by Miléna Kartowski-Aïach
Photo by Miléna Kartowski-Aïach, December 28th, 2020, Caracole of Morelia, Chiapas. Second world gathering of women activists.
March 8th, 2021
My name is Miléna Kartowski-Aïach. I am a 32-year-old Jewish woman, artist and intellectual born and raised in a working-class neighborhood of Paris. I am writing to you today from there, from the same street where I’ve lived for the past 32 years, to share two things that are very important to me. Though the two different topics of the two sections of this letter may seem unrelated, they bear an intimate connection in my life, as I hope you will see, as well as for all progressive Jews. First I will describe my delightfully growing involvement with the Zapatista movement, then my sadly growing realization that despite my multicultural and political activism, as a Jew, I can no longer remain in France. My contrasting of these two ethno-national plights, so similar and so different, is not coincidental.
First, I would like to share with you that in June 2021, a delegation of more than 100 Zapatistas will arrive in Europe. They will be mainly a group of women and children. They will come from the mountains of Chiapas, where they live, one of the poorest states in the south of Mexico.
As you may know, the Zapatista movement is a revolutionary, socialist, rebellious, indigenous and feminist one that was created clandestinely in 1983 in Chiapas, Mexico. It claims a triple heritage: heir to the 500-year indigenous struggle, heir to the revolutionary struggles from the beginning of the 20th century (including the peasant uprising led by Emiliano Zapata), and heir to the revolutionary guerillas of the 1960s.
Nowadays they live very simple lives in autonomous societies they have created, called caracoles, where they work the land, speak their ancestral Meso-American languages, and preserve and pass on to their children their indigenous culture, cosmology, and medicine. They have a specific socio-political way of existence with democratic assemblies. They also created an independent university in San Cristobal de Las Casas, the capital of Chiapas, where everyone can study in Spanish but also in Tseltal, an indigenous language. This gave non-Spanish speaking people an equal opportunity to study. Their situation is very fragile in Mexico and they have to hide their identity in public, which is why they wear scarves and balaclavas in public.
On December 26th, 2019, I participated in the second world gathering in Mexico of women activists. The Zapatista women organized it with conviction and without any money, inviting women from all around the world to join them and meet in the caracole of Morelia, in the heart of Chiapas. 4,000 women came from around the world, even women from the YPG Kurdish army. We pitched our tents on the land, ate traditional food made for us by the Zapatistas, debated about women rights, sang traditional songs and fandango music, and wept when hearing - in every possible language - the testimonies of violence the women dared to share.
In June 2021, the Zapatistas will take a ship from San Francisco and cross the ocean. The boat will dock in France, possibly in the south, reminding us of the French SOS Méditerranée boat which saved thousands of refugees in the Mediterranean Sea in the past years, and which until recently was forbidden for so many months to remain in any Mediterranean coast harbor. The Zapatista delegation will stay in France two weeks, traversing the country and meeting different groups engaged in action and resistance, such as les Communaux, Help and Hospitality for Refugees (Ptit’s Dejs Solidaires), ecological and feminist organizations, independent groups of resistance for the land such as Notre-Dame des Landes, alternative groups in psychiatry and the world of health, yellow jacket activists and more. (I am personally affiliated with some of these groups). Afterwards, they will continue their mission for some months throughout Europe. They are also hoping to go to North and Sub-Saharan Africa.
In the very near future, I’ll be moving to Israel. Once there, I hope to help welcome a small delegation of Zapatistas so that they can discover the country and meet the organizations and people dedicating their lives to “an Other Israel.” I see their visit as a chance for debate, dialogue, deep sharing moments and the possibility to think about the future of the world that we are now dreaming and creating together.
This brings me to the second, but related subject of this letter. In June 2021, I will leave France, the country where I was born, raised, and lived for 32 years, to emigrate to Israel. In my heart, I feel that I am returning home to Jerusalem where I lived for a year during 2014/2015. My decision to emigrate is both personal and political. I was born in France, a country which made it obvious to me from a very young age that I would have to be careful about where, when and how to show my Jewishness. Only ethnically Jewish enclaves or material prosperity offered some degree of protection from such social pressures. But I was born into a rather assimilated, economically modest, socialist and feminist family of Jewish intellectuals: the daughter of an Algerian Jewish father who stood up for Algerian independence before being forced to flee his country in 1968, and a Polish Jewish mother whose parents survived the Shoah before finally finding political refuge in France.
During my teenage years, French society began to face new kinds of threats, including a kind of antisemitism new to France, coming from Islamist ideology. This began with bomb attacks in the capital, killing of Jews, threats against courageous intellectuals (Robert Redeker, Charlie Hebdo…) and the conspicuous silence of many leftists, artists and intellectuals who denied the fascist nature of that ideology. Some of them do so until today.
In the summer 2014, there was a demonstration in the center of Paris against the Gaza war. Although I was against the war, I chose not to go to the demonstration, because I knew beforehand what would happen. And indeed, Israeli flags were burned, shouts of “Death to the Jews” were heard and there were assaults on synagogues in city and its nearby suburbs. As the day ended, in a state of shock, I went for a walk and found a leftover trace of the demonstration: a piece of cardboard on which was written the slogan: “Death to the Jews. Go back to your country.” French society reacted with silence.
Since I was a child, my father had taken me to demonstrations for the rights of immigrants, Roma people, minorities and voiceless communities. But on that day we were left alone, not only as Jews, but above of all as human beings under threat. At the age of 26, I felt betrayed and desperate. I wrote an open letter to my fellow French citizens which was published in the national press. And I made a big and difficult decision. I decided to leave my life in Paris to go to Israel and try to understand a society that was being so loudly condemned in France, but in which I had the right to live as a Jew. I received a nine-month grant from the Centre de Recherche Français de Jérusalem (French Research Center in Jerusalem) and started a PhD in anthropology focused on the young generation of Mizrahi-political artists, their vision of an alternative Israel and their process of identity-building through artistic creation. I entitled my research “A Song of Exile in the Promised Land: Towards an Other Israel.”
