MARSEILLE, France — Although punctuality isn’t a dominant trait among most Jewish leaders (and non-leaders) who agree to sit down with The Times of Israel, Michel Cohen Tenoudji, the president of the Jewish community of Marseille, apologized through his black cloth mask as he barreled into his simple office on the second floor of the Great Synagogue compound a few minutes late. He was unable to let the interview run overtime, he said, because a local Muslim leader would be visiting him directly afterward.
The mid-October interview came just days after a Paris schoolteacher was targeted and beheaded in a terrorist attack — a gruesome retribution for having shown the class a controversial cartoon featuring the Prophet Mohammed.
Asked if he’d discuss the attack with the visiting Muslim leader, the 60-year-old Cohen Tenoudji, who since 2017 has been president of the Consistoire — the government-recognized body representing Marseille’s Jewish community — let slip that he would.
The local Muslim leader, who asked to remain unnamed for this article, intended to denounce the attack and all forms of terror, Cohen Tenoudji said. The two would also discuss some ambitious interfaith initiatives they were working on.
In the two weeks following The Times of Israel’s meeting with Cohen Tenoudji, there was a stabbing and beheading attack that saw three killed in Nice, just 200 kilometers (124 miles) east of Marseille, and a massive shooting attack in Vienna with four civilians and 23 injured.
Meanwhile, the residents of the easygoing Mediterranean seaside melting pot — France’s second-largest city — seemed mostly unaffected by the political and religious unrest which for years has roiled the rest of the continent.
Since World War II, Marseille has grown increasingly diverse. This change accelerated in the 1960s and ’70s with an influx of Muslims and Jews from Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria following the states’ declarations of independence from French rule in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Today, Muslims are estimated to make up 20 to 25 percent of Marseille’s population of 860,000. There are also between 70,000 and 80,000 Jews living in the city, mostly of North African descent, making it the third-largest Jewish community in Europe after Paris and London, with a concentration of Jews rivaling New York or Miami.
Ahead of the meeting with community head Cohen Tenoudji, The Times of Israel walked down Rue Saint-Suffren, a dismal midtown stretch that houses numerous kosher shops, restaurants, and a Jewish school. This reporter stopped a man in the black and white clothing characteristic of ultra-Orthodox Jews.
Speaking in basic Hebrew (the vast majority of Jews in Marseille speak only French), The Times of Israel asked whether the observant Jew would feel safe wearing his kippa in other parts of the city. “Of course,” he immediately said. Pressed on whether he would wear the Jewish headgear in Noailles — a heavily Muslim part of town with an open-air bazaar that may have been uprooted and plopped down from anywhere in the Middle East, including Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda — the man barely hesitated. “Sure,” he said, thoughtfully. “Why not?”
Other locals, Jewish and non-Jewish, also seemed to take Marseille’s religious coexistence for granted. One member of the Jewish community who works for the city said that he believes the neighborly relations between Jews and Muslims carried over from the Maghreb, where the two groups lived together for centuries.
In addition, he said, Muslims in Marseille are well-accepted and don’t face as much racism and antagonism from the locals as in other French cities, making them less inclined to vent their frustrations on the city’s Jewish residents.
He also pointed out that unlike many big cities outside of Israel, Jews were not concentrated into one social and economic stratum. You were as likely to find a Jew driving a bus, teaching in a public school, or wearing a police uniform as working in a law firm or performing surgery, he said, echoing a refrain from French Jewish director Yvan Attal’s 2016 film “The Jews” that this reporter would hear many times over in Marseille. “They’re everywhere,” he said.
While touring the Great Synagogue just before the meeting with Cohen Tenoudji, a Jewish community employee who served as guide affirmed the city’s unique Jewish community, as well as the warm relations it shares with its Muslim neighbors.
“It’s true,” said the employee, who asked not to be named since he was speaking personally and not as a community representative. “But we’re just waiting for the terror to reach here. Someone from outside will eventually see that we’re living the cool life here in Marseille, that we aren’t too scared and don’t have such high security, and there will be a shooting attack or a suicide bombing. If you ask me, it’s only a matter of time.”
Asked what that would mean for the city’s atmosphere of coexistence, he thought for a moment and shrugged. “I guess things would go back to normal after a few months,” he said. “They’re not going to change the way we think here.”
He led the way into Cohen Tenoudji’s office, where this reporter adjusted his face mask and settled in to wait for the busy man.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Times of Israel: So, how many Jews are there in Marseille?
Michel Cohen Tenoudji: There are 70,000 that we know about, but we think we’re around 100,000 because there are a lot of people who have a Jewish mother, but they are not closely linked with the institutions or the Jewish world. Every day we discover hidden Jews who didn’t even know themselves that they were Jewish. Sometimes they just know that they have something Jewish in their family or genealogy, and that’s it.
I’ve seen this happen in Central and Eastern Europe because of circumstances after WWII and the rise of the Iron Curtain, but here in Marseille most of the Jews came from North Africa decades after the war. What kind of background do these “hidden Jews” here have?
