PARIS, Aug 23 (JTA) Jewish officials in Paris called for increased security measures outside community institutions after a meeting place for elderly Jews was destroyed in an arson attack. Firefighters called out to tackle the blaze early Sunday morning at the Judeo-Spanish social center in Paris’ 11th district found the institution gutted, with anti-Semitic slogans and graffiti daubed on refrigerators. The center is housed in a former synagogue once used by Greek and Turkish Jewish immigrants. Since the 1960s, it largely has served as a social club and soup kitchen for elderly people in the neighborhood. The center, on the ground floor of a five-story apartment block, is well known as a Jewish communal institution. Yet it wasn’t permanently guarded and there were no security cameras near the institution, a community security official told JTA. A police night patrol that circulates in the area had passed the building some two hours before the attack but noticed nothing suspicious, he added. The spray-painting of swastikas at the site, as well as the presence of anti-Semitic slogans, appeared initially to indicate a far-right source to the attack. On Monday morning, however, a previously unknown group calling itself Partisans for Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the arson. The claim could not be verified. In a statement on a French-based Islamist Web site, the group said young Islamic warriors “had set the Jewish temple in Paris alight” in response to “the desecration of Muslim tombs and also to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the fire which ravaged Al-Aksa Mosque in Jerusalem.” On Aug. 21,1969, an Australian Christian man started a fire that damaged a number of religious artifacts at the mosque on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. French President Jacques Chirac condemned the attack at the Jewish center, assuring the community of “the absolute determination of the public authorities to find the perpetrators of these unacceptable acts.” Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin cut short a visit to his home town of Poitiers in western France to return to the capital, telling Jewish officials that public prosecutors would demand the maximum 20-year prison sentence for the assailant. Such comments come amid widespread criticism in the Jewish community of what they see as the justice system’s leniency toward acts of anti-Semitism. Speaking on French radio shortly after the arson, Roger Cukierman, president of the CRIF umbrella organization of French Jews, said judges had “created a real feeling of impunity by systematically handing out not guilty verdicts” in recent cases. “This leniency allows anti-Semites from all sides to freely express themselves,” Cukierman said. “Why should they deprive themselves when they’re not risking anything?” Similar comments came from Rabbi Claude Zaffran of the Don Isaac Abravanel synagogue, located a few hundred yards from the burnt social club. “France is not anti-Semitic and neither is the president, the government or the ministers, but the acts continue and they’re not always judged the way they should be,” he told JTA. He said he felt “very hurt and angry” over the attack, adding that it was “unnatural that as a rabbi with a hat and beard, I should even think I should be afraid in a free country like France.” Other Jewish leaders expressed security fears in the run-up to the High Holidays. Sammy Ghozlan, president of the National Bureau for Vigilance Against Anti-Semitism, told JTA he thought it would be necessary to extend security to Jewish grocery stores and butchers. “There’s going to be huge crowds at shops before the Jewish holidays,” he said. “They’re as much a target as any synagogue.”
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