Can One Still Be Both French and Jewish?

A new novel by French-Jewish author Eliette Abecassis is an elegy to a beloved country struggling to protect her and the values of human rights.

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A rally in solidarity with victims of last January;s terror attacks in Paris.
A rally in solidarity with victims of last January;s terror attacks in Paris.Credit: AP

“Alyah,” by Eliette Abecassis, translated from the French into Hebrew (as “B’ein li Moledet”) by Ilan Penn; Penn Publishing and Yedioth Books, 367 pages, 74 shekels

One day, Esther Vidal, who is no other than Eliette Abecassis, a literature teacher, enters her classroom in a school located in a Paris suburb where most of the students are second- and third-generation North African immigrants. Before Vidal has even set her bag down, a 15-year-old student gets up and asks, “Teacher, are you a Jew-girl?”

The teacher is flustered – either by the question hurled at her or because a few minutes earlier she had been engaged in a very intimate, amorous texting dialogue with a writer. “Let us embrace and not speak of it again,” he wrote her just before she entered the classroom. “Where and when” she had texted back – before being assaulted by the question about her origins. The student is unrelenting: “Teacher, you’re not answering me. Are you a Jew-girl?”

Esther, whose name is clearly Jewish, feels faint. Throughout the school year she had been able to evade discussion of her origins, even though the students, who came from more than 15 national backgrounds, were aware of it.

“What’s your problem?” she snaps back at the student.

“If you are a Jew-girl, does that mean you are a Zionist?”

“She’s a Zionist! We will eliminate her!” another student says in a whisper.

The classroom rings with a cacophony of shouts. “It’s not the Jew-boys who bother me. The problem is the Zionists.”

“And the Jews.”

“There’s no difference!”

“It’s true, they are killing our brothers the Palestinians!”

“We’ll get rid of them all!”

The class is in an uproar. Everyone is shouting and hurling racist slogans at Vidal, and the Jews in general. Facing them, Esther feels as though she is suffocating; she can hardly catch her breath. At that moment of powerlessness the principal bursts into the classroom and the students fall silent.

“Can you even tell me who the Jews are?” she asks the student who had led the offensive.

“They are the ones who are murdering Palestinian children,” he replies.

In those moments Esther feels trapped, caught between the hatred of her students and her correspondent’s messages of love. Deep down she knows she is helpless not only in the face of the hatred, but also that there is no chance the fledgling affair with Julien, the writer, will evolve into a love story. Against this background she arrives at the conclusion that her life in her native land may be at an end. The country that vouchsafed the fundamental values of human rights seems to be turning its back on her, as Julien comes to symbolize a hopeless love with no future.

At the end of the novel, we witness a painful parting: Esther and Julien cannot fulfill the love that binds them. In parting from him she also feels as if she is tearing the umbilical cord that connects her and her family to France.

“Why are you crying?” Julien asks her in their final moments together, wiping away her tears with his hand. To calm her, he promises that they will almost certainly meet again in 10 years.

“In 10 years, I will not be in France,” she replies.

“Then in 10 years, it will no longer be France,” Julien says.

Roots in exile

It’s on this melancholy note that Abecassis ends her book, which is in fact her own story.

Esther’s – and Eliette’s – passionate affair with France, which for its part is embodied in the character of the writer who courts her, is aborted as though by a decree of fate. Esther returns to being defined as a Jewish woman in France. More precisely, she adheres to her Jewish identity in a secular republic that has detached itself from religious faith – every religious faith.

Abecassis’ previous books are suffused with a powerful love for Judaism and draw on Jewish roots deep within her. Her new book is an elegy to the country to which her parents emigrated from Marrakech in the late 1950s – from the Atlas Mountains to Alsace. Or, in her words, they moved “from hamin [a Sephardi version of cholent] to sauerkraut.”

She evokes the love that once existed between Jews and Muslims in Morocco with passionate longing. In Morocco, her parents told her, the two communities lived side by side. To this day, her mother and father shed a tear when they remember their homeland. “My parents are so French, so connected to France, and they speak Arabic,” says her Esther. “Their roots lie in France yet at the same time it is their land of exile.”

