A Jewish community center in Paris that serves kosher meals to the poor was set on fire early Sunday morning. The soup kitchen, a converted synagogue on the ground floor of a five-story residential building on the Rue Popincourt in Paris' 11th District was partially destroyed. Anti-Semitic graffiti, Nazi symbols and references to Islam were found on the center's walls.
The police found scrawled in red magic marker on the walls: "Without the Jews the world would be happy."
"The fire department reacted quickly and the fire did not spread to the rest of the building -- there could have been victims," said Paris Police Chief Jean-Paul Proust.
"We know it's criminal," he added. "There are Nazi signs and anti-Semitic inscriptions all over the place."
"France will act with extreme severity against these anti-Semitic arsonists," said French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin while visiting the burned-out Jewish center.
President Jacque Chirac condemned "with force this unspeakable act" and expressed his solidarity with the personnel of the center and with the whole of the Jewish community.
Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoë announced the allocation of 300,000 Euros to fortify Parisian Jewish schools, synagogues and nursing homes in Paris with video surveillance and concrete barriers.
A previously unknown group calling itself the Groupe des Partisans de la Guerre Sainte Islamique (Group of Partisans of the Holy Islamic War) took responsibility for the destruction of the Jewish center on an Islamist Web site: "A group of young moudjahadine [fighters] set fire to the Jewish temple in Paris at 0400 hours in response to racist acts commited by Jews in France against Islam and Muslims, and also to makr the 35th anniversary of the fire that ravaged the Al Aksa Mosque in Jerusalem," a reference to an Aug. 21, 1969, fire set by an Australian Christian man that damaged a number of religious artifacts at the religious site.
Police and anti-terrorist officers are investigating the possibility that the perpetrators might be "more local" since the center was not one of the big, symbolic Jewish institutions in Paris.
An anti-terrorist officer told Reuters, "We're on a more national track. This is not an emblematic target for a group based in Dubai or Egypt."
Police are waiting for expert results from inspection of the crime scene.
Housed in a former synagogue once used by Greek and Turkish Jewish immigrants, the center has largely served as a social club and soup kitchen since the 1960s.
The center was not permanently guarded and there were no security cameras near the institution, a community security official said. A police night patrol that circulates in the area had passed the building some two hours before the attack but noticed nothing suspicious, he added.
On Tuesday, Israel demanded action from the French government.
CRIF, the Council of Jewish institutions of France expressed to the French government its demand "to put a stop to and condemn those responsible for this odious crime that disfigures France."
Claude Zaffran, the rabbi of a synagogue around the corner from the community center, said he had the "impression of watching the same movie, the same story. More than just declarations and discussions, there should be some strong action to put an end to this succession of anti-Semitic acts. Without exaggerating, I can't help but be afraid now."
Zaffran told The Journal he was persuaded that the police are doing their job.
"We know they are doing the maximum. It's at the judiciary level that we have a real problem. We have the laws and they are not applied. We are disgusted. What can we do? The judges are independent and they make their decisions. We don't know what to do anymore," he said.
Asked what he wanted to communicate to a concerned Jewish community in the United States, he answered with a tremor in his voice, "Don't worry. Our enemies should know that if they think they are going to see the Jew of old, crouching in a corner, they are wrong. We will not lower our head, nor will we lower our arms. We will do what's necessary."
Jewish Telegraphic Agency contributed to this report.
Carole Raphaelle Davis lives in Los Angeles and Nice, France. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.