Traditionally French people dance in the streets and fire stations on the eve of the Quatorze Juillet, known in English as Bastille Day. This year, however, anti-Israel demonstrators took control of the monument in the center of the Bastille circle Sunday, brandishing Palestinian flags and cardboard replicas of scimitars and Kassam rockets. Described in AFP releases as a well-mannered demonstration except for a few incidents, it was in fact a hate-fest against Israel and the Jews. “Death to the Jews,” “Murderous Israel,” “One Jew Some Jews All Jews are Terrorists” figured loudly among the slogans hurled by kefiyyeh-clad marchers.
According to the police, the 7,000 demonstrators (organizers claimed 30,000) began in the northern quartier of Barbès, which has a large African and Maghrebi population, and marched to the Bastille, where they remained for several hours. A small contingent started to attack the police, and was quickly brought under control. At the same time, hundreds of protesters raced up rue de la Roquette—street of the rocket—and surrounded the Don Isaac Abravanel synagogue, which is protected by a tall metal gate. Security guards from the SPCJ (Service de Protection de la Communauté Juive), Beitar, and the Jewish Defense League faced assailants reportedly armed with knives, axes, and iron bars.
Five riot policemen stationed in front of the synagogue, where some 200 congregants happened to be attending a prayer service for Israel’s safety, were unable to handle the crowd. It took a half hour for reinforcements to arrive, and another two hours during which law enforcement combed the surrounding streets before members of the congregation were told it was safe to leave. The chief rabbi of Paris, Michel Guggenheim, was at the synagogue during the incident.
Another synagogue, on the rue des Tournelles near the Place des Vosges, was also targeted, though details of that incident have not yet emerged. Two weeks ago I attended a joyful ceremony there for the more than 1,500 French Jews making aliyah this summer, in the presence of Natan and Avital Sharansky, as well as the Israeli ambassador to France and newly elected chief rabbi of France Haim Korsia.
Jewish radio stations were abuzz Sunday evening and Monday with testimony from people who had been inside the synagogue and statements from Jewish community leaders. Mainstream media coverage, however, focused largely on the 14 Juillet military parade, with the day’s “death to the Jews” chants neatly overlooked.
Roger Cukierman, the president of CRIF, the umbrella organization of French Jews, and Joël Mergui, president of the Consistoire, met with Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve yesterday, and asked for an outright ban on anti-Israel demonstrations due to their blatant disregard for law and order.
Local Jewish community leaders have excellent relations with President Francois Hollande’s government, as they did with the previous Sarkozy administration. During the incident at the Don Isaac Abravanel synagogue, Jewish leaders were in contact with the Interior Minister, Prime Minister Manuel Valls, and the chief of police. No one questions the government’s sincere sympathy for the Jewish community, or its fervent wish to bring a halt to the incidents, which are alienating French Jews and giving France a bad reputation internationally. The problem is that French authorities are overwhelmed, outrun, cornered, and caught in their own contradictions.
Violent demonstrations under various pretexts have taken place in France since the early 2000s. In 2003, participants in a peace march beat up two young men from Hashomer Hatzair, then tried to break into a building in the Marais where more than 100 young Jews were gathered. There were massive, violent anti-Israel rallies during the 2009 conflict between Israel and Hamas. Sunday’s incident, however, signifies a heightened threat against French Jews. Anti-Israel protestors are more heavily armed and more defiant than before.
French Jews, however, are not cringing. They are standing firm and demanding appropriate government measures. Still, there is a sinking feeling that one day soon the doors will not resist, the mob will enter, the intolerable will occur.
Nidra Poller is an American writer living in Paris since 1972. Her latest publication is Al Dura: Long Range Ballistic Myth.
Today is the first of Tablet’s five-part series on rising anti-Semitism in France. You can read Marc Weitzmann’s first dispatch, about alleged Brussels Jewish museum shooter Mehdi Nemmouche, here.