April 9, 2003

French Jews on the Front Lines


One recent Friday night in a suburb of Paris, Gerard Benichou was walking home from synagogue services when an Arab assailant yelling "dirty Jew" jumped him from behind and began pounding his face. His nose was broken and he was taken to the hospital, and that night Benichou went to the police to report the assault. But when the assailant was arrested several days later and brought before a judge, he was released after paying a modest fine.

Now Benichou scouts for his assailant on his way home from shul, and he worries when his daughter tells of the anti-Semitic taunts she suffers daily in school. For the first time, Benichou is reconsidering his family's future in France.

"I have four children. I am afraid for them," Benichou said. "I have no more faith in France. There is no justice here. The judges are afraid of the Arabs. I never thought of aliya before but now I'm thinking about it-not for my sake, but for my children."

With the war in Iraq producing fresh images of violence for consumption by France's estimated 6 million Muslims, French Jews are poised for another wave of anti-Semitic violence they fear may erupt out of the bloodshed in the Middle East. Their vulnerability is heightened by the sense that their French compatriots just don't seem to care enough to do much about the attacks, either because of latent anti-Semitism or out of sympathy for the Palestinian cause.

The concerns being voiced by French Jews are indicative of a significant shift in France that is casting a pall over the country's Jewish community and threatens the very future of French Jewish life. While attacks against Jewish targets may not be as common as they were a year ago, French Jews say they face an environment of hostility and indifference that is as frightening as it is obvious. All of a sudden, the future of French Jewry looks more like the past than ever.

"It's hard, because we didn't think anti-Semitic times would return," said Jacqueline Reznik-Elarably, whose husband is the president of the French Jewish community of Le Vesinet. "I was born during the Second World War, but I didn't think I would see this again. Now there's graffiti in the metro against Israel and against Zionism. There are attacks. My daughter already left to go to Israel. It's hard and it's sad."

Reznik-Elarably is one of many French Jews reconsidering their future in France.

"I don't know if it's a country for us now," said Yvette Taieb, who turned up recently at Paris's city hall for a symposium with European and French religious leaders on Catholic-Jewish relations in France. "We like it here, but the situation is getting worse. Every day we have news of something else, and it makes us think."

Jewish youths are regularly attacked by Arab gangs in the streets, and verbal harassment has become so common that nobody bothers to report it anymore. Even Jews who display no outward signs of being Jewish are identified as Jews and targeted for physical or verbal harassment. Chants of "Death to Israel" have become de rigueur at French anti-war demonstrations. During the winter school recess, a molotov cocktail was tossed through the window of a classroom at the Otzar Hatorah school in the Paris suburb of Creteil, destroying a portion of the building's interior. A few kilometers away, at a shul in Clichy-sous-Bois, synagogue officials shuttered up the structure's street-facing windows after an explosive device was tossed into the synagogue on Yom Kippur night. Now, congregants must enter the synagogue through a basement entrance in the back, and even the cellar windows are protected by newly installed bars.

Matters first turned bad a little over two years ago, when the escalating intifada in Israel awakened the slumbering giant of French Arab extremism, unleashing a wave of violent attacks against Jews in France. For many months, the French authorities stood idly by, insisting that the attacks against Jews-which included the firebombing of synagogues and schools, assaults, stabbings, and stonings-were isolated incidents of urban violence that merited little more than the attention of local police authorities.

Finally, after months of appeals by the Jewish community and pressure from abroad, the French government started to crack down. A new interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, spearheaded the effort to staunch the violence, and his efforts were hailed by Jewish leaders as the first significant sign that the French government was serious about safeguarding its Jewish citizens.

"There's no excuse for violence," Sarkozy said recently, addressing an audience of Jews. "I cannot accept anyone feeling afraid. There are a number of us who are not Jewish who are committed to making sure that French Jews never have to ask themselves the question of whether or not they are welcome in their home country and go to Israel."

