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Paris, When It Sizzles With Hate

May 9, 2009 | by Nadine Joseph

Is the French Jewish establishment in denial about anti-Semitism? A portrait of a community under siege.

Courtesy of The Jewish Week

Marseille, France -- Evelyne Sitruk always envisioned Marseille as a model of tolerance and diversity amid stodgy, stratified France, a Mediterranean port of 800,000 with a cosmopolitan mix of Italians, Armenians, some 70,000 Jews and North Africans.

Now she finds it downright hostile.

"I was strolling with my family at Pesach," she recalls, "and for the first time in my life, someone spat on me and called me a ‘sale Juive' [dirty Jew]. It was like a slap in the face."

Marseille may be Le Pen country -- one in four voted last month for Jean-Marie Le Pen, the ultrarightist leader who inveighs against immigrants and has called the Holocaust "a detail of history" -- but the aggressor was an elderly Arab.

With her lavender beret, dangling silver earrings, checkered scarf, black and purple stockings, and henna-colored hair in a Dutch-boy cut, Sitruk looks more Berkeley than Brooklyn, although she is Orthodox, 48, and the sister-in-law of France's grand rabbi. A Socialist active in politics, she serves on the city council, volunteers as president of the Jewish library and teaches public school.

"I always identified first as a French citizen and as a Jew," she says. Her Jewish identity remained private, as lobbying and "communautarisme" [single-identity issues] are frowned upon.

Lately, the label "Jew" sticks to her, not just on the streets as a venomous epithet. At a rally against Le Pen, a city council member accosted her with an almost accusatory question -- "So where is your grand rabbi?" -- as though she, as a Jew, was responsible for producing him. Political discussions often stop when she enters the room.

"If you're Jewish, everyone assumes that you support [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon," Sitruk says. " How many times have I heard ‘Juif, c'est pareil,' [Jew, Sharon, it's the same thing]?"


French Jews have seen synagogues ablaze, cemeteries vandalized and walls painted with swastikas as they face the worst spate of anti-Semitism since World War II.

Anxiety is gripping French Jews. They've seen synagogues ablaze, cemeteries vandalized and walls painted with swastikas as they face what observers have called the worst spate of anti-Semitism since World War II. Hate crimes rose from just one in 1998 to more than 700 in the first five months of 2002. Observant Jews live in a state of siege. Police now patrol in front of the Jewish schools. Graffiti and swastikas appear almost nightly in Strasbourg. Rabbis exhort congregants in Marseille to cover their kipas in public. Jewish men guard the front of synagogues during services, walkie-talkies in hand, revolvers hidden in their pocket. Parents forbid their sons to play soccer because of a vicious attack in Paris. And the number of Jews considering leaving for Israel has skyrocketed in recent months, according to the Jewish Agency office in Paris.

In two dozen interviews conducted in French with Jews in Paris, Marseille and Strasbourg during a two-week period in mid-May, a portrait emerges of a complex French Jewish community splintered by the specter of anti-Semitism. The Jews of France became unified briefly in fighting Le Pen. With that threat over, the ongoing anti-Semitic events have exposed differences along fault lines of religious observance, social class, politics, age and origins.

The debate, a fierce one, is now centering on how to respond to anti-Semitism among Muslims, the anti-Israel bias in the media and security for Jews on college campuses.

The government's refusal to acknowledge the seriousness of the problem was almost as shocking as the violence itself.

The government's initial reaction to the wave of anti-Semitic incidents -- a refusal to acknowledge the seriousness of the problem -- was almost as shocking as the violence itself. On its heels came Le Pen's surprising success in the first round of presidential elections.

Most recently, a controversial letter by Socialist Party adviser Paul Boniface exposed what many Jews fear is France's new political reality: politicians are wooing Arab Muslims who outnumber France's 600,000 Jews 10 to 1. The largest population of Muslims in Europe, French Arabs rallied around Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat after the second intifada in 2000. After Sept. 11, many proclaimed Osama bin Laden their hero.

