A Growing Fear in France
As political and financial crises deepen in Western Europe, French Jewry is facing a familiar test
In March, an alleged anti-Semitic attack by a group of young Arabs against an Israeli movie director at a film festival in the south of France led to a welter of conflicting accounts. The version that circulated first, mostly on Israeli and American media, sounded only too plausible in light of recent events involving hate crimes in France: Yariv Horowitz had been beaten up by a gang of young Arabs for being Israeli. As Tablet magazine reported last month, eyewitnesses, however, hastened to debunk the story, and the director himself soon offered a more careful reappraisal of the facts: Some isolated intoxicated individual punched him after asking him for a cigarette. Immediately following these denials, anti-Zionist websites sought to further discredit the director and, at the same time, emphasize the Jews’ promptness to spread lies and fictions of victimhood.
Ironically, such confusion and its inextricable layers of deception do convey an important truth: These events shed light on mounting anxiety among French Jews, on the tensions between ethnic communities within French society, and on their highly dramatized perception from abroad. “After what happened in Toulouse, people’s fears are legitimized. They are no longer fantasies,” noted Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur. One of the three women rabbis in France, the young mother of three has always warned against undue alarmism. Yet a year after the tragic events in Toulouse, the possibility of large-scale violence looms large in her mind—and the minds of other French Jews.
On March 19, 2012, in Toulouse, an Algerian-born French citizen named Mohamed Merah shot three children and one adult in the Jewish school Otzar HaTorah. A 23-year-old petty criminal, he had turned to radical Islam while serving his term in prison. The week before, Merah had shot a paratrooper and two uniformed soldiers in southern France. His pledge to kill soldiers was allegedly a reaction to France’s involvement in Afghanistan; Jews were natural targets because, he was quoted as saying in the French press, “The Jews killed our brothers and sisters in Palestine.”
For a few days, the country was in shock. His shooting rampage in the schoolyard was the worst school-related tragedy in French history since World War II. The murders came five weeks before the presidential elections, and the campaign was symbolically suspended for a few days to signal a period of official respect.
In no time, however, the official voices of France were drowned out by ramblings on social media. Hours after Merah’s death, the result of an assault by special forces, Facebook was brimming with fan pages honoring the dead perpetrator. While these pages were immediately shut down at the request of the government, the ghostly presence of Merah has been hovering over France ever since. Conducted in close cooperation with the interior ministry, the census carried out by the protection unit of the Jewish community (Service de Protection de la Communauté Juive) documented no fewer than 148 anti-Semitic incidents over a short two-month period from March to April of 2012—with a staggering one-fourth of those recorded as violent.
In September, a Molotov cocktail was hurled into a kosher store in the Paris suburbs of Sarcelles. In the French political landscape, the city of Sarcelles has become a symbol: Its social climate helps to gauge racial tension in less privileged neighborhoods. With a little under 20 percent of its population Jewish (1 percent of France is Jewish), Sarcelles is also known for its large immigrant population (mostly Arab and Subsaharian), its fatigued housing projects, and its high unemployment rate. The attack was clearly meant to shatter a fragile coexistence.
By the end of 2012, an increase of 58 percent in anti-Semitic attacks from the previous year had been documented: 614 attacks or violent actions targeted Jews in 2012. It is noteworthy that anti-Muslim acts are also on the rise in France—albeit to a lesser extent, up 28 percent from 2011 for a total of 201 in 2012. It is “especially alarming because it shows that anti-Semitic acts have steadily increased in the last decade, along with their seriousness and violence” noted Eric de Rothschild, president of the Protection Unit of the Jewish community, upon the release of the 2012 report. Pierre-André Taguieff, a philosopher, director of research at the National Center for Scientific Research, and the leading scholar on modern and contemporary anti-Jewish movements, also highlights this trend, with peaks in 2000, 2002, 2004, 2009, arguably correlated with the developments in the Israel-Palestine conflict. 2012 is an exception as the outburst of violence swept the country at a time of relative calm in Israel.
In the face of such events, the change in the public response to attacks on Jews in France—ranging from apathy to open support—is all the more notable. In 2006, a 21-year-old cellphone salesman named Ilan Halimi was kidnapped and tortured for 32 days in a basement by the self-styled “gang of the barbarians,” which consisted of 27 individuals whose main figure, Yussuf Fofana, calls himself a Salafist. The abduction was motivated more by financial concerns than Jihad, however: The kidnappers demanded a 450,000-Euro ransom—“because the Jews are loaded and have a tight-knit community.” The perpetrators were caught, and (in a striking example of the anti-Jewish landscape of the new millennium) the lawyer of “the barbarians,” Isabelle Coutant-Peyre, is herself the fiancée of Carlos, one of the most infamous terrorists of the past decades. (She was also just recently picked by the Iranian Republic to help it sue Ben Affleck for Argo, his Academy-Award-winning film about the hostage crisis.) The verdict of the trial against the barbarians handed down in 2009 was greeted with horror for its mildness because, despite Fofana’s life-imprisonment sentence, it included acquittals and suspensions. The minister of the interior called for a retrial, and the attorney general appealed the decision, and in December 2010, time was added to most of the sentences. Yet the necessity for exemplariness had been initially lost on the jury, and a growing sense of isolation now prevails in the Jewish community: The physical safety and the protection granted them by the French Republic seemed a broken promise.
In 2006, according to the police, 33,000 people marched in memory of Ilan Halimi—mostly politicians and Jews. People could not help but compare this march with another one, which took place 15 years before, in the wake of the desecration of a Jewish cemetery on May 14, 1990, when about 200,000 demonstrators spilled out into the streets of Paris, marching down the avenues that link the Place de la Bastille and Place de la République.
In spite of gestures and some symbolic political events—most visibly at the annual dinner of the CRIF (Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France), which is heavily attended by presidents, ministers, and those dignitaries with hopes for a future in politics—the postwar republican pact appears to be broken. The 1972 Pleven law banning racist speech and the 1990 Gayssot laws—which make it an offense to question the existence of the category of crimes against humanity, such as the Holocaust—have been increasingly criticized.
“The capacity for indignation seems to be on the wane,” laments Jonathan Hayoun, president of the Union des Etudiants Juifs de France, which, beyond its name and activities of the French Jewish students union, has turned over the years into a real public player in its capacity as fraternity, think tank, and watchdog. The new scene and battleground are the social media. Last October, #unbonjuif (#agoodJew) became viral. With its flurry of horrifying anti-Semitic “jokes” (such as “#agoodJew is cooked medium rare or well-done”), the hashtag became the third-most Tweeted in France for a few days.
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