Three years of attacks on Jewish targets in France finally came to a head this week with the arson attack on a Jewish school near Paris.
When fire-fighters were called to the Mercaz Hatorah school in the northern Parisian suburb of Gagny early Saturday morning, word about the arson reached the highest echelons of the French state.
The response from government leaders was that enough was finally enough.
“When a Jew is attacked in France, the whole of France is attacked,” French President Jacques Chirac said.
Chirac’s reaction, both verbal and legal, earned the praise of Jewish community leaders.
“Jacques Chirac is someone who hates anti-Semitism and hates anti-Semites,” said Haim Musicant, executive director of the CRIF umbrella organization of French Jews. “He has understood that French Jews are no longer able to stand the situation, and he has put his foot down.”
Another Jewish official said it was important that the French president has been seen to act because of “the credibility France has with the Arab world.”
Anti-Semitism in France has reached epidemic proportions since the beginning of the Palestinian intifada in September 2000. Most of the attacks on Jews have been blamed on young French Muslims.
Last year, around three-quarters of all racially motivated attacks in France targeted Jews, according to official government figures. The attacks reached a peak in spring 2002, when Israel invaded the West Bank following mounting waves of terrorist attacks.
The government and Jewish organizations say the number of anti-Semitic incidents has fallen in recent months.
Nevertheless, recent attacks on Jews and community institutions have taken a distinctly more violent tone, and community leaders have been pushing the government to act.
France’s interior and education ministers quickly arrived at the site of the school fire, and Chirac summoned them and three senior colleagues to an emergency meeting on anti-Semitism at the Elysee Palace.
Within an hour of the meeting Monday, the government announced a get-tough policy to deal with perpetrators of anti-Semitic attacks. It also set up a Cabinet committee — to be chaired by Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin — to deal with the issue.
Among the first to be told of the policy changes was a delegation of French Jewish leaders, which met with Chirac shortly after the unusual mini-Cabinet session.
One of those attending, French Chief Rabbi Joseph Sitruk, told reporters outside the Elysee Palace that Chirac had given them everything they wanted even before they asked.
“The president has made a strong symbolic gesture which for us includes the most important thing, which is to make known that anti-Semitism is not a Jewish problem but a French problem,” Sitruk said.
Sitruk’s words were echoed by Musicant.
“This is the speech we’ve been waiting for,” Musicant said. “The situation has been unbearable. There was a need to apply firm pressure on the brakes.”
The tone for what was likely to be agreed on at the interministerial meeting had been set soon after the fire, when Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy described it unequivocally as an anti-Semitic attack.
Shortly afterward, Justice Minister Dominique Perben said that if caught, the perpetrators could face as much as 20 years in jail and a fine of more than $150,000.
The fire completely destroyed a former factory that the Orthodox school was converting into an extension of its facilities. No one was injured, and classes were able to resume in other buildings after the weekend.
On Monday, Chirac announced that security would be beefed up at Jewish institutions across France and “exemplary sentences” would be handed out to offenders.
Those moves were particularly welcomed by CRIF President Roger Cukierman, who said on the RCJ Jewish Community radio station that “it was time to severely punish those who commit the acts.”
“They’ve done this kind of thing with traffic offenders and it worked,” Cukierman said. “Giving out heavy sentences and setting examples is what Giuliani did in New York.”
Chirac also announced that each court would have a representative responsible for communicating with the Jewish community to ensure that all anti-Semitic acts are followed up and that legal steps are taken as soon as possible.
Similar instructions also will be given to Education Ministry inspectors in order to eliminate anti-Semitic attacks and statements within the school system, he said.
That would empower government to act “with the greatest vigilance in prevention, the greatest firmness in pursuit and the greatest severity and speed in the sanction of anti-Semitic acts,” Chirac said.
Chirac’s remarks were welcomed by Jewish leaders.
Ariel Goldman, spokesman for the Jewish Community Protection Service, told JTA that while he preferred to “remain vigilant and see how things operate on the ground,” he was “rather reassured.”
Goldman pointed out the importance of the Cabinet committee, which should enable monthly follow-ups to check on the new measures’ effectiveness.
Sammy Ghozlan, president of the Jewish Community Council of Seine Saint-Denis — an area that includes Gagny and which has one of the highest rates of anti-Semitic violence — also drew attention to the committee.
“When there’s an interministerial committee there will be results, because the ministers will be forced to permit police to go to the source of the problem,” said Ghozlan, a former senior police officer.
Ghozlan also said he welcomed the government’s acknowledgment of the problem.
“We have been calling for this for three years,” he said.
However, he rejected claims that the problem of anti-Semitic attacks was restricted only to working class areas around the capital such as Seine Saint-Denis.
“This is not confined to the suburbs. We get reports of attacks in Paris and in other parts of the country all the time,” Ghozlan said. Neither was this just about “disenfranchised criminal elements,” he added.
“Local councils push the Palestinian cause and inflame French Muslims so they can be used electorally,” Ghozlan said.
But, he said, it’s equally important that the French president has been seen to act, because of “the credibility France has with the Arab world.”
According to Musicant, the decision to act came both because of recent anti-Semitic incidents and the fact that the attack on the school fell on the same day as the synagogue bombing in Istanbul.
He denied that the measures were connected to recent campaigns by international Jewish groups and Israel to personally blame Chirac for anti-Semitism 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.