With anti-Jewish rhetoric and actions on the rise in France, Leora Eren Frucht asks why there is official indifference to the problem, and whether it is spurring more French Jews to make aliya
Walking to a Paris synagogue last Yom Kippur, Laetitia Hassoun and her mother were taunted by passersby who yelled: "Vive Bin Laden!"
Karine Addaoui and a friend were about to enter a synagogue in Nice, also on Yom Kippur, when three young Arabs, two of them women, began pushing and punching them.
Hassoun's and Addaoui's stories are part of what one French Jewish leader describes as the "daily acts of anti-Semitism" taking place in France today.
Hassoun and Addaoui never mentioned the incidents to anyone but family and friends so there is no record of these acts. But hundreds of other anti-Semitic incidents, some of them violent, have been documented by French Jewish leaders over the last 18 months.
A Jewish school in a Paris suburb was burned down. A synagogue in another suburb of the city was firebombed - twice. Jews have been physically attacked; threatening letters sent to community leaders; Stars of David scrawled on Jewish businesses, and cemeteries defaced. All in all, some 320 anti-Semitic incidents in 2001 were documented in a report by the Paris office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
"We get daily calls from frightened Jews," says Dr. Shimon Samuels, director of the office and co-author of the report.
"In the past two years, 18 synagogues have been burned," notes Haim Musicant, executive director of CRIF, the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France. "Not since World War II have we had synagogues burned in France."
Says Addaoui, "It's more and more frightening to be a Jew in France."
Virtually all the attacks are perpetrated by Moslem Arab youth from poor neighborhoods, many of them fired up by television images of the Palestinian violence - in several places, Jewish community property has been defaced by graffiti warning: "We will do to you what you are doing to the Palestinians."
While the French Jewish community reports an alarming increase in anti-Semitic acts since the start of the violence, the French government maintains there is no such increase, preferring to categorize the incidents as acts of vandalism.
That clashing view of reality has sparked angry accusations between Israel, France and French Jewish leaders in recent weeks.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon fired the first shot last month when he labeled France "an anti-Semitic country". the most anti-Semitic country in Europe," and noted that Israel is bracing itself for an influx of Jewish immigrants fleeing France.
French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine blasted Sharon's statement, calling it "repulsive and despicable," and insisted "there is no upsurge in anti-Semitism in France."
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres tried to stem the diplomatic damage by saying in a meeting with French President Jacques Chirac that "France is not anti-Semitic neither historically nor currently" - a comment which infuriated Wiesenthal European director Samuels, who said it undermined the efforts of French Jewish organizations to draw attention to the problem, and "encouraged the denial of Jew-hatred in France."
"I wish Israeli and American Jewish leaders would dialogue with us before making statements about French Jews," sighs Musicant, who says neither Sharon's comments nor Peres's were helpful or accurate.
The real state of affairs is more nuanced than the picture that either Israeli leader painted, he says. "The truth is in the middle of the road. France is not an anti-Semitic country, and we don't feel that we certainly are living in the most anti-Semitic country in the West. But there are anti-Semitic acts committed here and I think French officials have underestimated the situation."
DOV PUDER, who just completed a three-year term in Paris as the Jewish Agency's director in Europe, agrees.
"It is not fair or accurate to call France anti-Semitic. It's also not right to say there has been no increase in acts of anti-Semitism. There has been," says Puder, who spent two previous terms as an emissary in Paris and is now executive director of Givat Haviva (the kibbutz movement's study center for Jewish-Arab cooperation).
Both say it's absurd to deny France's anti-Semitic past, in particular its record of collaboration with the Nazis under the Vichy regime. But Musicant notes that French leaders and church representatives have made "important gestures in recent years to apologize for World War II."
Post-war anti-Semitism in France was characterized first, in the late sixties, by the New Left's intellectual anti-Zionism that slipped subtly into anti-Semitism, and later, in the eighties, by the more overt Jew hatred and Holocaust denial of the extreme Right, personified by National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Since the arrival of some six million Arab laborers and immigrants from North Africa - who make up 10 percent of the population - anti-Semitism has assumed a new, more violent face, particularly with the outbreak of the violence.
"In the last two years, we've seen an effort by Moslems and Arabs in France to import the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and adopt it as though its their own problem," says Puder.
The rage many feel over their poor position in France - Arab immigrants constitute a socio-economic underclass - is directed against Israel and Jews.
French Jewish officials and observers fault the French government for its failure to acknowledge the problem. They charge that French authorities fail to record anti-Semitic acts (calling them vandalism instead), that they do not make serious efforts to apprehend the perpetrators, and that in the rare occasions when suspects are charged, they receive light, even laughable sentences.
Musicant notes, for instance, that men caught trying to burn down a synagogue in Paris recently were given three-month suspended sentences, and released immediately. "Burning a synagogue is not the same as burning a parked car and shouldn't be treated as such," he maintains.
