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French Jews fed up with anti-Semitism

The grand rabbi of Paris, David Messas, addresses a demonstration against anti-Semitism in the Parisian suburb of Creteil. (Andrew Diamond)

The grand rabbi of Paris, David Messas, addresses a demonstration against anti-Semitism in the Parisian suburb of Creteil. (Andrew Diamond)

PARIS, Jan. 21 (JTA) — Jews in the Paris region have stepped up their drive against a wave of anti-Semitic aggression that many feel has reached epidemic proportions. On Sunday in the Paris suburb of Sarcelles, more than 600 people attended a rally against anti-Semitic violence. Among them were representatives of Christian and Muslim communal organizations and high-ranking officials from all the major political parties in France. It was the third such demonstration in the Paris suburbs in the last three weeks. In staging these demonstrations, French Jewish organizations have adopted a more assertive approach as they demand that French authorities respond to their daily insecurity with more than words. The demonstrations were prompted by two separate arson attacks against Jewish community sites in the Parisian suburbs of Creteil and Goussainville. On Dec. 31, in the waning hours of 2001, vandals set fire to a classroom of the Jewish school Ozar HaTorah in Creteil. Days later, in perhaps the most serious episode, witnesses saw some thirty youths between the ages of 12 and 20 hurl rocks and Molotov cocktails at a Goussainville Jewish home that also serves as the local synagogue. For more than a year, French Jewish leaders have called on the government to confront the dramatic rise in anti-Semitic violence that began with the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada in September 2000. Officials from CRIF, the umbrella group of secular French Jewish organizations, counted 320 acts of anti-Jewish aggression last year. Most of the acts involved vandalism and verbal threats. But after the attack in Goussainville endangered the lives of a mother and her four young children, a new feeling of urgency and outrage has spread throughout the Jewish community around Paris. Adding to the anger was President Jacques Chirac´s recent statement that "there are no anti-Semitism and no anti-Semites in France." The remark resembles the long held position of several high-ranking members of the Socialist-led government, including, most notably, the interior minister, Daniel Vaillant. Vaillant, the man most responsible for the implementation of law enforcement policy in France, has in the past disputed CRIF´s statistics on anti-Jewish incidents. Taking aim at such officials, Moise Cohen, president of the Paris Consistoire, told the audience at the Creteil rally, "If Jews attacked Muslims and their schools, there would be a public outrage, a political and media outrage. So why is it that when Jews are the victims of aggression our politicians and our media remain silent?" CRIF´s president, Roger Cukierman, was even more pointed in his condemnations of the French government´s response to the situation. "We are told that we exaggerate," he stated, "that violence is a general phenomenon, that it is not specific to Jews, that the authors are ill-at-ease young people, that statistics show that anti-Jewish violence has diminished. "Well no, no, and no," he said, "we are not exaggerating." The French government´s perceived inaction has drawn sharp criticism in recent weeks from some Israeli officials. In addition, several Jewish journalists in the United States have compared the present climate in France to what existed during the World War II era, when the Vichy government collaborated in the deportation of 76,000 Jews to Nazi concentration camps. Sparking the outburst of anger from abroad was a report a month ago that the French ambassador to England, Daniel Bernard, had referred to Israel as "that shitty little country" at a London dinner party. This incident raised the question of whether the French government´s stance regarding anti-Semitic violence is indicative of a broader anti-Semitism in official culture and throughout French society. French Jewish leaders have been more ambivalent about the idea that anti-Semitism in France is a widespread problem, choosing to present anti-Jewish aggression as a phenomenon located predominantly in communities where Sephardic Jews and Maghrebins — Arabs of North African descent — live side by side. Cohen, for example, opened his speech in Creteil with the assertion, "France is not an anti-Semitic country." He finished the speech with the comment, "For our part, we won´t fall into the trap of seeing anti-Semites everywhere, but there is no worse disease than the one that is not diagnosed and acknowledged." The grand rabbi of Paris, David Messas, echoed these comments, stating, "This is why we are here today, to respond in front of the republic that we love." "We are democrats," he continued, "because we´re French and because we´re Jewish." Such sentiments reflect the rhetorical strategy Jewish leaders have employed as they emphasize the French government´s responsibility to protect the rights of all its citizens. At Creteil, however, there were signs that the mounting anger of French Jews may begin to steer their leadership down a more militant and less diplomatic road. A flyer circulated through the crowd by the Jewish Defense League suggested that Jews should no longer count on the authorities and should begin providing for their own security. One participant, a local journalist who preferred not to be named, indicated that many already are following this prescription. "I live in Boulogne," another Paris suburb, "where we have a lot of problems, and we have to ensure our own security since the police don´t want to come," the journalist explained. "Almost every week we have incidents — slurs, stones, fights."

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