The pro-Palestinian stance, tinged with virulent anti-Americanism, has spread beyond the "cites," or housing projects. The No. 1-selling paperback in France -- "L'Effroyable Imposture" ("Extreme Fraud") by Thierry Meyssan -- alleges that the U.S. government faked the Pentagon crash with a bomb as part of a larger conspiracy to create justification for an invasion of Afghanistan.

Since Sept. 11, there's also more blatant discrimination against Jews. "It's no longer politically incorrect to be openly anti-Semitic," says Edith Bismuth, communications director of Marseille's Council of Jewish Communities (CRIF), an umbrella organization for secular French Jewish groups.

Turned away at a beauty parlor she had frequented for years, one young woman was told, "We don't want to take care of you people anymore." When confronted, the owner retorted, "Yes, I'm anti-Semitic and what are you going to do about it?" The young woman filed a complaint under the Gayssot law of 1990. That law punishes those who incite racial hatred, support Holocaust revisionism or slander with racist or anti-Semitic insults.


Despite the Gayssot law, hate crimes target Jews nearly everywhere. In Creteil, a suburb of 82,000 outside Paris, a third of the residents are Jewish and a third Muslim. The town boasts six kosher restaurants, more than in Strasbourg or Toulouse. Residents lived in relative peace until the new intifada began some 20 months ago.

David Kessel, a 47-year-old artist, believes that some of the violence could have been avoided had the town's mayor reacted to the first hate crime 18 months ago. Kessel asked the mayor to intervene when Arabs harassed a Jewish family living in their midst and burned the car of friends who were visiting for Shavuot. The mayor, like other French political leaders, minimized the incident as "merely an act of juvenile delinquency."

In the last few months, Creteil has been the scene of several incidents: a Hebrew school classroom was torched, the synagogue's glass windows were smashed and tzedaka boxes were stolen. Last month, Jews found an anti-Semitic tract in their mailboxes.

"We're anguished about whether to stay in France," says Kessel, an Orthodox Jew whose father survived a hanging in Auschwitz and the death march to Mauthausen. "We don't have our place here anymore."

Jews like Kessel and Sitruk feel betrayed. As they see it, the French government shrugs off responsibility and Jewish leaders won't push, denounce or threaten.

"The Jewish community," says Sitruk with sadness, "is not very politically hip. It votes for the candidate who seems to support Israel the most and avoids thinking of the big picture."

One problem lies in identifying the source of the threat. To many, the resurgence of anti-Semitism appears to come from the right -- with Le Pen's showing of 18 percent in the second round of French presidential elections. But much of the hate flows from the left. Young radicals in checkered keffiyah headdress shout intifada slogans and accuse not only Israel but French Jews of racism and genocide.

"We belonged to the left, but now we've had to break off," says Yael Boussidan, a Conservative Jew in Strasbourg.

"It's the first time we sit on the bench of the accused," adds Michel Benoilid, a high school teacher.

But others believe that most of the vandalism comes from disaffected young Arabs. Felix Mosbacher, 64, president of Mouvement Juif Liberal de France, a Reform synagogue in Paris with 1,400 families that recently experienced vandalism, notes that the upsurge in vandalism tracks the second intifada.

Mosbacher, a Harvard MBA, is careful to point out that the cause is not black or white. But he observes that the intifada gives many young Arabs of North African families, who feel neither French nor part of North African Arab culture, a group with which to identify. This is anti-Semitism, says Mosbacher, but the French government doesn't like to apply the label.

"They would like to imagine France is one society. It's not," he says.

"I don't see that things have deteriorated in France so that you can see anti-Semitism or feel it."

Not all Jews agree. Some Jewish intellectuals, leftist politicians and journalists ally themselves with the plight of Arabs. The most assimilated and least religious Jews feel as comfortable as ever in France.

"I don't see that things have deteriorated in France so that you can see anti-Semitism or feel it," says cancer researcher Marc Lipinski, 48, a member of the Green Party and of the city council in Vanves, a town of 25,000 outside of Paris.

Eric de Rothschild, 61, president of the Rothschild Foundation, worries about anti-Semitic incidents in the suburbs but notes that "statistically, non-Jews are targeted as often as Jews."

