PARIS – Thousands of people gathered last evening at the Paris Place de la Republique and in other cities across France, shouting “No to antisemitism.”
The rally in Paris was an unusually quiet demonstration, despite the high number of participants and the late hour. It was organized by 14 political parties, against the backdrop of a report on antisemitic statements and acts committed in 2018 in France that showed a 74 percent rise compared with the previous year.
In the latest incident, a Jewish cemetery in Quatzenheim in eastern France, some 10 kilometers from Strasbourg, was vandalized and nearly 100 gravestones were desecrated and spray-painted with swastikas.
A unit of the National Gendarmerie police force was dispatched to the site and closed the cemetery upon arrival to collect evidence. The police believe that the vandalism was carried out by two people.
President of France Emanuel Macron visited the cemetery on Tuesday afternoon to stand in solidarity with the Jewish community.
“Antisemitism is the negation of what France is,” Macron tweeted. “On the way to the desecrated cemetery of Quatzenheim, and tonight at the Shoah Memorial to recall what happened, what caused the breaking point in our history, and to say what the (France) Republic really is: a block in front of all this.”“Whoever did this is not worthy of the French republic and will be punished... We’ll take action, we’ll apply the law and we’ll punish them,” he said, taking of French “shame” at such incidents and expressing a “determination” to fight antisemitism.
On Friday evening, two teenagers fired shots from an air rifle at a synagogue in Paris, lightly injuring a Jewish man in the leg, French media reported on Tuesday.
According to the Le Parisien newspaper, the attack was staged against a synagogue in the Sarcelles suburb of Paris from an apartment facing the building.
Police searched the apartment and confiscated a 4.5mm caliber rifle, while the teenagers themselves were arrested on Saturday. The state prosecutor believes that the attack was carried out for antisemitic motives.
The president of the Jewish community of Sarcelles was quoted as saying, however, that he believed the attack was not antisemitic, adding that it was carried out due to “stupidity,” and that the teenagers would have shot anyone. But, he said he was still concerned about antisemitism in the suburb.
Following the incident in Quatzenheim on Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the grave desecrations “shocking,” which he said were the work of “wild antisemites.”
“I call on the leaders of France and Europe to take a strong stand against antisemitism,” Netanyahu said. “It is a plague that endangers everyone, not just us, and it must be condemned wherever and whenever it rears its head.”
Chief Rabbi of Strasbourg Harold Abraham Weill said that the community was “outraged and appalled” by the incident, and demanded an increase in security for the community’s institutions.
He said he believed that the attack was carried out by far-right extremists on Monday night ahead of the planned rallies against antisemitism.
One of the gravestones was daubed with the words “Black Wolves,” a militant far-right separatist group from the Alsace region where Quatzenheim is located, which was active in the 1970s and 1980s.
Jewish Agency chairman Isaac Herzog described the desecration of the graves as “another severe incident which underlines the antisemitism virus attacking Europe and threatening Jews in the streets,” adding, “Governments, wake up.”
Aliyah and Integration Minister Yoav Gallant called on Jews to immigrate to Israel in response to the vandalizing of the cemetery and other recent antisemitic incidents.
Gallant said that the desecration of the graves was a reminder of “dark days in the history of the Jewish people,” and “strongly condemned antisemitism in France.” He noted that last week, he visited the French Jewish community in Paris, which he said was “under attack from antisemitism and assimilation,” and noted that “the State of Israel is a safe national house for Jews around the world.”
Meyer Habib, a Jewish member of France’s National Assembly – the French Parliament – said recent events were “raising severe question marks over the future of Jews in France,” and that the spate of antisemitic incidents were unacceptable.
“It’s as if we have gone back 70 years in time,” said Habib. “I am outraged! France needs to take a deep look at itself on every level of the French people,” because “haters of Jews are walking around freely and raising their heads without shame or fear.”
Macron is expected to participate Wednesday evening at the annual CRIF diner, where he will address the Jewish leaders on the issue of battling antisemitism in France.
French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe together with some 20 cabinet ministers participated in the rally in Paris, alongside numerous other leaders from across the political, religious and social spectrum. Representatives of the radical left-wing La France Insoumise party were also present, though the party was not listed as one of the rally’s organizers. Radical right-wing representatives were present in other similar rallies that took place outside of Paris.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post ahead of the rally, the president of CRIF (Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions), Francis Kalifat, said “this rally was not initiated by the CRIF, but by several political parties. Some of these parties, including the Communists, the radical left and the radical right must clarify their position on battling antisemitism. There can be no ambiguity on that. Our country suffers from several forms of antisemitism. There is classical far-right antisemitism, but also radical left and Islamo-leftism forms of antisemitism. All of these must be denounced and battled unequivocally.”
Calls to demonstrate were multiplied in recent days, following the insults hurled against Jewish philosopher Alain Finkielkraut on Saturday, when he passed by a “yellow vest” demonstration in Paris. Radical left-wing activists yelled “Dirty Zionist,” “Dirty Jew” and “Return to Tel Aviv” at him, insults which generated indignations from the majority of the French political class. President Emmanuel Macron tweeted that “the antisemitic insults [Finkielkraut] has been subjected to are the absolute opposite of who we are and what makes us a great nation. We will not tolerate them.”
“The phenomenon of the ‘yellow vest’ demonstration is disconcerting, because we witness more and more hatred for institutions, hatred of the Republic, hatred of Jews and hatred of the State of Israel. This hatred must stop. The demonstrations nowadays are far away from their original goals and reasons. Since these demonstrations started, there was only one spokesperson of the movement who reached out to us, to the CRIF’s representative in Toulouse, to condemn the antisemitic behavior during the demonstrations. The large majority of the Yellow Vest leadership did not denounce acts of antisemitism or racism, but kept silent,’’ stressed Francis Kalifat.
The president of CRIF also addressed the growing debate in France over qualifying anti-Zionism as antisemitism. “Hate of Israel equals hate of Jews, and hate of Jews equals hate of Israel,” said Kalifat. “The government must now move from words to deeds, adopting a clear policy of zero tolerance. For instance, we see in the ‘yellow vest’ and in other demonstrations repeated calls to boycott Israel. Boycott is against the law in France, so the law must be applied in all its severity.”
Israel’s Ambassador to France Aliza Bin Noun told the Post that “there is a lot of talk now about antisemitism and the necessity to battle it. I think that the engagement of the political echelon in that sense is extremely important, and so was the debate in the French parliament today. Still, it is important to note that the general accent seems to be on antisemitism, with less of a debate about anti-Zionism. There are those who claim that they have the right to criticize the policies of the Israeli government. But anti-Zionism is not criticism. Anti-Zionism negates the legitimacy of the State of Israel, its right to exist. And this is unacceptable.”
Jean-Louis, an activist for the REM party who came to the rally, told the Post: “I am not Jewish, and I do not think this is a ‘Jewish problem.’ It is a problem of all of us, all French people. We should all be worried about that. When the portrait of Simone Veil is tarnished with swastikas, we must all cry out and make it stop.”
The Imam of Drancy, Hassan Chalgoumi, a known activist for tolerance and for inter-religious dialogue, headed a group of some 40 Imams and youths, carrying banners in both French and Arabic. “We chose to carry our message against antisemitism in both languages, French and the language of the Quran, as a symbol. We denounce all forms of antisemitism; far-right, far-left, radical Islam. And it is up to the political leaders present here tonight to take responsibility against the rise of these phenomena.”
Herb Keinon contributed to this report.