Social Mobility, Swindling and Judaism

Most of the characters in the film Les Rois de l’arnaque (The Lords of Scam) – broadcast by Netflix, where this documentary met with great success and fascination – share one thing in common: they are Jewish. By looking back at the trajectory of its various protagonists, David Haziza examines the question of Jewish criminality and the sinuous paths of social ascension.


Marco Mouly, The Lords of Scam, Netflix


What is the propensity of the Jew to crime? This is one of those themes, once confined to anti-Semitic sub-literature, which has been re-evaluated recently by the world of Jewish studies, particularly in Israel and the United States. In this regard, what about Mardoché Mouly, Gregory Zaoui, Arnaud Mimran (the protagonists of a recent Netflix documentary) and other “lords of scam”? Should we modestly avert our gaze at the sight of them and sanctimoniously cry hillul hashem? Or, like Kafka in “Jackals and Arabs,” should we note without judgment that the historical mission of the Jewish people cannot always be dissociated from an existence on the margins of the world – for better or for worse?

“It’s the intelligence of the street, of people who are hungry, who have fucked the elite,” says Mouly in Guillaume Nicloux’s film. Mouly was born poor, he grew up in a Belleville that had not yet been won over by the “boboïsation” (gentrification) of the early 21st century. “You earn a lot of money, you take jets, boats… People come up to you with 25,000 suits and say, ´How are you, sir?’ You’ve never spoken with them, you come from Belleville and you eat carrots!” summarizes himself, mocking, Marco Mouly. Hence this astonishing consideration: “In truth, I can neither read nor write: how would I know the power of money?” What money can do, what it gives to those who serve it, and what it also takes away from them, a poor “carrot eater,” an illiterate Bellevillois knows nothing about it.

One senses in this swindler, as in Shakespeare’s Shylock, a kind of melancholy. Not the kind of melancholy that the traditional criticism of money (and Judaism) indicates, which states that metal and paper freeze reality and thus sadden the soul. On the contrary, it is because they fluidify and expands it that Mouly, this man of money and therefore also of wind, this inexorably fluid man, dreams, like Ecclesiastes, but without success, of stopping for a moment. In counterpoint to a sequence that shows him showering, we hear him say: “My life has been made of adrenaline, so fast, so… I didn’t see my life going by, today I’m fifty-five. I am jealous of people who work normally.”

“I arrived from Tunis, I was very young,” he says again. “I brought sunshine, but I brought a little deviousness, vice, from Tunis.” Vice, in the North African language, is wickedness and cunning, it is the movement that wanders without settling, that seizes its prey as if in passing. Mouly is a corrupter who knows he is one. Nevertheless, he is also a man influenced, corrupted perhaps, in his own way, by his environment and above all by what goes beyond his environment. It is shown – in fact, it is himself who tells it – how he methodically worked to “learn their world,” notably by climbing the ladder of Parisian geography. He says he was “one of the first to go to the 16th” (a posh arrondissement of Paris): One of the first what? one is tempted to ask. The answer is obvious: one of the first among the Jews of Belleville who surrounded him, when only a few Alsatian and Polish families and a few former Moroccan fortunes were already established between the Place Victor Hugo and the Porte de la Muette. Then he went to the VIIth arrondissement because “the real rich” were there. “Afterwards, I was told to go to Saint-Germain,” the district of the intellectual, artistic and political elite, the true aristocracy. But who told him to do so? The thundering and silent voice of chic, show-off and integration. The friends but also the enemies. “I followed people along with my career,” Mouly concludes.

But he has not forgotten where he came from. He who did not have the right to such a celebration for himself invited the whole world to his son’s bar mitzvah party: “my bar mitzvah,” he says in a transparent formulation. “His” bar mitzvah, that of his son, is his revenge. As for the whole world, it is the rich and powerful, but also the poor, his friends from Belleville. Mimran, says Mouly, cannot say the same: he was born rich and does know anyone who is not rich too.

Mimran grew up in the 16th arrondissement. The son of a Moroccan Jewish engineer and the secretary of an army general, rich all his life and always thirsty for money, he made a “beautiful marriage,” marrying the daughter of a prosperous businessman, an aesthete and art collector. It is far from Kifolie (a Belleville haunt) and the “vice of Tunis,” although he cultivates a look and taste more vulgar than flamboyant. And it is he who will, more than all the others, sink into the abyss of crime and corruption, perhaps going so far as to have his father-in-law murdered.

What pleasure do we take in watching these stories full of “vice” and blood unfold? And what would this pleasure say about Jewishness, about Europe? Mimran demonstrates through his trajectory the obscure continuity linking the laws of the bourgeoisie and their very negation, order and disorder, the center and its margins. This is where, in The Lords of Scam, the romance, the aesthetics of crime that we love so much, lies. But besides, if the criminal is an artist, the artist cannot resist the fascination of evil: Gregory Zaoui, another swindler directed by Nicloux, the “mastermind” of the fraud, enrolls at the Cours Florent (a theater school in Paris); Mouly, for his part, raps, and invites famous artists to “his” bar mitzvah… In a remarkable mise en abyme, he evokes the seizure of his assets by saying that at that moment there was “a break in the image,” that “the film stopped,” as if his life were a movie. On several occasions, he is shown in a circus, that matrix of cinema with half-Jewish, half-Gypsy accents. The reason for this is given to us, once again, by himself: “Go ahead, juggle,” he says, two steps away from an acrobat whom we then see him admiring, “life is made up of juggling, it’s all juggling! You have to juggle with money, you have to juggle with the police, you have to juggle with the thugs.” He adds, “I love to see her juggle. Because she’s doing her job the way I do my job.” If there is jackal in him, there is also acrobat, and there is perhaps, therefore, Mouly also in anyone who juggles with his life or his art.

Amar, the least explicitly Jewish of all the men Nicloux films, constitutes a calm and loyal break from this living pandemonium. He is a child of what is sometimes still called “republican meritocracy.” In fact, two republics later, one can even detect in this impeccable magistrate something of those “madmen of the Republic” of the Third Republic studied by Pierre Birnbaum. An honest success, certainly solid, but reasonable all the same.

What exactly is Jewish about Amar? For this man, dina demalkhuta dina, “the law of the land is the law. He is the Jew who, faithful to Jeremiah, “prays” for the land of his exile, the one who, like Joseph, Mordecai and Nehemiah, is more Egyptian than the Egyptians, more Persian than the Persians, with an exemplary devotion to his homeland and his culture.

Now it is also possible to suppose that his zeal for pursuing crime, the crime of which the state he cherishes and to which he owes everything is the victim, is Jewish. In this respect, the hoodlums, also Jewish, would compare him to another Joseph, to the traitorous author of The Jewish War, to the malshin and to the poser, the dreaded informant of medieval sources. Zaoui exclaims at one point that it is obvious why the indictments against Mouly in the Court of Appeals were less severe than those against him. “Because they put a goy as the prosecutor at the Court of Appeal!” A goy, and not this Jew Amar, suspected therefore by the “lords of scam” of showing too much zeal in securing their conviction when they fall into his power. “I’m going to put them all on the treha,” Zaoui said, summing up his suspicions vis-à-vis Amar. Does he believe that if Amar had not had to make people forget where he came from, he would not have been so severe with him? But what about it? In this shocking suggestion might be found a refracted form of truth: if conning is a “Jewish value,” so are honesty and gratitude.

David Haziza

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