On Friday October 3, 1980, the eve of Succot, a motorbike bomb exploded outside the Copernic Synagogue in Paris. Had it detonated half an hour later, it would have resulted in a massacre, as worshipers exited the main door.
As it was, four people lay dead on the street and 42 were wounded in the synagogue interior. A visiting Israeli, Aliza – mother of two sons and wife of television producer Micha Shagrir – was on her way to dine with her journalist friend, Tamar Golan, who resided around the corner from Copernic.
Setting out to buy some figs for that dinner, I walked with her and turned in one direction, as she turned the other onto Rue Copernic to the grocery, almost facing the synagogue, where she met her death.
The next morning, prime minister Raymond Barre infelicitously announced that “a heinous attack set to strike Jews inside a synagogue, hit innocent French people crossing the Rue Copernic.”
Copernic – the liberal synagogue of the Paris elite – was the first in a wave of 73 shootings and bombings of Jewish and Israeli targets across Western Europe at the time – 29 in France. These ended on August 9, 1982, with the Rue des Rosiers Jewish Quarter machine-gunning, resulting in six dead and 22 wounded.
Israel’s entry into south Lebanon that summer dispersed European terrorists training in PLO camps. When they got home, they led attacks against banks, politicians and NATO installations.
Governments then cracked down on French Action Directe, German Baader-Meinhoff and Italian Red Brigades, proving the late Simon Wiesenthal’s maxim that “what starts with the Jews ends as a scourge for all society.”
Visiting the wounded in hospital, Copernic’s Rabbi Michael Williams was reproached by the medical staff: “Why are your synagogues built in central Paris? They should be on the outskirts, not to harm innocent Frenchmen.”
Perhaps it is easier to blame the victim than hunt down the perpetrator. After a 1981 attack on the Brussels synagogue, Belgian justice minister Phillippe Moureau remarked: “We cannot put a policeman on every Jewish doorstep.”
THESE EXPRESSIONS seemed to endorse the perception that if the perpetrator was a Middle East import, then the Jewish victim was a foreign body, endangering his neighbors.
Moreover, the perceptual trauma of extraterritorialization/ denaturalization was reinforced by the Copernic bombing having fallen on the 39th anniversary of the “Jewish Decrees” of the Nazi puppet Vichy regime. These were “laws” which stripped French Jews of their rights and status, leading to their round-up by French police and deportation to Auschwitz by French railways.
French political tradition has always rejected subcultures, demanding of
the immigrant a Gallic conformity. Napoleonic emancipation of the
ghettoes was tempered by the firewall: “For the Jews as individuals,
everything. For the Jews as a nation, nothing.”
Postwar France, under Charles de Gaulle, focused on reuniting the nation
by Nazi-collaboration deletion with a substitution theology of heroic
resistance. Traumatized Jewish survivors, bent on reconstruction, were
enriched and tasked by the mass absorption of their North African
brothers, fleeing the Algerian war and Maghreb independence.
These were to break through the firewall. The bombing galvanized a group
of young Jewish leaders to turn their self-styled “Jewish renewal”
movement into a hitherto unthinkable US model lobby. Their unprecedented
Paris rally, “12 Hours for Israel” drew 43,000 demonstrators as a
declaration of Jewish pride, but, more pointedly to campaign for the
socialist candidate, François Mitterrand, and against the reelection of
Valéry Giscard D’Estaing in the forthcoming May 1981 presidential
For French Jewry, Giscard had compounded his pro-Arab Mideast policy, by
his arrogant refusal to break a hunting weekend in the country to join
the mourners of Copernic – a ceremony at which Mitterrand was
The same newfound Jewish assertiveness took, with alacrity, to the new
president Mitterrand’s private broadcasting law. Radio became an
instrument of defense, alerting the community to assaults.
In 1994, the desecration of the Jewish cemetery of the southern city of Carpentras shook French Jewry.
Attributed to the extreme Right, a freshly buried corpse was disinterred
and left impaled on an upright umbrella. Jewish radio brought out over
200,000 demonstrators, led by Mitterrand.
THE 1990S saw a reconciliation with the past, as in 1995 the next
president, Jacques Chirac, apologized for the crimes of Vichy, to be
followed by mea culpa from the Church, the police, the doctors, and so
This wave also opened the way for a restitution process – albeit limited
– of World War II Jewish assets to Holocaust survivors and their heirs.
But the Copernic effect had, arguably, also led to a new Jewish
complacency, unprepared in 2000, for the wave of anti-Semitic assaults
related to the intifada.
This terror was no longer an import, as native-born young Muslims in the
Paris suburbs played out a displaced form of cowboys and Indians.
They were “Palestinians” targeting “Israelis,” who happened to be their local Jewish neighbors.
Again, as the government cracks down, amid reports of threats by
native-born acolytes of international jihadist networks, the trauma of
Copernic persists, for it was a threshold that portended other
post-Holocaust pogroms across the Diaspora – from Buenos Aires to
Djerba, Istanbul to Mumbai.
For years, it was believed that Copernic was perpetrated by the extreme
Right. The bomber has now been identified as, allegedly, Hassan Diab, a
Lebanese professor of Palestinian origin, reportedly then a PFLP
He is currently residing in Ottawa, Canada.
French efforts to extradite him have been met with delays.
Judaism’s alarm bell is generational: “In every generation oppressors rise up against us.”
Defensive antidotes include education, which for the Wiesenthal Center means that justice must be seen to be done.
The Eichmann trial, almost 50 years ago, sensitized the postwar second generation in the West.
The 1984 extradition from Bolivia of Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie,
“the butcher of Lyons,” and his sentencing had the same pedagogic effect
for France. This was repeated a decade later with the arrest of Vichy
militiaman Paul Touvier, hidden for decades by French fundamentalist
monasteries. His conviction for the roundup and murder of Jews and
resistance fighters exposed the extent of collaboration.
For the Copernic community, justice has been delayed for 30 years.
Closure can only come by Canada’s extradition of Hassan Diab to face a
That trial would impact on contemporary anti- Semitism and carry
significant conclusions for the authorities regarding their treatment of
other minorities today.The writer is director for international relations of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.