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Weekend of Anti-semitic Attacks Has French Jews Fearing the Worst

April 2, 2002
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

A fresh outburst of anti-Semitic violence throughout France has Jewish leaders fearing the return of Kristallnacht.

The reference to the horrors of Nazi Germany, issued by French Jewish leader Jean Kahn, hit the French dailies Monday morning, as police in the Mediterranean city of Marseille were still investigating a fire that reduced a synagogue to ashes.

The incident punctuated a weekend of anti-Jewish aggression that included attacks on synagogues in Lyon and Strasbourg and a shooting at a kosher butcher shop near the southwestern city of Toulouse in which no one was injured.

In addition, a French Jewish couple was injured in a weekend attack in the southern part of the country.

The latest violence apparently was sparked by indignation aroused by pro-Palestinian demonstrations in France, Germany and Greece on Saturday.

Lyon and Strasbourg witnessed the largest of these protests, with turnouts estimated at 6,000 and 3,000, respectively, while police reported smaller showings in Toulouse and Marseille.

The first of the attacks took place Saturday morning before the protest in Lyon. According to an eyewitness, approximately 15 hooded men drove a car through the large wooden doors of a synagogue in the Jewish neighborhood of La Duchere and then set it on fire.

The other incidents occurred just hours after demonstrations, in which protestors carried banners that read “We are all Palestinians,” “Sharon Assassin,” and “Stop the Massacre of Palestinians.”

In Toulouse, a man opened fire at a closed kosher butcher shop on Saturday evening, causing damage to the building’s facade. Hours later, vandals set fire to the doors of a synagogue in the eastern French city of Strasbourg, home to one of France’s largest and oldest communities of Ashkenazi Jews.

Firemen were able to extinguish the fires in Lyon and Strasbourg before they spread, but the arson in Marseilles completely leveled the 4,800-square-foot Or Aviv synagogue.

Reactions in the Jewish community ranged from hurt to outrage, but nobody seemed very surprised.

Commenting on the Toulouse attack, Rabbi David Layani claimed: “This new act comes after hundreds of others that have struck the French Jewish community in the last 18 months, following events in the Middle East which make the situation here extremely tense.”

In Strasbourg, Jewish officials were quick to blame demonstrators for stirring up anti-Semitic hatred.

“I am not surprised by this fire,” Gilbert Roos, an Israeli diplomat in Strasbourg, said. “Yesterday there were anti-Israeli calls, but also calls for hatred.”

Interviewed on French television Sunday, Francis Levy, president of Strasbourg’s Jewish community, demanded that the French government protect the safety of Jews in his city.

“I absolutely ask that the state authorities take measures very rapidly so that the religious places in Strasbourg and in the surrounding area are placed under the government’s supervision,” he told a reporter for the French news channel LCI.

In the midst of a heated presidential election race, the two front-runners, President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, were quick to denounce the surge of anti-Jewish aggression.

Jospin said he was “revolted” by these “cowardly and absurd” acts.

“At the time when the Jewish community is celebrating Passover and Catholics are gathering for Easter,” he said, “I want to remind people that tolerance and respect for religion are key principles of our republic.”

Chirac, who has enraged Jewish leaders in the past by denying the problem of French anti-Semitism, condemned “with the utmost severity the brutal, hateful and unacceptable attack.”

“Those responsible should be prosecuted and severely punished,” he told the media.

Anti-Semitism has become an epidemic in neighborhoods where Jews and Arabs live side by side. While many Jews are still digesting the news of this latest outbreak, the initial responses of Jewish leaders indicate a shift in their perception of the problem.

Partly as a result of the connection between the pro-Arafat demonstrations and the latest anti-Semitic violence, French Jews appear more inclined to view these incidents as coordinated acts of terrorism than the irrational anger of Arab teens.

This change was most apparent in Lyon, where Jewish leaders were calling the synagogue attack “a commando operation.”

“Nobody should try to make us believe that these are the acts of ill-at-ease delinquents, because these are the acts of terrorists,” claimed Maurice Obadia, president of the Jewish community of La Duchere.

Alain Jacubowicz, a Jewish leader in Lyon, called the attack on the Duchere synagogue “clearly an act of war.”

For French Jews, the only hopeful note in a disquieting weekend was the prompt and earnest response from Muslim religious leaders in Lyon.

At an interfaith meeting Sunday, Kamel Kabtane, the rector of the mosque in Lyon, told the Jews gathered there: “The Muslim community and all the people who came with me today want to express solidarity with you, and it denounces with you and as loudly as you do these terrorist acts that attack freedom of religion.”

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