September 13, 2007
Letter from France: Battle against anti-Semitism enters new phase with increased legal action and harsher penalties
French Jews were relieved to learn of the arrest and conviction of Nizar Ouedrani, a man who assaulted a young Jew wearing a kippah in Paris last July, as the victim was walking toward a synagogue. |
The incident is one among dozens, but for the first time, Jewish leaders noted, the court opted for a severe sentence.
On Saturday, July 21, two men and a boy were going to their synagogue on Petit Street when a man driving a truck honked at them and started shouting anti-Semitic slurs. When 24-year-old Yossef Zekri tried to calm the driver down, the latter jumped out of the car and started hitting him while shouting, "Dirty Jew, I'll finish you." Ouedrani hit Zekri on the head with a vacuum cleaner and ran away. He was caught the next day after police traced his license plate number.
In court, Ouedrani testified he didn't realize his victim was a Jew, but failed to convince the judge, who sentenced him to nine months in prison (of which six months are suspended).
"We believe that this ruling, the first to be as severe as we expected, is exemplary and will dissuade thugs from attacking our community," Sammy Ghozlan, the head of the Vigilance Bureau Against Anti-Semitism, said.
With the Ouedrani case, the battle against "new" anti-Semitism has entered a new phase.
Until 2002, the left-wing government led by Lionel Jospin refused to even recognize the spectacular increase of anti-Jewish attacks triggered by the second intifada.
Local Jewish organizations, strengthened by American Jewry, demanded President Jacques Chirac present a firm battle against anti-Semitic attacks.
The French president and his new center-right Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy -- now France's president -- launched a plan to fight anti-Semitism, including reinforced surveillance of synagogues and unprecedented efforts on behalf of police to hunt down the attackers. The next phase was to get offenders to court. The French Assembly approved the Lellouche legislation, doubling the sentences for anti-Semitic and racist assaults.
Jewish community leaders fought forcefully for serious sentences following dozens of symbolic rulings that failed to dissuade new aggressors.
The Ouedrani ruling, the first severe court decision after an anti-Semitic attack, opens the door to a new phase of the battle against anti-Semitism. Authorities appear to have taken every possible measure and precaution, yet anti-Jewish attacks continue as if nothing had been done.
"There are no new ideas on how to fight anti-Semitism, no new plan in the horizon," said policeman Michel Thooris, who follows anti-Semitism issues. "French Jews voted massively for Sarkozy hoping that he would put an end to hatred, but he has no new answers. It sometimes seems as though hearing about anti-Semitism is starting to annoy our leaders..." and the French in general, Thooris said.
Simone Veil -- former minister, European Parliament speaker and current president of the Shoah Remembrance Foundation -- told me, as we were visiting the Shoah memorial with President Sarkozy, that certain forms of anti-Semitism denounced by schoolteachers could easily be countered.
Since the beginning of the second intifada, French professors in troubled schools have complained that their Muslim pupils have been refusing to learn about the Shoah, claiming it was Zionist propaganda. The pupils have prevented professors from teaching the Shoah and the trend has extended to other lessons that involve Jews. Anti-Semitic assaults against Jewish pupils and teachers have also increased.
"I actually noticed that Arab pupils failed to appear in class for courses on the Shoah long before the second intifada, but at the time I didn't understand what motivated them," said Irene Saya, the head of the teachers association PEREC (For a Republican and Civil School).
In 2002, a dozen professors gathered their testimonies in a book called, "The Lost Territories of the Republic." Irene Saya said that nothing has changed in five years.
"Jewish professors and pupils are subject to anti-Semitic remarks and it feels like there isn't much to do. Anti-Semitism isn't just going to disappear," Saya said. "The ministry created a special department for these issues but there are no official figures and no real measures to battle anti-Semitism in school."
"The way I see it, the pupils who refuse to study are not at fault," Veil said. "The teachers are the ones who should find solutions to this problem and find ways to teach what happened in WWII. But I think some of these professors don't really want to make that effort."
Every year, the Shoah Memorial sends up to 10,000 adolescents from throughout France to Auschwitz. Troublemakers aren't invited. It also launched several projects commemorating the genocides perpetrated in Rwanda and against the Armenians.
"Today, we have to talk about Rwanda if we want schools to keep on teaching about the Shoah," sarcastically observed the leader of one European Jewish organization.
Obviously, most of those who combat genocide and fight racism do so genuinely, and their efforts often lead to positive results.
"We have to be irreproachable at a time when revisionists are still trying to distort history," Veil said.
Anti-Zionism and the boycott of Israeli products and skills are viewed by French Jews as another form of anti-Semitism. But, unlike other countries, France has successfully countered the phenomenon, launching the France-Israel Foundation in July 2005 to reinforce ties with the Israeli government and encourage collaboration in various fields, from literary exhibits to stem cell research.
The foundation has prevented boycotts that would have isolated Israel in the intellectual and commercial fields. It instigated French investments in the Israeli film industry, for example, leading to the success of the Israeli Film Festival of Paris and to numerous productions and prizes, the latest ones being the awards granted at the Cannes film festival to two Israeli films, "Jellyfish" and "The Band's Visit." Israeli movies, once rare in French theaters, have become common and, at times, even popular.
Those who supported the boycott against Israel, mainly within the pro-Palestinian association CAPJPO (Coordination of the Calls for a Fair Peace in the Middle East), are about to observe a new high in French-Israeli relations since the annual book fair -- the major cultural event of the year -- selected Israel to star the 2008 exhibit.
Sarkozy is apparently looking for global answers, fighting boycotts with reinforced collaboration and battling racist extremists by offering new alternatives. In theory, every issue can fall into place.