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‘Yesterday, a Part of My Love for France Left Me’

An eyewitness account of how the synagogue of Rue de la Roquette was attacked by a mob, and fought back

Aurélie A.
July 18, 2014
(All images Collectif Haverim)
(All images Collectif Haverim)

This account of the recent violence against a synagogue in Paris, translated from the French, appeared on July 14 on the website of the Collectif Haverim. It was signed by Aurélie A., who identifies herself as a member of the Synagogue of La Roquette, which was besieged by a violent mob of between 200 and 300 people that celebrated Bastille Day by chanting violent, racist slogans, waving the banners of Hezbollah and Hamas, and attempting to storm the synagogue in what appears to have been an attempt at a new kind of communal terror against French Jews, who have been routinely targeted over the past decade by public insults, attacks, and beatings as well as a few gruesome murders.

Luckily for those inside, the young men of the community fought back, drove off the attackers, and then escorted those inside the synagogue to safety, with the assistance of the police. While there has been an attempt on social media sites to portray the counter-attackers as having initiated the violence against peaceful demonstrators who were only expressing their hope that Palestine will one day be free, there is no support for such a chronology in first-hand accounts of the demonstrations or in reports from the police. Such insinuations also beg the question of what a large number of anti-Israeli demonstrators shouting anti-Israel and anti-Semitic slogans were doing outside a synagogue.

There are also those who believe that it is understandable that Parisians from Arab countries and those who sympathize with their views may be so moved by the injustices being done to their brethren in Gaza that they are naturally moved to display homemade mock-ups of Qassam missiles, wave the banners of terrorist organizations, chant violent slogans, and attack Jews wherever they can find them—and that such behavior has any legitimate place in a democratic state. While the writers and politicians who voice such nonsense should be ashamed of themselves, they won’t be. And why should they bear all of the blame? As any person with basic schoolyard experience knows, being a victim, when you have the capacity to defend yourself, generally does little to discourage future attacks.

Which is why it is worth reflecting on the account below, of what was at first erroneously reported as an attack by an enraged racist mob on the helpless congregation of a synagogue. The mob, the hate-filled slogans, and the attempt to attack the synagogue were all real. Then this happened:

The people throwing chairs, tables, and bottles are the young Jews of Paris. The people running away from them are the demonstrators who besieged the synagogue. While the slogan “Palestine, on t’encule!” which is being chanted by some of the counter-demonstrators in one brief portion of the video is not polite, it may be understandable under the circumstances. The fact that some of the counter-demonstrators are members of Betar and the JDL has also been widely rumored. While the history of both organizations is problematic, it is hard to argue with the evidence that—in this case—they were fulfilling their stated purpose of Jewish communal self-defense.

It is painful that defending synagogues with physical violence has become necessary again in Europe. For those inside the synagogue, many of whom were refugees from Muslim countries in which they were also targeted with violence because they were Jews, the experience was acutely terrifying, as this account shows:


Shocking Testimony of a Member of the Synagogue of La Roquette

For a few days I’ve kept wanting to pray. I cannot explain it any other way than by the strange feeling of being in danger because of my origins…

All my people feel the same being near or far from our land, having lived here or not… throughout the entire global Jewish community, I feel the pervading fear of a new oppressor.

I feel that my prayer is a force, the more I pray, the more its light will spread!

I have a bad feeling leaving the house… I think I do not have the right shoes or the right handbag… but I’m only going to pray … never mind! I’m not going to dress in gym clothes to go pray in my grandmother’s synagogue!

Place de la Bastille is blocked, you cannot get to the other side without taking a big detour… I still try to push through a few small streets because I’m very late, but nothing works… Police have blocked all the streets …

On the corner of a street I see black flags, written in Arabic in white … I think I recognize the Hamas flag … my blood runs cold … Then I look more closely: keffiyeh, flags with the colors of the Palestinian Authority, shouts of “death to Jews” … No, I have trouble hearing … there are thousands in the Place de la Bastille …

I walk away and I try to get my GPS to show me another route.

I am very late. [I] find a parking place at the corner of the Rue de la Roquette. The street is empty .. but no police officers block the way… Nobody thought to block the entries???

Radio J still resonates in my car … they appeal to the solidarity of the French to pay for a summer camp for 300 children from southern Israel whose parents are in financial need. I remember thinking that we were lucky to love one another so much.

