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French Jews focus on security

PARIS, Nov. 28 (JTA) — The city´s most important Jewish institution normally focuses on education and kosher certification. This month´s elections for the assembly of the Consistoire de Paris, however, were dominated by another issue — community security, following a resurgence of anti-Semitic aggression this month around Paris and in the southern port city of Marseilles. The most recent incidents involved a Molotov cocktail attack against a synagogue in a Jewish neighborhood of Paris and smashed windows at a Jewish school in the Paris suburb of Epinay-sur-Seine. Just days before, vandals burned down part of a Jewish nursery school in Marseilles, leaving anti-Semitic slogans painted on the walls of the main building. The aggression shattered the relative calm that had prevailed since the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States, reawakening French Jews to a problem that dominated Jewish political culture in France after the start of the Palestinian intifada in September 2000. Interviewed a week before the elections, three of the leading candidates for Consistoire president — a position that the assembly members will elect soon — outlined their views on ensuring the security of the city´s Jewish community. While they differed on specific plans, the candidates agreed that the French government must take a more active role in protecting Jewish citizens. "We have the impression that the government is not sufficiently conscious of the threats presented to the national community, Jews included," Consistoire President Moise Cohen said, recounting how he had tried to draw President Jacques Chirac´s attention to the problem. Yet challenger Jack-Yves Bohbot, a city councilor and vice president of the Nazareth synagogue, suggested that the community´s lobbying efforts with the French government have been insufficient. "The voice of the Consistoire in this matter is not strong enough," he alleged. Similar reproaches have been directed over the past year at CRIF, an umbrella organization bringing together Jewish institutions across France. Following an explosion of anti-Semitic violence in October 2000, Henri Hajdenberg, the former CRIF president, came under criticism for downplaying arson and other attacks on Jewish sites as the consequence of "groups in the suburbs who try to spread what is happening in the Near East to France." His perspective mirrored that of Interior Minister Daniel Vaillant, who at the time viewed the violence as juvenile delinquency, diminishing its ethno-religious motivations. Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, sharply disagreed, arguing that the attacks were "more than just heat-of-the-moment crimes" and could have "a devastating impact on entire communities" if not dealt with properly. Foxman´s views now appear more persuasive to many in the Jewish community. The Consistoire´s new emphasis on reassuring Parisian Jews reflects the increasing number of constituents who talk of leaving the city. In the 19th district, the heart of the Sephardic community, worsening relations between Jews and Muslims can be detected in the increasing number of residents who refer to the area as mal frequent, a French expression for unsafe. But if there is general agreement about the need to act, concrete plans are few. Calls for government intervention remain vague, but the implication is that authorities should beef up police patrols around Jewish sites and redouble efforts to apprehend and prosecute the perpetrators of hate crimes. As this spring´s French presidential election nears, such calls are becoming louder. On Nov. 12, the mainstream French daily Liberation ran an Op-Ed piece on the situation by Marc Knobel, vice president of the anti-racist organization LICRA and a researcher at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Paris. Knobel points to new research revealing how media images of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict motivate some Arab youths to commit anti-Semitic acts. Yet the ethnic hatred behind such acts is no less real, he says, and no less dangerous. With no end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in sight, Knobel implores the French government to take action before a larger and possibly deadly flare-up occurs. A week before, Liberation had reported that the UEJF, France´s largest student organization, had joined the campaign to spotlight anti-Semitic violence. With a book in the works that will catalog anti-Semitic incidents since October 2000, the UEJF has declared its intention to thrust the issue into the presidential debates. At the same time, the students hope to develop a dialogue between Jews and Muslims in France, possibly preventing anti-Semitic acts from occurring.

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