French Jews quarrel over future as anti-Semitic crimes mount

On May 29, participants entering the main synagogue in Creteil, a southern Paris suburb with a large Jewish population, were greeted with news that has become all too familiar since the Palestinian intifada began in September 2000.

The night before, a large Jewish grocery store literally a stone's throw from the synagogue had been gutted by an arson attack that police and community leaders believe was motivated by anti-Semitism.

The same evening, in the northeastern Parisian suburb of Rosny, swastikas were sprayed on the walls of the town's synagogue, along with slogans reading "Death to the Jews."

According to Sammy Ghozlan, founder of the Bureau for Vigilance Against Anti-Semitism and head of the Council of Jewish Communities, there have been more than 250 anti-Semitic incidents in France since the beginning of 2003, and more than 2,000 since the intifada began.

The Creteil conference, titled "The Future of the Jewish Community in France: Concerns, Questions and Perspectives," brought together leading Jewish politicians, community leaders and intellectuals.

Presenting his statistics, Ghozlan said the community had been shocked not only by the level of anti-Semitism but also by the authorities' initial silence.

Moreover, he said, during the initial wave of attacks in 2000 and 2001, President Jacques Chirac and the government of then-Prime Minister Lionel Jospin had sought to minimize the problem.

Anti-racist organizations had marched alongside the Jewish community in the 1990s, following attacks by the extreme right and against the threat of right-wing politician Jean-Marie Le Pen. But many of those groups had abandoned the Jewish community this time around, Ghozlan said, though he singled out the group SOS Racisme for its continued support.

One of the founders of SOS Racisme, Julien Drai, said the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was being used as a pretext.

It is worrisome that Jews in France even had to ask "whether we will still be here in 10 years time," said Drai, a Jewish legislator in the French Parliament and a Socialist Party spokesman.

For Drai, who said he believes Jews have a future in France, the answer lies in the continued commitment of the Jewish community to the French republic's secular values and a willingness to demand that politicians address anti-Semitism seriously.

Moreover, he said, the Socialist Party's reaction during recent demonstrations against the U.S.-led war in Iraq had been positive, with a firm directive given to party members to leave anti-war demonstrations at the first whiff of anti-Semitism.

Some left-wing movements were not so scrupulous about anti-Semitism, Drai said.

"When they explain it away they justify it, and when they justify they legitimize," he said.

At the conference, Drai was not the only speaker to note that the community feels it's fighting alone.

"Where are the teachers' unions to denounce school anti-Semitism?" asked Serge Cwajgenbaum, secretary-general of the European Jewish Congress, a co-sponsor.

Shimon Samuels, international director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a conference co-sponsor, said the growth in anti-Semitic attacks is not restricted to France, but is a problem across Europe.

According to another key speaker at the conference, Rabbi Gilles Bernheim, the situation of French Jews is symptomatic of a far greater malaise in French society.

Some three hours into the discussion, an audience member demanded that the Jewish Agency for Israel's representative in France, Olivier Rafowicz, be allowed to speak.

A former Israeli military spokesman in France and a regular on radio and television stations, Rafowicz earlier said that the condition of the French Jewish community is "clinically dead."

Rafowicz asked audience members to raise their hands if they saw a long-term future for Jews in France. Only three people did so.

He then asked whether there was a long-term future in Israel, and about half the people in the audience raised their hands.

That proved that the Jewish community's "leadership did not represent the grassroots," Rafowicz said.

It was left to Marc Knobel, a researcher from the CRIF umbrella organization of secular French Jewry, to defend community leaders.

CRIF's work in combating anti-Semitism has been criticized as being too weak — which is one reason that the Bureau for Vigilance Against anti-Semitism was set up by Ghozlan, a retired police commissioner who was recently described by the magazine Vanity Fair as "the Sephardi Columbo."

Both the bureau and CRIF's Jewish Community Protection Service collate statistics of anti-Semitic attacks, run a 24-hour hotline and intervene with the authorities.

CRIF has had its critics from within as well. Alain Jakubowitz, an organization leader in Lyon, wrote recently that CRIF's president was undermining the battle against anti-Semitism in France by failing to criticize Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's policies.