Rise in attacks prompts renewed fears for French Jews

Rabbi Mendel Belinow sitting at his desk in the community center in the northern Paris suburb of Saint-Denis, the scene of anti-Semitic attacks. (Devorah Lauter)

Rabbi Mendel Belinow sitting at his desk in the community center in the northern Paris suburb of Saint-Denis, the scene of anti-Semitic attacks. (Devorah Lauter)

PARIS (JTA) — The spike of anti-Semitic attacks across Europe during Israel’s three-week war in Gaza has struck a raw nerve here, reviving fears among French Jews that the violence of the second intifada years has returned to their country.

During the intifada earlier in the decade, a sustained surge in attacks against French Jews and the government’s perceived lackluster response prompted many Jews to fear for their future in France, with some leaving the country.

The government’s belated crackdown on the violence and the election in May 2007 of a new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, with warm ties to Israel and the Jewish community allayed the fears of many and helped tamper anti-Semitic attacks.

But the attacks returned this month with the latest conflagration in the Middle East, enraging French Muslims and resulting in near-daily assaults against Jews for the duration of the Gaza war.

"They are more worried about their safety. They are more afraid than before," said Rabbi Mendel Belinow, leader of a Chabad-Lubavitch synagogue and outreach center in the northern Paris suburb of Saint-Denis that was firebombed Jan. 11.

Two of the nine Molotov cocktails thrown at his synagogue ignited, burning part of the center’s cafeteria. No injuries were reported, though the rabbi was in the building at the time and was believed to have been a target.

The synagogue, located in a heavily immigrant suburb known for its high crime and poverty rates, also was attacked in 2005 when "Death to the Jews" was scrawled on its inner walls.

Over the past few weeks, the Jewish community has seen attacks ranging from firebombings to stabbings. The government’s inability to protect them from violence, despite the efforts of French authorities, has generated a renewed sense of unease in the French Jewish community, which numbers roughly 600,000 in a country of 60 million. France has 5 million to 6 million Muslims.

"It’s harder to reassure them now," Belinow said of his approximately 160 congregants.

While the current cease-fire between Israel and Hamas is expected to diminish anti-Jewish violence, pro-Palestinian groups have promised to continue with their anti-Israel protests. Such demonstrations in France, which have drawn tens of thousands, commonly have ended in riots and are a mouthpiece for virulent anti-Zionism, including the burning of Israeli flags. Jews and synagogues have been attacked following protests by a fringe of violent youths.

Jewish community leaders warn that fears of further attack will disrupt the daily routines of Jews and intimidate them into hiding their religious identity — and if the volatile situation is not controlled, to flee the country.

In Toulouse, where institutions were mostly spared from violence during the second intifada, Rabbi Jonathan Guez said he and congregants were shocked and unprepared when a car containing firebombs was rammed into the front gate of their synagogue and exploded on Jan. 5.

Guez said Jews would now be "more discreet" about displaying their religion publicly and careful about avoiding troubled neighborhoods. The few Jews who still live in government-subsidized housing projects are thinking about leaving the area, and the synagogue will be heavily secured with cameras and patrol units for the first time, Guez said.

During the violence in France during the second intifada, some French Jews fearful of anti-Semitism pulled their children from public schools and enrolled them in private Jewish schools, began wearing baseball caps on their heads to hide their yarmulkes, moved out of mixed Muslim-Jewish neighborhoods or immigrated to Israel.

But as the attacks against Jews waned, so did French aliyah, dropping to 1,910 in 2008 from 2,700 the year before. Oren Toledano, the director of the Paris-based aliyah department for the Jewish Agency for Israel, called this the "Sarkozy Effect," attributing it to the popularity of the French president among French Jews and the sense of security Sarkozy’s election gave them.

In the past three weeks, Toledano said, his phone has begun ringing off the hook again, with many French Jews considering aliyah calling to accelerate the process.

Many Jews fear Sarkozy alone isn’t enough to reassure the community. When French politicians considered friends of Israel chose not to attend pro-Israel rallies in some French cities during the latest war, some Jews said they again felt abandoned by their lawmakers.

"One president who supports Israel doesn’t mean Jews will feel represented," said Patrick Gaubert, president of the International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism. "One president is great, but it’s not enough."

Frédéric Encel, a geopolitical scholar and expert on French-Israel ties, says the situation is still far better than it was at the start of the second intifada. Some French authorities were seen then as explaining away anti-Jewish crime in France. Now the country has a president and foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, invested in brokering Middle East peace.

On Jan. 16, Prime Minister Francois Fillon held a meeting of government ministers to prevent the import of the Israel-Hamas conflict to France. The meeting pledged swifter measures to punish perpetrators of xenophobic crimes, special judges trained in anti-Semitism and tighter security at pro-Palestinian protests, according to a report by the French news agency AFP.

As the government fine-tunes its security measures, community dialogue activists say the Gaza war destroyed years of efforts to prevent a repetition of the violent reaction in France to the second intifada.

On Monday, the Grand Mosque of Paris confirmed to the JTA that its members had pulled out from a major interreligious dialogue group, the French Judeo-Muslim Friendship organization. The mosque issued a statement last week complaining of the "total absence of condemnations" of Israel’s operation in Gaza from the group’s Jewish contingent, according to AFP.

The Jewish representative to the group, Rabbi Michel Serfaty, insisted he would not slow his efforts with the remaining Muslims in the group, which was assembled five years ago.

"Prejudice can’t be changed overnight,” Serfaty said.

"It’s possible that what happens thousands of kilometers away can undo all our work," acknowledged a member of the Council of Jewish Communities, Andre Benayoun, at a synagogue in southern Paris on Jan. 16, where a back door was set ablaze by arsonists the day before.

Among other things, the council urges local politicians to prevent anti-Semitism through security measures and dialogue with Muslim leaders.

"We can never let our arms down, never resign,” Benayoun said of efforts to reach out to Muslims. We must “just start over systematically."

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