Rise in attacks prompts renewed fears for French Jews

paris  |  The spike of anti-Semitic attacks across Europe during Israel’s three-week war in Gaza has struck a raw nerve here, reviving fears among French Jews that the violence of the second intifada years has returned to their country.

During the intifada earlier in the decade, a sustained surge in attacks against French Jews and the government’s perceived lackluster response prompted many Jews to fear for their future in France, with some even leaving the country.

In recent weeks, the Jewish community has yet again seen attacks ranging from firebombings to stabbings. The government’s apparent inability to protect them from violence, despite the efforts of French authorities, has generated a renewed sense of unease in the French Jewish community, which numbers roughly 600,000 in a country of 60 million. France has 5 million to 6 million Muslims.

“They are more worried about their safety. They are more afraid than before,” said Rabbi Mendel Belinow, leader of a Chabad Lubavitch synagogue and outreach center in the northern Paris suburb of Saint-Denis that was firebombed        Jan. 11.

Two of the nine Molotov cocktails thrown at his synagogue ignited, burning part of the center’s cafeteria. No injuries were reported, though the rabbi was in the building at the time.

While the current cease-fire between Israel and Hamas is expected to diminish anti-Jewish violence, pro-Palestinian groups have promised to continue with their anti-Israel protests. Jews and synagogues have been attacked during and following protests by a fringe of violent youths.

Jewish community leaders warn that fears of further attack will disrupt the daily routines of Jews and intimidate them into hiding their religious identity — and if the volatile situation is not controlled, to flee the country.

During the violence in France during the second intifada, some French Jews fearful of anti-Semitism pulled their children from public schools, began wearing baseball caps to hide their yarmulkes, moved out of mixed Muslim-Jewish neighborhoods or immigrated to Israel.

But as the attacks against Jews waned, so did French aliyah, dropping to 1,910 in 2008 from 2,700 the year before. Oren Toledano, the director of the Paris-based aliyah department for the Jewish Agency for Israel, called this the “Sarkozy Effect,” attributing it to the popularity of the French president among French Jews and the sense of security Sarkozy’s election gave them.

But in the past three weeks, Toledano said, his phone has begun ringing off the hook again, with many French Jews considering aliyah calling to accelerate the process.

On Jan. 16, Prime Minister Francois Fillon held a meeting of government ministers to prevent the import of the Israel-Hamas conflict to France. The meeting pledged swifter measures to punish perpetrators of xenophobic crimes, special judges trained in anti-Semitism and tighter security at pro-Palestinian protests, according to a report by the French news agency AFP.

As the government fine-tunes its security measures, community dialogue activists say the Gaza war destroyed years of efforts to prevent a repetition of the violent reaction in France to the second intifada.

“It’s possible that what happens thousands of kilometers away can undo all our work,” acknowledged a member of the Council of Jewish Communities, Andre Benayoun, at a synagogue in southern Paris on Jan. 16, where a back door was set ablaze by arsonists the day before.

Among other things, the council urges local politicians to prevent anti-Semitism through security measures and dialogue with Muslim leaders.

“We can never let our arms down, never resign,” Benayoun said of efforts to reach out to Muslims, adding that Jews must “just start over systematically.”