Chief Rabbi of Strasbourg Avraham Weill has called for concrete action at the societal level to be taken against antisemitism in France, following the desecration of almost 100 graves in a Jewish cemetery in the Alsace region of eastern France.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Weill said that the senior echelons of the government need to formulate a plan of action that includes a focus on education about antisemitism and the Holocaust in order to tackle the increasing incidents of antisemitic rhetoric and attacks France is witnessing.
Weill, who is also a member of the Standing Committee of the Council of European Rabbis, said that the desecration of the cemetery in the town of Quatzenheim had been particularly painful because he and others in the Strasbourg Jewish community have friends with relatives buried there.
He said the image of Nazi swastikas emblazoned on Jewish gravestones had been “extremely frightening” and a reminder of darker times.
The rabbi said that not enough was being done to protect Jewish institutions, although he noted that there are some 70 Jewish cemeteries in rural areas of the Alsace region where Strasbourg is located, making it easy for “cowards” to find a target, go at night and desecrate it freely, without concern of being caught.
But, he says, simply posting policemen at the front of Jewish institutions and buildings is not enough.
“I want to sit with President Emmanuel Macron and listen to his proposals for tackling this problem,” said Weill.
“We need to think of a program to deal with it. We need more than lovely speeches and solidarity marches. Antisemitism needs to be discussed in the education ministry; we need to increase education on this topic so these events do not recur.”
The rabbi also argued that the antisemitism that has been witnessed is part of wider socioeconomic problems in France that have been underlined by the “yellow vest” protest movement.
“Society is sick in France,” he said. “I don’t want to get into whether or not the ‘yellow vest’ movement is right or wrong, but society is sick, and part of these problems lies in the education system.”
Despite his concern with resurgent antisemitism in France, Weill noted that the Strasbourg Jewish community is flourishing and even growing, and has experienced very few antisemitic attacks or incidents.
He puts this largely down to the fact that the Jewish community is located in a prosperous area in the center of the city, notably some distance from the main Muslim community, which is located in the suburbs.
Weill says that some French Jews have even left their cities and settled in Strasbourg because of its reputation as a place of relative tranquility, unlike Paris, Marseilles and other cities, where many Jews live alongside hostile Muslim immigrant communities from North Africa and have experienced severe antisemitic attacks.
He notes that some French Jews who immigrated to Israel but who subsequently left have also settled in Strasbourg.
“We don’t feel a threat here, we do not feel afraid at all, and we see dozens of families coming to Strasbourg escaping from Paris and other European cities as well.”
Nevertheless, the desecration of the Quatzenheim cemetery as well as another cemetery in Alsace in December has raised concerns, especially since the Quatzenheim cemetery appears to have been desecrated by a far-right group called the Black Wolves, which was active in the 1970s and 1980s.
“Jews are part of the history of the region and very much connected to it and to Strasbourg in particular,” he said.
“This far-right group was very active in the past, and everyone thought it was dead, but now we see people who apparently are fond of this era and want to reawaken it, and that is very frightening.”