A worried community

A spate of anti-Semitic attacks triggered by the Gaza conflict has rattled French Jews.

A spate of anti-Semitic attacks triggered by the Gaza conflict has rattled French Jews (photo credit: PHILIPPE WOJAZER / REUTERS)
A spate of anti-Semitic attacks triggered by the Gaza conflict has rattled French Jews
Whatever the seriousness was of the threat, the events that took place near a synagogue on Paris’s Rue de la Roquette July 13 have deeply worried France’s 600,000-strong Jewish community, Europe’s largest.
Around 250-300 Jews were inside the synagogue, attending a solidarity rally and prayers for Israel’s beleaguered population, when two waves of French-Arab youths broke off from a major pro-Palestinian solidarity march taking place less than a mile away and headed for the building shouting anti-Semitic slogans.
There were half a dozen policemen outside the synagogue at the time, but the assault was stopped about 100 yards away by some 40 members of the Ligue de Défense Juive (LDJ), the French branch of the radical Jewish Defense League, which is banned both in Israel and the US.
Until their action in the Rue de la Roquette, the LDJ had a generally execrable reputation among many French Jews – members or followers were responsible for such self-defeating acts as stabbing and seriously wounding a senior Paris police commander who stepped in when LDJ militants attacked Peace Now members at a Jewish community rally against anti-Semitism several years ago. On another similar occasion, they scoured adjacent streets seeking presumed opponents to beat up, finally pummeling a young Arab pizza deliveryman senseless and torching his motor scooter. Once, they attacked Black city-sanitation workers collecting refuse in the Rue des Rosiers, the heart of Paris’s Jewish district.
But, in this case, as confirmed by amateur video film taken from a building overlooking the fray, the LDJ militants used broken table legs and motorcycle helmets to trade blows with 100-150 Arabs trying to rush the synagogue while chanting “Israel – murderer” and “Kill the Jews.” They clashed again soon afterwards with a larger number of assailants arriving in small groups from another direction.
Three LDJ members were injured, one seriously, before riot police arrived in numbers and chased away the assailants.
For security reasons, police asked people present in the synagogue not to leave the building for several hours afterwards since a major riot had developed at the scene of the main march, where hundreds of rock-throwing demonstrators, nearly all of them Arab, squared off against tear-gas lobbing police.
“Since it was time for evening prayers, we held the services, but clearly, people were nervous. The president of the synagogue was, however, in direct telephone contact with French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, who reassured him about the protective measures being taken and which we witnessed,” French-Jewish political scientist Jean-Yves Camus tells The Jerusalem Report.
“I was in the synagogue when it happened.
It was extremely unpleasant, but at no time did anyone break into the building, which was protected by the police. Anyone talking about pogroms doesn’t know what the pogroms were,” asserts Camus.
Several French Jewish leaders hurried to the synagogue, including Joël Mergui, a dermatologist who is president of the powerful Consistoire Central Israelite de France, a body created by Emperor Napoléon 1 in 1808 to govern Jewish religious congregations.
Mergui, who addressed the crowd and was among a handful of religious leaders received July 21 by French President François Hollande, tells The Report, “French Jews are clearly preoccupied and worried by the current situation. There is not a public meeting I attend – and I attend quite a few in Paris and the provinces – where the future of the community is not a subject of discussion.”
As the Gaza fighting continued, the security of Jews became a national issue since there were further anti-Jewish actions, mostly in the Paris area where about half of France’s Jews are concentrated.
Petrol bombs were thrown, fortunately without causing major damage, against several synagogues in the tough east and northern Paris suburbs where Jewish and Arab blue-collar populations live uneasily side by side. There was a further firebomb attack against a Jewish community center in Toulouse, in southern France.
On July 20, a banned pro-Palestinian demonstration erupted into violence in Sarcelles, a poor Paris suburb sometimes dubbed “La petite Jerusalem” (Little Jerusalem) because about 20 percent of its population of some 60,000 are Jews.
There were scenes of major urban violence there with cars burned and looters trashing a kosher grocery shop and a Jewish-owned pharmacy, while riot police prevented young Arabs from approaching the local synagogue.
No Jews were hurt.
On July 23, some 60 Arab youths headed for the Rue des Rosiers, the heart of the city’s small but historic Jewish district, where they tried to break into a crowded kosher restaurant nearby, threatening patrons and pedestrians, but again were confronted by LDJ activists.
Police soon arrived and made 16 arrests.
President Hollande, who is accused by French Arabs and the ultra-left of being one-sidedly in Israel’s favor, declared the country “would not tolerate any acts or statements that would encourage anti-Semitism.”
