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The cautious optimism of Jews living in Marseille

As France confronts rising antisemitism across the country, one Mediterranean city is decidedly upbeat

    Downtown Marseille
    Downtown Marseille (Picture: Marcel Wiel)

    Recent years have seen a spate of violent antisemitic incidents across France, such as the siege at a kosher food store in Paris that marked its third anniversary this week.

    Attacks like this — and a 2012 gun attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse that killed a teacher and three children — have helped fuel a sharp increase in the number of French Jews making aliyah.

    Yet the mood is quite different on the Mediterranean coast in Marseille.

    Europe’s third largest Jewish community, after London and Paris, is leading a life of cautious optimism, which can seem at odds with those of their fellow French Jews elsewhere.

    The city has a well-established Jewish community of around 80,000 that can be traced back over many centuries. There are more than 50 synagogues here, alongside schools, associations and many kosher food outlets.

    The shadow of antisemitism is never far from people’s minds — the brutal murders of mobile-phone salesman Ilan Halimi in Paris in 2006 and of 67-year-old Sarah Halimi in the city’s Belleville neighbourhood last year.

    Kosher butcher Eric
    Kosher butcher Eric (Picture: Marcel Wiel)

    But Jewish people in Marseille said such incidents do not trouble their daily lives.

    “I live my life [openly] as a Jewish woman here,” said Sandrine, who works on the counter at a kosher bakery in the city. “Antisemitism is a problem, but no more than elsewhere. You need to stay vigilant.”

    Éric, a local butcher, agreed: “Antisemitism here is like [it is] everywhere. It could happen at any time. But I love the sun and the blue sky and, after I’m away, I’m always happy to get back.”

    “Real antisemitism — antisemitic hate — is hidden,” said Édith, who works for the Marseille branch of Crif, an umbrella group that represents Jewish organisations around the country.

    “Currently things are quiet, but it’s there in the background.”

    Many residents who spoke to the JC said there was still a need for restraint.

    Optician and father-of-two Mike, 29, attended a religious school, wore a kippah and was once the victim of an attack.

    “It’s tricky being Jewish in Marseille,” he said. “You can live a Jewish way of life, but you need to be discreet.”

    Optician and father-of-two Mike
    Optician and father-of-two Mike (Picture: Marcel Wiel)

    That necessity for discretion is a reason for anger, according to 45-year-old English teacher Karine.

    Antisemitic incidents are often diminished in the public eye, she said, adding: “Think of the Ilan Halimi murder and the Toulouse school attack. There’s an undeniable context to the current French aliyah.”

    But the number of French Jews emigrating to Israel has begun to fall, following a peak after the 2015 attacks, and the community is growing again.

    New arrival Ivan, who works as an office worker, is extremely positive about living in Marseille.

    “I’ve been here 18 months and have never experienced any antisemitism,” he said. “I feel I can talk about Jewish issues very easily.”