French Students At Stern Talk About What It Is Really Like to Be a Jew In–and From–France

By: Mindy Schwartz  |  April 19, 2018

YU students come from all walks of life, from all over the country, and even from all over the globe. It is not rare to hear foreign languages spoken in the halls–students calling family members or speaking amongst themselves in Spanish, Russian, or French. French speakers in particular seem to be on the rise, not just at Stern, but in New York City as a whole.

France, the country with the third largest Jewish population in the world, has a seen a rapid drainage of its Jewish population in recent years, with Jews primarily moving to Israel and America. In 2000 there were 555,000 Jews in France; today there are only 500,000. This massive migration has been credited to the fact that it is now considered unsafe by many to publicly show one’s Jewishness in France. The danger of wearing a kippah in the street is only one expression of the larger sense of fear amongst the Jewish population. There have been a number of highly publicized anti-semitic attacks in France which have created and perpetuated this fear amongst French Jews, and indeed in Jews throughout the world. In January 2018 alone an eight year old boy was beaten to the ground outside of his Jewish day school in Sarcelles, a 15 year old girl wearing a Jewish school uniform was slashed across the face, and two kosher markets in Paris were set aflame only weeks after swastikas were painted on both stores. Last year, two Jewish brothers were attacked in a paris suburb with a hacksaw, and a 65 year old Orthodox woman was found dead outside of her apartment just after neighbors claimed to hear the words “Allahu akbar” shouted by the murder. More well known still is the murder of four Jewish customers held hostage in a Kosher supermarket in Paris by an Islamist Jihadist, which took place four years ago. And just this past March, 85 year old Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll was murdered in her home in what authorities are calling an anti-semitic hate crime.

Everything that is unfolding in France can seem very foreign–and alarming–to most Stern students, the majority of whom are used to living openly and proudly as Jews in America, without the fear of constant attack. In order to better understand this situation, and separate reality from media sensationalism, The Observer sat down with two Stern students from France who agreed to share their experiences with the student body.

In explaining the situation in France, Hanna Chicheportiche, a paris native and senior majoring in political science, emphasized first and foremost that “the media always over-exaggerates” and that France is not a terrible place where anti-semitic attacks “are systemic and happen everyday.” When students find out she is from France, Chicheportiche said that she gets two opposite reactions: “They ask why I left, because there is just a lack of general knowledge about what is going on in the world around you, including in France–classic American [attitude]–and they don’t seem to know [about the antisemitism].” Or, “they will be very overdramatic, they think I would go in the street [in France] and get killed.”

Chicheportiche finds both reactions problematic in their own way. Of course people should educate themselves about what is going on the world, including in France, but, in her experience, those who think they know what is going on by keeping up with media coverage end up with a distorted view of what is going on in France. “In France it is mostly individual attacks like getting mugged or being insulted in the street because you are Jewish, but it is nothing like Baghdad–and people have to realize that,” explained Chicheportiche.

Another Stern student from Paris, who wished to remain anonymous, described a similar over-dramatized reaction when she would tell fellow students where she is from. “I think everyone is aware [of what is going in France], but they think it is worse than it really is,” she said. “It is bad in France for Jews because you can’t practice the way you wish you could, but it is not that bad.”

Students often ask her if it is safe in France. “They think that France is very dangerous–that you can’t go out night, that you can’t go to shul. But we can do those things.” Still she clarified that while it “is not as terrible as they think” in France, “Jews do have to be careful. It can be dangerous to be a Jew in France, but if you don’t show off and don’t say to everyone that you are a Jew–don’t wear a kippah for example–then you are safe.”

The student explained that “she never had any personal issues [with anti-semitism or anti-semitic attacks]” and that her neighborhood in Paris was very safe and that these experiences likely slant her take on the issues in some way. “Everyone has a different opinion [about the situation in France] based on where you live, if you have gotten mugged, or so many different cases. But my family–while we have heard about other people–we have never had any problems ourselves.” For her, the attacks in France are not any “more striking than [those] in other European countries,” even though the media tends to exaggerate the situation in France.

While both students have a similar take on the media’s portrayal of France, they differed in how their friends and families in France were reacting to the situation. Chicheportiche said that while she plans to go to law school in America and “probably stay here long term” and her family “really support[s]” her, “they are probably not going to leave France.” On the other hand, she noted that almost all her friends from her Chabad school have made aliyah, “mostly because of the environment in France.” “I think something like three percent of my friends stayed in France,” she said. “ Young people are moving out at much higher rates.”

The anonymous student, however, described almost the exact opposite experience. “My family is thinking about moving to Israel, but once again it is not as bad [in France] as people think it is. You just have to be cautious and careful, and [my family] would feel better in a country where they could be proud to be Jewish, and could wear a kippah.”

Meanwhile, most of her Jewish friends from her public school say that they “they love France and wouldn’t want to leave. They just want things to get better in France.”

Still she conceded that most young people who leave France for schooling say that they do not want “to go back [to France] and live there [long term].” However she noted that while the media hypes up the fear aspect as the primary reason for the mass exodus of Jews from France, she thinks that the most people leave for “economic reasons.” “People make more money in America, and there are more opportunities in America.” She also pointed out that she has heard of many people who do leave France for anti-semitic reasons and move to Israel, only to “realize that life is not that easy and the economy in Israel is hard and so they usually go back to France.”

Both students expressed that leaving the antagonistic environment for Jews in France was at least part of their motivation for coming to Stern. Chicheportiche said that she when chose Stern, “There were personal reasons as well, but part of the reason is because I didn’t want to be in France anymore.”

The anonymous student said that she came to the U.S. with her best friend and “one of our main motivations to come was that Jews are so free in America”–unlike in France. She said that when she came to the U.S., “I felt a big difference. Even though I never had problems with anti-semitism in France, in America Jews are more free. You can wear whatever you want, you can practice however you want. It is known in France that in America you are more free to practice [the way] you want to be and they have the reputation of accepting everyone the way they are. [This does not just apply to] Jews, but to Muslims too. And [it also does not just apply to] religion, but [in general] people are less judgemental, and you feel you can be the way you are.”

Even with these positive associations with America, she says that she stills “feel[s] really attached to French culture. I love everything about America but [when it comes to] my identity,  first I am a Jew and then I am French. The culture is where I grew up, it is all my friends and family.”

She also spoke about her experience as a foreign student at Stern. While she always wanted to go to Stern, she actually began college at Touro because “when I came [to America] my level of English wasn’t so great and in Touro they were helping students a lot more with language, while in Stern is more independent. You have to do well more by yourself [at Stern] so you need a very high level of English. So I thought it was better to go to Touro and see how I was feeling and then transfer if I could,” which she was eventually able to do.

When asked about how YU students can educate themselves better about what is happening in France, Chicheportiche took on a more pragmatic tone. “It wouldn’t change anything if people know about it [since] there is nothing American Jews can do about it. It would be nice if they knew because it is important to know what is going on around you, [but] there is nothing they can do [to fix the situation],” which both students credited to the rise of Radical Islamist terrorists. While the anonymous student agreed that there isn’t anything YU students could do to fix things in France, she did insist that a nuanced education was important so that they aren’t mislead by the media. “We don’t want [other students] to have the wrong idea that when you go to France you are going to a crazy country where a lot of bad things happen. We just want them to be aware that you have to be cautious.” Her recommendation: “You can on vacation there, but don’t move there to raise a family [because] it is not the best place to live.” But she is quick to add, “Still is it not as terrible as people tend to think.”