PARIS (JTA) – The father of one of the latest Jewish beating victims in the French capital’s 19th district has no plans to leave his home anytime soon.
Nor does he have any intention of asking his son Dan to hide his religious identity.
The 17-year-old and two other teens were wearing kipot when they were beaten Sept. 6 on the same street as another Jewish teen in June. The victims suffered minor fractures and bruises.
Speaking to JTA at the computer software company where he works, the father, Thierry, who asked that his last name not be used for security reasons, said he refuses to “let them stop us from living.”
Anti-Semitism in not new to the 19th district, the northeastern Paris section that is home to the city’s largest Jewish community – some 30,000 – made up mostly of low-income, Orthodox Jews. France has western Europe’s largest Jewish population, approximately 600,000.
Some Jewish community activists here were initially optimistic that the latest attack – which French officials immediately attributed to racism – would help shift the analysis of ethnic tensions in the poor, immigrant-heavy neighborhood.
This summer’s string of violence intensified a debate over whether anti-Jewishness is a deeply rooted problem among the youth in the working-class district or whether random Jewish vs. Muslim gang violence instigated by outsiders from nearby ghettos is mostly to blame for ethnic tensions and is being overblown by skittish French Jews.
“We’re at a crossroads,” said Raphael Haddad, 26, the president of the French Student Union, UEJF. “Today there are these two theses being debated in France, and our work is to show what is due to racist crime and what is based on simply gang violence.”
Since Monday, however, racist motives for the incident are in doubt, because police sources reported that one suspect was Jewish. Now officials and the Jewish community, which was also quick to label last week’s attack anti-Semitic, are facing questions from a skeptical French public.
The skepticism no doubt grew Wednesday when Paris prosecutors said the teens were not attacked because of anti-Semitism. Five of the six suspects questioned in the assault were indicted for group “voluntary violence,” the French Press Agency reported. The suspects are aged 16 to 23.
“Did the political world and the organizational milieu lack caution?” the Le Monde daily asked Wednesday.
The same article quoted spokesmen from the Paris mayor’s office and the interior minister’s office saying they had made their conclusions based on police information given to them. Prosecutors have maintained that anti-Semitism played a role in the June assault of Rudy Haddad.
When anti-Semitic incidents rose sharply between 2000 and 2004, at the height of tensions between Israel and the Palestinians, the atmosphere was often likened to the horrors of the World War II era, sparking sensitivity among the French.
That tone of skepticism sometimes boils over into hostility toward French Jews, who already face accusations of pushing their own agenda at the expense of other minorities, and of presumably influencing the government.
“Because of systematically crying wolf, the Jews risk to lose all credit,” said one reader comment on the moderate-left daily Liberation Web site. It was one of hundreds of postings in response to Monday’s revelation that one of the suspected attackers was Jewish.
“It’s time for the Jews to stop lamenting, and for the Jews to stop continually considering themselves as victims. Other categories of people can more justifiably complain,” another post read, but others “hide their misery.”
The 19th district suffers from a high degree of violent crime in general. But Jewish leaders and most of the district’s Jews vehemently deny the gang-violence argument, often heard after 17-year-old Rudy Haddad was attacked on June 21. Haddad ended up in a coma at the time.
Prosecutors in that case are charging two young men of “attempted murder and group violence aggravated by their anti-Semitic character.”
For his part, Thierry is exasperated by the notion that the incidents stem from gang violence.
“These gangs don’t exist – all that is just a media circus,” he told JTA. He cited a French TV report quoting the secretary of the National Police Union as saying the Sept. 6 incident “might not be anti-Semitic but just a settling of scores between gangs.”
Yet despite such reports, in the first days following last week’s crime, many officials and the French media suggested the recent attack appeared different from the one on Rudy Haddad mainly because the victims – one in law school, and all in rigorous academic programs – did not appear involved in interethnic skirmishes.
Thierry’s son Dan said a stone was thrown at his group of friends, ages 17 and 18, as they walked to one of their homes between Sabbath services. The encounter quickly turned violent, he said, involving at least one brass knuckle, when one of the three Jewish teens approached the stone throwers – boys they recognized from the neighborhood – and then refused to fight. The Jews were sent to the hospital with minor fractures. Dan’s left cheek was fractured and his lip was cut.
Richard Prasquier, the president of the CRIF umbrella, said the fact that one of the alleged suspects may have been Jewish “complicated” the affair but still did not negate the anti-Jewish nature of the crime.
“The police say it’s not anti-Semitic if a Jew is involved, but for me, if you throw a stone at a youth wearing a kipah, it’s anti-Semitic,” he said. “There was an anti-Semitic nature to this attack.”
A spokeswoman for Paris investigators confirmed to JTA that six suspects were being held for questioning, but she added that it was “too early” to communicate further on the incident and faith of those involved.
Other police sources told French reporters that the suspects, aged 16 to 26, were residents of the 19th district.
Though the National Bureau of Vigilance Against Anti-Semitism said such crime is down across France this year, in the 19th district it has doubled from 14 to 28 incidents.
Meanwhile, the families targeted by the latest violence are left to cope with the trauma.
“I told him what I’ve always told him,” a visibly distraught Thierry told JTA in the interview. “I tell him that we live in France and so unfortunately, these things are common. I tell him you’re Jewish, be careful, but I can’t stop him from living.”
Thierry, whose family immigrated to France from Algeria, said he would never ask his son to hide his religious identity and has no plans to leave the neighborhood, though many of his Jewish neighbors have “had enough” and have moved to safer areas.
His father’s explanation hasn’t made it any easier for Dan, who started the school year in an optometry program, to understand why wearing a kipah was such a crime.
“I’m proud of putting my kipah on,” Dan, who looks younger than his 17 years, told JTA through a swollen lip. “Why a provocation? I don’t understand. It’s my religion.”