Earlier this month, my partner and I spent Purim wandering around the Pletzl, Paris’s historic Jewish neighbourhood. This was four days before Mohammed Merah murdered French paratrooper Imad ibn Ziaten in Toulouse; eight days before he murdered French paratroopers Abel Chennouf and Mohamed Legouad in Montauban; twelve days before he murdered French rabbi Yonatan Sandler, his sons Aryeh and Gabriel and seven-year-old Myriam Monsonego.
Purim is one of my favourite Jewish holidays. When I was a child attending services at Temple Rodeph Shalom near Montreal, Rabbi Treister would break out his plaid tallis and, in accordance with Jewish tradition, invite the congregation to abandon conventional decorum by making an unholy racket when arch-villain Haman’s name was mentioned during the reading of the Megillah. We joyfully celebrated the triumphant survival of the Jewish people against the genocidal machinations of our enemies. Like all of the other children, I wore a costume and spun a colourful gragger around on its axis like my life depended on it.
The Pletzl is my favourite neighbourhood in Paris. It has been home to Paris’s Jews since they were expelled from within the city’s walls in the 15th century. Its narrow, winding streets are lined with shops and bakeries selling Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrahi delicacies – often unique Parisian fusions of all three culinary traditions – at least three of the best falafel restaurants in the world, yeshivas, mikvahs, Kosher butchers and grocers and shops selling all of those articles, from mezuzahs to books, necessary for Jewish life.
Purim is celebrated with abandon in the Pletzl. A portable stereo blared Hebrew, Yiddish and Ladino songs and the wailing melodies of Klezmer outside of one café on Rue des Rosiers, while adults, no doubt fortified by the conspicuous bottles of vodka in their hands and on tables lining the street, danced wildly while costumed children joked and laughed. Stone sober, I began to dance myself, much to my partner’s consternation, but what else can a Jewish boy do when he hears the strains of a freilech?
One thing about Purim always bothered me, however, even as a young Bar Mitzvah student: we do not only celebrate the survival of our people, but the deaths of our enemies. The sweetness of joy, expressed in the hamantaschen we eat by the dozens, is mixed with the bitter taste of vengeance. Esther coldly refuses Haman’s pleas for mercy when his plot is revealed, and the Megillah notes that, in righteously defending themselves against their attackers, Persian Jews killed more than 75,000 Persian Gentiles.
As for Haman, we made noise with our shouts and our graggers at the mention of his name both to express disdain for our defeated enemy and to utterly obliterate the sound of his name from the reading of the Megillah. We would write his name in chalk on the soles of our shoes so that in walking and standing and in stamping our feet me we would, in a very real way, erase his very existence. He was, after all, Ha Rasha – “the Evil” – a monster: the embodiment of the unrighteousness and hate arrayed against us. At Rodeph Shalom (which means, by the way, “pursuer of peace”) that seemed deeply troubling to me.
And there is something about the Pletzl that makes me uneasy. It is the location of Paris’s Shoah Memorial, where the names of the 76,000 French Jews deported to Nazi death camps are etched into a stone wall. They are names like Emile Simon, Juliette Mendes, Yvette Dreyfuss and Joseph Friedman, good French names that also happen to be Jewish. There are plaques on Rue des Rosiers, Rue du Bourg Tibourg and Rue Vielle de Temple, marking the deportation of Paris’s Jews to the East by the Nazis and their Vichy henchmen. It is impossible to see the photos of the neighbourhood from the 1930s and 1940s at the Musee d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaisme on Rue du Temple without imagining the cries of people taken from their homes to the camps where more than half of them would die.
In a way, France has done a good job of publicly commemorating the horror of the Holocaust. There is a large plaque at the Gare de l’Est that reminds travelers that this was the location from which 70,000 French Jews were transported to the death camps. Like many other memorials across the country, the inscription concludes “n’oublions jamais” – “never forget” in the imperative first person plural. We will never forget, we must never forget, as a nation and as a society. It is a commandment as much as a promise to remember.
Yet there is something troubling in the way France choses to remember the genocidal anti-Semitism of the Holocaust. While the deportation and extermination of French Jews is narrated as a crime against French people (who happened to be Jewish) the criminals themselves are invariably identified as outsiders to the national community. They were jackbooted German Nazis from beyond France’s borders or the morally warped and corrupted minions of the Vichy regime established by the senile madman Phillippe Pétain. They were not, the story goes, good French citoyens.
This is made abundantly clear at the Gare de l’Est, where the Holocaust memorial is just one of four plaques that also commemorate the “hundreds of thousands of French youth” who were sent from the station to slave labour camps, the prisoners of war who returned in 1945, and the railroad workers of France whose “zeal and hard work” made that return possible. Nowhere, in any of these memorials, is there any mention of the fact that the Nazis were able to deport Jews, Roma, political prisoners and slave labourers thanks to the “zeal and hard work” of hundreds of thousands of collaborators in both occupied France and Vichy and the passive acquiescence of many millions more French men and women.
