French Jews discuss a rise in fear

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?”

Born in Tunisia, Shemoun, 60, first arrived in France as a child. Feeling unwelcome, his family moved to Ashkelon, a port city in Israel that was hit by rockets earlier this year and where his relatives still live. He returned and settled in France in the 1970s.

He may have integrated, Shemoun said, but he would never assimilate. He wants to remain true to his roots, be able both to add a little harissa sauce to his sandwiches and walk around with a kippah without being bothered. “That’s the freedom of a secular country,” he said.

But banners that read “Jewish=Israel=Nazis” at an anti-Israel march earlier this year attended by thousands unsettled Shemoun. He lamented the “gratuitous hatred” coupled with what he called French cowardice and indifference. “I’m scared for France,” he said. “The people are anesthetized.”

The bakery’s owner, Patrick Belaiche said he was more worried about whether his five children, who range in age from 17 to 23 would have a future in France. “I think they’ll end up in Israel,” he said.

Belaiche, 49, said the few incidents he knew about were more of the nature of petty fights born out of petty jealousies: some pushing and shoving; some young people getting their mobile phones ripped off. But, to say that anti-Semites were behind them? “The problem is we mix everything up,” he said.

He did wonder aloud though whether the upcoming trial set for April over the 2006 kidnapping and torturing of a young Jewish man, Ilan Halimi, who died of his injuries, would stoke tensions.

Robert Creange, a 78-year-old activist whose parents died at Auschwitz when he was 11, said he wished people would not be so quick to jump to negative conclusions about one another, as happened in 2004 when a young woman falsely claimed she was the victim of an anti-Semitic attack. A film released in March, “The Girl on the Train” (“La Fille du RER”), is based on the story.

Creange’s activities through the National Federation of Deported and Imprisoned Resistance Fighters and Patriots include organizing free day trips for high school students to former concentration camps, like the one at Struthof, located about 40 kilometers (31 miles) from Strasbourg in eastern France.

“We have to learn to get to know each other in order to struggle efficiently” against bigotry, he said. “People have to mix.”

More dispatches by Mildrade Cherfils:

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For which it stands: France