Arsonists attack Marseille Jewish school

PARIS, Nov. 5 (JTA) — Jews in Marseille have been left in a state of shock after vandals burned down part of a Jewish elementary school in the southern port city.

On Oct. 28, two trailers used as classrooms at the Pardes Jewish School in Marseille were destroyed before firefighters could control the flames.

A day later, leaders of the Marseille Jewish community gathered at the charred remains to condemn the act and discuss its implications.

Speaking to journalists at the scene, Clement Yana, president of the local branch of CRIF, the umbrella group of secular French Jewish organizations, emphasized that Jewish leaders are taking the incident very seriously but believe it was the act of young delinquents from the neighborhood.

Nobody seems to dispute this interpretation, but many people in the Jewish community nonetheless are uneasy.

Perhaps most disquieting for some were the inscriptions the vandals sprayed on the walls of the school’s main building: “Death to Jews,” “Jews Faggots,” and “Bin Laden Will Conquer.”

“There have already been some incidents,” Annick Mettoudy, a mother of one student at Pardes, told reporters at the scene, “but this time it’s more serious.”

The same feeling prompted the police prefect to position guards around Jewish schools throughout the city.

A wave of anti-Semitic violence erupted in France after the start of the Palestinian uprising in September 2000. Most of those cases involved arson attacks against synagogues.

This past weekend, several anti-Semitic incidents occurred in and around Paris.

Late Saturday night, attackers hurled a Molotov cocktail against the wall of a synagogue in the 20th district, home to large concentrations of Jews and Muslims of North African descent. The next day, in the nearby 12th district, religious leaders discovered signs of an attempted break-in at a Jewish place of worship.

In another weekend incident, in the suburb of Epinay-sur-Seine, vandals smashed the windows of a Jewish school.

A range of emotions swept the local community following last week’s attack in Marseille.

There also was a collective determination not to allow the incident to undermine what for nearly 40 years has been peaceful coexistence between Jews and Arabs in Frais-Vallon, the subsidized housing facility where the school is located.

Though shaken by the destruction of her child’s nursery school, Mettoudy did not hesitate to add, “In the area, though, everything is going rather well between neighbors.”

The local CRIF leadership echoed this view when it responded publicly to the attack.

“In Marseille, the consensus between communities has always been respected,” Yana told a journalist for the regional daily La Provence.

More than a rhetorical gesture, this confidence is based on years of cooperation between the Jewish and Muslim communities of this Mediterranean city at the gateway to North Africa.

The initiative began after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when the heads of the Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist communities formed an association called Marseille-Hope to open channels of communication between communities.

Perhaps somewhat ironically, last week’s attack came at the beginning of “A Week Against Violence” that had been planned at the local community center.

Projects likes these had Jewish and other civic leaders congratulating themselves on the relative calm that has prevailed since Sept. 11 in a city that is home to roughly 80,000 Jews and many more Muslims of North African descent.

The “Week Against Violence” and similar events evidently are not enough to prevent anti-Semitic violence. But they have paved the way for meaningful dialogue between Jewish and Muslim leaders in responding to such acts.

Within a few days of the attack, Yana reported receiving letters of support from the leaders of several Muslim associations in Marseille.

Perhaps the most notable was from the imam of the Marseille mosque, who wrote that he was “deeply shocked by the burning of the school” and expressed his “sincere support to the Jewish community.”

Yana and the nearly 10,000 members of CRIF he represents hope that such comments will help in dealing with a wave of anti-Semitic aggression that seems deeply rooted in the urban milieu of Arab youths in France.

While Paris and its surrounding suburbs have seen a dramatic rise in such anti-Jewish incidents over the past year, delinquent hate crimes have not yet become a pattern in Marseille.

However, some fear the beginnings of such a change in the appearance of graffiti supporting bin Laden on the walls of apartment buildings in a few neighborhoods.

“Marseille generally remains spared,” said Evelyne Sitruk, a teacher at a school in the same district as Pardes. “But we feel a kind of anti-Semitic surge, not only of Muslim origins, but which is also due to a let-down of vigilance that we have not been accustomed to.”

Following the arson attack, members of the Jewish community appear ready to become more vigilant — and hope they can count on the support of their Muslim neighbors to meet the challenges ahead.

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