How could it be otherwise? Recognizing the banality of evil would subvert the discourse of French citizenship. The rhetoric of Holocaust commemoration in France, and official and public opposition to anti-Semitism, indeed to all forms of racism, as a sign outside Paris’s Hôtel de Ville proclaims, is predicated on the premise that the victims are not the Other; they are us. But that equation sets up the secondary premise that, if we are the victims, then the perpetrators of genocide and racism most certainly cannot be us. Racism of any kind is un-French, therefore racists are the Other and conversely, because racists are the Other, France is not racist.
So French president Nicolas Sarkozy, echoed by a chorus of hundreds of millions in France and abroad who are justifiably horrified by Merah’s crimes, proclaims the killer a “monster.” Merah is the uncanny horror that appears as a human being, but is in fact the embodiment of all that is foul, degraded and inhuman. Ha Rasha; the Evil. No civilized Frenchman, no human being could have grabbed a seven-year-old girl by the hair and shot her in the head at point-blank range before speeding away on his motor scooter. He was an aberration, a madman, the Other. Most damning of all, he was a Muslim fundamentalist fanatic, which both justifies and is conditioned by the growing rhetoric often deployed by the President himself that fanatical Islam and secular, liberal France are somehow incompatible.
Merah’s rhetorical abjection serves another purpose, however. By expelling him and his crimes from the discourse of French citizenship and “western civilization” we can, like the Holocaust memorials, absolve ourselves of any complicity in his crimes. This was done to us – to four French Jews and three French Muslims – and therefore not by us. Merah’s crimes and his racist motivations are external to civilized social order.
And that’s convenient precisely because they are not.
During my stay in Paris earlier this month, my partner and I took a romantic getaway to Provins, a medieval walled city about 55 miles east of Paris. On our trip back to Paris, the train was boarded by a squad of tough, heavily armed gendarmes. They walked from one passenger to the next requesting identification – it is illegal in France not to produce valid I.D. at the authorities’ request – and I was glad I had my passport handy. The scene was reminiscent of any number of wartime thrillers where jackbooted Gestapo officers board a train and demand “papiren!” and after the gendarmes left, I asked my partner “What do you think that was about?” In a hushed voice, she replied: “They’re probably looking for Roma.”
We stared at each other uncomfortably for a few moments as the full uncanniness of that statement sunk in.
It was March 14, and the gendarmes were probably doing a sweep following Imad ibn Ziaten’s murder, but the most sensible explanation to us at the time was that French authorities were on the lookout for ethnic undesirables. The full horror of the moment was that judicial ethnic cleansing has become so normal in France that it just seems like business-as-usual. Over the last three years, France has forcibly deported some 20,000 Romanian and Bulgarian Roma. Facing a tight election campaign, President Sarkozy has ramped up his use of anti-immigrant rhetoric in the last few months while largely offering tacit acceptance of the far right’s anti-Islamic and anti-Semitic screed over Halal and Kosher food.
You can hear the same kind of rhetoric in my home country of Canada, where the province of Québec has debated legislation that would deny public services to Muslim women wearing the niqab and a former political leader turned-media-talking-head called for a boycott of a meatpacker that distributes halal chicken. It’s the stuff of mainstream politics in the United States, where President Obama’s political enemies have long cast racist suspicions on his right to serve, largely on the basis of his foreign-sounding name, and legitimate political leaders like Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich promote visions of a religiously exclusive, intolerant and theocratic republic with impunity. I witnessed the shameful demonstrations against the “Ground Zero Mosque” in the summer of 2010, where a protester wearing a Christian group’s T-shirt shouted “go back to your own country” at a Muslim man born in New Jersey.
Violent, exclusionary racism is not the exception in “civilized” countries like France, Canada and the United States – it has become the rule. Intolerance has become tolerable, normal enough for superficially reasonable men and women to discuss it as just another issue and to implement it as state policy. Narrating Merah’s crimes as the acts of a racist “monster” only allows us to obscure the racism that we tolerate in our acquiescence to racist political normalcy. As Hannah Arendt famously noted: “politics is not like the nursery; in politics obedience and Support are the same.”
And if Merah is a monster, then we are a species of monsters. His monstrosity is only exceptional in that it is so depressingly unexceptional. Robert Bales, Baruch Goldstein, Anders Breivik, Swami Aseemanand, Timothy McVeigh… “Civilized” societies have produced enough “monsters” that we must be at a point in human history when we have an obligation to discuss how our civilization – and everyone who is part of it – is complicit in their monstrosity.
I don’t cry very often. I have been able to keep it all together while my father lies in a hospital bed facing a very grave, and possibly life-threatening illness. But this morning, realizing that we have collectively made Mohammed Merah a monster rather than face our own monstrosity, I wept.