A Jewish-Feminist Collage in Marseille

In Marseille, feminist activists are taking over the walls of the city to spread messages about antisemitism and the situation of Jewish women. The movement, which is attracting attention via an Instagram account, seems surprising in Europe’s third-largest Jewish community, known for its conservatism. For K., Yoram Melloul portrays some of these billposters, who often find themselves caught between their traditional environment and their activism.

 

© Yoram Melloul

 

One night in September, I accompanisx three shadows as they walked up the steps leading to the Panier district in downtown Marseille. They stopped in front of a wall, assessed its texture with a caress of the right hand, and looked around to check for surveillance cameras. They then started a choreography that they have rehearsed dozens of times. One put a roll of paper against the rough wall, another applied glue with a brush dipped in a bucket and the third removed the bubbles. Then came the cuts, “it makes the paper harder to remove.” They took a picture of the ephemeral message written in capital letters and left. The whole thing took no more than three minutes.

For two years, groups of women billposters have been inscribing feminist demands and feminicide counts on the walls of many cities in France. But, that evening, in Marseille, the three shadows were exclusively Jewish. And they let it be known by sticking up, for example, the words “Jewish and proud”, or messages denouncing the comparison between the health pass and the yellow star. The small group was formed at the initiative of Lea*, a 38-year-old activist. “I was the only Jew in the group of billposters I was part of. They were not at all sensitive to the problems specific to Jewish women. But some of them pushed me to put up messages on the subject.”

© Yoram Melloul
Orthodoxy and marriage demands

With nearly 80,000 members, the Jewish community of Marseille is the third largest in Europe. It is rich, protean and above all, it does not hide. Jews live their religious and cultural life in a certain tranquility, even if synagogues take precautions to ensure the safety of the faithful; especially since the knife attack against a Jewish teacher in 2016, which had chilled the blood of the community. They are present in both the wealthiest neighborhoods, such as in the eighth arrondissement, as well as other more working class quarters, such as the Rose. During the holidays, they go around the synagogues in costume and before shabbat long queues stretch out in front of the butcher shops. The Jews of Marseille live at the rhythm of the city. They are part of the landscape, sometimes where they are not expected. Not long ago, I was surprised to see a man in his sixties coming out of the Velodrome stadium with tehillim in a plastic bag.  He had just paid tribute to Bernard Tapie, the former president of the Olympique de Marseille.

However, the presence of Jewish feminist posters is surprising for the Marseillais that I am. Because if the community is dynamic and rather young, it is also very conservative. Of the fifty or so synagogues, only two are part of a progressive movement: one liberal (Reform) and the other Massorti, a traditionalist movement based on a modern understanding of Torah and Halakha, Jewish law (the American Conservative movement is affiliated to the Massorti worldwide umbrella group). And both are poorly regarded, if not completely unknown to other Jews in the city. A few years ago, a group of women tried to organize a Torah reading at the Edmond Fleg Jewish Cultural Center as part of a study series led by Talmudist Liliane Vana. But they had been threatened by members of the Orthodox community, who were not in favor of women reading the Torah. The pressure was so great that the cultural center had to issue a statement denouncing the situation.

Léa has been a frequent visitor to the Marseille Orthodox community for a long time: “I come from a family where religion is not practiced,” she explains. ”I got closer to Judaism and the Orthodox milieu when I was a teenager.” At that time, she ate kosher, respected the prohibitions related to Shabbat and went to synagogue very regularly. “I was happy. I believed it when I was told that women were very close to God and that there was no need to make a fuss, that we didn’t have to do all the mitzvot. I felt comfortable with my place, I didn’t feel wronged at the time.”

© Yoram Melloul

After her 20th birthday, the question of marriage arose. The injunction did not come from her, but from the Jewish men and women she met. “What became most important was no longer the practice or study of religion but knowing when I was going to start a family. Yet she loved studying the texts and showed it. But that was not enough. “After a while, some people feel that you’ve done enough, that you need to get married.”

Around her, no one really questioned this injunction to marry. Sometimes some older women defended her, “occasionally, and never to say that it’s my body, it’s my choice. Only, I wanted to continue my studies, to make a career. Besides, I knew very quickly that I would not want children. And in this environment it is not acceptable.

The pressure was too great. She felt more and more alone: “I was really at odds with the Orthodox,” recalled the young woman. Disillusioned, she gradually moved away from the synagogue. “I didn’t feel like they were going to change their views. I thought that if they ever called to check up on me, they would come back and ask me why I wasn’t married. So I became what you might call traditionalist, as many Jews are.”

Finding her Judaism in activism

When Lea entered professional life, she became interested in feminism and made connections with her synagogue experience. For the first time, she typed the words “Judaism and feminism” into her internet search engine and was stunned. “I discovered that another world was possible. I discovered that there are circles much more in tune with profiles like mine, where questions I had asked myself when I became interested in feminism, such as those related to domestic violence, incest, and the lack of legitimacy of certain women, are addressed.” She rediscovered a taste for religious study. “Jewish feminists encourage speaking out, making speeches, contradicting each other, seeking sources and sharing them. I found it much more challenging than the classes I used to go to. I was only told about halakha (Jewish law), how to follow the rules and how to be tsniut (modesty). In the end, it always came down to ‘you have to be kind and understanding’.”

Jewish feminists encourage speaking out, making speeches, contradicting each other, seeking sources and sharing them. I found it much more challenging than the classes I used to go to. I was only told about halakha (Jewish law), how to follow the rules and how to be tsniut (modesty). In the end, it always came down to ‘you have to be kind and understanding’.

