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Calling Riots a National Problem, French Jews Maintain Low Profile

November 9, 2005
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Some media are calling it a “suburban intifada,” but the rioting that is rocking France is not a Jewish problem, but a national one. That appears to be the consensus of French Jews, who are simultaneously alarmed at the widespread violence of mostly Muslim youths in suburbs around the country — and relieved that Jews have not been directly targeted, as they were during the height of the Palestinian intifada.

“Anti-Semitism in these neighborhoods has drastically declined over the last six months or so,” said Sammy Ghozlan, who heads the Office of Vigilance Against Anti-Semitism. He is also the president of the Council of Jewish Communities of Seine St-Denis, the Paris suburb where much of the violence, which began at the end of October, has taken place.

The earlier violence against Jews “was just a pretext for these groups of people to violently express their dissatisfaction with their lot in life. Now, the anger that was being channeled toward the Jews is instead being directed at the French state. Instead of Jews, they’re attacking the police,” Ghozlan said.

A former police officer, Ghozlan said that unlike earlier rebellions, “today, there’s an element of Islamic fundamentalism in it which is disturbing.”

Many of the rioters are descended from North African immigrants. However, local Islamic groups have condemned the violence, and analysts have been quick to point out that some of the perpetrators of the arsons and beatings come from sub-Saharan Africa.

Jewish organizations in France and abroad are keeping relatively quiet about the situation. CRIF, the umbrella group of secular Jewish organizations, declined to comment on the violence, saying this is a French problem with no link to the Jewish community.

The Jewish community has been affected by some incidents, but these are seen as part of the larger acts of violence, rather than directly targeted at Jews.

Last week, two synagogues were damaged in the riots: On Nov. 3, a Molotov cocktail blackened the door of a synagogue in the suburb of Pierrefitte, and the next evening, a Friday night, a device was detonated outside the synagogue in the suburb of Garges-les-Gonesse.

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin telephoned the president of the CRIF, Roger Cukierman, after these attacks.

Cars were burned in central Paris, not far from the Rue des Rosiers, a street lined with Jewish merchants, restaurants and synagogues. In Aulnay-sous-Bois, the storefront of a small Jewish rug merchant was burned; in Aubervilliers, a fabric warehouse also believed to be owned by Jews was burned.

Reports that a 56-year-old handicapped woman hospitalized with severe burns last week was Jewish could not be corroborated. According to local officials, the woman was caught in an attack on a bus in Sevran, a suburb north of Paris. The other passengers exited the vehicle but the woman, confined to crutches, was unable to join them, and was consequently sprayed with gas and set afire with the vehicle.

Despite the relative silence, the Jewish community remains wary.

Rabbi Yossi Gorodetsky, an American Chabad representative in Paris, said: “We just don’t want to see this turn into a problem of anti-Semitism. They’re very clear about why they’re angry and who they’re angry with,” but at this point, the Jews are not being targeted.

“The rioters are not distinguishing between hospitals, schools or synagogues,” said Philip Carmel, international relations director for the Conference of European Rabbis. The violence has affected mosques and churches as well; at the beginning of the riots, a mosque was damaged when a bomb containing tear gas was thrown through the window.

“The anti-Semitism we’ve been seeing over the past few years was a warning sign for these events,” Carmel said, referring to the rash of incidents that occurred at the height of the Palestinian intifada.

“It’s not that the French are anti-Semitic,” he said. “It’s that there is something deeply wrong with French society in its failure to integrate its North African youth.”

“France has alienated 10 percent of its population,” he said, “and now the government is finding it has to deal with their needs.”

Groups such as SOS-Racisme, which speaks out against anti-Semitism and other forms of racism, have expressed dissatisfaction with the government’s response to the violence.

“We are astonished at the insufficiency of the measures taken by the government to curb the violence,” SOS-Racisme said.

“For over 20 years SOS-Racisme has warned of the dangers of ghettoization and of the social and political consequences of racial discrimination,” the president of the group, Dominique Sopo, said in a statement last week. “Words are not enough to change the everyday existence of this part of the population. What they need, what they want, particularly among the adolescents, are strong acts of public power.”

Many groups, including SOS-Racisme, have criticized the media’s insistence on comparing the riots to the Palestinian uprisings.

Rabbi Gabriel Farhi, with the Liberal Movement of French Jews, wrote on a Jewish community Web site, that while the term “intifada” might seem applicable from a certain point of view, the Palestinian uprisings against Israel are much more “difficult” and “complicated” than those of the French suburbs.

In response to the call for “words of peace” made by the rector of the Mosque of Paris, Farhi wrote, “We know only too well that peace demands not simply words, but actions as well.”

The political consequences of the riots may be grave for Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who has received much of the blame for the escalation of the violence after reportedly referring to the rioters as “scum.”

Sarkozy and de Villepin are considered to be political rivals for the presidency in 2007.

“If Sarkozy resigns,” as many have called on him to do, “the rioters will feel that they have won,” Ghozlan said.

The rioting claimed its first fatality on Monday. Jean-Jacques Le Chenadec, 61, succumbed to injuries he sustained when he was beaten in front of his home while attempting to extinguish a fire in a trash can.

The media, meanwhile, is largely measuring the violence in cars: On Monday, 1,173 cars were burned, down from 1,408 the night before. From this perspective, the violence seems to be calming.

Ghozlan, however, is not hopeful that the violence will subside anytime soon.

“Right now they’re just throwing stones and Molotov cocktails, but they’re certainly armed,” he said, adding that it’s “just a matter of time before this becomes even more serious.”

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