"The French authorities' continued denial of the problem is preventing them from taking the necessary steps to deal with it," says Puder.
Samuels, in his report, calls the "silence of the political class in the face of these attacks... deafening."
In contrast, he notes, French politicians in the aftermath of September 11 warned "that the Republic could not accept Moslems being subjected to racism or discrimination, and that Islam on the one hand and the Islamic extremists on the other should not be tarred with the same brush."
No such unequivocal denunciation of anti-Semitism has been heard, note Jewish leaders. "It seems the French authorities refuse to condemn these anti-Semitic attacks by Moslem youth," says Musicant.
The "alarming indifference" of the political leadership, coupled with the threat of anti-Semitism has prompted "a feeling of utter abandonment within France's Jewish community," says Samuels in his report.
WHY THE indifference?
There is no single answer to explain the French authorities' denial of the problem.
The most obvious and widely-accepted explanation among French Jews is the race for "the Moslem vote." With presidential and parliamentary elections just two months away, French Jews are acutely aware of their numerical disadvantage. There are some six million Moslems from North Africa in France, and some 700,000 Jews, notes Musicant.
"It's possible that the government is thinking about the next election, and that may be part of the explanation."
Others put it more bluntly. "Every Friday, you have candidates campaigning at mosques in France," notes David Hassoun, a native Parisian who moved to Israel six weeks ago. "The politicians prefer to placate the Arabs."
The electoral considerations are probably more complex than that, and can't be divorced from the broader social crisis facing France.
The epidemic of violence in France is the No. 1 election issue, according to virtually all observers. For the most part, the violence is perpetrated by delinquent Arab youth; much of the violence is random (rather than anti-Semitic), and it is, above all, painful proof of France's failure to integrate this minority.
Crime is rampant, and there are neighborhoods where the police don't dare enter, say observers.
"In my town, police recently uncovered a cache of arms, including M-16s, grenades and missiles, all hidden in the basement of a residential complex in an Arab neighborhood," notes Marseilles native Michael Rebouh .
"To clash with these elements now could spark mass rioting, and that is obviously not something a government wants to do on the eve of an election," notes Musicant.
Puder has a different explanation. The issue is embarrassing for France, which has in recent years made efforts to overcome its anti-Semitic past, he says, citing the landmark declaration made by Chirac several years ago, and the law banning anti-Semitic publications and speeches (aimed mainly at silencing Le Pen and his followers). "After taking such steps, they resent it when you come and call them anti-Semitic."
They particularly resent it when that criticism is voiced by Israel, given France's unsympathetic view of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians. Put simply, French officials feel 'Who are you to criticize us?'
"It's part of an unsettled account between France and Israel," says Puder.
ACKNOWLEDGING the problem would also be a stinging blow to the self-image of a country that prides itself on "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité."
In France, ethnic and religious origin aren't supposed to count. As French citizens, everyone is equal - to such an extent that pupils in public schools are prohibited from wearing chadors or kippot.
Instead of that ideal, France is now a place where one group is consistently targeting another one, bringing ugly religious and ethnic divisions to the fore.
Whatever the reason behind the reluctance to acknowledge the problem, the results are felt acutely in the Jewish community. How acutely depends on whom you ask and where they live.
In neighborhoods where Jews and Arabs live in close proximity, the tension is strong and the prevalence of incidents higher.
Samuels paints a picture of Jews living in fear. Indeed, Karine Addaoui spent her last year in France keeping her Jewish identity secret. The 19-year-old from Nice enrolled in a new senior high school (lycee) in the fall of 2000, and from Day One felt too threatened to reveal her religion to any of her classmates, most of them Moslem Arabs.
"You could feel the hatred. Every minute they would say of some staff member or student: 'I'll bet she's Jewish,' and it would be like an accusation."
Once, Addaoui overheard her classmates talking about attacking a local club frequented by Jewish teens. 'Let's kill them,' they said."
Addaoui often came home crying; her mother urged her not to reveal her identity. She kept her star of David chain tucked safely under her sweater all year long. "I lived a hidden life," says the dark-haired teenager in jeans and a sweater.
Two and a half months ago, Addaoui moved to Israel. Despite her traumatic year in school, she says it was not anti-Semitism that drove her here but a love of Israel. She had no problems in her previous school, she notes, which was also predominantly Arab, and even has one close Arab girlfriend, with whom she still corresponds.
"I had always dreamt of living in Israel, and after a recent trip with Taglit (birthright israel), I decided I wanted to stay," says Addaoui, who is now living at the Beit Canada absorption center in Jerusalem. "Call it Zionism - I just love this land."
Other recent immigrants from France - both religious and secular - also cite Zionism as the main reason for coming to Israel. Several can't even recall a single anti-Semitic encounter in their lives.