Prime Minister Manuel Valls, a close friend of French Jewry whose wife is of Jewish origin, said, “No one can deny that a new form of anti-Semitism exists and we have to face this reality squarely. This anti-Semitism is spread by the Internet and thrives in difficult neighborhoods where youths who have no moral bearings or knowledge of history hide their hatred of Jews behind anti-Zionism and a hatred for the state of Israel.”
DOZENS OF pro-Palestinian marches were held in other cities across the country without incident. As in Paris, Arabs made up the overwhelming majority of marchers, though they were joined in some places by groups of ultra-leftists. According to Jewish community sources, the ethnic French people did not participate in the acts of violence in the Paris area, which were overwhelmingly the work of North African Arabs and sub-Saharan Black Africans, most of them French-born citizens.
The scenario was the same in nearly all the cases of demonstrations in Paris. Crowds of up to 25,000 people – large numbers but significantly less than those who gathered in similar circumstances during Operation Cast Lead in December 2008-January 2009 – marched noisily under a sea of Palestinian and Algerian flags. They often were led by a rank of veiled women – an “in-your-face gesture” to French authorities who have curbed Muslim women’s garb in public places.
When the marches concluded, hundreds of youths with faces often concealed by checkered Palestinian keffiyeh scarves would start breaking shop windows and burning parked cars and trash cans, before squaring off against the police.
Many of those involved in the violence appeared to be hoodlums from ghettoes in Paris’s distant suburbs. Some seemed to be there for the excitement and the opportunity to throw projectiles at hated policemen as much as for anything else. “No, I don’t know where Palestine is,” one replied to a television reporter’s question.
The French public at large was clearly exasperated by the violence and destruction. A poll conducted for the newspaper Le Figaro showed 62 percent of those polled wanted all pro-Palestinian demonstrations banned.
Although many French people are wary of, or even loathe, Arabs in general, there was no particular sympathy for Israel noted among the general public, which has tired of the never-ending Middle East conflict.
The generally left-leaning French press is partly responsible for this state of affairs as it dwells endlessly on civilian casualties in Gaza, shown ad nauseum on television in tragic and gruesome detail. Virtually every evening some channel leads its news broadcasts with heart-wrenching scenes of screaming children and bloodied babies being rushed into a Gaza hospital. Armed Hamas gunmen are conspicuously absent.
As horrid as it is to write, Israel clearly “suffers” in public opinion from a lack of civilian casualties – thanks to Iron Dome. French Jews, however, recall the late Golda Meir’s famous uttering, “I prefer to receive your condemnations than your condolences.”
There were also complaints among French Jews about the low visibility of Israel’s Embassy to France in the media. Top commentator Bernard Abouaf jolted listeners on French-Jewish radio when he said Israel’s ambassador to France, Yossi Gal, was simply “absent from the media and from the French Jewish community.” Israel had been represented in Paris in the past by some charismatic envoys such as the late Asher Ben-Nathan, Elie Barnavi and Nissim Zvili, all highprofile figures who seemed omnipresent in the media during crisis situations. Abouaf said some French-Jewish journalists did not even know the current ambassador’s name.
Gal told French-Jewish radio a few days later that he had been extremely busy, especially in direct contacts with Hollande and other key government figures.
The right-wing National Front party seized the opportunity of the urban violence to say it was one more consequence of the mass Arab immigration it always has criticized. “Before, we had a major urban riot in France every 10 years, now it’s every month, and soon it will be every week,” said NF deputy head Florian Philippot.
Mergui, the Consistoire head, tells The Report that many non-Jewish French people are worried about the situation “because if France cannot handle this crisis marked by jihadism and Islamic fundamentalism, it is France’s own values that will be affected.
There is already a deep malaise in our society, as well as among Muslims, when people mobilize against Israel in the name of democracy, yet remain strangely silent in the face of both attacks against Christians in the Middle East and massacres of Muslims by Muslims in Syria.”
ACCORDING TO Mergui the vast majority of France’s estimated six million Muslims are not involved in the anti-Jewish acts. A PEW survey in 2006 indeed found that 78 percent of the Muslims in France wanted to adopt French customs and assimilate into society at large. The same survey found the figure dropped to 53 percent in Spain, 41 percent in Britain and 30 percent in Germany.
But, Mergui says, the minority that opposed assimilation in France, was active and dangerous.
“They are a horde of isolated wolves formed by an ideology learned through the Internet, through stays in prisons and through visits to countries like Syria.”
