The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

These French villagers want to keep living in a place called ‘Death to Jews’

La Mort aux Juifs in France. (Google Maps.)

There is only one road, a few houses and a farm. But the French hamlet La Mort aux Juifs, about 70 miles south of Paris, has attracted international attention. Translated, the hamlet's name reads, "Death to Jews." For centuries, nobody really seemed to care about it. This changed Monday, however, when the Jewish Simon Wiesenthal Center sent a letter to France's interior minister.

The fact that "it was unnoticed during seventy years since the liberation of France from the Nazis ... is most shocking," reads the letter signed by the center's director for international relations, Shimon Samuels. According to the Wiesenthal Center, the name could date to the 11th century, when pogroms led to the expulsion of 110,000 Jews from France in 1306.

Marie-Elizabeth Secretand, the deputy mayor of Courtemaux, which has jurisdiction over the hamlet, does not understand why the name "Death to Jews" has caused a sudden uproar. "It's ridiculous. This name has always existed," she told the news agency Agence France-Presse. "Why change a name that goes back to the Middle Ages or even further? We should respect these old names.... No one has anything against the Jews, of course."

According to Secretand, it is unlikely that the municipal council will approve a name change — it already turned down a similar request in 1992 by another anti-racism organization.

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.

According to a survey from the U.S. Anti-Defamation League published in February, 37 percent of French respondents have anti-Jewish attitudes — far more than the European average of 24 percent — and a number of Jewish organizations have independently recorded a strong rise in anti-Semitic attacks and incidents. The anti-Semitic jokes of Afro-French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala have found a large audience and are often seen as evidence of a growing public acceptance of hatred against Jews.

Tensions in the Middle East have probably contributed to the change in public opinion, though France's anti-Semitism has domestic roots. A large number of the country's Arab immigrants feel discriminated against and not part of the French society. France is constructed on the principle of republicanism, which espouses equal treatment for every citizen. However, this model is often incompatible with affirmative action programs aimed at facilitating integration of disadvantaged groups into the broader society, as is common in other European nations.

The cleavage between immigrants and those perceiving themselves as French is widened by the country's political landscape. The two main parties feel increasingly threatened by the right-wing National Front, which has been described as xenophobic and anti-Semitic in the past. Even leading French Jewish voices have expressed a relaxed attitude toward the National Front, which is trying to overcome its anti-Semitic image to attract more centrist voters while pushing to curb immigration, especially targeting Arabs, to gain conservative votes. Although it seems contradictory that 7 to 8 percent of France’s Jews voted for a party previously associated with anti-Semitism in the first round of the 2012 presidential election, its tough stance on radical Islam and crime are appreciated by some in the Jewish community.

Domestic politics in conjunction with France's weak economy offer partial explanations for the surge of anti-Semitism, but the overall trend is not unique to France. Nor is "Death to Jews" the only European village with such an offensive name. In May, a small Spanish village called "Castrillo Matajudios" voted to change its name, which translated as "Camp Kill Jews" in English.

"There are always the stories of people from here traveling to Israel with a passport that says Matajudios and wishing they didn't have to show it," Mayor Lorenzo Rodríguez Pérez told the Associated Press in April. By changing the name, Castrillo Matajudios's residents hoped to not only disassociate themselves from Spain's history of anti-Semitism, but also reconnect with the town's Jewish past. "The reality is this is a village descended from a Jewish community," the mayor told Reuters. Some residents, however, voted against the name change, voicing concerns similar to those of  Secretand in Courtemaux, France.

The fact that the origins of most European villages and towns can be traced back centuries explains the derivation of anti-Semitic names — but offensive place names exist elsewhere, too. Many towns in the United States used to contain words such as "Negro," but the names were changed after the 1960s civil rights movement. Some of them, however, have kept their names till today.