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Attacks by arabs on jews in france { December 3 2003 }

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December 3, 2003
Attacks by Arabs on Jews in France Revive Old Fears

GAGNY, France, Nov. 26 — The boys hide their skullcaps under baseball caps. The girls tuck their Star of David necklaces under their sweaters. Their school in this middle-class suburb east of Paris has been scorched by fire and fear, and those are the off-campus rules.

Early one Saturday in November, unidentified vandals set fire to the new two-story wing of the Merkaz Hatorah School for Orthodox Jews that was set to open as an elementary school in January.

The fire prompted President Jacques Chirac to call an emergency cabinet meeting and declare that "an attack on a Jew is an attack against France."

It also intensified an agonizing debate over the definition and extent of anti-Semitism today in France, and indeed all of Europe, and forced the French government to redouble its efforts to combat it.

But even as they praise their government for acting swiftly, some French Jews, particularly working-class and middle-class Jews of North African origin, are convinced that France is not entirely safe for them. They say the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the American occupation of Iraq have morphed into a battleground for French Arab Muslims to attack Jews. "We Jews in France are paying the price for the events on the ground in the Middle East that are seen from morning to night here on satellite television," said Marc Aflalo, a printer who proudly wears a skullcap and whose three children go to Merkaz Hatorah, a private school of 800 elementary and high school students.

If a Jew goes into an Arab Muslim neighborhood, he says, "You have to carry an umbrella to protect yourself from the stones that fly."

This is not a revival of the old anti-Jewish hatred of the right that infused Europe before the Vatican reconciled with the Jews in the 1960's, but a playing out of the Arab-Israeli conflict in the streets and salons of France.

France is home to about 600,000 Jews — the world's largest Jewish population except for those of Israel and the United States — but also as many as 10 times that number of Muslims of Arab origin, the largest such population in Europe, many of them young, poor and unemployed.

Complicating matters, public opinion throughout Europe is broadly critical of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. A recent public opinion poll of European Union countries found that most citizens believed that Israel was the greatest threat to world peace, followed by Iran, North Korea and the United States.

The poll itself added to the debate about anti-Semitism in Europe. But it is in France, where the burden of the wartime government in Vichy's collaboration with the Nazis still casts a shadow over the political landscape, that the debate is the shrillest and the charges of anti-Semitism the harshest.

Mindful of demographic realities and the strains of anti-Semitism in their country's past, French officials are struggling to denounce and punish acts of anti-Semitism without fueling racism toward France's ethnic Arab Muslim population.

Telling Parliament in November that the Middle East conflict "has entered our schools," Education Minister Luc Ferry said France was facing "a new form of anti-Semitism" that was "no longer an anti-Semitism of the extreme right," but one of "Islamic origin."

By contrast, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy said in a television debate recently: "All those who explain the resurgence of anti-Semitism by the conflict in the Middle East say something that is false. Anti-Semitism existed before the existence of Israel."

For that reason he has called for a plan of affirmative action to help integrate Muslims into French society, a highly controversial idea in a country that officially does not identify its citizens according to race, religion or ethnicity.

Still, Mr. Sarkozy added that the horror of the Holocaust meant that anti-Semitism had to be treated differently than other forms of racism in Europe. That is a challenge when many of the young Arab Muslim youths who wander the streets have no understanding of the Holocaust.

In a book called "The Lost Territories of the Republic" published last year, a group of French teachers said teaching of the Holocaust was impossible in some classes because students of Arab origin were so hostile toward the subject.

That us-against-them attitude is echoed by students at the school in Gagny, who have little regular exposure to Muslims except for the all-Muslim cleaning staff from countries like Mali and Senegal.

The school is a sheltered place where boys and girls are taught separately, male administrators and teachers do not shake hands with women, and students learn that evolution is only one theory of creation.

"Outside of school, they call the boys in yarmulkes `dirty Jew' and they tell us to go back to our country," said a 17-year-old student of Moroccan origin who identified herself only as Siona.

After the firebombing of the school on Nov. 15, the government set up a commission to investigate incidents and classified it as a hate crime under tough legislation passed unanimously by Parliament this year. Teachers have been told to combat anti-Semitism, and the police have stepped up surveillance of synagogues and Jewish schools.

In Strasbourg a court sentenced six men in their early 20's to 18 months to three years in prison for setting off a homemade bomb in a Jewish cemetery last year. Yet even after the government initiative, swastikas were scrawled on tombs in a Jewish cemetery and on two Jewish-owned shops in Marseille.

Anti-Semitism, of course, existed before Muslims started immigrating to Europe and has continued at a low level for years despite laws all over the continent. But such incidents have not been limited to France.

Europe, broadly, has been struck in recent months by anti-Jewish acts, including arson at a synagogue near Manchester, England, in November, the defacing of headstones and the gate of a cemetery in Germany with Nazi slogans in October, a botched explosion of a vehicle loaded with gas canisters in front of a synagogue in Belgium in June and an attack on a Hasidic rabbi in Vienna as he walked home from prayers in May.

Indeed, an unpublished draft report prepared earlier this year for the European Union concluded that a wave of anti-Semitic acts had occurred since the Palestinian uprising started in 2000.

Underscoring the extreme sensitivity of the issue, the European Union group that commissioned the report said it had been poorly done and refused to release it, prompting charges among Jewish groups and the Berlin institute contracted to prepare it that the European Union was suppressing it.

Despite the findings, Interior Ministry figures show that physical and verbal attacks against Jews plummeted to 96 in the first 10 months of this year, compared with 184 during the comparable period last year. Justice Ministry investigations into alleged anti-Semitic offenses for the same periods fell from 129 to 29.

But the philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, author of "In the Name of the Other: Reflections on the Coming Anti-Semitism," for one, calls a statistical analysis of the problem an absurd way to measure it.

"There is a new, dangerous phenomenon of the Nazification of Israel that justifies hatred of Israel and therefore the Jews," he said.

One result has been a closing of ranks among some Jewish activists, which has made it more difficult for them to tolerate criticism of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians, polarizing the debate still further.

"Intellectuals who were not used to considering themselves Jewish are now doing so," said Olivier Nora, the publisher of the Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle publishing house. "The tradition in the French Jewish community is to feel French first and Jewish second, but there is more and more pressure to define yourself and to take a position on Israel's policies. You're either in or you're out."

But Theo Klein, a lawyer and former head of the umbrella group of Jewish organizations known as the Representative Council of the Jewish Institutions of France, or CRIF, urged the Jews of France not to be carried away by emotion. He criticized the government's decision to define the school firebombing as an act of anti-Semitism in the absence of conclusive proof.

"The Jews are fully integrated into French society," he said. "They should reaffirm their rights as French citizens and not set themselves up as separate."

Indeed, when Israel's ambassador to France, Nissim Zvili, said after the school fire that French Jews were so "afraid of anti-Semitic attacks that many of them are thinking of emigrating," Roger Cukierman, the current head of CRIF, called the claim "really exaggerated" and an Israeli effort to attract immigrants.

Meanwhile, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the head of the far-right National Front, who has been accused by opponents of being anti-Semitic as well as racist against the influx of Muslim immigrants to France, said in a statement that the government had overreacted to the school fire. He called the new measures against anti-Semitism "laughable," adding: "There is no rise in anti-Semitism in France. There are the inevitable effects of an untamed immigration."

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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