He notes that two young Frenchmen of Algerian origin, Mohammed Merah, who murdered seven people, including four Jews, in the French city of Toulouse in March 2012, and Mehdi Nemmouche, who killed four people at the Brussels Jewish Museum in May, were former delinquents who had become Muslim radicals while in prison and later toured Syria, Afghanistan and other strife-torn Muslim countries.
“They are a minority in the French Muslim world today. ‘Jihadism’ is more prevalent in other Western countries than in France, but the minority in France has no qualms about taking on the Jews, France, the Western world, and all values which they reject,” Mergui asserts.
“They use the rules of democracy to act against the values of democracy of which the Jews are, in a way, the guardians.”
He adds that French Jews residing in areas with large Muslim minorities are increasingly moving to areas where there were no Muslims, or to Israel.
Immigration from France to Israel has risen sharply, with 2,254 Jews making aliya between January and May, compared to 580 for the equivalent period in 2013.
Before the current outbreak of warfare, Israeli authorities had said they hoped 5,000 Jews would make aliya [immigrate to Israel] from France this year, an all-time record. Whether the fighting will affect the figures remains to be seen. Many of those now leaving France for Israel are religious Jews, many more observant than their parents, for whom material difficulties take a backseat to being able to lead a full religious life.
French Jews also emigrate to Canada or the US where they generally remain. The number of those who go to Israel but ultimately return disappointed to France is sometimes estimated in the French Jewish community to be between 20 and 30 percent. The main reasons for failed integration in Israel are the failure to find decent jobs and exasperation at Israel’s notoriously red-tape snarled bureaucracy.
Former Israeli ambassador to France Nissim Zvili once told this correspondent there were hundreds of Jewish certified public accountants in France who wanted to live in Israel, but did not do so because their Israeli counterparts had set up almost insurmountable administrative barriers to prevent competition. The situation, he claimed was equally true for medical and other professions.
“It may seem strange, but I organized a going-away ceremony two weeks ago for a large group leaving for Israel in this difficult context and they were still happy to go. There are people who are happy to live in France despite the context here also. Everything exists,” Mergui says.
He added that his organization helped Jews whatever their choice and said some Jews in France feel pressures by increasing “secularization” in a society where attempts were being made to curb religious animal slaughter and circumcisions.
“I believe that we’ve reached a turning point in French Jewish history,” contends Robert Ejnes, executive director of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions (CRIF), the umbrella body of French Jewish organizations.
“In the past two weeks, the Jews have become the sentinels of French society. It is French society that is being attacked through the Jews. The Jews are the first to be targeted.
A certain number of political and religious leaders in France realize this, which is why there have been such strong statements by the prime minister and others,” he tells The Report.
Ejnes says there are three groups in French society hostile to the country’s Jewish community and to Israel.
The first is the traditional old guard, ultra-right typified by former National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. “They are ideologically and blindly anti-Semitic. But, while violent in words, they are no longer violent in acts,” he says. Le Pen has been replaced as head of the FN by his daughter Marine who now says the party condemns anti-Semitism.
French Jewish leaders, however, remain wary of her.
“The second group is the ultra-left. It’s not trendy to be anti-Semitic, so they say they are anti-Zionist,” Ejnes says.
“The third group is made up of youths of Arab or Black African origin who cannot find their place in society, and feel they are the main scapegoats and victims of the economic crisis. They are not integrated into French society and don’t want to be integrated into it. As a result, they take their revenge against that visible group which is their exact opposite – the Jews.
“Jews have been in France for 2,000 years, have demonstrated their contributions to France in the scientific, political and social fields, and are perfectly integrated into French society,” Ejnes says.
“Therefore, one now finds against the Jews these gangs of [French-born] North African or Black African casseurs [breakers], recently reinforced by Turks. As a result of their failed integration into French society, one now hears their shouts of ‘Let’s go bust up Jewish neighborhoods.’” Several top French Muslim leaders have condemned the anti-Jewish attacks including Mohammed Moussasoui, president of the French Union of Mosques. “Peaceful demonstrations to back the Palestinian people in the face of the murderous onslaught of which it is a victim are perfectly legitimate and justified.
But nothing can justify any action against our Jewish compatriots, or their community institutions or places of prayer,” he said.
Ejnes, however, says those who attacked Jews did not listen to any religious leaders and that these were lacking at a local level.
“The French Muslim community practically does not have any locally trained imams (priests) to fill posts in mosques in the neighborhoods where there are major problems. They have to recruit imams in Algeria, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. What do they know about France?” Meanwhile, riot police are stationed at the entrances to the Rue des Rosiers, while LDJ militants wait nearby… just in case.