"It's not anti-Semitism that brought us here," say David Hassoun, a 25-year-old law graduate from the Sorbonne, and his wife, Laetitia, an optometrist.
"We had a good life in France - excellent jobs, a good standard of living, a community, friends and family," says Laetitia. "But we always knew we would come to Israel - it's something we decided when we were still teenagers. This is where we feel at home."
Like many new immigrants from France, the Hassouns say the wave of anti-Semitism has only reinforced their conviction that Israel is the place to live.
"It's more than the specific incidents," says Hassoun, who has never been the target of any anti-Semitism. "It's the overall ambience that is becoming anti-Semitic," he says, citing the French government and media's traditional "anti-Israel positions," the burnt synagogues, and the attitude of many Moslems and the extreme Right toward Jews. "The combination of all these elements creates a certain climate."
"The Jewish community is becoming more insular," adds his wife, Laetitia, 23. She notes that her parents, both educators, have always been ideologically opposed to private schools.
"They work in public schools, and sent all their children, including me, to public school. Now my mother says that if she could do it again she would enroll my younger brother in a private school because of the violence and anti-Semitism in many of the public schools."
A number of recent immigrants say that friends and relatives who once dismissed their Zionist longings now take a different view.
"My friends thought I was crazy when I left France to come to Israel last fall," says Michael Rebouh, 28, who lived in Marseilles where over half the population is of Arab origin. "But now many of them are considering doing the same thing."
THE JEWISH Agency statistics show no increase in aliya from France - with approximately the same number - 1,000 - arriving in 2000 and in 2001.
This year, to increase that number, the Agency began offering French immigrants a more attractive absorption basket, amounting to an additional $12,000 to $16,000 per family.
Puder notes that in January, the last month he spent at the Agency's Paris office, there was a "definite increase in the number of Jews exploring the option of aliya. More and more are making inquiries."
Incredibly, a number of French immigrants say they feel safer in Israel than in France - this, during a week in which at least 30 Israelis were killed by Palestinians. Among the victims: French immigrant Dvora Friedman of Efrat, who was shot to death on the Tunnel Road near her home.
By contrast, the recent wave of anti-Semitism in France has left about half-a-dozen Jews lightly injured, and resulted in no fatalities.
"When I spoke to my mother on the phone the other day she told me to be careful," says Addaoui. "I told her that 'I'm more worried about you over there than about me over here.' And she understood just what I meant."
"Here I feel I'm among Jews - I can think and say whatever I want," says Kathy Benassaya, a former civil servant from Paris, who came here with her husband and two children three months ago. "It's hard to do that in France."
Says Rebouh, "I know it sounds paradoxical, but I feel more secure in Israel than I did in France. I am less afraid to take a bus here than I am there."
When prodded, Rebouh admits that rationally he has a greater chance of being blown up on a bus in Jerusalem than in Paris, but the sense of security he feels here is of a different nature.
"It's something about seeing all those faces on the buses in France that is very threatening."
It's the feeling of being a minority - and a threatened minority.
University of Paris Professor of French Literature Eric Marty went so far as to suggest that the Jews of Paris are once again "dhimmis" (the protected second-class citizens under Islam). "They are tolerated subjects but mistreated as perpetual hostages to the political necessities of the moment," he wrote in a recent article in Le Monde, cited in the Weisenthal Center report.
Clearly that feeling is not shared by all French Jews, the majority of whom have not come to Israel - or even made inquiries about doing so.
"My former [Jewish Agency] bosses may not appreciate me saying this, but overall life is good for Jews in France," says Puder.
"Economically, socially, and religiously, it's easy to be Jewish in France," he adds, noting that there are some 300 places of Jewish worship in the French capital, and more kosher restaurants - "and good ones, too" - in Paris than in Tel Aviv.
"Do French Jews live in fear? No," asserts Puder. "Maybe those living next to large Arab neighborhoods feel it. But you can't make a generalization about all Jews in France."
Musicant says that "it is true that we are witnessing the burning of synagogues for the first time since World War II, but this is not the 1930s or '40s. Jews are not being killed. There are no anti-Semitic laws and no anti-Semitic policies. Jews are not afraid to frequent Jewish institutions. But clearly something has changed," he says, both in the Jewish community's relations with French Moslems and in their position in France.
Musicant notes that French Jews were active in defending the country's Arabs against attacks by the extreme-Right. "The communities weren't always at odds with each other."
He also recalls the Bastille Day celebrations of about 10 years ago, when the integration of Jews in France was cited as a model for other communities to emulate. "That's not the case anymore," he says. "Something has broken.
"French Jews are not panicking," he adds. "They are waiting to see what happens next. Many think that a calming of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will also calm tempers in France. And they are waiting to see what happens after the elections here in the spring. No one is packing their bags."
At least, not yet.