A little more than 100 yards from where French Jews had gathered to debate the community’s future lay the latest reminder of just how precarious that future is.
Participants entering the main synagogue in Creteil, a southern Paris suburb with a large Jewish population, were greeted with news that has become all too familiar since the Palestinian intifada began in September 2000.
At around 10 o’clock the previous night, a large Jewish grocery store literally a stone’s throw from the synagogue had been gutted by an arson attack that police and community leaders believe was motivated by anti-Semitism.
The same evening, in the northeastern Parisian suburb of Rosny, swastikas were sprayed on the walls of the town’s synagogue, along with slogans reading “Death to the Jews.”
According to Sammy Ghozlan, founder of the Bureau for Vigilance Against Anti-Semitism and head of the Council of Jewish Communities for the region that includes Rosny, there have been more than 250 anti-Semitic incidents in France since the beginning of 2003, and more than 2,000 since the intifada began.
The Creteil conference, titled “The Future of the Jewish Community in France: Concerns, Questions and Perspectives,” was organized jointly by the Paris-region Council of Jewish Communities and the Consistoire, an umbrella organization of French Jews.
Sponsored by the United Jewish Social Funds — the umbrella welfare and social organization of French Jewry — the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the European Jewish Congress, it brought together leading Jewish politicians, community leaders and intellectuals.
Presenting his statistics, Ghozlan said the community had been shocked not only by the level of anti-Semitism but also by the authorities’ initial silence.
Moreover, he said, during the initial wave of attacks in 2000 and 2001, President Jacques Chirac and the government of then-Prime Minister Lionel Jospin had sought to minimize the problem.
Anti-racist organizations had marched alongside the Jewish community in the 1990s, following attacks by the extreme right and against the threat of right-wing politician Jean-Marie Le Pen. But many of those groups had abandoned the Jewish community this time around, Ghozlan said, though he singled out the group SOS Racisme for its continued support.
One of the founders of SOS Racisme, Julien Drai, said the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was being used as a pretext.
After the initial surge, anti-Semitic incidents had been dropping until they rose again at the start of 2002, Drai said, culminating in April 2002 when a synagogue in the suburbs of Lyon was seriously damaged by fire-bombing during Israel’s operation battle in the Jenin refugee camp
It is worrisome that Jews in France even had to ask “whether we will still be here in 10 years time,” Drai, a Jewish legislator in the French Parliament and a Socialist Party spokesman, said.
For Drai, who said he believes Jews have a future in France, the answer lies in the continued commitment of the Jewish community to the French republic’s secular values and a willingness to demand that politicians address anti- Semitism seriously.
Moreover, he said, the Socialist Party’s reaction during recent demonstrations against the U.S.-led war in Iraq had been positive, with a firm directive given to party members to leave anti-war demonstrations at the first whiff of anti-Semitism.
Some left-wing movements were not so scrupulous about anti-Semitism, Drai said.
“When they explain it away they justify it, and when they justify they legitimize,” he said.
Drai was not the only speaker to note that the community feels it’s fighting alone.
“Where are the teachers’ unions to denounce school anti-Semitism?” asked Serge Cwajgenbaum, secretary-general of the European Jewish Congress.
Shimon Samuels, international director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said the growth in anti-Semitic attacks is not restricted to France, but is a problem across Europe.
Samuels detailed the rise in European anti-Semitism, particularly in attacks emanating from the anti-globalization movement since the U.N.’s anti-racism conference in Durban, South Africa, in September 2001 became a showcase for anti-Semitic and anti-Israel sentiment.
But while institutions like the Wiesenthal Center can provide statistics, Samuels said, it is governments that must deal with the problem.
According to another key speaker at the conference, Rabbi Gilles Bernheim, the situation of French Jews is symptomatic of a far greater malaise in French society.
Sections of French society are becoming alienated from the state and rejecting its institutions, said Bernheim, who heads the Torah and society department of the Consistoire.
“When France ceases to love itself, that is bad for the Jews,” Bernheim said.
Some three hours into the discussion, with statistics and analysis were becoming rather dry for the large audience, an audience member demanded that the Jewish Agency for Israel’s representative in France, Olivier Rafowicz, be allowed to speak.
A former Israeli military spokesman in France and a regular on radio and television stations, Rafowicz earlier had told JTA that the condition of the French Jewish community is “clinically dead.”
Rafowicz asked audience members to raise their hands if they envisaged a long-term future for Jews in France. Only three people did so.
He then asked whether there was a long-term future in Israel, and about half the people in the audience raised their hands.
That “proved that the” Jewish community’s “leadership did not represent the grass roots,” Rafowicz said.
It was left to Marc Knobel, a researcher from the CRIF umbrella organization of secular French Jewry, to defend community leaders, who he said devoted “much time and effort to defending the community.”
CRIF leadership’s activities in combating anti-Semitism have been protested as being too weak — which is one reason that the Bureau for Vigilance Against anti-Semitism was set up by Ghozlan, a retired police commissioner who was recently described by the U.S. magazine Vanity Fair as “the Sephardi Columbo.”
Though both sides deny it, the bureau nearly duplicates CRIF’s Jewish Community Protection Service.
The two organizations collate statistics of anti-Semitic attacks, run a 24-hour hotline and intervene with the authorities after incidents are reported.
But CRIF has had its critics from the opposite direction as well.
The organization’s head in the Lyon region, Alain Jakubowitz, wrote recently in the daily newspaper Liberation that CRIF President Roger Cukierman was undermining the battle against anti-Semitism in France by failing to criticize Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s policies.
CRIF sometimes acts “like a second Israeli embassy,” Jakubowitz wrote.
Last week, in elections for one-third of CRIF executive’s council, three candidates widely regarded as being to the left of Cukierman topped the poll.
Receiving the highest number of votes was Patrick Klugman, president of France’s Union of Jewish Students, who has described himself as “a pro-Palestinian Zionist.”
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.