September 2, 2004
Jewish Arsonist Worked for Paris Center
French Jewish leaders fear they may have cried wolf once too often after a Jew was arrested in connection with the well-publicized arson of a Jewish community center in central Paris.
Paris police say a 52-year-old Jewish man arrested Monday morning in connection with the Aug. 22 torching of the Judaeo-Spanish social center in the capital's 11th district is the principal suspect in the arson.
Police said the man, identified only as "Raphael B." and described as unstable, is a former caretaker at the institution who had received free meals in return for his volunteer activities.
It is believed that the center wanted to part company with the man, provoking what police think was an act of vengeance.
Investigators found keys to the center at the man's former rented apartment. This discovery tied in with earlier evidence, including the fact that the burned building's front door was damaged from the inside during the arson, rather than being forced from the exterior.
The arrest shocked community leaders who had successfully mobilized the French political establishment to condemn what appeared to be an anti-Semitic attack.
Moise Cohen, president of the Paris Consistoire -- the country's principal Jewish religious group and the organization that owns the burned building -- was sharply critical of community leaders he said had reacted "without taking the necessary precautions."
"From the beginning we thought this wasn't normal," Cohen said. "The building is in a very quiet neighborhood and there was no indication on the outside that it was a former synagogue. From the start of the investigation, the police thought it was someone connected to the institution."
Cohen was equally scathing about politicians "who fear they're going to be accused of not doing enough" to tackle anti-Semitism -- though in part they have become zealous in their condemnations following stinging criticism that they weren't taking anti-Semitism seriously enough.
In the aftermath of the attack, Jewish leaders sought to link the incident to recent cases in which judges had been lenient with anti-Semitic offenders.
The Jewish community could have been excused had its cries of anti-Semitism been isolated to one attack that turned out to have different motives. But the recent arson is only the latest example of politicians and community leaders reacting to an event with horror, only to have to ask questions later.
In July, an incident in which a young woman claimed she and her baby were attacked on a suburban train drew fierce condemnations from politicians and religious leaders -- until it was discovered that the woman had made up the story.
Similarly, the recent knifing of a yeshiva student in the Paris suburbs also apparently was not motivated by anti-Semitism. And police still are investigating claims by a rabbi that he was stabbed outside his synagogue in January 2003, as reports allege that the rabbi may have stabbed himself.
Less in the media spotlight is the burning last November of an unoccupied annex of a Jewish school in the Parisian suburb of Gagny. It looks less and less likely that the incident was motivated by anti-Semitism.
Nevertheless, for Jewish organizations and for the government, these cases are merely isolated incidents in a tide of nearly 300 reported acts of anti-Semitism in France since the beginning of 2004.
Roger Benarroch, vice president of the CRIF umbrella organization of French Jewry, said that last week's arson and the reaction to it should "not cause us to lose sight of the essential, that the climate of anti-Semitism makes these things credible."
But he admitted that such events "give our detractors, and the anti-Semites, an excuse to doubt us."
Similar comments came from France's Union of Jewish Students, a group in the vanguard of the fight against anti-Semitism.
However, certain groups were critical of what they regard as Israel's exploitation of the arson incident, which came just weeks after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called on French Jews to leave the country "immediately" because of rising anti-Semitism.
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom flew hastily to Paris to hold talks with government officials and Jewish leaders following the arson, and to visit the destroyed center.
Benarroch sharply criticized the visit, saying that "the Israelis should be more careful" and "shouldn't meddle in the internal affairs of the community."
However, Shalom last week was considerably more nuanced about the arson attack than many community leaders.
Visiting the burned-out building, Shalom told reporters "we should leave the French authorities to conduct their investigation." He added that it was "of little importance what happened here when we know that during the last six months there have been more than 170 anti-Semitic incidents [in France].
The Consistoire's Cohen, though, issued a warning to the Jewish community.
"Sixty years after the Shoah, every anti-Semitic incident rightly goes to the community's head," he said. "When you cry wolf, you need to be very careful and ever vigilant. We are becoming less and less credible."
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