"The Jewish community in France," says de Rothschild, "has reacted as forcefully as it should, without resorting to hysteria and threats."

Older French Jews side with de Rothschild. Mostly Ashkenazim, they minimize recent acts, clinging to optimism reinforced by their own experiences. After all, they survived the Holocaust in France. They find comfort in the fact that fewer Jews from France -- 76,000, or 25 percent -- were exterminated than from other countries.

The younger Sephardim, more religious, often less wealthy, grouped in ghettos next to Arab neighborhoods, take issue with this view. Since they moved from North Africa after the 1960s, they have always felt like second-class citizens, slightly suspicious of a government that betrayed them when it abandoned its colonies.

The hate crimes caught everyone by surprise. "We asked for government protection for the first time since World War II," says Bismuth of Marseille.

"We were certain that synagogue burnings were part of our somber history, far in the past, and we were all wrong," echoes Pierre Levy, 60, CRIF's regional delegate in Strasbourg.

Strasbourg, home to 15,000 Jews and Europe's first Yiddish Institute, represents a case in point. The Jewish community had become complacent. Until recently, it had to press members to attend yearly organizational dinners.

"Our grandfathers were already very bleu-blanc-rouge, very patriotic," says Levy, who fought in Algeria with the French Army. "French Jews have always identified as French Jewish citizens with the accent on French ‘citoyens.'

"Over the past few months, there has been a ‘remise en cause,' a questioning of identity. People are asking themselves, ‘Am I French?' And the answer is a resounding, ‘Yes. Yes, we are French, but we must be more vigilant.' "


Nevertheless, some Jews assail this vision. They believe that the Jewish establishment remains in denial.

Freddy Raphael, professor of sociology at the Marc Bloch University in Strasbourg and a leftist, believes the Jewish leaders in France underestimate the deep crisis it now faces.

"They have very little contact with most Muslims and they've developed the myth of an assault against a Jewish fortress like the Masada," he says.

Raphael adds: "Our Jewish establishment deprives itself of the richness of different points of view. It self-reproduces, self-recruits, remains oligarchic and far too self-complacent."

The Jewish leadership has not acknowledged Judeophobia, as outlined by political scientist Pierre-Andre Taguieff in his book "The New Judeophobia."

"It's a new form of anti-Judaism in which the Jew becomes the archetype of the oppressor in collusion with American imperialism," says Raphael.

Taguieff, a non-Jewish intellectual, also believes that French officials minimize the hate crimes against Jews and the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism. "Into this supposedly calm, sympathetic, open Islam seeps a religious fervor that hides fury and rage," says Taguieff in an interview at a Paris brasserie.

"When synagogues burn," he says, "it is always a sign of a grave danger."

"When synagogues burn," he says, "it is always a sign of a grave danger."

Few Jews in power admit to any grave danger. They also reject any outside intervention. In fact, they resent Israel's call to French Jews to make aliyah. They attack the American Jewish Congress for suggesting a boycott of the Cannes Film Festival and French products. Even Raphael rages at outsiders.

"We reject this meddlesome intrusion that inflames and infuriates," he says.

French Holocaust survivors are as furious as the rest. "There's no need to panic, just to pay attention," says Alexandre Danemans, 72, a retired businessman and Holocaust survivor.

Born in Poland, Danemans, married to a non-Jew, remained a Jew without much community involvement. He lives in the tony 16th arrondissement, the Park Avenue of Paris. His elegant bookcases are lined with the Serge Klarsfeld books listing concentration camp transports and several Bibles, but also tomes about Hinduism and Buddhism.

"I don't announce that I'm Jewish nor do I deny it," Danemans says. "In my close circle of friends, we just don't discuss religion. French Jewry clings to the old principle that the less noise you make, the better off you are."

His optimism stems from his wartime experiences. Barely 12, Danemans watched as his parents were arrested in Tours to be shipped off to Auschwitz. He found a safe haven with a Catholic family in a neighboring town. They sheltered him, passing him off as a nephew for the entire war.

