Marseilles Jewish community says Hanukka fest will go on, despite city's request to cancel

Following anti-Semitic attack in the French city, fears are heightened but residents say Arab-Jewish relations are good.

Police. (photo credit: AFP PHOTO/BERTRAND LANGLOIS)
Municipality officials have apparently requested that Chabad Marseilles cancel their annual public Hanukka candle-lighting ceremony, due to security concerns stemming from an anti-Semitic attack on a Jewish teacher in the city on Wednesday. According to Chabad emissary Emanuelle Taubenblatt, Jewish community leaders and rabbis are due to meet with police and city staff to discuss the issue on Monday.
Taubenblat is determined that the event will not be cancelled, noting that in Auschwitz the Jews risked their lives to organize such celebrations. “So will we just hang our heads? No, we will do as we do every year,” he told The Jerusalem Post. “Light is a symbol of victory,” he says. Last year, some 1,500 members of Marseilles’ Jewish community attended the candle-lighting ceremony in a central location in the city; the event is always guarded by security.  
Taubenblatt describes Wednesday’s stabbing attack as a “rare” incident, saying that generally there is an atmosphere of calm in city. He acknowledges that it came in quick succession after a knife attack on a rabbi three weeks ago. “But generally things are fine. I wear a black hat and have a beard (the characteristic Jewish ultra-Orthodox dress) and walk through all different neighborhoods all the time and there is no problem,” he says.   
Yossi Bitoun, who is also a Chabad emissary and the director of a chabad school in Marseilles, echoes this sentiment. He says the attack was a shock, but that relations between the Arab and Jews in the neighborhood are generally good. Bitoun opines that the attack does not point to any deeper issue in society there.
"I think these two attacks were lone incidents and I don't think it will be a regular occurrence." He acknowledges that there is fear within the Jewish community now, however, he believes this has been primarily heightened by the devastating terror attacks in France's capital last weekend.
Bitoun is originally from Lyon has been living in Marseilles for the past 20 years. He said he has never encountered an Islamic State supporter in Marseilles and emphasizes that the ties between the various communities in the city are very good, be they Arab, Italian, Spanish or Jewish. "Marseilles is much quieter than Paris and there is much less fear because the Arabs here are not extreme," he tells the Post.
Indeed, Vice President of NGO Coexister Ilan Scialom describes Marseilles as a hub of diversity, home to both Muslim and Jewish refugees who fled to the city in the 20th century.
"There have been very good relations between the Jewish and Muslim communities for a long time," he tells the Post, adding that these relations extend to the religious leaders of the communities. “They don’t have a choice- they have to live together.” He says Wednesday's attackers appeared to be inspired by both the Paris attacks and the Palestinian "Knife Intifada" in Israel. "They were wearing ISIS t-shirts, but the method they used, using a knife, emulated what they would have seen on TV or social media," Scialom says.
"We need to be very strong and we can't let these kinds of acts happen in Marseilles, Paris or anywhere in France or Europe," he asserts."Coexister is working with organizations and in schools and universities,explaining why this way of understanding the world and facing each other is not the right way."
"Marseilles is not how it is portrayed in the media," says Samah A, a Muslim resident of the city and director of Coexister's dialogue division. "On the news they always show a bad image of our city as violent and dangerous but it's not really like this. Normally there is no tension between the communities."
She says there is a heightened sense of fear in the city at this moment, as France is in a state of emergency since the Paris attacks. "But I think it will get better with time."
"When you are Muslim, after these kinds of attacks, people tend to look at you differently. They think all Muslims are terrorists and you have to explain to them that Islam is not about killing innocents."
Scialom notes that also this week in Marseilles there was an attack on a Muslim girl wearing a headscarf. Her attackers referenced the Paris attacks. "We have to be careful with stereotypes," Scialom warns.
Coexister works on explaining the true message of the Koran, as members of the Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities in cities across France read and interpret their religious texts together. The organization works with people between the ages of 15 to 25, building bridges between different faiths and nationalities and breaking down prejudices.
Together, Muslims, Christians and Jews celebrate their religious holidays, and Samah says they are currently preparing for a Hanukka event. Thus, not only will the Jewish community not be stopped in their celebrations, Christians and Muslims will be celebrating too.