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In France, anti-Semitism burns anew

GAGNY, France -- The smell of smoke was heavy in the morning air last month as Yaakov Halfon walked to his synagogue in suburban Paris.

 

In the gray dawn on that Saturday, the 17-year-old student saw the smoldering aftermath of a fire that had engulfed a two-story wing of his Jewish school.

The blaze was reported to have been arson, and the government says it was motivated by anti-Semitism. It was an example of what Jewish leaders say is an alarming increase in such attacks.

"Before that it was individuals being insulted, or sometimes attacked. But this was an attack on all of us," Halfon said at the Merkaz Hatorah school as he looked at the charred brick, broken glass, and twisted metal that before the fire was a renovated annex in a sprawling campus that includes a small synagogue.

The fire on Nov. 15 at Merkaz Hatorah -- the day that two synagogues were bombed in Turkey -- has pushed leaders to acknowledge that anti-Semitism is again on the rise in Europe, and has opened a tortured discussion over what lurks behind the attacks.

Sixty years after the Holocaust, many European Jews fear Europe is again mixing old hatreds in Christendom with new threats by Islamic militants to unleash what may be a post-9/11 strand of anti-Semitism.

"My first reaction was anger, and then I was just sad. After that day, no one feels as safe as they used to," said Halfon, who like most of the other students in his school wears a baseball cap to cover his yarmulke.

Halfon finds the need for the cap insulting, but his parents are insistent -- and even France's chief rabbi has endorsed the idea for Jewish youths to conceal outwards signs of their faith -- as more Jewish students are insulted, threatened, and occasionally attacked on the way to religious schools. In a new book subtitled "Reflections on the Coming Anti-Semitism," Alain Finkielkraut, a prolific author and widely respected commentator, who is Jewish, writes: "Jews have a heavy heart and, for the first time since the war, they are afraid."

Specialists studying the trend say most of the acts -- fire-bombing synagogues, vandalizing cemeteries and assaulting Jews -- have been carried out by young Arab men from angry and disenfranchised immigrant communities that have transposed their opposition to Israel into attacks on Jews.

Many Jews say the violence has been dismissed or rationalized by European media and politicians -- especially leftist intellectuals -- who are critical of Israel's policy toward Palestinians and Washington's strong support of Israel.

Leaders in Germany, Britain, Belgium, and France have created commissions to study the attacks, and have pledged to redouble their fight against anti-Semitism.

After the attack on the school, President Jacques Chirac held an emergency Cabinet meeting and appointed a high-level committee to address the issue, saying, "An attack on a Jew is an attack against all France."

Last week, Chirac also delivered a landmark speech on religious pluralism within France's culture of secularism, and called for a ban on wearing large religious symbols. The ban included the yarmulke.

The discourse on anti-Semitism is most intense in France -- home to about 600,000 Jews, making it the world's third-largest Jewish population after Israel and the United States. France also has 6 million Arab Muslims, the largest such community in Europe. Many of them are young, poor, and unemployed.

Emotions and mistrust over the issue are heightened because of France's history -- the Vichy government's collaboration with Nazi occupiers and the war France fought against the Algerian independence movement in the 1960s.

However, many intellectuals, including some Jews, have warned against exaggerating the significance of the violence.

They express suspicions that right-wing Jews in Israel, the United States and France may be whipping up concern on the issue as a way to thwart criticism of Israel.

According to a poll commissioned this fall by the European Union, Europeans see Israel as the greatest threat to peace. The United States and North Korea tied for second, and Iran in third place.

The French commentator Dominique Moisi, a senior adviser at the French Institute for International Relations in Paris, said he sees a connection between Middle East violence and the attacks against Jews in Europe.

"By acting for peace there, the chances of curbing violence are enhanced here," said Moisi, the son of an Auschwitz survivor.

Moisi has warned Jews against exaggerating a "relatively contained" phenomenon of hate crimes in Europe as if it were somehow comparable to the Holocaust, and he fears the situation could prompt "a kind of paranoia" among Jews.

In TV commentaries and newspaper columns, he has reminded Jewish residents that Arabs are Semites and have also suffered discrimination and violence in Europe and the United States.

No one was hurt in the Gagny attack. But on a psychological level, the fire, combined with the 25 people killed that day in Turkey, has helped create what Moisi says is "an era of suspicion" among French Jews.

Rabbi Jacques Benisti, the director of the Merkaz Hatorah school, said: "Throughout history there have always been people who want to persecute us, who want to get rid of us. Not that we are not shocked, but maybe the more important feeling has been: Why has it returned?"

Gagny, with its mix of middle-class homes, poor Arab immigrants and pockets of conservative Jews, exemplifies the complexity of the phenomenon.

With high unemployment and low hopes for improving their lot, young Arab men are enraged by images beamed on Arab TV channels of Israeli troops in the West Bank and the US occupation in Iraq. Their anger has exploded on the streets -- in hateful words, anti-Israeli graffiti, or at times with Molotov cocktails and rocks at Jewish schools and synagogues.

"If hate is being spread there are always a few idiots with simple minds who will take action," said Malek Boutiah, a second-generation Arab of Algerian roots who is a secretary of social issues for France's Socialist Party.

The former president of S.O.S. Racism, a leading French civil rights organization, Boutiah said there was no coordination of the attacks in France's Arab community, and no mainstream Muslim clerics were leading such a campaign. There was simply a fringe of Muslim extremists and anti-Jewish bigots who mistakenly see themselves as carrying out a kind "intifadah" against Jews, he said.

In Manchester, England, a synagogue was the target of arsonists last month. Headstones at a Jewish cemetery in Germany were defaced with Nazi slogans in October. In Belgium, a synagogue was targeted for attack in June but the assailants botched the mission, leaving a vehicle loaded with gas canisters smoldering. And in May, a Hasidic rabbi in Vienna was attacked as he walked home from prayers.

Figures from the French Interior Ministry showed what a government report described as "an explosion" of anti-Semitic violence in 2002, with 193 reports, compared with 32 in 2001.

One report, by the Center for Research on Anti-Semitism at Berlin's Technical University, was commissioned by the European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia after a wave of anti-Semitic attacks in Europe followed clashes in spring 2002 between Israeli troops and Palestinian militants.

The authors found a dramatic rise in anti-Semitic incidents in that period and attributed them to "right-wing extremists or radical Islamists or young Muslims mostly of Arab descent." But EU officials shelved the report because of questions over methodology in its conclusion that many of the attackers were young Muslims.

That decision prompted many Jewish organizations -- and even one of the authors of the report -- to accuse the EU of playing down the severity of the problem because of Europe's Muslim population is growing in size and clout.

Deirdre Berger, of the American Jewish Committee in Berlin, said holding the report "sends a signal that the problem isn't being taken seriously enough."

"I've lived in Europe for 20 years now and we've never had a climate as we do now, " Berger said. "It's a climate that has created enormous anxiety and insecurity in Jewish communities throughout Europe."

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