After WWII, Jewish people from Algeria and Morocco came to France, and there was a lot of assimilation. Because many Jewish women also married non-Jewish people, for the children half of their family is not Jewish — but they themselves are Jewish according to the Torah.
As far as Jewish denomination, how do most of the Jews here identify?
Most of the community is traditional, and maybe 10 percent would be considered Orthodox. French Jews are very open-minded, so we all live together easily. In Marseille most Jews identify with the Consistoire and follow the French Chief Rabbi Haim Korsia.
For all life cycle events, bureaucracy, red tape, weddings, death — no matter what denomination you are, any Jew can use the Consistoire’s services. We are the official organ for the Jewish people in France, so we answer all questions and concerns about Judaism no matter who is asking.
There are some Reform and Conservative Jews here, but they are very few and they have only one synagogue in Marseille. We at the Consistoire don’t have much of a connection with the Progressive community, but I think that as Jews we’re just lucky that everybody gets along. Our Chief Rabbi Ruben Ohana and Dayan [head of the rabbinical court] Shmouel Melloul do their best to bring all the communities together — no Jew in Marseille is too far down the road if they need us.
And how are Jewish-Muslim relations in Marseille?
Like the rest of the country, Marseille has seen some anti-Semitic acts from Islamist people, but with far less intensity and frequency. We think this is proof of our good relationship. We have an association called Marseille Espérance, or Hope of Marseille, which gathers all the religious leaders from the town, and organizes activities, debates, discussions or events. I myself have visited the Muslim community many times to show our support, whether it’s for the opening of a new mosque, for the Eid holiday, or for Ramadan. And we in turn welcome the Muslim leaders in our Great Synagogue each year for Rosh Hashanah.
These types of moments are strong messages that we send to our own local communities, as well as people far away. More than that, Marseille itself is a multicultural melting pot where many diverse people are used to living together. It is really lucky to live in such a peaceful place.
What parts of this relationship can be improved?
We could still be more active together, and unite to fight for common goals. For example, we could stand together against the growing right-wing nationalism in Europe, which is a threat to all of us.
Does the shared cultural history of the Jews and Muslims coming from the Maghreb influence their relationship in Marseille more than in other French cities?
Without a doubt! With the massive waves of immigration from North Africa, all these communities came together in Marseille. They were used to living together, and they kept their way of living, their habits — and that tradition is still alive now.
What sort of challenges does the Jewish community face today?
We have numerous challenges. The Consistoire, the main institution of the Jewish community of Marseille, is first of all concerned with making the practice of Judaism possible to everybody. We are there for the religious part, kashrut, circumcisions, weddings, and we take care of the cemeteries. We’re like a city hall for the Jews. We are here for all the concerns about Jewish life and regular life from birth to death.
In addition to that, part of our basic mission is handling politics and community relations — it’s like our community is a little town within the town. For example, nowadays with COVID-19, we have our job cut out for us doing what we need to do to make religious life possible even with all the restrictions and laws that were proclaimed by the government. So we work with the government to make Jewish life possible in France, respecting all the French laws while respecting halacha (Jewish law) and the Jewish way of life.
Can you give me some examples of what the consistoire is doing to make Jewish life possible during the health crisis?
For example, during the first wave in March and April, we closed our synagogues before the government enacted restrictions. But contagion in the first crisis was much lower in Marseille than in the rest of France. So we made the decision to reopen synagogues before the rest of the country.
The government didn’t think about Jewish life during COVID, so we did, because we have to
We are taking care of the local specificities of the Jewish community, and this is our main mission. We manage the Jewish community like a little independent community. We created hygienic protocols and measures specific to the synagogues, specific to the mikvah [ritual bath], specific to circumcision. As Jews, we made these specific measures because the government didn’t think about Jewish life during COVID, so we did, because we have to.
Do you have any mechanisms in place to keep track of the COVID statistics in the Jewish community?
Statistically we can’t know, because there are no ethnic statistics in the hospital. We don’t know who’s Jewish or not — it’s not like in the United States, you can’t fill out such a form indicating whether you’re Jewish or not Jewish. But while Marseille is a big city in France, for its Jews it is also like a small town, so in the Consistoire we know how many Jewish people have died from the disease in Marseille. As the newspapers are saying, we can see that the number of Jews dying from COVID is no greater than that of the rest of the population and other communities in France.
Do you know how many Jewish people died of COVID in Marseille?
We know, but we can’t say the figure. But after Purim [in March] — that holiday was the last party where there was maybe transmission. But after that, we stopped everything. Thanks to all the measures we spoke about earlier, we don’t have a lot of transmission here, because the Jewish community is being very careful about following them. At the beginning of the crisis in March, even the government — even other governments around the world — didn’t really know how to deal with it, so we did our best. But we learned from our mistakes, and so we took action very quickly at the beginning of the second wave. So this is why we now have lower levels of transmission.
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