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French Jews discuss a rise in fear

2009 has seen a sharp rise in suspected anti-Semitic acts. But are Jews' fears justified, or grounded in paranoia?

Patrick Belaiche takes a coffee break in March 2009 outside of his kosher bakery in Paris’ 19th district, a mixed neighborhood where both Arab and Jewish communities live. Belaiche said there have always been anti-Semitic incidents in France, unfortunately. (Mildrade Cherfils/Global Post)

PARIS — A typical theme of the annual dinner hosted by an umbrella organization of Jewish groups in France: remembering the Holocaust.

This year’s theme: fear.

“Anti-Semitism is back,” Richard Prasquier, the president of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France told the audience at the March event. “Today, many Jews in France are afraid.”

In January 2009, there were 352 anti-Semitic acts committed in France versus the 460 that were committed in all of 2007 and 2008 combined, Prasquier said.

Israel’s three-week offensive in Gaza against Hamas in December and January might have explained some of the spike, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

While incidents ranging from verbal attacks to anti-Jewish graffiti to Molotov cocktail bombings at synagogues are par for the course in France, according to people interviewed for this article, opinions varied on the reasons for the current level of fear.

“There has been a bit of a rise but nothing that is not to be expected,” said Franck Ansallem, a pianist who lived in New York for 20 years before returning to his native France seven years ago. Ansallem, 47, who is Jewish, said “there is a paranoia going on” in France. “It was there before the war in Gaza.” Some Jews in Paris are afraid to ride the Metro while wearing a kippah or a beard for fear of attracting attention and possible aggression, he added.

In the 19th district of Paris, which is filled with both mosques and synagogues, Victorio Shemoun took his lunch at a local kosher bakery. Between bites of his tuna sandwich, Shemoun, who runs a real estate business, said he was not afraid at all. Rather, he found it a shame that the situation had reached such a point.

“Why should we live like this,” he asked, pointing in the direction of schools and synagogues that were “barricaded” by iron bars and gates, with police cars stationed outside. “Is it normal to live like this?”