From last month's Hadassah magazine
Letter from Paris: Looking for the RÃ©sistance
By FranÃ§ois Dreyfus
The number of assaults on Jews by Arab immigrants has risen; so has French aliya. Can France defuse the destructive Arab anger?
â€œThey must have known where we lived. They waited for Haniel when he arrived from school, hurled anti-Semitic insults at him and then beat him with their fists before kicking him when he was on the ground. It lasted for nearly 10 minutes and they even broke a portable radio over his shoulder in their fury.â€
Rabbi Victor Belhassen was describing the May 30 attack on his 16-year-old son by six adolescentsâ€”four Arabs and two blacksâ€”in a quiet street of Boulogne-Billancourt, a middle-class Paris suburb. Attacked when he was parking his motor scooter, Haniel was severely bruised but escaped serious injury because he was wearing his helmet. The assault was just one of 46 such offenses against French Jews in the first six months of 2004.
Such incidents have become so common that French Jews are seriously worried about their future in the country. Immigration from France to Israel, which was fewer than 1,000 a year for the past several decades, jumped to around 2,500 in 2002, fell to 2,300 last year, but could reach 3,000 this year. The Jewish Agency believes 35,000 French Jews might be interested in leaving France, though many would settle in French-speaking areas of Canada.
Especially shocking about the Boulogne attack was that the attackers, ages 14 to 16, were released from jail the following day. (French law prohibits minors from being imprisoned pending trial, except in cases of death or serious injury.) No immediate date was set for a hearing and it could be months before the case works its way through the clogged juvenile court system.
Most galling was that one of the six, a 14-year-old of North African Arab origin, was involved in an anti-Semitic attack five months earlier. His punishment then, meted out by a childrenâ€™s court magistrate, was that he write an essay about the evils of anti-Semitism!
â€œSince the start of the second intifada in September 2000, French Jewry has been subjected to a wave of violence of the sort we had not witnessed since the Shoah,â€ says Roger Cukierman, president of the Conseil ReprÃ©sentatif des Institutions Juifs de France (CRIF), the Jewish umbrella group. â€œAbout 95 percent of the perpetrators are youths from North African Muslim immigrant families.â€
There are 600,000 Jews in France, making the community the worldâ€™s third largest. But the Muslim communityâ€”Europeâ€™s largest at six million strongâ€”is in the throes of transformations that are painful for Jews as well as for French society in general.
â€œBecause of the age of most of those involved in anti-Semitic violence, there is virtually no real punishment meted out so they have a feeling of impunity,â€ the 67-year-old Cukierman explains.
During his presidency, there have been hundreds of anti-Semitic incidents ranging from graffiti and anonymous telephone threats to firebomb attacks against synagogues; 20 synagogues have been damaged by arson.
Official figures compiled by CRIF and the Ministry of the Interior show there were 195 physical attacks and 737 other acts of vandalism and threats in 2002; 125 attacks and 463 other incidents in 2003; and 46 attacks and 134 other incidents in the first half of 2004.
The only person seriously injured was a 17-year-old yeshiva student, Yisrael Iffrah, who was stabbed in the chest last June 4 by an Arab man shouting Allah Akhbar. Whether anti-Semitism was the attackerâ€™s main motivation has not been establishedâ€”he went on to stab non-Jews, including an Arab, in the 48 hours it took police to track him down.
â€œPeople say he was deranged,â€ says famed Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld. â€œWell, they used to say that the Russian mujiks who killed Jews were also deranged.â€
The motives of the attackers may be complex, but they boil down to feelings of solidarity with Muslim Palestinians and anger against French society, which is often hostile toward them. There is housing discrimination, difficulty in finding jobs and rampant delinquency. While making up only a tenth of Franceâ€™s population, Arabs comprise close to 60 percent of its prison inmates.
â€œItâ€™s a problem for society as a whole,â€ says Sammy Ghozlan, a retired Jewish police captain who served nearly 30 years in some of the toughest areas of the north Paris suburbs. â€œThe failure to integrate them and now the refusal of many to be integrated just makes matters worse.
â€œThe Arabs have the feeling that they are humiliated by French society and they want their revenge. Therefore, they take pride in Osama bin Laden and they have singled out for nastiness the Jews who live near them because they are jealous of what they perceive to be the success of Jews in French society,â€ says Ghozlan, who himself hails from North Africa.
Over 60 percent of Franceâ€™s Jews came from or are descendants of those who came from Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco between 1956 and 1962 when those former French colonies became independent. Those likely to get into harmâ€™s way are those who have not been successful and continue to live in blue-collar areas where immigrant populations are particularly large.
One such area, Garges-les-Gonesses in the high-rise north Paris suburbs, has sizeable Jewish and Arab populations. â€œThere are no Arabs in our building,â€ says Joelle Benguigui, a religious Jewish mother of eight â€œand we nod politely [to] those Arabs who live farther down the street. Nonetheless, a month ago someone scrawled swastikas and the words â€˜Death to the Jewsâ€™ on our mailbox. We are extremely careful when we move about and our boys now wear baseball caps instead of kippas when in the street. We have not encountered any direct violence on our street but our synagogue is in an area surrounded by Arab-inhabited tenements.
â€œWhen we came out after Yom Kippur services, eggs, water and a few glass bottles came flying out of nearby windows, and police intervened and made arrests. Two of my older boys and one teenage daughter who were already Zionists said they felt they had no future in France, and they went to study in Israel.â€