May 29, 2003
Home of the Free
The first floor of the building in downtown Paris was shielded by black-tinted glass. It wasn't the clandestine offices of some secret government agency or a gay bar. Rather, it was the synagogue in which my nephew was to be bar mitvahed, with anyone entering the building searched by a security guard posted by the door.
Later, worried that someone who was arriving late might not be able to find us, I stood across the street after the security guard asked me not to wait in front of the synagogue, which might draw attention.
After the hours-long ceremony, the rabbi urged us to disperse immediately rather than milling on the sidewalk, once more ensuring a low profile for the synagogue. This, he said, would help protect against vandalism, as well as local residents who might use such vandalism as a pretext to kick the synagogue out.
Anti-Semitism, I learned on a recent trip through France, is alive and pervasive. Nor, I discovered with some surprise, was the rabbi or those in charge of the synagogue overreacting.
For what else was I to make during a stroll around Montmartre, when I overheard a 20-something man tell a couple, in French, that he was Moroccan. Then he shouted to me, in perfect English, "I hate Sharon."
I could have replied that I'm no fan of Sharon's, either, but somehow I didn't think that was his point. Shocked, I just waved back.
"See," he triumphantly turned back to the couple. "An Israeli."
Not quite, but close enough. He had been able to identify a Jew.
A few days later, in the city of Tours, a teen stared straight at me, then noted in French to his two companions, "He's a Jew."
I was used to being identified as an American abroad. But here, for the first time, my religious identity superseded my national identity.
And suddenly I started wondering how strangers could tell my religion. Do I really have a Jewish nose? Is there really such a thing as Jewish features?
So self-conscious did I become that, going to the beach at the Cote d'Azure, I considered removing the religious medallion I've worn around my neck for over 10 years, the Sephardic hand of God. I didn't, but I became quite aware of when my medallion was covered by my shirt and when it wasn't.
Back home again, I once again wear my medallion to the beach without a second thought. Recently, seeing a street sign giving the address and pointing the way to a synagogue several blocks away, I also knew that this was something I would never stumble across in France.
And there is something I've also taken away from this experience.
We Americans have no idea how truly free we are in our day-to-day lives. Sure, discrimination exists here. But we still see discrimination against any minority -- Jew, Muslim or other -- as something to be stamped out. In France, discriminatory attitudes have become part of the very air the people breathe.
To quote those famous lyrics, I am proud to be an American; proud and relieved at the same time. The alternative to living freely is living in the same fear that, more and more, pervades the rest of the world.
Increasingly, however, that fear is coming here, masked under the guise of patriotism and homeland defense.
We cannot allow fear to run this country. Otherwise we all become outsiders, the "other" waiting for the finger of blame to point at us. And hiding our place of worship, or who we really are, ain't much fun.
Just ask the French Jews.
Joseph Hanania is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.