It took precisely 24 hours for demonstrations in solidarity with France’s Jewish community to turn into opprobrium against it. The sudden change came Tuesday when a 23-year-old non-Jewish woman who claimed she had been the victim of a violent anti-Semitic act admitted to police that she had staged the incident.
French Jews are now hoping the incident won’t do too much damage to the fight against anti-Semitism in France, which remains a real problem.
Given the massive surge in anti-Semitic incidents in France over the past six months, reports that the woman and her baby had been violently attacked on a Paris suburban train had sent shock waves through the political establishment and the country’s Jewish community.
The woman told police that six men armed with knives had attacked her July 9 after discovering information on her identity card that led them to believe, erroneously, that she was Jewish.
According to the woman’s ! police complaint, the attackers cut her hair, ripped her clothing and scrawled three swastikas on her stomach with a black marker pen. They then overturned a carriage containing her 13-month-old baby.
Reports of the incident — and particularly the woman’s claim that it had occurred in full view of at least 20 witnesses who did nothing — drew swift condemnation, with President Jacques Chirac expressing his “horror.”
“I demand that everything should be done to find the perpetrators of this shameful act in order that they should be tried and sentenced with the severity required,” Chirac said in a statement.
But it soon became apparent that there were serious holes in the woman’s story.
With no witnesses coming forward, the woman — who has a history of making false police complaints — was placed in police custody pending charges for providing false information. She later admitted she had drawn the swastikas herself with the aid of her companion.
Jewish le! aders initially had focused their comments on rising anti-Semitism amo ng Muslim youth in working-class suburbs around France’s large cities, particularly as the woman had told police her attackers were “four Arabs and two Africans.”
Such remarks have led Muslim leaders and anti-racist groups to object to what they see as overkill in dealing with anti-Semitism in France. They also charge that the government has largely ignored racism targeted at Arabs and Muslims.
While Muslim leaders had expressed solidarity with the Jewish community after initial reports of the attack, the woman’s detention provoked a sharp change in tone.
In a statement issued Tuesday, the Movement Against Racism and for Friendship Between Peoples — an organization that traditionally has had sour relations with the organized Jewish community — said that “stigmatized populations in the suburbs had been thrown out to pasture.”
The group also blasted “irresponsible statements used by people who profited from this fabrication to once more instrumentalize anti-S! emitism against a specific population and to increase intercommunal tensions.”
Those remarks appeared aimed at Jewish leaders and organizations, some of whom — like Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin — issued statements without checking with the police.
One such example was the National Bureau for Vigilance Against anti-Semitism, which provides statistics for the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Israeli government on anti-Semitic incidents in France.
“It’s always been Arab-Muslims who commit anti-Jewish attacks for the last four years,” the organization said in a statement.
Even large communal organizations, who usually are more reticent about making statements, were pulled into the melee.
In the wake of the supposed attack, Roger Cukierman, president of the CRIF umbrella organization of French Jews, told a radio station that “imams in housing estates where these attackers live have to start using the right language to point out that anti-Semitic a! cts are unacceptable.”
Despite the polemic, however, there is clea r evidence that the vast majority of racially inspired attacks in France target Jews — as Cukierman himself later pointed out.
“If this was believed, it’s because the climate permits it,” he told JTA. “The fact is that we live at a time where there are hundreds of anti-Semitic attacks.”
Moreover, only hours before the woman told police she had been attacked, the government published figures showing that out of 230 racist attacks against persons or property in the first half of 2004, 135 were committed against Jewish targets.
The trend has been evident for a number of years and is accentuated by the fact that Jews make up only a tiny proportion of France’s ethnic minorities.
After the embarrassment of this incident, the Jewish community must face the possibility that government ministers will be far more reticent in the future to immediately condemn anti-Semitic acts.
Ariel Goldman, spokesman for the Jewish Committee Protection Service, said that if mistake! s were made, they weren’t the fault of the Jewish community.
“The first reactions came right from the top, from the president and the prime minister. We just followed,” Goldman said in an interview.
Cukierman, too, said he “regretted that French citizens had been tricked,” adding that the incident had hurt the fight against anti-Semitism.
“Everybody, the press as much as the authorities, has made itself look ridiculous by immediately crying out anti-Semitism instead of waiting to have more information,” said Kabel Kabtane, the Lyon region president of France’s Muslim Council. “Anti-Semitism is something very serious, but when we deal with it, it’s Muslims who are targeted.”
Kabtane also drew attention to other well-publicized anti-Semitic acts that remain unsolved.
Among those is an arson attack on a Jewish school near Paris last November that lead to the creation of new governmental measures to tackle anti-Semitism, as well as a highly suspicious knife at! tack on a rabbi in January 2003 that still is under investigation.
Despite those isolated incidents, government ministers remain aware that anti-Semitism is a deep problem in today’s France.
Referring to the outcry over the fake attack, government spokesman Jean-FranÃ§ois Cope said it was necessary to “see that beyond the considerable emotion engendered by this act, there is a reality. That is the explosion of anti-Semitic acts in France.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.