Stabbing of French rabbi raises controversial questions

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PARIS — The investigation into the recent stabbing of a Paris rabbi has taken an unusual turn, with allegations in the media that the rabbi may have stabbed himself.

Rabbi Gabriel Farhi, who was injured in the stomach in the Jan. 3 incident, strongly denied rumors that his wounds were self-inflicted. He accused police of treating him like the guilty party, rather than the victim of an anti-Semitic attack.

"From the first minute, I was not Rabbi Gabriel Farhi but a suspect," Farhi told a Jan. 22 news conference. "The investigation has been handled with the view that my injuries were self-inflicted.

"I am sure that instructions were given to the police officers to change my status as a victim into the guilty party," he added.

Farhi, who runs a Paris synagogue of the French Movement for Liberal Judaism, was taken to a hospital and treated for stomach injuries after what he told investigators had been a stabbing by a masked man.

According to his testimony, Farhi said he had been alone in his synagogue when a man in a motorcycle helmet appeared at the front door. The man shouted "Allahu Akbar" — "God is great" in Arabic — and stabbed him with a knife, Farhi said.

The incident, followed three days later by an attack on the rabbi's car in the parking lot of his Paris home, was widely condemned by senior French politicians, including President Jacques Chirac and Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe.

The incident, coming as anti-Semitic attacks appeared to be declining after a wave of incidents in early 2002, also shocked France's 500,000-strong Jewish community.

Many of those attacks were carried out by youths of North African origin and were considered linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Farhi is well known for his attempts to foster dialogue between France's Jewish and Muslim communities, as well as his support for Mideast peace.

His views sometimes proved controversial within the Jewish community, but they had brought the liberal movement and its founder — Farhi's father, Rabbi Daniel Farhi, widespread respect among French political and religious leaders.

Four former prime ministers attended a special prayer service at the movement's main synagogue a few days after the attack on Farhi. The service was particularly notable because it was the first public appearance by former Prime Minister Lionel Jospin since his election defeat last April.

Even as politicians expressed outrage at the attacks, however, rumors were circulating that the police investigation was centering on the rabbi himself.

The suspicions did not reach the public sphere until more than a week after the incident, as some major French media decided to hold the story — fearing accusations that they were promoting conspiracy theories or that they were soft on anti-Semitism.

The story finally broke in the center-left weekly Marianne, which had been the first national publication to raise the issue of Islamic anti-Semitism in France shortly after the Palestinian intifada began in September 2000.

Marianne also had been highly critical of Jospin's failure to take tougher steps against anti-Semitism.

According to the magazine, a doctor from the Paris fire department who was one of the first people at the scene after the Jan. 3 attack jotted down in his notebook that Farhi's wound was very light and "hardly compatible with the description" of the incident.

It "could correspond to one that was self-inflicted," the doctor reportedly wrote.

After Farhi was discharged from the hospital that evening, police investigators "remarked that the tear on Farhi's coat did not correspond to the placement of a knife," the report continued.

The rumors have shaken French Jewry.

"You can imagine what a destructive effect this affair could have on the Jewish community," one community leader told the Israeli daily Ha'aretz. "For two years, we have been screaming about the attacks against us and the rise of anti-Semitism in France. If, God forbid, it turns out that the stabbing was staged, not just Rabbi Farhi is in trouble, all the Jews are in trouble. Who will take us seriously?

"And that is without even mentioning the enormous shame caused by the thought that four former prime ministers took the trouble to support the rabbi and the Jewish community," the source continued. "What will we do now? Apologize to them?"

Farhi's lawyer, Michel Zaoui, rejected the innuendos.

"If my client mutilated himself or tried to commit suicide, the hospital wouldn't have sent him home three hours after examining him," Zaoui said.