The evil winds blowing in France lately prompt consider aliyah (or “alyah,” as the book’s title has it): immigration to Israel. For her, it will be a first migration; for her parents, if they join her, it would be the second migration in one lifetime. Only those who have experienced the searing pain of emigration are capable of grasping the dilemma of French Jews who are contemplating another uprooting to a new homeland.

This drama is actually being played out in France – the same France that once opened a whole new world to North African Jews and afforded them an opportunity to achieve extraordinary success. Within just two generations, they became an elite that led in almost every field: medicine, literature, philosophy, poetry, entertainment, acting, fashion and commerce. Three years ago, for example, Serge Haroche, who was born in Casablanca, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics. He was 12 when his family moved to France as part of a large wave of migration from Morocco.

Abecassis is one of France’s most successful writers. Her father, Armand Abecassis, an expert in Jewish philosophy, educated his children to be intellectuals in their new land. And so it was.

The Jews viewed France as their home until the eruption of the second intifada in Israel, 15 years ago, fomented a rift between the two communities of migrants from North Africa: The Jews positioned themselves on Israel’s side, the Muslims mobilized for the Palestinians. Ethnic incidents multiplied, violence seethed: The Jews found themselves under attack by their Muslim neighbors. The cry “Death to the Jews” was heard again after five decades.

Abecassis herself, fearful of being identified as a Jew, shed every external sign that was liable to give away her origins on the street. She felt that her country had betrayed her, just as it had betrayed the Jews during the Nazi occupation. She writes in the book: “Until a few years ago, I did not understand that I was actually an exile in my country. France was my country, my culture, the definition of who I am and how I think. I thought our leaders would insure our security The phrase ‘Jew and French’ was still possible. It almost exuded pride.”

She misses the Arabs who lived alongside her parents whom she met on visits to their former home: “When we traveled in Morocco we visited the family’s graves in Casablanca, Marrakech and Essaouira. We spoke with the merchants about the Jews’ departure, which had saddened them. My parents used to talk about the good life they had in Morocco. What happened to us? We loved each other. We are similar. Even today we feel comfortable in their company, in their home, in our home, with the warm hospitality that connected us in the past. We spoke the same language, our families were similar, we had common values, we were part of the same nation and had a common history and land. We ate the same foods, we welcomed others into our homes in the same way, we loved mint tea, which we drank together.”

Abecassis’ novel tells a story of unrequited love. Two loves, in fact – for France and for Arabs – that foundered. Raised on the ideal of love of humanity, she suddenly discovers the aggressive and murderous instinct in people. She was wracked by nightmares after a young French Jew of Moroccan descent, Ilan Halimi was kidnapped, tortured and murdered by Muslims in France in 2006. For some time she was unable to get the brutal events out of her mind. The murder of a Jewish father and his two sons, along with another child, at a school in Toulouse, in 2012, haunted her long after the fact.

Last January, four Jews doing Sabbath-eve shopping were murdered in a branch of the Hyper Casher market in Paris. The demonstrations of support in the wake of the attack there and at the Charlie Hebdo newspaper were not enough to restore her faith in the Republic. They included what was probably the largest mass demonstration in modern French history, but Abecassis, who marched in that event, felt that she no longer belonged. From her perspective, her country had changed beyond recognition.

The novel races forward like a train hurtling toward an unknown destination. The overwhelming sensation is that the writer is paralyzed by fear – for her own and her family’s safety and for the safety of French Jewry in general. The deep anxiety that took control of her life is vividly apparent in the haunted look on her face in the photograph on the book’s cover. The cascade of short sentences in which the novel is written creates a breathless feeling.

Still, despite the acute fear, and despite the book’s title, the author does not intimate that she herself intends to immigrate to Israel. It’s true that France has undergone a face-lift, but Abecassis is well aware that the millions who marched last January to express solidarity with the murdered victims of terror are the best guarantee that France has not gone off the rails. Every anti-Jewish event is roundly condemned by the president, the prime minister and other political leaders.

I personally think she will continue to live in France and go on publishing her work and teaching literature there, consoled by the fact that Israel remains her “insurance policy” in the event of calamity.

Possibly the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris last month will expedite the decision of many other Jews to leave France. Abecassis, it appears, would like to continue writing in French and teaching French literature. If it were up to her, she would undoubtedly wish to consider France her last and only homeland.

Daniel Ben Simon’s new book, “The Moroccans” (Hebrew), is forthcoming from Carmel Publishing House.