PARIS (Mar. 26)
France may have chosen not to take part in the U.S.-led war against Iraq, but French Jews already are experiencing some of the war’s effects.
With polls showing over 90 percent of the public opposed to the war, major cities across France have been convulsed by large anti-war demonstrations that often have taken on a strong anti-American and anti-Israeli character.
The atmosphere exploded into violence last weekend when pro-Palestinian demonstrators attacked two Jewish youths outside the offices of the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement in Paris. The youths were taken to a nearby hospital and treated for light injuries.
Politicians issued belated, if forceful, condemnations of the incident. But French Jewish leaders are worried about further attacks — as well as the possibility that attempts by Jewish vigilantes to defend the community may devolve into street battles.
Earlier on the day of the Hashomer Hatzair attacks, Steve Soussan had been walking around Place de La Nation with his fiancee when he noticed a banner depicting the Israeli flag with a swastika at its center.
“I told them that six million Jews died in the Holocaust and they had no right to carry that banner. They told me that the flag represented the Zionist entity, so I tried to take it down myself,” Soussan said. “Then they jumped on me and threw me to the ground and started kicking me.”
According to the Paris-based Bureau for Vigilance Against Anti-Semitism, the march was characterized by a number of anti-Semitic incidents, including insults hurled at Jewish passers-by and forms of Holocaust imagery depicting Israel.
Estimated at around 100,000 people, the demonstration was far from a minority affair.
Apart from the regular sprinkling of far-left and pro-Palestinian groups, representatives from some of France’s mainstream political parties were present, including former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius, Green Party presidential candidate Noel Mamere and Socialist Party leader Francois Hollande.
Despite the fact that the Hashomer Hatzair attack was filmed by a camera crew, it took more than two full days for organizers of the demonstration to offer a clear condemnation.
Official responses were slow to emerge, and began to filter through only after Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe visited Hashomer Hatzair’s offices.
A spokeswoman for the Green Party said she hadn’t learned of the March 22 attack until two days later — not surprising, given sparse media coverage of the incident.
In fact, many papers carried an Agence France Presse dispatch claiming there had been “clashes” near the Hashomer Hatzair premises.
That implied that Jewish activists from Betar or the Jewish Defense League had clashed with members of the pro-Palestinian group Joint Appeal for Peace and Justice in the Middle East, known by its French acronym CAPJPO.
CAPJPO’s president, Olivia Zemor, told JTA that Betar supporters had attacked activists from her group.
“We are going to be speaking to the police and asking for protection,” Zemor said. “Of course we’re not anti-Semitic. I have a Jewish mother and father.”
Asked by JTA how many people from CAPJPO had been injured in the alleged fracas, Zemor said she did not know the “exact figure.” She then admitted that no one from her group had been hurt.
Zemor’s version of events was rejected out of hand by Hashomer Hatzair spokesman Yoni Smadjar. Smadjar’s testimony was backed up by the camera crew, whose footage of the attack was made available to police investigators.
The crew belonged to the independent press agency Digipresse, which transmits online reports through the French Yahoo site.
Valerie Labrousse, one of the Digipresse reporters covering the event, told JTA that there were no clashes and no Betar activists around. She laughed off the CAPJPO claims that they had been attacked.
“This was just a basic anti-Semitic attack with metal bars,” she said.
Digipresse attempted to sell its video footage to two national French television channels, which said they didn’t have enough air time.
Even among Parisian Jews, however, some still clung to the view that there had been clashes rather than an attack. Some even welcomed that version of events, telling JTA they were happy Betar had laid into them.
The possibility that Jewish extremists could take the law into their own hands has begun to worry community leaders, already wary of the increasing radicalization of French Muslims because of the war in Iraq and the ongoing Palestinian intifada.
Just days before the Paris demonstration, Betar youths clashed with demonstrators outside a pro-Israel gala in a Paris suburb. Over 100 riot police were required to restore order.
Many community leaders have issued statements saying that dealing with attacks against Jews should be left to the police.
“There should be no question of creating militias,” said Michel Rottenberg, president of the large Jewish community in the middle-class Paris suburb of Vincennes.
Rottenberg’s comments were supported by Maurice Fellous, president of the Jewish community in Noisy le Sec, a more mixed, working-class area.
Recently, when it appeared the community’s rabbi was about to be attacked, local police reacted immediately, Rottenberg said.
Ariel Goldmann, spokesman for the CRIF Protection Service for the Jewish Community, or SPCJ, also praised police efforts.
“Our work is done in perfect harmony with the police and the Ministry of the Interior at the highest level,” Goldmann told the Jewish weekly Actualite Juive. “We only intervene inside the buildings, leaving the police to take care of events outside.”
The SPCJ runs a 24-hour hotline to provide community protection, and also offers legal advice and psychological counseling.
It’s not the only official organization dealing with security issues.
The Bureau for Vigilance Against Anti-Semitism, run by former police commissioner Sammy Ghozlan, is based in the offices of the Paris Consistoire, the assembly of rabbis and laymen that governs Jewish affairs in the city.
“We catalogue every single anti-Semitic act, and we insist that local police groups deal with each and every incident,” Ghozlan told JTA.
“In virtually every case the perpetrators are Arab-Muslims, but there is always a strong correlation between anti-Semitism in a given area and the amount of anti-Israel activity supported by the political groups who run the municipality,” he said. “If there weren’t the political incitement and the climate to go with it, the situation would be much better.”
Following the clashes at the pro-Israel gala, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy assured Roger Cukierman, president of the CRIF umbrella organization of secular French Jewry, that police would take extra measures to protect Jewish institutions.
That would be over and above “Vigipirate,” an operation put in place at the start of the war to protect some 700 Jewish institutions across France.
Cukierman told Sarkozy that the community was very worried about anti-Semitic manifestations at anti-war demonstrations on March 15 and 20, including the burning of an Israeli flag.
Support for the community also came from Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who said that “French youth should take advantage of their feelings against the war and their struggle for peace to also fight against racism and anti-Semitism.”
And just a day after Cukierman met Sarkozy, the cardinal-archbishop of Paris, Jean-Marie Lustiger; the rector of Paris’s Grand Mosque, Dalil Boubakeur; and French Chief Rabbi Joseph Sitruk issued a joint appeal “for calm and mutual respect in this difficult international context.”