Graffiti in Paris' Belleville district (photo: gillesklein)
Steven Erlanger wrote a perceptive piece on Muslim-Jewish relations in Paris' 19th Arrondisement in today's NYT, which contains much of the kind of quotidian testimony one must take into account when discussing Europe's "New Anti-Semitism." Erlanger's picture is Brooklynesque: hipsters, immigrants, Lubavitch, aggressive teenagers, and a darling park where they all meet up. In recent months, a couple of religious Jewish boys have been involved in altercations with young blacks and Arabs. When 17 year-old Rudy Hadad was beaten into a coma in June French President Nicolas Sarkozy publicly shuddered at the specter of anti-Semitic motives. But what's really going on in this neighborhood?
In 2002, when worries about anti-Semitism in France were peaking, I was hanging out with a Tunisian Jewish friend of mine on these very streets, the Rue de Belleville to be exact. Alex worked in jewelry manufacture. He had attended a local technical high school where he would have interacted quite often with non-Jews, many of them Muslim immigrants from North Africa. According to the article, Jews are fleeing such schools. Along the avenue, Alex pointed to phone card signs advertising rates for Morocco-Mali-Togo-Chad. "Would you ever think this was France?" he asked, incredulously. He was French, he wanted me to see. He was different. In fact, I often felt he was desperate not to be taken for an Arab, for a "Beur" in argot slang.
Erlanger's article chalks up much of the tension between young Jews and Muslims in the 19th to simple group-think and bravado. What happens in Israel bears little on whether or not two cliques of different faiths scrap in the park. I'm very sympathetic to this viewpoint. Some of the interviews here also raise the possibility of class grievances manifesting themselves in Muslim on Jewish violence. I think one has to be very careful with such explanations. For the Jews I knew in Belleville, Jewishness was the epitome of classy; something the more well-to-do Parisian Jews, with their Arab friends and cosmopolitan attitudes, laughed at over drinks on Sunday afternoon in the Marais. What do these brawlers in the 19th think? Who knows. Maybe they just want to fight.