Beating puts Jewish community on edge

paris | Angry and frightened Jewish youth gathered in the 19th district of northern Paris this week to show support for a 17-year-old Jewish boy who was brutally beaten with metal bars while on his way to synagogue June 21.

Hospital officials said that Rudy Haddad was temporarily out of a medically induced coma and was “doing better.” But his improved condition did little to quell anger among French Jews over the latest shock to their community.

Angst has intensified in areas such as the 19th district, where interethnic violence between Muslims and blacks of immigrant origin and the Jews living among them has grown more frequent.

The tensions continue despite a general decline in the number of anti-Semitic attacks since the period between 2000 and 2004, which saw a sharp increase.

To many, the most recent attack was an unexpectedly violent yet anticipated result of such a divisive atmosphere.

The incident, which has grabbed headlines in France and renewed debate about the surge of interethnic violence, also has raised new questions about whether the French authorities are doing enough to protect the Jewish community.

While French officials were quick to condemn the attack, most fell short of identifying the crime as anti-Semitic, saying the police first needed to complete their ongoing investigation.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy told reporters while visiting Israel this week that he was “particularly shocked by what happened to a young French boy, on the pretext that he was wearing a kippah,” the AFP news agency reported.

In an initial presidential statement June 22, Sarkozy denounced the attack but did not draw such conclusions.

The daily France-Soir reported that the police believe Haddad was involved in a dispute between Jewish and black boys and was attacked two hours later, when he was alone. Various reports said between 15 and 30 young blacks attacked him.

Police confirmed that Haddad had been held for questioning with three friends in 2007 for involvement in an interethnic dispute.

Yet to many in the Jewish community, especially in the poor, multiethnic 19th district where the incident took place, few doubted that Haddad was targeted because he was wearing a kippah and was an identifiable Jew.

On June 23, France’s newly elected chief rabbi, Gilles Bernheim, shifted his stance on the anti-Semitic nature of Haddad’s attack.

The day before he had told the French media that it was “probable” but “not certain” that Haddad was beaten because he was Jewish. But the following morning he told French Radio J, a Jewish station, that the incident was “something vile and notoriously anti-Semitic.”

While Jewish leaders in the 19th district were discussing the possibility of an organized response to the incident, 150 Jewish youth and some adults spontaneously met near the scene of the crime June 22 for a second consecutive evening to protest the attack.

“It was senseless, and it could just as well have been me because I’m Jewish,” said David Sebban, 17, who spoke with his hands clasped before him, visibly angered and saddened.

As he spoke, a crowd of young Jews rushed to testify of their growing fears for their security in the neighborhood. Some said they would like to take revenge on the next group of “Arabs” they crossed, referring to Muslim immigrants of North African origin.

“When I go out, I go out with a big group, and if someone calls us a ‘dirty Jew,’ we fight them,” said David, 15, who declined to give his last name.

Most of the kippah-wearing boys and observant girls spoke soberly of increasing tensions in the neighborhood, which includes the largest Jewish community in Paris.

Though no official statistics exist, community leaders estimate that 25,000 to 30,000 Jews live in the 19th district, while about 200,000 live in Paris and its suburbs.

The district had the largest recorded number of anti-Semitic incidents within the French capital in 2007. Last year, 29 incidents were recorded there, compared to 15 in 2006. This contrasts with two or three reported incidents in areas closer to central Paris in 2007.

“We don’t want to go out of the house anymore,” said a petite Helena Sitbon, 15, who spoke as she leaned against her friend, nervously playing with her gold Star of David charm necklace.

Haddad’s violent beating is a reminder of the 2006 anti-Semitic killing of Ilan Halimi, who was kidnapped and tortured before his body was left on a Paris street.

The latest incident has prompted some to question the French government’s response to the ever-present threat of anti-Semitism in French society. Some Jews in the 19th district expressed their frustration with officials and the French media for declining to identify the attack as clearly anti-Semitic.

“The government makes an effort,” said Joseph Cattan, 60. “But if everything they’ve done until now still hasn’t worked, it means they need to do more.”

Yet CRIF, the umbrella organization of the Jewish community, and the International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism thought the government’s swift and firm condemnation of the attack was appropriate, due to the sensitivity of the case.

“I think their reaction was sufficient,” said Marc Knobel, a CRIF representative and a researcher on anti-Semitism in Europe. “It was quick, and it shows that those in power take this very seriously. They showed their solidarity, and reminded everyone that hurting a Jew is the same as hurting France. There is nothing as powerful as saying that.”