compelled to make aliyah and leave their businesses behind, while in Sarcelles, where Muslims and Jews live side by side, not necessarily in peace and harmony, the matter was quite different.
Yet, there wasn’t the life-or- death sense of urgency that plagued the Ethiopian Jews she encountered in the 2013 mission, she said.