My aunt told me: “Your great-grandmother, the one who gave you your third name, she had a scar on her forehead, because she was hiding in the basement during a pogrom, but a cossack found her and kicked her head.” What happened after, that I don’t know. Does my aunt know? We are so used to talking and making jokes about rapes and pogroms and deportation. We don’t really fact-check. Is this the real story or something I made up when I was still a child? Cossacks sounded like the witches and bad guys in tales I read when I was a kid. They were not real, they were just there to scare us or to remind us about how good our lives were now in France. You should be grateful Léa, I had an awful life and now look at you, a French bourgeoise moaning about how your parents didn’t want you to study literature instead of becoming an engineer. Spoiled child, no deportation camps and no pogroms made you soft.
One day I watched a TikTok from an African-American woman, saying how she rationalized all the pampering and self-care she introduced in her life as something her ancestors wanted for her, something they dreamt and something they fought for. I decided to use the same tactics, each time I felt bad for all the luxuries I had in my life. The small invisible scar on my nose is because I fell on wooden slats while jumping on my bed when I was three. No cossack boots for me!
A Jewish friend told me at a party: “When Ilan Halimi was butchered, we should have yelled more.” Ilan Halimi was kidnapped, tortured, and murdered in 2006, by the gang des barbares who wanted a ransom from his Jewish family, because of course they have the money, Jews are rich, and they have a tight community… They will find the money. They even called the family’s rabbi. In 2006 we were 12. How would Anna and I have known better?
Still, there are the things you learn. You tell little girls not to go online, because of the monsters in chatrooms. But you also tell little Jewish girls they shouldn’t tell they are Jewish online. Writing this article is not an easy task even as a 29 years old woman. At my bat mitsvah, I received a Haï pendant, but my father said: “Your great aunt wanted to give you a Star of David necklace but that’s too dangerous. People don’t know what a Haï means, it’s safer.”
When I spent a few months in Israel, regularly Israelis would ask: “I heard antisemitism is awful in France. Is it really?” And I couldn’t say. My face didn’t meet any boots. And I got all my features from my converted mother, I look like a real white French girl. A true Parisienne with her marinière and her jeans. “You don’t look Jewish” or comments on my non-Jewish nose were made. I lived a life of privilege, I barely went to synagogue anyway. My synagogue has a security vestibule with two bulletproof doors, not the most welcoming place. I went to public secular schools. I live in Ourcq now, a small neighborhood with a Hypercasher where Jewish men wear kippas and women wigs. My parents said: “Making your children wear kippas, it’s like placing a target on them.” In 2012 a terrorist targeted a Jewish school in Toulouse. Three kids were killed.
I sometimes joke about how bad I am at being French, I don’t go to demonstrations much, only marches against antisemitism. The last one I went to was for Sarah Halimi’s murder in 2017, or was it Mireille Knoll in 2018? I don’t remember which one it was, I had to google their names. I also joke that it was an unexpected way for my then-boyfriend, now husband, to meet my extended family, my old boss, and my parents’ friends. They were all there. Social events for Parisian Jews.
I make so many jokes. When Kanye West comes on my home speaker I make a joke to my husband that he is allowed to listen to only one song by him a month. When I was in khâgne that was my whole thing. I was a cool Jew, with me, you could make these distasteful antisemitic jokes. I’m OK with it, I know you’re not antisemitic. I read Céline, and even Drieu la Rochelle! There’s no antisemitism in France anyway. When I found out the guy I was dating then was an actual negationist who didn’t think gas chambers were real, that was a well-deserved slap in my face. That's what happens when you want to be the Cool Jew. You get fucked by a nazi.
But I am still the cool Jew, more than ten years later. I see that now. I am so angry and desperate and sad and all I say are bad jokes.
My grandmother allowed herself to be bitter and angry, the thousands of Jews in her town were dead, not even in gas chambers. They were rounded up, they had to dig their own grave and got shot there, like in Babi Yar. But that was before, now antisemitism is just a couple of deaths every year, one poor fellow in 2006, three kids in 2012, four Jews in a kosher supermarket in 2015, and two old women in 2017 and 2018. I was not allowing myself to feel bitter.
Am I desensitized to current antisemitism because it used to be so much worse, or is it because the argument that Jews are the “privileged minority” is so pervasive nowadays? At least our genocide has been recognized! People get to know about the holocaust in class, Anne Frank, and all that. Schindler’s list. They get to make comments like “Do you imagine if people were saying that about a Jewish person?” “That wouldn’t pass if he were Jewish.” But the thing is, it usually does. You have no idea. How casual it is.
But now we have Volozhyn-style massacres again, hundreds of people executed, not in Poland this time, but in the Holy Land. I can’t watch the videos, the one in the music festival, thirty seconds before the massacre. The voicemails sent by victims just before they got shot. It’s too hard. But what I see, after I skip them on Twitter and Instagram, is all the “yes buts.” of the people I follow. This I can watch, no one is getting killed by them, they are already dead anyway. I said to my father, during the march on Monday: “I feel so dumb, the hardest thing about all this is the reactions from people who think they are so rightful, so ethical.” They lack humanity, trying to be the most humane person on social media. He was surprised, and I assume a bit disappointed in me. He told me that for him, the hardest was the fact that Israel had failed in its one and only mission: keeping Jews safe. No Cossacks’ boots anymore. In one day, the same number of Jews died as in one day in Auschwitz, he told me. That was not supposed to happen again. As always my father is right. Maybe I should have gone to engineering school.
Sometimes I catch myself on my phone, trying to find these awful videos and testimonies of the killings, so I can share them, my eyes closed, with the 700 people who follow me on Instagram. I catch myself, more specifically, looking for proof that these massacres matter, that they count. Look! The dead children, the beheadings, the rapes. Now we have enough dead people, can you count them now? But I never do it. I’m a cool Jew.
Let’s just not talk about Israel, it is easier that way, says the cool Jew. Yes, it’s complicated, Netanyahu and the Haredim, the Golan hills and the 1967 borders and the Wall and the settlers... Yes, the cool Jew will watch them say that Jews shouldn’t be surprised, devastated, frightened, or have any emotions, except guilt and self-hatred maybe. The cool Jew will silently listen to them say it is a fair game, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, Jewish law! The cool Jew will watch them say Jews are not allowed to be victims anymore, because… Israel. The cool Jew will watch the far-left party of France, La France Insoumise, call a terrorist organization with a publicized genocidal plan an “armed branch”. The cool Jew won’t create long dotted lines on top of their Instagram stories, explaining in neat infographics, dry note app screenshots, and traumatizing videos that Jews, even the Israeli ones, actually do count.
I really thought I was the first generation to never know what a pogrom looked like. I really believed in that narrative that I was part of this privileged minority that used to be ostracized, killed, and discriminated against, but not anymore! I believed this new-found, post-war whiteness the Americans gave to Jews would save me from the possibility of the boot. I believed in this narrative because, by giving more power to antisemitism, it also gave me hope. I’ll conclude with a Jewish joke I used to love but doesn’t work for me anymore.
Two Jewish men sat on a park bench reading newspapers. One man, reading the Jewish Telegraph, was astonished to see his friend reading the Nazi Press.
“How can you, a Jew, read that garbage?” he questioned.
“Why not?” replied the other. “When I read Jewish newspapers, all I read about is anti-Semitism, vandalism and how everybody hates us. But when I read the Nazi newspaper, I see only good things. We Jews own Hollywood, we control the media and we are all doctors, lawyers and bankers. I really start to feel good!”