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Violence has French Jews tense

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PARIS, Oct. 17 (JTA) – The presence of French riot police has dampened spirits somewhat in the Marais, the usually lively Jewish neighborhood here in the French capital.

On a recent day, local Jews could be seen going about their business in the cluttered district of felafel stands, butchers, bakers and bookstores.

The smells of humus and freshly made challah hung in the air, as they do six days a week, but customers were few and their pace seemed a bit more brisk than usual.

Just the same, in a sign that routines were continuing, a Chasidic man bearing a lulav and etrog warmly beckoned any passers-by, particularly tourists, to join in some of the rituals associated with the holiday of Sukkot.

The well-known old Jewish quarter is just one of dozens of Jewish religious and communal sites across the nation where police have set up stakeouts in hopes of ending a series of incidents that targeted Jews and Jewish sites across France.

French Jews have reacted with mixed feelings to the slew of anti-Semitic incidents, which began after fighting broke out between Israel and the Palestinians late last month.

While Jewish leaders issue calls for communal steadfastness in the face of the incidents, some members of the community dread walking the streets alone. They say that the wave of anti-Semitism has heightened tensions and confusion within the Jewish community to levels not seen since World War II.

Others, however, note that a police presence at Jewish sites is quite common in France – and, they add, they are not about to change their routines.

“There is some fear, but it is not at all like it was between 1939 and 1945,” said Alain Derey, a Paris resident. “There is some tension, especially when you see a group of young Arab kids walking around in groups. But, really, we are ready to defend ourselves.”

Sophie Ruben, a lawyer living in a suburb north of Paris, called the incidents “very serious,” but said they only served to reinforce her Jewish identity.

“I’ll continue to go to the synagogue and observe the holidays, because you can’t let such threats stop your beliefs.”

However, others have remarked that they have seen a decline in the number of Jews wearing yarmulkas in the streets.

On one recent evening, an observer noticed a small group of children walking in the streets who donned their skullcaps only after meeting up with a much larger group of Jews.

Theo Klein, honorary president of CRIF, the umbrella group of secular French Jewish organizations, said he “was not persuaded” that the recent acts of violence “are even anti-Semitic. These are spontaneous acts by people who like violence.”

Klein called “absurd” the “overly emotional” reaction of some of his fellow Jewish community members, who have likened the incidents to Holocaust-era violence.

Noted intellectual and community activist Alain Finkielkraut, however, said that “it is normal that Jews have fear. A certain anti-Semitism has become now common in the streets.”

He added that “people should be able to criticize Israel without having to revert to anti-Semitism.”

Joseph Sitruk, France’s chief rabbi, pleaded for composure among the Jewish community, but acknowledged that he was “divided between revulsion and worry.”

In an incident reflecting the nervousness pervading some in the community, Sitruk announced in a radio broadcast last Friday that six young Jews had been stabbed and one had died.

But a few hours later, he returned to the airwaves to say that the attack was a false rumor and asked that everyone stop spreading gossip that “only adds to the current anguish.”

Since the outbreak of violence in the Middle East, French Jewish officials have recorded more than 80 acts against Jews in their own country.

These are some of the incidents:

• Firebombs were thrown at synagogues in Creil and at the Jewish community center in Colombes, both in the Paris region;

• A door of a synagogue in southern France was doused with gasoline and set on fire;

• The doors of two Jewish homes in Orly, south of Paris, were set on fire;

• Students at a day school in Paris were pelted with objects and subjected to insults as they left school last week;

• In Strasbourg, located near the border with Germany, a Jewish-owned bakery was left to burn Saturday when a blazing car was pushed through the shop window. Among the store’s melted glass and scorched walls, the perpetrators had scrawled “Jews, assassins,” and “Hezbollah” – remarks similar to other graffiti spray-painted on synagogues, Jewish schools and homes across the nation during the past two weeks.

* In Trappes, a tiny town next to Versailles, a small synagogue home to some 30 people was burned to the ground by arsonists.

“We are just a small community,” said a young member of the synagogue who declined to give her name.

“That is why we don’t understand. It is horrible. There were some very precious things inside the synagogue.”

Police believe the majority of such acts are committed by a small group of disgruntled teen-agers.

Although by the riots in the Palestinian territories clearly provoked the acts, Jewish community members suspect members of the extreme right, as well as hoodlums from the Arab community, have been involved.

But Jewish leaders insist the violence is coming from a few unorganized troublemakers.

Leading Islamic religious figures have been quick to join rabbis in denouncing the violence.

For example, the head of the Paris mosque joined an interfaith group led by Sitruk that demanded an end to the anti-Jewish incidents.

“We call on all our fellow citizens to maintain a climate of serenity and peace. We should listen to the voice of reason and act in a manner of dignity and respect of other people,” the group, which also includes the president of the French Protestant community and a leading Catholic bishop, said in a statement.

The Jewish community is asking the government to dramatically increase the police presence at Jewish sites and to set harsh penalties for those caught engaging in violence or making threats.

Moreover, during a meeting with French officials on Monday, Jewish leaders asked the government to consider using army forces if the anti-Semitic violence persists. French President Jacques Chirac, who was recently criticized for his apparent bias toward the Palestinians when a summit was held in the French capital earlier this month, has denounced the violence as “unacceptable.”

“These manifestations of intolerance,” said Chirac, “undermine in an inadmissible way the values and traditions” of France.

Prime Minister Lionel Jospin said the government would react with the “utmost severity” against “all those responsible for acts of violence or racist and anti-Semitic slogans.”

However, only three teen-age suspects have been arrested so far.

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