Gilbert May, 77, born in Strasbourg into one of Alsace's oldest Jewish families, owes his life to a protective archbishop. Like Danemans, he has seen worse periods and believes this one will blow over.

May, vice president of the Jewish organization LICRA (League against Racism), joined the French Resistance in 1939, eventually was arrested by the Gestapo and landed in Struthof, France's only concentration camp. He shared a cell with the archbishop and a Bourbon prince. When all three were shipped to Dachau, the archbishop had May participate in Mass to protect him.

"I think Alsace has always been anti-Semitic. One of the expressions used every day here is ‘You're worse than a Jew,' " May says.

As a soccer referee in the 1950s, he was often called a "dirty Jew." At his urging, the league suspended name callers for a month, with little effect.

May never shied away from controversy. When he joined the Resistance, the Jewish community shuddered with apprehension. "They were afraid they would all get arrested because of me," says May.

More recently, as guest speaker about the Holocaust at a public school, May advised a Jewish child who shyly whispered, "What do I do when kids shove me and insult me?"

May's answer was simple: "You have to beat them up. It's not a matter of courage but of survival." Jewish organizers of the event were none too pleased.


Such diffidence among community leadership is typical. Because of it, the impetus for change has come from Jewish students, frontline targets of harassment.

"My male friends are kicked and pushed when they wear kipot," says Astrid Pouleur, 23, a university student in Marseille. "I feel that no one listens to me anymore when I talk about politics, as though my being Jewish pollutes my ideas."

The Jewish students' organization, UEJF, recently joined forces with SOS Racisme -- a respected anti-racism group headed by an Algerian -- to co-write a white paper on anti-Semitic acts over the past two years.

"Our worst fear is indifference," says Eric Wahed, 24, president of the UEJF's Marseille chapter, who organizes rallies and counters pro-Palestinian propaganda on campus. He was stunned just last month as he watched the synagogue in Caillol burn to the ground.

"We have to mobilize and fight back," Wahed says. "Granted, this is not 1939, but we have come to another crossroads for Jews in France."

In several cities, small committees have formed to strategize. In Strasbourg, six men and women crowd around Janine Elkouby's dining room table in a spacious apartment a few blocks from the Grande Synagogue. The group formed in November to counter media "disinformation" about Israel, brainstorm with the local Jewish students' organization, revamp the Jewish radio station and organize rallies against anti-Semitism.

Elkouby, 55, a high school literature teacher, felt anguished and isolated after a Jewish school was burned.

"I always felt very French and very Jewish, proud of this double allegiance," she says. "After the anti-Semitic acts in our neighborhood, I started using the word ‘they' instead of ‘we' when I was talking about the French people."

During an anti-Le Pen demonstration, Elkouby joined her husband's university group, under its banner, but felt uncomfortable as they chanted the Marseillaise. "I felt I belonged with them, but not completely," she says.

Robert Fedida, a 45-year-old businessman of Moroccan origin, feels discouraged by the increasing number of hate crimes and the government's feeble response. "It feels like a bulldozer aimed at us," he says. "We can limit the damage, but we're the little machine fighting a huge bulldozer."

Claude Sabbah, director of ORT, believes that small, informal groups can make a difference. "Traditional Jewish organizations know how to budget, allocate funds and organize events. But that's not enough. We have to think out of the box," he says.

So far, that hasn't happened. Shimon Samuels, head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Paris, points to the contrast between two recent rallies in Paris. The rally against anti-Semitism drew 200,000 but no major political candidates. The anti-Israel demonstration boasted a coalition of Trotskyites, anarchists, Greens, atheists, homeless advocates, migrants, AIDS activists and anti-globalization groups, as well as Jose Bove, the anti-McDonald's activist and Ramallah supporter of Arafat.

Fragile Muslim-Jewish relations are unraveling as well. Muslim members of Strasbourg's Jewish soccer club quit, claiming players support Israel too fervently. Murielle Schor, a dental surgeon and candidate for deputy in the 17th arrondissement, patched together a joint commission of Jews and Muslims. The two groups tried to write a charter, but Muslims insisted on language that criticized Israel for violating human rights.

