Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Frenchman, Jew, lawyer, and product of the ghetto--but not necessarily in that order

This is a guest post by Arié Alimi, a lawyer defending two suspects in the Sarcelles riots.

I have never before publicly written anything in defense of my values or my clients; my professional tradition, like my religious one, is above all an oral one. However, I now feel it necessary to express the thoughts that have been weighing on me since Tuesday, July 22, when I chose to defend two young men in the Municipal Court of Pontoise whom many have associated with the anti-semitic violence which took place on Sunday, July 20, in Sarcelles. Since that court hearing, many people--close friends, colleagues, or people claiming to represent the Jewish community--have told me of their incomprehension, or even disgust, at my choice. They object not only to my defense of the two young men arrested in Sarcelles, but also to my defense of a young man accused of having traveled to Afghanistan for "jihadist" purposes.

How, I am asked, can I--a practicing Jew born in Sarcelles whose ancestors lived in Algeria, a former student of Sarcelles' Otsar Hatorah school and a congregant of that city's synagogue, a man who still lives in this place where a casual hatred of Arabs is the norm--how can I of all people defend a "jihadist" and "anti-semitic rioters" who attacked my fellow Jews? The question seems to have provoked the wildest theories in some circles.

I am accused of self-hatred--more specifically, of being a self-hating Jew. This slur is used every time a person who either claims a Jewish identity or has one imposed on him or herself fails to show solidarity with his or her community. This issue becomes more complicated whenever the Jew in question fails to show solidarity with Israeli policies, particularly those dealing with the bloody conflict with the Palestinian people. I have always proudly proclaimed my name, my tradition, and my attachment to Israel. I have done so in my capacity as president of the Union of Jewish Students at my law school; as someone who has always fought all forms of racism and anti-semitism; as someone who abides by kosher dietary restrictions; and as someone who feels the spirit of Judaism flow through my body and soul when I visit Jerusalem on vacation. This feeling was stronger still this past Monday in Sarcelles when I felt myself choke up at the sight of the broken storefront windows of businesses felt to be "too Jewish," or again when I saw the burned-down pharmacy at the local shopping mall which had been run by an elderly Jewish woman for the past forty years. Images of pogroms sprang back to life for me, like an eternal and inexorable return to square one.

So then, my defense of these young men is due to self-hatred? Perhaps. But if so, it is a hatred of the part of myself which is rashly tribal and prone to making collective judgments, this self born of blood ties which can't find time to catch its breath in its bellicose charge against the indistinct mass of anti-semites or anti-Zionists--two groups between whom it is no longer permitted to make distinctions, in public or even in private, since the events of Barbès and Sarcelles, the government's ensuing diatribes, and the round of condemnations against the rioters.

Given all this, I chose to defend two young men arrested by police officers who viewed them as hooligans merely because they happened to be in the street when a glass bottle crashed on the ground near the officers. Some have chosen to see my choice as a matter of simple self-interest. I will no doubt shock their sensibilities more by telling them that I have no desire to be compensated for my defense work in this matter. Many have invoked the narcissism of the lawyer surrounded by cameras. And I must acknowledge that if the press has the great capability of rapidly transmitting ideas to the largest amount of people, these ideas should be transmitted by someone willing to put his image forth to make them heard.

Others have seen my defense of these men as just another form of provocation, after my defense of a "jihadist" (if this last term still even has a meaning). I admit that of all the proposed explanations for my rationale, this one actually seems the closest to my true intention: to provoke. To provoke a reaction, a debate, to do my small part to shake up two of the indistinct groups which emerge within the broader French community imbued with republican values. I speak, on the one hand, of the Jewish community, and, on the other, of the impoverished youth from the ghettos with whom they have been clashing, some of whom are blind with a rage which the policies of several decades have done nothing but feed.

In view of the dark days which seem likely to come for my country, and given the official racism and anti-semitism which are being cooked up behind the scenes, the private dialogue between a lawyer and his client, regardless of his particular anger or hatred, is already a gesture towards peace and renewed understanding. I will therefore continue to defend "jihadists," "rioters," and disadvantaged youths from "bad neighborhoods." Frenchman, lawyer, Jew, and product of the housing projects of the ghetto--I am all these things, but not necessarily in that order.


Arié Alimi