PARIS (JTA) – When Jewish residents of a northeast district here learned that some of their neighbors had gone to fight a holy war in Iraq, sometimes dying there in suicide attacks, they reacted with cool nods and hopeless shrugs.
After last week’s sentencing in France of seven jihadis, Jewish shoppers at the crowded pastry and vegetable market lining the Ourcq Canal said Jews here don’t have much of a relationship with their Muslim neighbors.
“We live together, but we mix less,” said Michel Mergui, 45.
Seven members of a jihad cell led by Farid Benyettou, 27, were sentenced to three to seven years in prison for sending “martyrs” to al-Qaida-linked camps in Iraq via Syria. At least seven Frenchmen died fighting there and others were wounded, according to French authorities.
Although some of the five convicted Frenchmen, a Moroccan and an Algerian expressed anti-Zionist sentiments when questioned by police, their main targets were U.S. troops in Iraq.
That was only mildly reassuring for many Jewish residents of Paris’ 19th arrondissement, where the jihadis lived.
“There is a lot of radicalism here,” Remy Benmoussa, 38, told JTA as he picked out produce for his kosher restaurant. “That’s just how it is.”
Rabbi Michel Bouskila said he was not surprised to learn a terror organization had formed nearby.
“People talk about what happens in the ghettos, but they don’t talk about what happens right in the middle of Paris,” he said. “There is a lot of tension, and younger disadvantaged Muslims are influenced by hard-line Islam.”
Bouskila, like some other Jews in the neighborhood, was more concerned about the phenomenon of the “19th Arrondissement Network” spreading elsewhere in Paris.
“Islamist extremists go after the weaker, frustrated youth, and there are so many kids like that,” he said. “It could happen again.”
The 19th district is a concentrated cocktail of government-subsidized housing projects, high unemployment and visibly large Jewish and Muslims communities.
These factors helped make the district Paris’ leader in recorded anti-Semitic incidents last year.
But Jewish residents say anti-Semitic acts have decreased in 2008 and that the threat of terrorism is not a grave concern.
The lead prosecutor in the jihad cell case, Jean-Julien Xavier-Rolai, said terrorism-related activity in France is on the decline. He did note, however, the presence of threatening fringe groups in France.
“Just because they aren’t numerous doesn’t mean they aren’t dangerous,” Xavier-Rolai said. “And since they’re all connected, it’s like a spider web. The more you pull, the more you look, the more you find.”
The prosecutor said he is involved in another terror cell case involving a group based in Trappes, east of Paris, but refused to comment because the case is ongoing.
Most experts agree that the French secret service, experienced in fighting Algerian-linked nationalists, is able to keep terrorist activity in France in check. The intelligence service R.G. says Islamic extremist activity across the country is down, particularly since the government regulated French mosques over the last decade.
With the French intelligence services doing their job, French Jews need not fear becoming targets of organized attacks, said Jean-Yves Camus, a researcher on extremist movements at the Institute of International Strategic Relations.
Anti-Semitic acts in France since 2000 should not be confused with terrorism, said Camus. He explained that most anti-Semitic incidents are committed spontaneously, in contrast with coordinated efforts of Salafist Islamic extremists likely to be involved in French-based terrorism.
Camus also said Jews are less threatened than several years ago because the cause du jour stoking Islamic passions in France has shifted from the intifada in Israel and the Palestinian territories to the war in Iraq.
“What radicalizes people is seeing global world powers taking it out on the Arab world,” Camus said. Right now, “Iraq is seen as the major confrontation.”
Yet some neighborhood leaders say any radicalism in Paris is cause for concern.
The councillor to the 19th district, Michelle Asfez, pointed to a pro-Palestinian march through Paris on Saturday in which protesters chanted slogans such as “Zionists, fascists, you are the terrorists” and marchers displayed a portrait of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
Sadri Khiari, who represents a group called Indigenous Movement of the Republic, which officially participated in the march, said, “We support all forces of resistance, no matter the method.”
“So I have no reproach for terrorists,” he added.
Asfez said the inflammatory rhetoric expressed in the march deepens divisions between Jews and Muslims.
“Of course that causes extremism,” he said.
“Young people find support in these separate groups,” said Ahmed Sak, a Muslim manager at an Internet cafe in the 19th arrondissement. “They’re French but they feel apart, and people who are really on the margins can go to extremes because they’re offered solutions.”
As for Muslims and Jews living together here, he said, “Everyone has their own space here, and we spend less and less time together.”