“One Must Respect These Old Names”

by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

As a college student on study-abroad in France, I was riding a commuter train, when suddenly I noticed I’d been sitting under some graffiti that read, “Mort aux juifs.” At the time, I took this to be anti-Semitic graffiti – after all, it translates to “Death to the Jews” – and was somewhat unnerved. But it turns out I had no reason to be concerned. It was probably just hometown nostalgia on the part of someone from La Mort aux juifs, the town. Yes, the town.

Dylan Matthews flags the story of current efforts to change that name:

The Simon Wiesenthal Center’s director of international affairs, according to Agence France-Presse, has sent a letter to France’s interior minister demanding the name be changed. But Courtemaux’s deputy mayor Marie-Elizabeth Secretand told AFP it’s unlikely the municipal council would agree to a change. Anti-racism activists tried to change it in 1992, and came up short.

The closest thing to a reason for continuing to name a town “Death to the Jews” in the year 2014 that Secretand offers is that it “goes back to the Middle Ages or even further.” It’s not really clear how this supports her case, given that Middle Ages France was, like the rest of the Christian world at that time, extremely anti-Semitic.

So two things jump out here immediately. First, that this effort comes from outside France – the account in Le Monde emphasizes that the Center is “aux Etats-Unis,” in the US – and not from petitioning on the part of French Jews, of whom there are several hundred thousand. It’s wrong – I mean, painfully and obviously so – that the town has this name, but still worth considering why and how this has come up. On this, Rick Noack sheds some light:

The outrage of the Wiesenthal Center comes at a sensitive time for French Jews. European Jews in general and French Jews in particular are increasingly worried about strong anti-Semitic tendencies that are related not just to the ongoing Gaza conflict. According to a 2013 survey by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, about 30 percent of European Jews have thought about emigrating because of a general feeling of insecurity. In June, The Post reported that no nation in Western Europe has seen the climate for Jews deteriorate more than France. While anti-Jewish protests had previously often been linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Jewish leaders now fear a more fundamental shift tied to homegrown anti-Semitism.

The second striking thing in the passage from Matthews, though, is point about medieval France – he later includes “19th century, Dreyfus-era France” – being “extremely anti-Semitic.” I feel obliged, given the years I spent in grad school studying this topic, to point out that scholars in this area have long sought to dismiss the notion that all of French-Jewish history amounted to fending off anti-Jewish bigotry.

In 1791, France was the first country to emancipate its Jewish population. When conducting dissertation research, I found that the nineteenth-century French-Jewish press was full of sad-but-slightly-smug (or just nationalistic) tales of just how horrible things were for their coreligionists in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. And scholars have even found a positive spin on the Dreyfus Affair (1894-1906). Sure, there were anti-Jewish riots, but at least a Jew could become a captain in the French military, and at least Dreyfus was ultimately exonerated. While my own interpretations are somewhat less rosy than that of the field at large, there’s a reason French Jews were understood even beyond French borders to have it good.

But as Matthews points out, researching the town’s name leads to layer upon layer of French anti-Semitism. First there’s the origin of the name, which may relate to a medieval king’s attempt to “save” the town from Jewish usurers, which is to say, to slaughter the town’s Jews. (What was I saying about how anti-Semites always have a pretext?) Then is the calm discussion, from 1883, of whether the town was or was not named in reference to Jews who had “oppressed the populace.”

Ultimately, though, what concerns me here is less that France of yore was not always delightful for the Jews, and more the deputy mayor’s reasons for brushing off the concern. Matthews writes that Marie-Elizabeth Secretand wants to keep the name because it’s from the Middle Ages, which is indeed part of what she says. But consider the following sentence of her statement, as quoted in Le Monde: “Il faut respecter ces vieux noms,” or, “One must respect these old names.” It’s pretty amazing, really – what she’s doing is spinning around the issue, making it so that the problem isn’t a town name that demands the genocide of a still-significant part of the French population, but rather that the great terroir of old French place names has been disrespected. While I think if anyone’s going to challenge the name, it should ideally be French Jews, it’s hard not to look at that response and figure that if the Center’s goal was to highlight everyday French anti-Semitism, they succeeded.