Jewish Journal

French Jews Brace for More Violence

by Uriel Heilman

Posted on Apr. 10, 2003 at 8:00 pm

One recent Friday night in a Paris suburb, Gerard Benichou was walking home from synagogue services when an Arab assailant, yelling "dirty Jew," jumped him from behind and began pounding his face.

His nose was broken, and he was taken to the hospital. That night, Benichou went to the police to report the assault. But when the assailant was arrested several days later and brought before a judge, he was released after paying a modest fine.

Now, Benichou looks for his assailant on his way home from shul, and he worries when his daughter tells of the anti-Semitic taunts she suffers daily in school. For the first time, Benichou is reconsidering his family's future in France.

"I have four children," Benichou said. "I am afraid for them. I have no more faith in France. There is no justice here. The judges are afraid of the Arabs. I never thought of aliyah before, but now I'm thinking about it -- not for my sake but for my children."

With the Iraq War producing fresh images of violence for consumption by France's estimated 6 million Muslims, French Jews are poised for another wave of anti-Semitic violence that they fear may erupt out of the bloodshed in the Middle East. While instances of trouble may not be as common as they were a year ago, French Jews say they face an environment of hostility and indifference that is as frightening as it is obvious.

French President Jacques Chirac announced before the Iraq War broke out that 700 Jewish sites in France would require additional police protection if there were to be a war.

"It's a very fragile situation right now," said Max-David Ghozlan, a native Parisian who recently returned to France after several years in the United States and Britain. "With the war in Iraq, this could be a very good reason to attack the Jews."

"Everybody's very concerned," he continued. "I don't think it's a time to relax. We should be very much on guard."

Recently, Jewish leaders and politicians have launched a petition drive to fight the rise in anti-Semitism and will hold a demonstration April 13 in Paris.

The vulnerability of France's Jewish community is heightened by the sense that their French compatriots just don't seem to care enough to do much about it, either because of latent anti-Semitism or sympathy for the Palestinian cause. French Jews talk of a significant shift in France that is casting a pall over the country's Jewish community and threatening the very future of French Jewish life. Suddenly, the future of French Jewry looks more like the past than ever.

"It's hard, because we didn't think anti-Semitic times would return," said Jacqueline Reznik-Elarably, whose husband is the president of the French Jewish community of Le Vesinet. "I was born during the Second World War, but I didn't think I would see this again."

"Now there's graffiti in the metro against Israel and against Zionism," she reported. "There are attacks. My daughter already left to go to Israel. It's hard and it's sad."

Matters first turned bad a little over two years ago, when the escalating intifada in Israel awakened the slumbering giant of French Arab extremism, unleashing a wave of violent attacks against Jews in France. For many months, the French authorities stood idly by, insisting that the attacks against Jews, which included firebombing of synagogues and schools, assaults, stabbings, shootings, and stonings -- were isolated incidents of urban violence that merited little more than the attention of local police authorities.

Finally, after months of appeals by the Jewish community and pressure from abroad, the French government started to crack down. A new interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, spearheaded the effort to staunch the violence, and his efforts were hailed by Jewish leaders as the first significant sign that the French government was serious about safeguarding its Jewish citizens.

Many Jews, however, say that Sarkozy is alone in his determination to mute anti-Jewish violence. What's more, many French have refused to see the attacks against Jews as incidents of anti-Semitism, instead characterizing them as manifestations of class warfare by poor people against middle-class French.

"I think we have to look at this as part and parcel of a different phenomenon, the phenomenon of urban violence," said Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, the archbishop of Paris. "The remedy therefore has to be found in society's combat against all forms of violent conflict, not anti-Semitism."

Attitudes like Lustiger's are worrisome to many Jews. While most of the violence against Jews in France thus far has been perpetrated by Muslims, most of them immigrants or descendants of immigrants from North Africa, the accompanying silence and passivity of French Catholics has been interpreted as a signal of general indifference to the well-being of French Jews. At worse, their quietude is a sign that the French today may be just as willing to tolerate anti-Semitism as they were 60 years ago during Vichy France.

"There is a deafening silence," said Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the North American Boards of Rabbis, who recently led a delegation of U.S. and Canadian rabbis to Paris for a series of meetings with Jewish and Catholic French leaders that were arranged by the World Jewish Congress.

"We come to express our concern and our anger over the rise of anti-Semitism in France," he said. "An evil must be confronted. It cannot be ignored. That's why it's so important that the voice of the Catholic Church be raised in screaming protest over this issue."

Though there are fewer attacks today against Jews in France than there were several months ago, there is a sense in the country that the Jews are waiting for the other shoe to drop.

The demographic cards are stacked against the Jews, and the political winds are blowing the wrong way. On the political right, supporters of right-wing extremist candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen numbered one in five voters in the last French election. Le Pen's constituency is anti-immigrant, racist and anti-Semitic.

On the political left, the anticolonialist, pro-Palestinian intelligentsia is fiercely hostile to Israel; by extension, they have became natural opponents of Israel's supporters in France.

Furthermore, while far-left parties comprised 10 percent of the electorate in France's last national elections, the left's influence has a considerable impact in French universities, the media and political life generally. Consequently, France's Jews find themselves with little political haven.

The situation is further compounded by the country's changing demographics. France's 6 million Muslims now comprise 10 percent of the nation -- outnumbering Jews 10-1 -- and Arabs are the fastest growing ethnic group in the country.

"When looking for the reasons for the situation, we find that there is a conjunction of phenomena," said Roger Cukierman, president of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France. "There is the far right, there is the Muslims and then there is the far left."

Chmouel Rotbann, a 20-year-old Jewish medical student in Paris, said he doesn't want to stay in France anymore. He's been called "rotten Jew" by Arabs outside his neighborhood synagogue, and he's been harassed by Arabs on the Champs-Elyseés, one of Paris' central pedestrian promenades.

"The Arabs have no fear here, because France supports them," Rotbann said. "France condones their anti-Semitism. I want to live in America."  

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