Many Jews, however, say that Sarkozy is alone in his determination to mute anti-Jewish violence. What's more, many French have refused to see the attacks against Jews as incidents of anti-Semitism. In a staunchly secular country with a constitution that views religion as a private practice and not an ethnic identity, the French have stopped short of recognizing the violence as uniquely anti-Semitic, instead characterizing it as a manifestation of class warfare by poor people against middle-class French.

"I think we have to look at this as part and parcel of a different phenomenon, the phenomenon of urban violence," said Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, the archbishop of Paris. "The remedy therefore has to be found in society's combat against all forms of violent conflict, not anti-Semitism."

Lustiger, who happens to be a Catholic-raised Jew, made his comments just a few hundred meters away from the spot where, a century ago, Capt. Alfred Dreyfus was stripped of his military decorations on trumped-up charges of treason. Then, too, most French observers refused to recognize the trial as an anti-Semitic campaign, aimed that time at discrediting France's Jews.

Attitudes like Lustiger's are worrisome to many Jews. While most of the violence against Jews in France thus far has been perpetrated by Muslims, most of them Arabs immigrants from North Africa, the accompanying silence and passivity of French Catholics has been interpreted as a signal of general indifference to the well-being of French Jews. At worse, their quietude is a sign that the French today may be just as willing to tolerate anti-Semitism as they were 60 years ago, during Vichy France.

"There is a deafening silence," said Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the North American Boards of Rabbis, who recently led a delegation of American and Canadian rabbis to Paris for a series of meetings with Jewish and Catholic French leaders. The meetings were arranged by the World Jewish Congress. "We come to express our concern and our anger over the rise of anti-Semitism in France. An evil must be confronted. It cannot be ignored. That's why it's so important that the voice of the Catholic Church be raised in screaming protest over this issue."

Even the director general of UNESCO, a group whose parent organization, the United Nations, is known for an institutional bias against Jewish interests, felt compelled to speak out on the subject. "We have to be careful not to let the horrors of the past repeat themselves," the director general, Koichiro Matsoura, said. "The risk is there. We must give memory its due."

Though there are fewer attacks today against Jews in France than there were several months ago, there is a sense in the country that the Jews are waiting for the other shoe to drop.

"When looking for the reasons for the situation, we find that there is a conjunction of phenomena," said Roger Cukierman, president of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France. "There is the far right, there is the Muslims, and then there is the far left."

The demographic cards are stacked against the Jews, and the political winds are blowing the wrong way. On the political right, supporters of right-wing extremist candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen numbered one in five voters in the last French election. Le Pen's constituency is anti-immigrant, racist, and anti-Semitic. On the political left, the anti-colonialist, pro-Palestinian intelligentsia is fiercely hostile to Israel; by extension, they have became natural opponents of Israel's supporters in France. Furthermore, while far-left parties comprised 10% of the electorate in France's last national elections, the left's influence has a considerable impact in French universities, the media, and political life generally. Consequently, France's Jews find themselves with little political haven.

The situation is further compounded by the country's changing demographics. France's 6 million Muslims now comprise 10% of the nation-outnumbering Jews 10 to 1-and Arabs are the fastest growing ethnic group in the country.

A joke making the rounds these days in Paris has Napoleon appearing to French President Jacques Chirac in a foretelling dream. "What is the future of France?" Chirac asks the revered father of France. Napoleon rolls open a scroll and peers at it intently. "I can't read it," Napoleon says. "It's all in Arabic."

Chmouel Rotbann, a 20-year-old Jewish medical student in Paris, says he doesn't want to stay in France anymore. He's been called "rotten Jew" by Arabs outside his neighborhood synagogue, and he's been harassed by Arabs on the Champs-ElyseÚs, one of Paris's central pedestrian promenades. "I want to live in America," Rotbann said. "France loves the Arabs. The Arabs have no fear here, because France supports them. France condones their anti-Semitism. Chirac has become the head of the Arab League."

His brother, Yonatan Rotbann, 18, said, "The police stand by when people chant 'Death to Jews' in demonstrations. You hear 'Long live Bin Laden' on the streets. The only news about Israel that you hear is about what's happening to the Palestinians."

