(JTA) — For the past 14 years, French Jews have grown accustomed to coming under attack during periods of conflict in the Middle East from hostile elements within their country’s large Arab and Muslim communities.
One recent incident, however, stood out: the July 13 riot by Palestinian sympathizers outside the Synagogue de la Roquette in central Paris that trapped some 200 terrified people inside the building. A street brawl ensued between the rioters and dozens of Jewish men who arrived to defend the synagogue.
“In people’s minds, there will be a before and after the Synagogue de la Roquette,” Joel Mergui, president of the Consistoire, French Jewry’s central religious services organization, told the French newsweekly Le Nouvel Observateur.
The incident involved pro-Palestinian protesters who reportedly had just come from a large demonstration against Israel’s airstrikes in Gaza.
The violence drew a stern rebuke from French President Francois Hollande.
“There cannot be disturbances and disruptions, intrusions or attempted intrusions in places of worship,” Hollande said during a television interview the next day. “Not in synagogues like what happened yesterday, but I’d say the same about mosques, churches, temples.”
Since Israel launched its military operation against Hamas in Gaza, Jewish houses of worship in and around Paris have been targets.
On the Friday before the violence at the Synagogue de la Roquette, a firebomb was hurled at the entrance to a synagogue in the Paris suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois. The next day, a pro-Palestinian crowd gathered outside a synagogue in the Belleville neighborhood of Paris and chanted about slaughtering Jews. And on the same day as the Roquette synagogue incident, rioters also attacked the nearby Synagogue de la rue des Tournelles.
The riot outside the Synagogue de la Roquette stood out because of the terror it incurred for those inside the shul who had assembled for a gathering in solidarity with Israel. But video footage from the violence outside highlights another reason the incident seemed to some like a watershed moment: The ferocious and unusual response to the threat by young Jewish men who pushed back the pro-Palestinian rioters.
Their action resonated with many in France’s vibrant Jewish community of 600,000 who increasingly feel they must rely on themselves for their safety.
Videos showed the young Jews facing off against pro-Palestinian rioters in a running street battle. Both sides hurled chairs, tables, metal bars and bottles at each other, advancing and retreating several times in offensives and counteroffensives on the street on which the synagogue is located. Finally, riot police arrived and used tear gas to chase away the pro-Palestinian rioters. The officers established a perimeter around the synagogue, and the young Jews fell back behind police lines.
The synagogue’s defenders reportedly included individuals from the right-wing Betar Zionist youth movement and the French branch of the far-right Jewish Defense League, or LDJ, as well as members of the French Jewish community’s security service.
Some organizers of the protest against Israel’s military operation said that Jewish activists helped provoke the violence by goading pro-Palestinian demonstrators.
But witnesses like Alain Azria, a French Jewish journalist who documented the clashes, told a much different story. He said the Jewish youths were merely responding to an attempt by the anti-Israel rioters to break into the synagogue.
“Thank God they were there,” he told JTA. “The anti-Israel protesters had murder on their mind.”
Azria said the young Jews arrived at the scene almost simultaneously with the pro-Palestinian rioters.
“At a certain point, a group of a few dozen splintered off the main protest and headed to synagogue,” he said of the pro-Palestinians rioters. “The Jewish defenders saw this because they were monitoring the demonstration and followed to put up a defensive fight.”
The police on the scene initially were badly outnumbered by the pro-Palestinian rioters. Azria said the five police officers present focused their efforts on guarding the building’s barricaded entrance while they waited approximately 10 minutes for backup to arrive.
The president of the European Jewish Congress, Moshe Kantor, called the incident an “attempted pogrom.”
The CRIF umbrella group of French Jewish communities criticized what it called “the misrepresentation of the incident by some media.”
“These attacks are passed off as intercommunal clashes when in reality these are hateful, violent and unilateral anti-Semitic attacks by pro-Palestinian and Islamist movements,” the CRIF said in a statement.
The CRIF praised the synagogue’s defenders. Though it did not mention the LDJ by name, CRIF’s statement was striking given its consistent condemnations of the vigilante tactics of the LDJ, which is known to boast about its violent actions.
Christine Tasin, a right-wing columnist and former politician who is not Jewish, may have expressed what was on the minds of many French Jews when she wrote on the news site Riposte Laique, “The real scandal is not that LDJ exists, but that it needs to exist.”
Chlomi Zenouda of the National Bureau for Vigilance Against Anti-Semitism — a watchdog group with relatively friendly relations with the LDJ — said the young Jews who rushed to the synagogue’s defense reflected “the rising level of preparedness by Jewish groups that used to be sidelined as alarmist or radical, but which are now proving they were right to rely on their own force to defend themselves and others.”