PARIS – Although months have passed since the high-profile Dieudonne affair, the scars are still fresh in the memory of French Jews. But the black comedian’s arguably anti-Semitic salute was felt above all in the small black Jewish community.
Led by Guershon N’duwa, president of the 250-family Black-Jewish Federation in Paris, black Jews have recently begun expressing their bitterness in the media.
N’duwa was aware of Dieudonne’s controversial shows since the early 2000s, he said, arguing that the performer’s latest anti-Semitic diatribes were not surprising. The black Jewish community repeatedly tried – in vain – to warn Jewish authorities, N’duwa said.
“As part of the black community, we have known Dieudonne and his shows for years, ” N’duwa told The Times of Israel. “We’ve been warning Jewish leaders for a long time. A handful of them listened, but the majority turned a blind eye to us.”
N’duwa said he feels angry and frustrated.
“Now, I look back retrospectively and think that this mess could have probably been avoided if it had been dealt with at the right time. Instead, people in the Jewish community accused us of being troublemakers, trying to get media attention. How can we not feel bitter about this?” he asked.
To N’duwa, the Dieudonne scandal did not start with his controversial 2014 show in La Main d’Or Theatre. Signs included Dieudonne’s trip to Algeria in February 2005, during which he publicly criticized the “Zionist lobby” and defined the Holocaust as “memorial pornography.”
“This debate should have been ignited years ago, when it was still embryonic,” N’duwa said. “But our voices were silenced then. Doesn’t our opinion count as much as that of white Jews? Clearly, it does not,” he added.
N’duwa said the reaction of Jewish authorities was symptomatic of the lack of recognition of black Jews within French Jewry. This idea recently caught the attention of film director and producer Annick N’Guessan, co-founder of the Mondiapress TV production company.
N’Guessan recently launched the premiere of her two-hour documentary, titled “Being Jewish and Black in France,” in a small Sephardi community center in southwest Paris. It consists of a series of interviews with various French personalities, including Roger Cukierman, president of the CRIF umbrella group, ex-chief rabbi Gilles Bernheim, French philosopher and writer Shmuel Trigano, and Joël Mergui, head of the Consistoire.
“What really moved me is Mr. N’Duwa’s strong determination to bring recognition to black Jews within the Jewish community. It is not a small challenge,” she said.
Some of the interviewees suggested that the Orthodox movement in France is partly responsible for pushing black Jews to the margins.
To others, such as French comedian Rachel Kahn, the outcome of the Dieudonne affair is clear: Essentially, black Jews are being asked to choose between their Jewish faith and their black origins.
In a popular article in the French Huffington Post titled “Black and Jewish: the freedom of the species,” she wrote, “I’ve tried to keep silent, until that very moment where keeping silent became unbearable… Here it goes: I am a woman, Jewish, and black. This is it. I’m scared and I feel shameful.”
‘France is being divided and I’m being asked to take a side… to be black or Jewish’
Kahn’s mother was born in 1940 in Poland and hidden as a child during World War II. She escaped the Holocaust, unlike her family, which was deported to the death camps.
Kahn’s father was born in West Africa, in a border region between Gambia and Senegal. Her parents met in France and are still married today.
“Now, I feel torn apart, and fractured: France is being divided and I’m being asked to take a side, to make a choice between my father and my mother, to be black or Jewish,” she wrote.
“I’m being asked to stop being myself, to stop living the way I should – that is, as an Afro-Yiddish French woman. ”
To Kahn, French society is partly to blame for the Dieudonne affair. She especially points to the lack of black artists. “If only we had had our own Denzel Washington, Whoopi Goldberg, Sammy Davis, Morgan Freeman, they would have reacted against this, and Dieudonne would not have been the ultimate icon of a system ruled by injustice. ”
N’Duwa went a step further and insists that Dieudonne is a product of French society. “France created him by blatantly ignoring the socioeconomic unrest and the growing anti-Semitism in our suburbs. It is a lesson that ought to be learned by all of us.”
He said Dieudonne’s success was based on a racist theory which aims to make collective memories compete between one another: on the one hand, the history of black slavery, and on the other, the Holocaust.
“Dieudonne hides in a cowardly manner behind the freedom of expression in order to attack the Jewish minority. This way, he mocks the very core principles of democracy,” N’Duwa said.
However, N’Duwa added, the Dieudonne affair taught him a lesson. Now more than ever, black Jews should be more represented in Jewish institutions and more integrated in the community. They should be given a voice.
Comedian Kahn agrees.
“I’m hurt,” wrote Kahn, “when a black man points at my star of David and asks me to make a choice, arguing that by wearing it, I am a ‘target.’ I’m also hurt at the entrance of a synagogue, when I’m being told that ‘visitors’ are not accepted. ‘Visitors’? ‘Target’?”