The chief rabbi of Paris, David Messas, said anti-Jewish and anti-Israel messages are reinforced by the French press. "The media are so close to the Palestinians, they show only Palestinians suffering, as if Israel is Goliath," he said. "They brought the intifada to Paris."

While officials in France have condemned violent attacks, French officials have been careful to distinguish between what they view as legitimate criticism of Israel and expressions of anti-Semitism. Many Jews see such distinctions as thin cover for anti-Semitism.

"Anti-Zionism is to the tune of 99% anti-Semitism in disguise," said Emmanuel Weintraub, president of the French division of the World Jewish Congress. "It has become acceptable for people to speak in a derogatory manner about Jews at dinner parties. The climate is changing. What may have been politically incorrect years ago is no longer unacceptable."

Francois Zimeray, a French member of the European Parliament, said, "I see how the Middle East events revived old anti-Semitic myths. Every month, from session to session, Israel is judged, Israel is accused, Israel is sanctioned," he said. "Since Vatican II, it is no longer possible to say the Jews killed Jesus, but it is possible to portray Israel and the Jews as the people who kill children in Bethlehem."

One French Jewish academic reported that a French priest in the city of Montpellier told his congregants that if Jesus were born in a manger in Bethlehem today, Ariel Sharon would have him shot.

Father Patrick Desbois, secretary of the Episcopal Committee for Relations with Jewry, is one of few voices within the Church speaking publicly about the rise of a new secularized philosophy of Christian anti-Semitism in Europe. "The new credo of anti-Semitism is that Jews are, first of all, crucifying the poor rather than Jesus, and second, that they are taking the land," he said. Whereas a century ago Jews were accused of trying to take over control of countries like France and Poland, today they are accused of trying to control the Palestinians' land. "The percentage of anti-Semites in Europe is now the same since right after World War II," Desbois noted.

So far, Desbois's concerns do not seem to be a focal point of the Church. Father Norbert Hofmann, a member of the Vatican's commission for religious relations with the Jews, said those who criticize Israel are not necessarily anti-Semitic. "What is an 'anti-Semite' anyway?" he asked. "From the word, Arabs are also 'Semites.'"

These sorts of distinctions are not encouraging to France's Jews. Meanwhile, anti-Semitism is spreading from the streets to the schools.

Raphael Cohen, principal of the Sinai school in France, which has about 2,000 students, said school buses were stoned and school buildings were attacked by vandals on a daily basis during the peak of violence against French Jews last year. He's worried that the war in Iraq will lead to a resurgence of attacks. In the months leading up to the war, the school beefed up security, installed security cameras in the hallways, and posted guards at building entrances. But many parents are worried that those measures will be insufficient.

"It's a very fragile situation right now," said Max-David Ghozlan, a native Parisian who recently returned to France after several years in the U.S. and Britain. "With the war in Iraq, this could be a very good reason to attack the Jews. Everybody's very concerned. I don't think it's a time to relax. We should be very much on guard."

The French president announced before the war in Iraq broke out that 700 Jewish sites in France would require additional police protection if there were to be a war.

"It's a time bomb," Schneier said of France's growing Muslim population. "What other country must prepare to protect a specific group of its citizens because of a war happening between two other countries? It's France in particular where you have such an overwhelming fanatical population. It's very frightening."

Cukierman said that among France's general population, pervasive hostility toward Israel and sympathy for the Palestinians is helping fuel a revival of anti-Semitism. "Especially in the schools, the atmosphere becomes more and more difficult to teach the Shoah, Zionism, and the history of the Jews," Cukierman said. "We don't see easy solutions, because it is deeply rooted."

Even among school administrators, attacks against Jews often have been met with apathy, dismissed as schoolyard brawls or bickering between children. Some Jewish parents have begun transferring their children out of French public schools out of concern for their safety. Cohen said his parochial school has several such new students already.

"Arabs aren't the only problem," Cohen said. "The schools preach anti-Semitism from a very young age. The parents worry about what tomorrow will bring."