French Rallies Expose Fissures As Jews Battle Anti-semitic Acts

Rallies across France this week have shown the strength of French Jews as they battle a recent surge in anti-Semitism.

But Sunday’s rallies have also exposed fissures among Jewish groups.

The largest rally occurred in Paris, with an estimated 50,000 people, while smaller rallies were held in Marseille, Lyon and Toulouse.

The rallies came as a wave of anti-Semitic attacks not seen here since World War II continued unabated.

In a stormy meeting on April 2, some Jewish communal officials sharply criticized Jewish leader Roger Cukierman for promoting the Paris rally more as a “defense of Israel and its government” than a denunciation of French anti- Semitism.

Cukierman, the president of CRIF, an umbrella organization for secular French Jews, managed to placate some of these critics by redefining the demonstration as a show of support for the “Israeli people,” rather than for the government.

But several Jewish organizations still felt the need to put their own spin on the protest.

The Union of French Jewish Students and the League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism issued their own call for “a republican mobilization against anti-Semitism,” and a French Jewish pacifist group, Friends of Shalom Achshav, organized a “parallel demonstration” in support of the formula of “two nations, two states for peace.

These differences erupted during the Paris demonstration when young members of the radical groups Betar and the Jewish Defense League assaulted peace protesters as they attempted to join the larger demonstration.

Indicative of the mounting anger among the younger generation of French Jews, who are the most exposed to the everyday realities of anti-Jewish aggression, the ranks of these organizations have risen dramatically in the past few weeks.

In Paris, several hundred members of Betar and the JDL, clad in white armbands and yellow T-shirts, circulated around Bastille Square, roughly preventing photographers from taking pictures and once fighting with a group of Arab youths attempting to display a Palestinian flag.

In one incident, a youth from one of the Jewish groups stabbed a police officer in the abdomen with a knife.

Members of these organizations also clashed with a large group of Arab youths in Marseille who attempted to menace protesters. Before riot police could intervene, one Jewish youth sustained a cut from a knife.

While the violent actions and the pro-Sharon sentiments of these groups received a great deal of attention in the French media, the majority of demonstration signs articulated cries for peace in Israel and France.

Cukierman was quick to denounce the violence as “extremist” following the rally, but nobody in the community is dismissing their significance.

To some observers, they demonstrate that despite joining together in perhaps the largest mobilization of Jews in French history, the French Jewish community seems to be growing more and more divided over the policies of the Sharon government.

“Until now, when French Jews would take the streets, they would do it for themselves, but also to defend democratic and ethical values since they were inseparable from their own values,” said Olivier Guland, the editor in chief of the influential French bimonthly, the Jewish Tribune.

“The immense majority of French Jews do not agree with extremist groups,” he added, “but they do not dare talk for fear of appearing to be giving arguments to Israel’s adversaries.”

With the opening round of the presidential elections set for April 21, French Jews find themselves increasingly isolated on the issue of Israel.

Indeed, only a few non-Jewish organizations were willing to officially back Sunday’s protests.

Even the anti-racist group, SOS-Racism, which is headed by a Jew and which recently collaborated with the Union of French Jewish Students on a comprehensive study of anti-Semitism, abstained from participation in the main demonstration.

Moreover, only in Lyon did high-level politicians join the march.

According to one Paris protester, a student at the Sorbonne, “People who would normally be walking with us stayed away today because they did not want to be associated with anything that felt like a pro-Sharon rally.”

Such sentiments were echoed in an editorial in Monday’s edition of the popular French daily Liberation, which asked: “How can we protest the violence committed against the Jews of France without appearing to be a toy soldier following Sharon’s steps?”

Meanwhile, despite the deployment last week of 1,100 extra police officers to guard Jewish religious and civic buildings throughout the country, groups of young, male Maghrebins — Arabs of North African descent — persisted in a campaign of anti-Jewish aggression in solidarity with the Palestinian cause.

On the night of April 2, two youths threw Molotov cocktails at police guarding a synagogue in the Mediterranean port city of Marseille.

Earlier that day, a pavilion was burned in a Jewish cemetery outside of Strasbourg.

The next night, vandals set fire to a synagogue in Montpellier, while arson attacks struck a synagogue and a Jewish school bus in the Paris suburbs of Kremlin-Bicetre and Aubervilliers.

Then, last Friday night, yet another arson fire targeted the facilities of a Jewish athletic club in the southwestern city of Toulouse.

Police apprehended seven suspects for the incidents in Montpellier and Kremlin-Bicetre, all of whom confirm the impression that the perpetrators of these acts are predominantly Maghrebin teens and young men from lower-income neighborhoods.

Several of the youths had prior convictions for minor offenses.

Regardless of whether or not such practitioners of anti-Semitism represent a fringe element within the Arab community, they have infused intense feelings of insecurity in French Jewish neighborhoods which have been dealing with these forms of harassment since the start of the intifada 18 months ago.

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