Riotous pro-Palestinian marches spark anxiety among French Jews

Participant in a pro-Israel rally in Paris on Jan. 4, 2009 prays for the safety of Israeli citizens and soldiers. (Deborah Lauter)

Participant in a pro-Israel rally in Paris on Jan. 4, 2009 prays for the safety of Israeli citizens and soldiers. (Deborah Lauter)

French demonstrators hold signs equating Israel with Nazis and accusing the Jewish state of genocide and war crimes at an anti-Israel rally in Paris on Jan. 3, 2009. (Deborah Lauter)

French demonstrators hold signs equating Israel with Nazis and accusing the Jewish state of genocide and war crimes at an anti-Israel rally in Paris on Jan. 3, 2009. (Deborah Lauter)

French police barricade a Paris street where anti-Israel demonstrators set fire to vehicles during a protest on Jan. 3, 2009. (Deborah Lauter)

French police barricade a Paris street where anti-Israel demonstrators set fire to vehicles during a protest on Jan. 3, 2009. (Deborah Lauter)

PARIS (JTA) — Deborah, 20, almost didn’t attend a rally in support of Israel the day after a massive pro-Palestinian march turned riotous in the heart of the French capital’s luxury shopping district.

"After yesterday, I was two seconds away from not coming. You never know what can happen," Deborah said on her way Sunday toward the Israeli Embassy, where nearly 4,000 people gathered to sing Israeli songs and defend Israel’s military offensive in the Gaza Strip.

Deborah, a French-Israeli citizen who asked that her last name not be revealed, chose to attend despite concerns for her safety after the virulent anti-Israel march numbering 21,000 held Jan. 3. By the night of that march, cars and Israeli flags were burned, and 10 riot police were injured in clashes with 400 to 500 youth wearing kaffiyehs and Palestinian flags.

The violence took place in Paris, near the landmark Galeries Lafayette department store and Place de la Madeleine.

Tens of thousands participated in anti-Israel protests across France on Saturday. Some of the largest demonstrations reached 15,000 in Lyon, according to police.

A pro-Palestinian group that includes France’s Communist Party organized the movement. Its leader, the increasingly popular Olivier Besancenot, told the French daily Nouvel Observateur that Saturday’s marches showed that "France’s opinion cannot be summarized by the opinion of [French President] Nicolas Sarkozy, who rolled out the red carpet" for Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livini during her recent visit to Paris.

Sarkozy, who was set to head to the Middle East on Monday in an effort to negotiate a cease-fire, has blamed Hamas for the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza.

As Deborah approached the heavily guarded Jewish contingent Sunday waving Israeli flags, she consistently reassured her mother by mobile phone of the significant police presence. She understood her mother’s concerns, Deborah said, because "I have a lot of friends who were afraid to come today. But I had to come for my country."

A Paris police spokeswoman said security was high for the event due to developments in the Middle East, but was not altered in reaction to earlier rioting in Paris.

No negative incidents were reported in relation to the pro-Israel event. Still, Deborah was one of many participants at the march organized by the Jewish umbrella group CRIF who said they left behind friends who were "afraid" of publicly siding with Israel a day after they saw Haussmann Street covered in broken glass. Two stores were looted and several vandalized by youth who ran through the streets with metal bars, jumping on cars and smashing windows on stores, cars and a parked bus.  Families with young children and elderly members who had participated in the anti-Israel rally had to flee in fear.

Those who turned out for the pro-Israel rally said they were eager to defend the Israeli military, but many also came to express their outrage and concern at the previous day’s events.

"They shouted ‘down with the Jews’ and ‘down with Israel.’ It was horrible. They are anti-Semites!" said Namy, 47, of the pro-Palestinian rally.  She declined to give her full name for fear of being identified.

Namy’s comments quickly triggered a storm of commentary from other supporters of Israel standing nearby, who complained about what they described as the lack of security Jews felt in France.

"This happened right in the middle of Paris," Namy said. "They broke one store window after another, all up Haussmann Street.  We had to hide in our apartments."

The anti-Israel march passed through a district where many less religious French Jews live and own businesses.

In addition to the violence and damage — one of the burned cars was a police vehicle — anti-Israeli slogans and signs comparing the Star of David to swastikas were common among protesters. According to the French Press Agency and the daily Le Parisien, at least two Israeli flags were burned, while France and its president were repeatedly called "accomplices" to Israeli "assassins."

JTA and other bystanders also witnessed negative references to the Jewish religion. The French press did not cover such incidents, focusing instead on the violence and damage it caused.

A veiled young woman holding a child stamped her foot repeatedly on a paper Starbucks coffee cup after her friend said that "Starbucks is Jewish." Many in the crowd wore traditional Muslim clothing.

Crowds also booed as they passed a poster of the French first lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, on the cover of a Jewish monthly, the Jewish Tribune. In response to questions from JTA, participants said they booed at the image because "the magazine is Jewish, and because of Carla."

"The media didn’t talk about it," Namy said of such anti-Jewish sentiments at the anti-Israel march.

"To see Israeli flags burn is nevertheless worrisome," conceded Joel Mergui, the president of France’s largest religiously oriented Jewish organization, the Consistoire, in an interview with the JTA at the rally.

Mergui and a CRIF delegation met with the Israeli ambassador to France, Daniel Shek, following the pro-Israel rally to reiterate their support for the Jewish state.

During the rally Sunday, France’s chief rabbi, Gilles Bernheim declared, "Israel fights for its freedom and the survival of its people; there is no desire to destroy another people."

Bernheim also said it was important for French Jews and Muslims to get along and "trust" each other.

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