At the end of June 2015, after a very intense year of field research and life in Israel, I was short-listed to get a Mediterranean research grant for my PhD. I came back to my university in Marseille to present my research proposal to a jury of researchers from the university. However, the grant was awarded instead to a young man who had not yet started his PhD in sociology, focused on Syria. During the following years, this kind of occurrence would often repeat in French academic circles fascinated by the Arab world and often filled with aversion towards Israel even to the extent of an intellectual boycott.
I came to recognize that the small, mostly conservative and patriarchal Jewish intellectual world in France, often perceived my voice as a disturbance, and my research was also too politically controversial for most international Jewish foundations. Even as I began to question the social acceptability of my research, invitations to university conferences in Cambridge, Aberdeen, Campinas and Montreal encouraged me to continue.
In October 2015, I left Israel to return to France. Among other reasons, I knew it would be easier for me to get a job there and I wanted to rejoin my parents, my only family. Since my return, I’ve been active as a citizen who welcomes refugees in Paris and more broadly, in Europe. I went to the Greek island of Leros where immigrants needed help and met several Yezidi refugee families there who had survived the genocide of August 3rd, 2014 perpetrated in Sinjar by Daesh. We became very close friends and I began to advocate for Yezidi rights in France, organizing help for Yezidi families, writing an oratorio about their situation in Leros, creating a theater trilogy and writing anthropological articles. Meanwhile, each year about 10,000 Jews were silently leaving France. Many of them came from the poor suburbs of Paris, from the 93rd (department of Saint-Denis) where antisemitism had become so extreme that their children could no longer go to public schools nor simply live without fear.
I started to lead artistic creations in these wounded suburbs because I believe in the strength of micropolitics. I created multilingual choirs using traditional songs with children and women in different towns of the 93rd department whose Jewish population had fled. Most of the remaining residents were from ex-African French colonies, including North Africa. In Clichy-Sous-Bois (where the riots of 2005 took place), we created a site-specific, original, anthropological and political opera in 2019, with children and residents, based on the power of dreams and poetry to triumph. During my work with women and children in these suburbs I never had to hide being Jewish and I was even able to teach them Yiddish songs. Outside of this setting, though, I knew only too well which ideologies surrounded us.
Meanwhile, in the artistic and intellectual leftist environments that I frequented, commitment to refugee rights and decolonialization grew stronger. But in the dominant narrative of decolonialization, led by many people of North African origins, Jews were absent and often even regarded as traitors. But the colonial history in Algeria is also mine, as I am the daughter of an Algerian Jewish father who was born in 1935 in the colonial French capital of Algiers, who is both Sephardi and Judeo-Berber, uprooted from his Judaism, a victim as a child of the Vichy laws, who later supported Algerian independence and had to flee in 1968 because of antisemitism and Algerian refusal to include Jews or other minorities in their increasingly monolithic, pan-Arabic society. I knew from a very young age and I still know today that Jews must also have a voice in the national French debate about decolonialization.
In the past months, the pandemic has exposed social realities that were already present but less visible. I decided before the first lockdown to leave Paris because the prospect of living for months enclosed in a tiny one-bedroom apartment felt intolerable. I finally found refuge in the Plateau de Millevaches, an historic region of resistance in France where urban artists and intellectuals had joined local people to try to create an alternative society. I went there thinking naively that if there were a last refuge in this country it might be there, and because I had been working in the region in prior months, co-creating an anthropological opera with the local population based on their own stories. After arriving, I was offered a place in an artists’ group house, an environment I expected to be politically and socially conscious. The shock I then experienced when I unexpectedly experienced deeply antisemitic attitudes even in this circle was profound and made it impossible for me to remain.
I returned to Paris, fortunate to reach the city in a paralyzed France where most of the trains were canceled. Back home but in lockdown, I was confronted by antisemitic remarks from both of my immediate neighbors. In France during that time, residents were allowed to go outside only for an hour and with a written permit. Many people denounced perceived violations by their neighbors to the police, a painful reminder for many of Vichy France.
Darkness had fallen and the ghosts had returned:
October 16th, 2020: Islamist terrorist attack in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine. Samuel Paty, a history teacher, is beheaded in the middle of the street, after having shown the caricatures in Charlie Hebdo to his students during a lesson about freedom of speech.
October 21st, 2020: A national tribute ceremony in Paty’s memory takes place in the courtyard of the Sorbonne University, where I studied philosophy.
October 22nd, 2020: 5 pm in the center of Paris, in front of a bakery, I am the target of aggression and a death threat. No one gets involved, everyone is masked, looking down. I think, for the first time in my life, if he had known that I’m Jewish, he would have gone through with the threat.
These experiences have led me to a new conviction: I can no longer remain a silent Jew, no longer hide myself in the face of humiliation and fear. I cannot remain silent while my community is fleeing from a national, shameful silence. I want to support them and be supported in return. I also know that I want to become a mother and raise children who do not fear being themselves in public, who will never be ashamed of their tradition, history, language and culture. It has been painful to admit it, but this is increasingly impossible in France. I want to live, to love and to grow, and I realize now that my place will be in Israel. As it is written in Pirkei Avot:
אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי? וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי? וְאִם לאֹ עַכְשָיו, אֵימָתַי?
I send you this open letter as an invitation to talk, meet, think, and imagine together the world to come. And as part of that conversation, how to welcome the Zapatistas to Israel.
Bien à vous toutes et tous
Miléna Kartowski-Aïach – מילנה קרטובסקי עייאש