Parisian Dan Dray with his sister-in-law, Joanna.
In September I went with my school to protest the Metropolitan Opera’s production of “The Death of Klinghoffer” at Lincoln Center in New York City. A woman approached me and asked what Klinghoffer had to do with the Met and what our protest was about. I explained to her that in 1985 terrorists hijacked an Italian cruise ship, the Achille Lauro, and shot and killed the wheelchair-bound passenger Leon Klinghoffer. The Met’s fall schedule included an opera that the protestors believed romanticized his murder and glorified terrorism.
Opera is one of the most highly praised, expressive and influential forms of art, and the people who attend are sometimes ones who shape our society and influence public perceptions. Here is a renowned opera company in New York City portraying an incident that says, “Terrorists? They’re not so bad.” Yet, the woman I was talking with didn’t seem bothered. She said we shouldn’t be making such a big deal about the opera because there isn’t any anti-Semitism in America to be worried about. I said that her claim may pertain to Jews in America, but not Jews throughout the rest of the world.
Until my French cousin, Dan Dray, came to live with me and my family for the summer, I never understood how Jews outside of America felt. He was so happy to be on American soil. New York was a vacation stop. All he wanted was to live the American way of life. The American way of life? What does that mean?
I could tell that Dan regarded America as the bigger and better place to live, in relation to France. He felt that the United States has opportunities, freedom and diversity. However, I tried to dissuade him. “We’re coming out of a recession,” I said. “France has free healthcare and free college tuition, and the food looks so much better!” Moreover, I’ve always pictured Europe as a refined, artistic and cultured continent. I told him I’ve only dreamed of traveling and visiting the Louvre in Paris or the Colosseum in Rome. Yet he firmly held on to the belief that “France is dead.”
I could not comprehend what he said until I realized that for him, living the “American way of life” meant that he could embrace his Jewish identity. France has the third largest population of Jews after Israel and the United States. The Jewish community in Paris is smaller than New York. Nearly 500,000 people live in France and approximately 3.5 percent are Jewish. In the United States, Jews are 2.1 percent of a population of 5.4 million, according to 2012 statistics in the Jewish Virtual Library.
However, that’s not all. This past summer — during the war in Gaza — Jews in Europe faced an extreme amount of hatred, according to an August article posted on The Guardian. Eight synagogues in France have been attacked and kosher restaurants and pharmacies were looted and destroyed. Additionally, anti-Jewish crowds in France gathered and chanted, “Death to Jews,” and, “slit Jews’ throats.” In Germany, an elderly Jewish man was attacked at a pro-Israel rally and the Birgische Synagogue, rebuilt after Kristallnacht, was fire bombed.
My family in France feels that the growing anti-Semitism is affecting their everyday lives. They can’t walk on the street wearing a Jewish emblem, and they certainly do not feel free and safe in a democratic country.
We take it for granted that we are immersed in Jewish culture and religion, especially in the Northeast. Jews are able to embrace religion in whatever way they want. There are so many options including schools and synagogues of different denominations; it’s easy to be Jewish in America. Dan could not believe the large number of kosher restaurants in New York City and the dozens of Jewish schools in the area. He felt proud that Jewish culture has become engrained in American society and that Jews can live as Jews without fretting about anti-Semitism.
So Dan decided he wanted to stay in America. He told my parents that he cancelled his return ticket. At first, they were unsure if staying here would be the best plan for him. He was 21 and wanted to find a job as a licensed electrician. He insisted that he stay in the United States and not return to a place with no opportunities for him.
My mother began looking into programs to learn English so he could take the TOEFL exam, the test for non-native English-language speakers required to enroll in American universities.
He began taking English classes every Monday at the library on the Upper West Side every Monday. After taking a placement exam and scoring level 3 out of 5, we set up an interview for him at Yeshiva University. The school offered him free tuition if he succeeded in scoring high on the TOEFL.
Another option was enrolling him in an English program at Lehman College that would help him prepare for the TOEFL. If he did well on the exam then he would be accepted into one of the CUNY schools for free. He planned on enrolling in different programs to best prepare for the TOEFL.
Unfortunately, Dan was forced to go back to France due to financial reasons. When we broke the news to him, he seemed generally upset. However, he knew that going back and finishing school was the best option, and in a few years he could return as a licensed electrician.
Dan’s situation made me realize how grateful I am to live in America. But I also learned that we have a role to play in the lives of Jews around the world. After my revealing conversation at the protest of “The Death of Klinghoffer,” I realized that the general public doesn’t understand the severity of rising anti-Semitism. If they can’t comprehend the danger, then they surely can’t comprehend why producing the opera is detrimental to Israeli and Jewish pride.
That is why it is our job to send a message to the world: the Jewish community will not tolerate anti-Semitism in America or elsewhere. America plays a prominent role in the world’s economy, politics and society. As a superpower, we also influence social trends and beliefs. That means we have the potential and obligation to impact people’s ideas and perspectives on Israel and anti-Semitism. But most of all, we need to start helping Jews in Europe feel that they can safely walk down the streets and show pride in their Jewish identities.