PARIS, Oct. 21 (JTA) To stroll through parts of the 19th and 20th districts of Paris on a Friday evening or a Saturday afternoon is to encounter a thriving Jewish community.
Since the beginning of September, however, insecurity and mistrust have disrupted the Sabbath tranquility for members of this predominantly Sephardic Jewish community.
During the High Holidays, the Paris police dispatched heavily armed detachments to guard synagogues throughout the city. The vigilance reflects the heightened fear since the Sept. 11 terror attack in the United States and the threat of renewed violence to mark the one-year anniversary of the Palestinian intifada.
There also were other reasons, closer to home, to fear an attack.
On the first Sunday of September, a group of fifty or sixty Arab youths attacked Jewish teenagers and tourists on Paris’ famous Champs Elysées boulevard. Shouts of “Death to the Jews” and “Heil Hitler” filled the air, according to witnesses, as the assailants hurled bottles and stones at the Jews.
Fortunately, a unit of crowd control police arrived in time to prevent a clash between hundreds of Jewish and Arab teen-agers.
Jewish youths involved in the incident claimed the Arab teens had instigated a fight by groping Jewish girls.
Za’ava, a student in the northeast of Paris, suggested the attack had been coordinated by Arab youths from the suburbs.
“They knew that we always go there on that day,” she claimed, “and they came to start a fight.”
The following Sunday, a group of Arab youths attacked the crowded terrace of a kosher restaurant in the 19th district.
At 6 p.m., as the youthful clientele of Papy Youda sipped drinks on a sidewalk lined with Jewish businesses, an Arab youth took a chair and slammed it into the restaurant’s door and windows. His partner used a wrench to hit several cars that were double-parked in front of the cafe.
This was hardly the first time Jewish businesses on the street had been vandalized, but most of the previous incidents had occurred anonymously, under cover of darkness.
Such direct confrontations do not bode well for Jews in the 19th and 20th districts, who for several decades have shared their neighborhoods with “Maghrebins,” the French term for Arabs of Algerian, Moroccan, and Tunisian descent.
Both Jews and Muslims from the former French colonies poured into these low-income areas from the late 1950s through the early 1970s after the North African wars of independence. Immigrants and their French-born children still constitute a large proportion of residents here.
While relations between Jews and Arabs of North African origin have been strained in the past, anti-Semitic incidents have sharply escalated in the past year.
Many fear that the latest hostilities could signal a return to the tense situation of last October, when a wave of arson and graffiti attacks against Jewish synagogues struck Paris and its suburbs.
Since then, leaders of the Jewish community have been criticized for not speaking out strongly enough against such violence or against a French government that has been unwilling to punish the perpetrators and a French press that has been reluctant to report on the incidents.
France’s chief rabbi, Joseph Sitruk, responded to such complaints by focusing a meeting with Prime Minister Lionel Jospin last July on the more than 1,000 anti-Semitic attacks that had been recorded since October 2000.
“The way in which the events are reported has an influence on public opinion that is consequently negative toward the Jewish community,” Sitruk told Jospin.
After the latest episode on the Champs Elysees, Jews called a radio show to express their outrage that no arrests had been made and that the only newspaper to cover the situation, Le Parisien, portrayed it as a brawl between youths rather than as an anti-Semitic attack.
Thus far, however, the leaders of Jewish organizations in France have remained silent about the affair.
Their reticence may indicate the continuation of a policy by Jewish leaders and French government officials of portraying such incidents as the acts of “disaffected Arab youths” rather than as a reflection of the larger Arab community. Given the youth involvement in the desecration of synagogues and the more recent physical attacks, this may not be an unreasonable approach.
Many fear that publicity would only embolden the young men who carry out anti-Jewish aggression. Many of these youths have seized upon the Palestinian cause to attain a sense of personal honor in North African communities beset by high unemployment and school dropout rates.
The danger is that, beneath the community’s veil of silence, feelings of anger and fear grow among Jewish youths who encounter their Arab neighbors each day.
Reflecting on relations between Jews and Arabs in the 19th district, Sephardic teens gathered in the Buttes Chaumont park after one recent Shabbat articulated a militant but defensive posture.
“The Arabs in France are like the Arabs in Palestine, but we are not afraid,” said Yossi, 18, displaying the button of a Zionist youth group on the lapel of his shirt.
His friend Mikael proudly explained how they had joined the French chapter of Betar, a worldwide Jewish youth organization, to protect the community here against terrorism.
But others in the park seemed less assured. Sabrina, 16, said her parents talked of moving to another part of Paris because their current neighborhood was too dangerous.
Another girl said her parents wanted to move to Israel, where they would feel safer.
Such sentiments suggest that Jews in Paris are bracing for the worst. Yet there are preliminary indications that the Sept. 11 terror attacks actually may have caused aggression against Jews in France to decrease.
In the five weeks since the attacks, only a few minor acts of vandalism against synagogues have been reported. Moreover, the French paper Libération recently reported a drop in both delinquency and religious activity in the weeks after Sept. 11.
This represents a departure from the period of the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the months after the intifada began, when mosque attendance, delinquency and anti-Semitic violence rose rapidly.
There may be some hope, then, that the latest calls for holy war will not be heeded in Paris. Either way, the young will be first to know.