When I turn off the car, I hear a noise and screaming. I run quickly toward the noise … “Am Israel Chai” echoes in my ears … I smile.

Arriving at the scene of the clash, I find myself alone among CRS [riot police] who are holding our people and CRS who hold 3 rabid pro-Hamas [demonstrators].

I look left and right, in my head that’s one turn: three days ago, I was running for the shelter of a miklat every hour because the people these protesters support want the death of me, of the civilians around me, and of the soldiers who defend us because we are Jews. Our men are blocked by a dozen CRS, on the other side there are 3, I’m free … I run to the left! I can already see myself jumping at the throat of one of the keffiyeh wearers shouting “Death to the Yids!” He wants to kill Jews???!!! I want to leave him for dead! I do not recognize my own hatred! A CRS blocks me, pushes me, forces me to retreat. I admit to not having challenged him much. At the same time .. I see a group of thirty arriving…!!! I hear cries from the other side of the Rue de la Roquette! But how many are there???

That’s where I realize the magnitude of the situation … They’ve surrounded us…

We hear cries everywhere… I see firearms fly… I even see a man with an ax.

So I retreat of my own accord toward the CRS who “protect” our men and I find myself engaged manu military in the rush on the crowd, all the way to the synagogue. There I spot my uncle and I enter.

There I find the members of the Collectif Haverim.

Then here we can no longer get out … the pressure inside rises…. People amass outside the entrance, the president of the synagogue Serge Benaim tries to get everyone into the main sanctuary.

The President of the Board asks to speak to the gathering but no one is paying attention. Anxiety can be read on all faces.

There are elderly people who feel oppressed, there are women who start to cry, in some places the volume rises. Men call their wives to tell them they will be late. We can clearly feel the pressure mounting. Then the first wounded … EMTs …

I too have had enough… It’s been too long…

I go up to get some fresh air on the first floor, in the 50 centimeters that separate the window from the stones that form Stars of David on the synagogue’s façade. I saw as in a prison what was happening outside. More cries! They are still there. .. There are now hundreds!

The synagogue is under siege!!! Our men stand firm and block access to the synagogue. The demonstrators want in!!!!!!! I’m dreaming! This is a movie! Children, women, the elderly, the faithful of the synagogue … If they manage to get in, we can expect the worst … G-d forbid. ..

I think of Jabotinsky, who called to the Jews to learn to defend themselves and I praise his memory.

I stand there for a good half hour. Our protectors act with courage, far more so than law enforcement, and rightly so, because there were fewer armed men than Jews securing the synagogue…

The clashes redouble in intensity, CRS reinforcements arrive, pro-Hamas protestors, too. In a second attack, our “muscle men” repel with untold strength and courage, given how the balance of power is not in our favor. I foresee wounded. Projectiles multiply. Our “Iron Dome” is manned by activists from Betar [youth group] and the JDL [Jewish Defense League].

The SPCJ [Jewish Community Protection Service] blocks the exit out of the synagogue. We are not out yet …

Time drags… again…

The children can’t take it anymore…

I light a candle… I pray for the people and soldiers of Israel, and I pray also for the Synagogue of La Roquette…

It’s the youth of the SPCJ, the JDL, and Betar who have evacuated the premises in small groups, escorting each of the faithful.

I saw fear in everyone’s eyes.

I had trouble falling asleep that night…. Not since [Nazi] Occupation have Jewish citizens been so tested.

The crimes against Sébastien Sellam and Ilan Halimi have re-opened the way of Jew-hunting.

In telling my father about the assault on La Roquette, I asked him if he had ever seen any such clashes.

He answered, yes…. In Algeria, before leaving it all behind… He added: but we were in Algeria, here we’re in metropolitan France!!

I wished him sweet dreams and hung up. I cried…

This morning, I’ve stayed in bed, I feel sick… Yesterday a part of my love for France left me… Without a severe and general turnabout, I don’t see how I can decently educate my children in the balance of Judaism and secular life that I knew in my childhood… I am torn… The words of the uprising do not compensate for the general silence.

Yesterday I was afraid… Luckily, I was only afraid…

—Aurélie A.


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Aurelie A. identifies herself as a member of the Synagogue of La Roquette, Paris.

Aurelie A. identifies herself as a member of the Synagogue of La Roquette, Paris.