PARIS (JTA) – Angry and frightened Jewish youth gathered in the 19th district of northern Paris on Monday evening to show support for a 17-year-old Jewish boy who was brutally beaten with metal bars while on his way to synagogue Saturday evening.
Hospital officials said Monday that Rudy Haddad was temporarily out of a medically induced coma and was “doing better.”
But his improved condition did little to quell anger among French Jews over the latest shock to their community.
Angst has intensified in areas such as the 19th district, where interethnic violence between Muslims and blacks of immigrant origin and the Jews living among them has grown more frequent.
The tensions continue despite a general decline in the number of anti-Semitic attacks since the period between 2000 and 2004, which saw a sharp increase.
To many, the June 21 incident was an unexpectedly violent yet anticipated result of such a divisive atmosphere.
The incident, which has grabbed headlines here and renewed debate about the surge of interethnic violence, also has raised new questions about whether the French authorities are doing enough to protect the Jewish community.
While French officials were quick to condemn the attack, most fell short of identifying the crime as anti-Semitic, saying the police first needed to complete their ongoing investigation.
On Tuesday, Paris police were still looking into possible motives for the beating. Five teens aged 14 to 17 have been questioned.
The Paris public prosecutor on the same day opened a probe into the “anti-Semitic character” of the attack.
The probe will determine if Haddad’s unidentified attackers are guilty of “attempted murder aggravated by an anti-Semitic character” and “group violence with aggravating circumstances,” Prosecutor Jean-Claude Marin said at a news conference, the AFP news agency reported.
Marin said Haddad was beaten in circumstances related to a string of fights pitting young Jews against young blacks that took place that afternoon and evening.
“We have a sort of identification of a presupposed African or black community on one hand, and a Jewish community on the other,” Marin said. “It is anti-Semitism by incidence.”
The prosecutor said investigators believe Haddad was targeted because he was a member of a Jewish band of youth and not necessarily because he was “a person of Jewish origin.”
French President Nicolas Sarkozy told reporters while visiting Israel this week that he was “particularly shocked by what happened to a young French boy, on the pretext that he was wearing a kipah,” AFP reported.
In an initial presidential statement Sunday, Sarkozy denounced the attack but did not draw such conclusions.
The daily France-Soir reported Monday that police sources believe Haddad was involved in a dispute between Jewish and black boys and was attacked two hours later, when he was alone. Various reports cited between 15 to 30 young blacks attacked.
Police confirmed that Haddad had been held for questioning with three friends in 2007 for involvement in an interethnic dispute.
Yet to many in the Jewish community, especially in the poor, multiethnic 19th arrondissement where the incident took place, few doubted that Haddad was targeted because he was wearing a kipah and was an identifiable Jew.
On Tuesday, France’s newly elected chief rabbi, Gilles Bernheim, shifted his stance on the anti-Semitic nature of Haddad’s attack.
The day before he had told the French media that it was “probable” but “not certain” that Haddad was beaten because he was Jewish. But Tuesday morning he told French Radio J, a Jewish station, that the incident was “something vile and notoriously anti-Semitic.”
While Jewish leaders in the 19th district were discussing the possibility of an organized response to the incident, 150 Jewish youth and some adults spontaneously met near the scene of the crime on Monday for a second consecutive evening to protest the attack.
“It was senseless, and it could just as well have been me because I’m Jewish,” said David Sebban, 17, who spoke with his hands clasped before him, visibly angered and saddened.
As he spoke, a crowd of young Jews rushed to testify of their growing fears for their security in the neighborhood. Some said they would like to take revenge on the next group of “Arabs” they crossed, referring to Muslim immigrants of North African origin.
“When I go out, I go out with a big group, and if someone calls us a ‘dirty Jew’, we fight them,” said David, 15, who declined to give his last name.
Most of the kipah-wearing boys and observant girls spoke soberly of increasing tensions in the neighborhood, which includes the largest Jewish community in Paris.
Though no official statistics exist, community leaders estimate that 25,000 to 30,000 Jews live in the 19th district, while roughly 200,000 live in Paris and its suburbs.
The district had the largest recorded number of anti-Semitic incidents within the French capital in 2007. Last year, 29 incidents were recorded there, compared to 15 in 2006. This contrasts with two or three reported incidents in areas closer to central Paris in 2007.
“We don’t want to go out of the house anymore,” said a petite Helena Sitbon, 15, who spoke as she leaned against her friend, nervously playing with her gold Star of David charm necklace.
Sitbon said that since Saturday, she has been calling her girlfriend to come pick her up from the house because she is afraid to go outside alone.
“Before we were afraid, but now it’s much worse. Where are we?” she begged to know, as those around her nodded and called for unity among their Jewish “brothers and sisters.”
Officials and community leaders have noted a recent rise in interethnic skirmishes among neighborhood youths. They often take place on Saturdays, when many of the neighborhood’s low-income Jews gather between Shabbat morning and evening services at a large, nearby park and are more easily identifiable.
Haddad’s violent beating is a reminder of the 2006 anti-Semitic killing of Ilan Halimi, who was kidnapped and tortured before his body was left near railroad tracks just outside of Paris.
The latest incident has prompted some to question the French government’s response to the ever-present threat of anti-Semitism in French society. Some Jews in the 19th district expressed their frustration Monday with officials and the French media for declining to identify Saturday’s incident as clearly anti-Semitic.
“The government makes an effort,” said Joseph Cattan, 60. “But if everything they’ve done until now still hasn’t worked, it means they need to do more.”
Yet CRIF, the umbrella organization of the Jewish community, and the International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism thought the government’s swift and firm condemnation of the attack was appropriate, due to the sensitivity of the case.
“I think their reaction was sufficient,” said Marc Knobel, a CRIF representative and a researcher on anti-Semitism in Europe. “It was quick, and it shows that those in power take this very seriously. They showed their solidarity, and reminded everyone that hurting a Jew is the same as hurting France. There is nothing as powerful as saying that.
“If it was not a question of anti-Semitism, then Sarkozy would not have reacted immediately.”
Knobel was among many community leaders who warned that though they believed Haddad was attacked because he was recognized as a Jew, the government was right to exercise great caution before publicly announcing any motives for the crime.
Every reported anti-Semitic act further frightens the Jewish population, which has become more insular since this decade’s overall rise in anti-Jewish violence.
“We saw a rise in anti-Semitic violence since 2000, which discredited our country,” Knobel said, adding that acting without precaution would be irresponsible and “dangerous.”
Other Jews said that police authorities and newspapers such as the daily Le Monde tended toward a purely gang-related explanation for the attack because they were ashamed of their failure to ensure the safety of the country’s Jewish population.
“They’ll try to do everything to turn this into a common offense,” said Rabbi Michel Bouskila, the 19th district Jewish Community Council president. “If we say it is anti-Semitic, it means they have failed, it says the government hasn’t done anything.”
Bouskila said he would be meeting with community leaders and the Minister of the Interior, Michel Alliot-Marie, on Wednesday evening.
Some of the adults gathered around a tree-shaded intersection in the rue Petit, beside a kosher cafe, said they were aware that many of the country’s non-Jews accused them of “overreacting” to the threat of anti-Semitism.
“In the press they don’t talk about so many of the daily anti-Semitic incidents that happen because they’re not important enough, and because we’re so used to it, we don’t report most of them,” said Patricia Tahar, 56, a mother of two. “It’s only the big, violent attacks that make it into the press, so of course the French don’t understand why we are scared.
“But if they knew what we lived through every day, the French would understand,” she said. “I can’t take any risk with my children.”