Until a few days ago, few knew the gibberish-sounding word “Bataclan” or had any idea that it was a theater built by French architect Charles Duval in 1864 in the chinoiserie style so popular in 19th century European design. Even after we came to know the name and its location in the 11th arrondissement as the place where 89 were slaughtered in the ISIS attacks in Paris, no one seemed curious about what the word meant or where it came from.
Instead, we learned that since the 1970’s, the Bataclan been a venue for rock bands as diverse as Velvet Underground, Crowded House, Emmylou Harris, Death Cab for Cutie and Snoop Dog. But there are layers of ominous irony behind this name and this location that suggest a virulent anti-Semitism in the terrorist’s actions, something I haven’t seen noted in any media coverage.
Lost in the chaff that’s history is the fact that the Bataclan was named for an operetta by a German émigré convert to Christianity and all things French. Nineteenth-century composer Jacques Offenbach named his first commercial success “Ba-ta-clan,” riffing on the expression “tout le bataclan” (which translates roughly as “all that caboodle”). Offenbach’s work premiered in 1855 in Paris, a wacky, one-act romp, set in China about four apparently Chinese characters who—it turns out—are actually French, longing for France and singing avidly about their home country. And they sing in French--bien sur—because they are French!
Offenbach, however, was not. Born Jakob Offenbach in Germany, he was the son of a synagogue cantor; he came to study at the Paris Conservatoire when he was 14, eventually converting to Catholicism and French culture (hence, “Jacques”). The “Ba-ta-clan” libretto was written by Ludovic Halévy, son of a Parisian Jew who also converted to Christianity in order to marry. And so the Bataclan was named in honor of Offenbach’s operetta, its chinoiserie style a nod to that.
For the past forty years, the theater’s owners were Jewish and the theater itself had been a target for anti-Zionist activists, since pro-Israel events were sometimes held there. One extremist group called "Army of Islam" threatened the Bataclan in 2011 because its owners were Jews.
A chilling video from 2008 shows a group of masked pro-Palestinian men protesting a gala for the Israel Border Police, the Magav. In the video the spokesman threatens: "If the Bataclan and Migdal organize, as in previous years, a gala for Magav, the border police of the Israeli army, people will not take it anymore and you will pay the consequences of your actions. The next time it will not come to talk.”
It also happens that the Bataclan is only a few blocks away from Place Leon Blum, named for France’s first Jewish, socialist prime minister, elected three times. Blum is remembered for a host of policy decisions: declaring France’s neutrality in the Spanish Civil War, significant economic reforms and his staunch opposition to the Vichy government when Germany defeated France in 1940. But Blum was also the victim of violent anti-Semitism both before and after becoming prime minister.
In 1936 he was attacked and nearly beaten to death by a royalist anti-Semitic group called Camelots du Roi. During the Occupation, in an embarrassing show trial by Vichy, Blum was transferred to German custody and imprisoned at both Buchenwald and Dachau where he was scheduled to be executed, though the orders were ignored and he was rescued by the Allies in 1945. (His brother, Rene, founder of Ballet de l’Opera a Monte Carlo was tortured and killed in Auschwitz.)
While those killed and wounded in the Paris attacks were random targets—the terrorist’s clear aims were to inflict as much human carnage as possible—I find it impossible to believe that the Bataclan was a random location. Tragically, wars of religion continue.