For more than a year, French Jewish leaders have called on the government to confront the dramatic rise in anti-Semitic violence that began with the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada.
Now it appears that Prime Minister Lionel Jospin may be ready to address the issue.
Attending last month’s annual dinner of CRIF, the umbrella organization for secular French Jews, along with 11 other top-level officials, Jospin assured the audience of “the determination of the government to fight against all forms of anti-Semitism.
“Faced with the risks,” he said, “we will not relax our efforts.”
By highlighting “all forms” of anti-Jewish aggression, the prime minister was clearly responding to Jewish complaints about his interior minister’s reluctance to take a harder line against the predominantly teen-aged Muslim perpetrators of such hate crimes.
At the dinner, Jospin announced that the government would institute a program in French schools for devoting one day each year to the memory of the Holocaust and to the prevention of crimes against humanity.
He also stated that France would work with the European Council and the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah to organize an international conference on the Holocaust next October.
Yet, for some in the Jewish community, these initial moves are more symbolic than real.
Taking the podium before his featured guest, CRIF President Roger Cukierman adopted a more urgent tone when he called for government support in tackling a problem that many observers feel has reached a crisis level.
“We fear for the security of Jews in France,” he told the delegation of French officials seated before him.
After recounting the list of aggressions and insults that have struck the community over the past year, Cukierman warned of what was at stake if the situation worsens.
“We have never wanted to develop some parallel militias to defend our rights, and we especially do not want that our youth, who encounter the phenomena of Jewish hate, be tempted to respond to the aggressions,” he said.
Jewish leaders must now wait to see if Jospin’s rhetoric signals a substantive shift in law enforcement policy.
For now, this year’s unusually harsh French winter may be cooling things off a bit: The number of anti-Semitic incidents has tended to be highest in the warmer months from late spring to early fall.
But without a pressing reason, it is unlikely that the French government will take the initiative.
This is an election year, and Muslims in France outnumber Jews by about 10-1 .
And, just a few days after the CRIF dinner, two stories in the French media cast some doubt on the willingness of Jospin’s Socialist-led government to confront anti-Semitism in the run-up to the April election.
The first was an expose on this very subject in the popular French magazine L’Express.
Of particular interest in the piece was a report that a leading member of the Socialist Party, Pascal Boniface, had recently suggested in a closed meeting that his party modify its policy toward Israel in order to obtain the Muslim and Arab vote.
“I am struck by the number of young Arabs, of French Muslims of all ages,” Boniface allegedly stated, “who call themselves left but who, because of the situation in the Near East, say they are not voting for Jospin in the presidential election.”
The second story ran in the French daily Le Monde, a newspaper often criticized by French Jews for having a pro-Palestinian slant in its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This article said Socialist Interior Minister Daniel Vaillant believes that anti-Semitic incidents are declining.
Vaillant arrives at this conclusion by comparing the extraordinarily eventful three-month stretch after the start of the Palestinian intifada in September 2000 with the somewhat more quiescent period this past year following the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.
CRIF, on the other hand, emphasizes the overall increase in both threats and acts of aggression between September 2000 and the present.
When questioned about the discrepancy between CRIF’s numbers and those of his ministry, Vaillant remarked, “The figures of CRIF should be taken with caution.”
French Jews will no doubt read such comments as further indications that the Interior Minister — the man most responsible for national law enforcement policy — is still not ready to recognize the serious nature of the threats they face.
Cukierman articulated the feelings of many in the community when he responded, “Beyond the figures, it is the climate that worries us.”
Despite these lingering doubts about the support of the French authorities, Jews in France have to be encouraged by the rising public awareness about the problem of anti-Semitism.
In addition to the coverage in L’Express and Le Monde, two of the other most widely circulated French dailies — the right-leaning Le Figaro and the left-leaning Liberation — have published a number of editorials and articles in the past month affirming the increase in anti-Semitic violence.
Le Figaro, in fact, ran a front-page, two-part series titled “The New Anxiety of French Jews.”
French Jews are hoping this new exposure will put more pressure on the French government, and catapult their grievances into the upcoming presidential debates.
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.