In advance of his departure for a semester in France, we have had a version of “the talk” with the youngest of our three children, about how to comport himself when confronted by anti-Semitism.
“The talk” often written about is that which African American parents have with their children, about how to conduct themselves in interactions with police. I do not presume to know the depths of concern that lie behind that conversation, nor do I suggest an equivalency with what Jewish parents tell their children in our circumstances.
That said, has “the talk” become something Jewish parents do more often when their children head off for college, let alone a semester abroad?
There are lists online of American college and university campuses deemed hostile toward Jewish students. As for travel away from the United States, there may be no country where anti-Semitism is not a concern, to some degree. [Israel, with a three-quarters Jewish population, presents other issues.]
Our son, a junior at a school in Georgia’s university system, will leave in early January for five months study in Strasbourg, in the Alsace region of France, near the border with Germany.
He has a Hebrew, non-Biblical first name, as do his older brother and sister, and a last name identifiable as Jewish. He wears a small star of David pendant around his neck, usually tucked into his shirt.
Should we worry?
The estimated 500,000 to 600,000 Jews in France, the largest diaspora population after the United States, account for 1 percent of the French population. According to the French government, anti-Semitic acts increased 74 percent in 2018, compared with the previous year.
As to why, answers frequently given involve Arabs, who make up 7 to 9 percent of the French population; anti-Israel sentiment from the left, and from the far left and far right, anti-government, anti-establishment protest, as embodied in the “Yellow Vest” movement.
The most celebrated case of French anti-Semitism is that of Alfred Dreyfus, the army captain wrongly convicted in 1894 of espionage and imprisoned until his innocence eventually was proven.
Recently, more than 100 graves in a Jewish cemetery in a town about 15 miles from Strasbourg were vandalized with swastikas and anti-Semitic graffiti. It was the third Jewish cemetery in the Alsace region desecrated this year, one of more than 50 incidents of anti-Semitic vandalism in that region this year.
In Strasbourg 670 years ago, on Feb. 14, 1349, as the plague raged uncontrolled, several hundred Jews were burned to death publicly and the remainder of the city’s Jewish population forced to leave the city.
During the Crusades, Jews were expelled from France in 1182, but allowed to return in 1198. Since then, Jewish fortunes have ebbed and flowed, ebbing enough in recent years that this past February, French President Emmanuel Macron spoke of a “resurgence of anti-Semitism unseen since World War II.”
So, as he packs for his semester away, what do we — what should we — tell our son?
We want him to experience as full a range as possible of life beyond the classroom, including engaging with the Jewish community. There are an estimated 20,000 Jews in Strasbourg and several synagogues not far from the university.
Compared with when his mother spent her junior year at the American University in Cairo (after her parents said no to AU-Beirut, during the Lebanon civil war), technology makes it easy to stay in touch. But these five months are our son’s opportunity to take on a greater measure of independence, to judge what he feels comfortable with and what he does not.
He will learn how to assess his surroundings and maintain his personal safety. He will decide how to express or share his Jewish identity. He will determine whether to engage in discourse about Israel, a country he visited with me a decade ago.
With journalists for parents, he hears plenty about the world at large and aspects of Jewish life, including anti-Semitism. He follows the news and, since he was quite young, asks a lot of questions.
Perhaps the best we can do is to follow a custom in my wife’s family when anyone travels and, in Yiddish, wish him for gezunt (travel in health) un kum gezunt (and return in health), which over the years they have shortened to “forgie and kimmie.”