"We got along well as long as we had a common enemy in Le Pen," says Schor. "Now the moderates are afraid of incurring the wrath of radical ‘integristes.' "

Tasteless jokes are also making the rounds, says Samuels. One begins: Who are America's three greatest super-heroes? Superman, who flies over tall buildings; Spiderman, who climbs along tall buildings; and Musul-man (French for Muslim), who blows up tall buildings.

Individual friendships with Arabs are also chilling. An Arab friend had commissioned a painting from Kessel of a village near Bethlehem, with two women in long robes walking through the streets. The friend became more belligerent in their usual debates about the Middle East. The next day he told Kessel that he could not be his friend or pay him for the painting. Kessel brought the painting back to his studio and, in a fit of pique, painted a mezuzah on the door of each Arab home.


Kessel and others blame French TV for some of the tension. The French media -- from its wire service AFP to Le Monde to French TV -- have portrayed Palestinian suicide bombers with sympathy as martyrs and "resistants" during Israeli "occupation" and Israelis as "colons" (colonialists). These happen to be loaded words in France, which is still expiating its dubious role in the Holocaust.

For years, Dr. Jean Daniel Flaysakier kept mum about his colleagues' pro-Palestinian bias at France 2 and other national television networks. Recently, France 2's reporting became even more one-sided. For days the network broadcast allegations of massacres of thousands of Palestinians in Jenin but ignored contrary information from nongovernmental organizations. The network also gave an inaccurate toll of Israeli losses. A few days later, the network reported that only 50 Palestinians died.

Flaysakier, 50, a prominent medical commentator on France 2, exploded at work in response to a colleague airing two sound bites after a bombing of a Palestinian school in East Jerusalem. His colleague had used a sound bite from a West Bank settler saying, "If the army doesn't do its duty, we will have to defend ourselves." That quote, says Flaysakier, had nothing to do with the bombing and was taken out of context.

"I burst out and said, ‘I'm fed up with this reporter and his obvious bias." The reporter screamed back, "You are attacking me?"

"Yes," said Flaysakier, "because you're a militant, not a journalist."

Flaysakier's outburst caused a furor at the television station. "It's politically correct in the French media to attack Israel," says Flaysakier, who has a post-doctorate degree from Harvard.

After the incident, a cameraman remarked, "You're a Jew and you're worried because your family lives there, right?" Flaysakier suggested that question itself was anti-Semitic.

"People deny Israel's right to exist and when you point out that they are biased, they accuse you of dual allegiance," he says.

As Flaysakier notes, the media portrayal of Israel may fuel anti-Jewish sentiments. "Palestinians seem to be the poor, unarmed underdog. Unfortunately, sympathy for them also wakes up anti-Semitic feelings, which are bubbling under the surface," he says. "The press perceives the Middle East conflict in a Manichean way -- the good guys vs. the bad guys, like a Western."

"I see it getting a lot worse before it gets better," says Samuels of the Wiesenthal Center.

Another biased report focused on a French cameraman wounded in a West Bank shooting. The bullet was quickly identified as coming from a 9 mm gun, used only by Palestinians (Israelis use M16s). In the stories, broadcasters consistently claimed the bullet came "from undetermined origin."

"They never told the truth," says Flaysakier.

Such bias will continue to stir problems, many fear. "I see it getting a lot worse before it gets better," says Samuels of the Wiesenthal Center.

Ariel Abehsera, 35, an orthodontist in Strasbourg, already feels anxious about armed police guarding his son's Jewish preschool. Last month, he traveled to Israel to check out real estate, schools and professional opportunities.

The state of siege is new and uncomfortable. Abehsera, born in Morocco, socialized freely with Muslims there. Once he moved to France 12 years ago, he discovered that the relationship between the two communities was acrid, confrontational and tense.

"At universities, there is a move to isolate Jews," says Abehsera, who teaches dentistry. "I'm not packed and ready to leave France just yet," he says. "But I've cashed out of several investments and my passport is up to date."

This article was made possible by a grant from the Jewish Investigative Journalism Fund.

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