She, who had never been a activist, contacted the feminist sloganeers of Marseille and put up a few missives about anti-Semitism. In reaction to the defacing of a collage on the Sarah Halimi affair by extreme right-wing militants, she launched the creation of the group of Jewish billposters last May, composed exclusively of Jewish women. There, they bring their collages to life via an Instagram account followed today by more than 2,000 people.

“We’re like a small political community that is religious. We even did Rosh Hashana all together,” comments Lisa*, a very active billposter who also prefers to remain anonymous because  the activity is illegal. Nina* who joined this “small community” after having never really found her own. Far from Judaism, she had reconnected with the religion after a stay in Israel as part of the Taglit-Birthright program, a free trip offered by Israel to Jews from all over the world who want it.

She was then 18 years old and made her Bat Mitsvah there. Back in France, she looked for a synagogue, started to respect the Shabbat and to eat kosher. But she struggled to find one where she felt comfortable. The traditionalist and Orthodox communities she attended make her uncomfortable, and she lived too far from the two progressive synagogues in town, where she received part of her religious education. “At that time I really understood that I was Jewish, but that it didn’t mean putting on skirts or covering my arms. I’m not disparaging at all those who do, but I felt out of place.” The discovery of the Instagram account of the Jewish activists came to her like an electroshock: “I told myself, finally it exists!” There she found a space for discussion where she could talk about Judaism and feminism, and bring up issues specific to her sexual orientation. “I’m not heterosexual. But if I’m getting married, it’s important for me to do it under the chuppah. LGBTQUIA+ people are made invisible in the Jewish community.” Nina writes it on walls around the city, commenting on her message on the group’s Instagram account, “I’m proud to think that people who have or have not been able to come out, may recognize themselves in this poster.”

The group is reaching out to the Jewish community, especially in neighborhoods where they are concentrated. The group addresses the Jewish community, especially in the neighborhoods where it is large, as when the stickers declare on a wall: “The fact of refusing to give the get [ritual step necessary in Jewish divorce] to your wife is marital abuse” or “We want women rabbis.” For doctoral student in religious sciences Noémie Issan-Benchimol, the poster “also allows us to speak for all those whose speech is less free for several structural reasons. The fact that it is outside the institution also allows for greater freedom of tone.” This method differs from what the French Jewish community traditionally does. “It is used to mobilize mainly around issues of anti-Semitism,” says the researcher.

© Yoram Melloul

The posters are done in an intersectional approach, they take into account the various forms of domination that Jewish women undergo, and say that Jewish feminism requires the use of tools adapted to the religious context. They post on other topics, such as the exploitation and genocide of the Uighurs, and even consider poster campaigns in partnership with women of other religions.

As for the reactions of passers-by, “non-Jews are often taken aback,” says Lea. As if writing the word ‘Jew’ was forbidden, taboo. In general, we stick a paper next to it to explain the process. This reassures people from the Jewish community in particular.”

Talking to the left

For the moment, the group is not yet well-known in Marseille. Community institutions have never reacted to their actions. But they receive messages from religious women who want to discuss or share their situation. Like one online subscriber, who tells them that her husband is negotiating the terms of her civil divorce by threatening not to give her the get if she does not comply. Online, they receive invective from orthodox Jews, or very violent insults from the extreme right. And a lot of questions, especially from left-wing activists. Because the other objective is also to address the latter: “Left-wing Jews do not want to remain silent”, analyzes Noémie Issan-Benchimol. “The Jewish activist suffers a bit of double punishment. They are asked to support the cause no matter what, but behind it there is no one to talk about anti-Semitism for fear of being associated with Zionism.”

© Yoram Melloul

The activists I met testify to bad experiences on the left. Lisa, for example, hangs out with a lot of intersectional feminist movements. “Among my activist friends, we never talk about anti-Semitism. Then, during the last war with Gaza, I saw a lot of anti-Semitic messages appear. Often, when I hear about big business in very left-wing circles, it is the figure of the Jew that appears.” Until then she had not really integrated Judaism into her struggle. “Then I started talking about Jewish women. Everyone was surprised. In that sphere, it just wasn’t a question, really.”

They denounce the left’s silence regarding anti-Semitism. “It is the right that comes to hold the poster in the rally for Sarah Halimi in Marseille. It is the right that says to the Jews, with me you will be safe,” analyzes Léa. And Lisa adds: “There is an instrumentalization of anti-Semitism on the right, which reappropriates the struggle when an anti-Semitic act comes from a Muslim.”

Lea explains this by the fact that anti-Semitism does not really fit into the framework set by activist circles. “There is a kind of silencing of anti-Semitism in the definition of racism, in its most visible part, such as in racial profiling or the discrimination in hiring. For anti-Semitism, other factors are expressed. There is a total lack of knowledge on this issue among the activist movements of the extreme left.” This is one of the reasons why the photos of the collages are often accompanied by long explanatory and educational texts on the Instagram account.

© Yoram Melloul

The initiative is starting to gain traction in other cities. Two Jewish poster groups are soon to be created, in Lille and Brussels. In Belgium, it is Ninon, the founder of the Brussels gluers group who took the initiative after being shocked by the presence of yellow stars in the anti-sanitary pass demonstrations in France. She was inspired by the Instagram account of the Jewish billposters of Marseille, especially in its explanatory and intersectional dimension. She is already excited about the idea of “fighting anti-Semitism hand in hand with French movements.”


Yoram Melloul

* Name has been changed

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