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French Officials Taking Action Against Anti-semitism in Schools

March 12, 2003
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Outside Olivier’s former school in Paris’ 20th District, there is a plaque listing the names of the school’s Jewish children who were deported from their homes to Nazi death camps.

Last year, Olivier, 10, was one of many in his class who volunteered to read out the names. Later that semester, he recounted the story of his grandfather, who lived in the same cosmopolitan district and was the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust.

That simple action identified Olivier as Jewish.

Suddenly, he became the target of a torrent of anti-Semitic abuse from erstwhile friends in his school, the majority of whose pupils are Muslim.

By the end of the year, the school director was forced to call in Olivier’s mother for a meeting. He told her he could no longer guarantee the safety of her child, and that Olivier would have to find another school.

The mother protested that, rather than force the victim to move on, the school should expel those who had regularly subjected Olivier to anti-Semitic insults. But the school director said he “did not want to enforce the principles of the Republic on the back of the child.”

Olivier’s aggressors have since been disciplined by the principal. Some have shown remorse, but others continue to taunt Olivier whenever they see him.

“We’re going to get rid of all of the Jews in the school,” they shout at him.

According to Chaim Musicant, executive director of CRIF, the umbrella organization for secular Jewish institutions in France, Olivier’s case shows that there is a “deep malaise within the French school system and in French society in general.”

“This is a real scandal,” Musicant told JTA. “You have here a case where the school was not capable of guaranteeing the victim’s safety. In effect, the victim was the one who was punished and had to leave the school, whereas the perpetrators were allowed to remain.”

Incidents involving increasing physical and verbal violence against Jewish students — as well as a reluctance among teachers in certain “problem” schools to teach the history of the Holocaust — have led Education Minister Luc Ferry to demand that government inspectors get tough with school anti-Semitism.

Ferry announced a series of measures last week that include legal action against anyone using physical or verbal abuse in the classroom to target someone’s religious or ethnic background.

“We have to demand of school directors that they apply the greatest firmness in order to maintain secular republican principles in schools and to avoid the importation of the Middle East conflict into the classroom,” Ferry said.

Among the measures is the creation of a 20-person team at the Education Ministry that will be on call to intervene at any school where assistance is required to deal with racist or anti-Semitic activities.

A commission will also be appointed to prepare a booklet to “actualize the republican ideal and make it a living thing” in the classroom, Ferry said.

In addition, the commission will provide a list of reference texts to pupils and educators in the event of conflict.

“The commission will intervene at the least incident — even verbal — and it will not allow incidents to pass by without punishment or without explanation,” the minister said.

Ferry has decided to convene representatives from different organizations present in the schools, including school directors, teachers unions and even high school student associations.

However, he has not invited the participation of the high school teachers union, an organization that he believes has been reluctant in the past to deal with classroom anti-Semitism.

“What worries us is that we are beginning to see a new form of anti-Semitism that benefits from a relative tolerance from adults,” Ferry said.

“There is often a certain form of anti-Zionism, particularly from left-wing intellectuals and other democrats, which criticizes the State of Israel but which often veers toward anti-Semitism,” he added.

Such remarks have angered the teachers unions, with the largest high school union, SNES, condemning Ferry’s comments.

“Casting aspersions on the teaching establishment and suggesting that teachers tolerate racist and anti-Semitic remarks results in transferring the responsibility for the problem onto the teachers, when they are more often the victims of such remarks,” the union said in a statement.

For its part, CRIF welcomed Ferry’s proposals.

“We met the minister a few months ago to outline the problem in the schools,” Musicant said.

He added that the group presented Ferry “with a dossier cataloguing anti-Semitism against students and teachers, and the minister told us he was very worried about the problem.”

CRIF President Roger Cukierman also “raised the issue with Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, and the Ferry proposals are part of this process,” Musicant added.

At the local level, the organization responsible for Jewish security is the Jewish Community Protection Service, known by its French acronym, SPCJ.

The SPCJ was formed in 1980 in the wake of a synagogue bombing in central Paris.

The organization’s spokesman, Ariel Goldman, told JTA that the SPCJ is always available to provide legal and psychological assistance to those facing anti-Semitic attacks.

For some, though, anti-Semitic abuse of students is only part of a wider problem. In some areas of France, particularly in the suburbs of the larger cities, there has been a growth in school violence for reasons other than anti- Semitism.

“There’s a general problem with the lack of authority and respect in certain schools, and that’s a wider problem than that which affects Jews,” Musicant said.

According to testimony by a group of teachers published in a recent study, The Lost Territories of the Republic, there are certain schools where teachers are afraid to enforce national educational guidelines in the classroom — including teaching the history of the deportation of French Jews by the Nazis.

One of the rare teachers to allow her name to be published in the study, Barbara Lefebvre, claims that in areas with large populations of North African, or Maghrebin, origin, it often is the pupils who set the tone in the schools, rather than the educators.

“Certain Muslim pupils want to enforce their own community’s principles in the schools, and they are quick to pick out a scapegoat. It’s very effective,” she said. “The youngsters line up against the Jews, and the school does nothing about it.”

For Lefebvre, the most important message is for the teaching staff.

“There’s not only physical violence to express hate against Jews, there’s also a vast range of threats, and some of those are aimed at the teachers,” she said.

One of the effects of the rise in anti-Semitic incidents at state schools has been a large increase in the enrollment of children in Jewish schools.

“The parents are scared,” Musicant told JTA. “For two and a half years now, they’ve seen synagogues burning and Jews attacked.”

Nevertheless, the majority of French Jews still want their children exposed to secular values, and there is definitely “a place for French Jews within the state system,” he said.

Moreover, there has been a steady decline in anti-Semitic incidents in France since they reached a peak in April 2002 — though Musicant is still concerned that this could represent “a sleeping volcano.”

“There are less violent acts now and they’re less spectacular,” he said. “At the same time, we continue to see children attacked, and we fear it may get worse if there’s a war in Iraq.”

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