As Paris July 16 remembered the 70th anniversary of the Vel d’Hiv Roundup and deportation to Auschwitz of 13,152 Jewish men, women and children, signs of resurgent anti-Semitism are worrying officials in big cities such as Lyon.
This time however the threats and violence are coming from disaffected “French youths of North African origin” as the police euphemistically label them.
Marianne, the leftwing magazine (Issue 792 23-29 June 2012 printed version only) sent two reporters to interview communities and officials in Lyon following recent horrific attacks on Jewish school pupils. Their report is highly critical and warns that anti-Semitism is poisoning relations between religious communities in Lyon and its outlying suburbs.
The incidents that prompted the magazine investigation involved a group of eleven thugs who attacked three people as they left the Beit Menachem Jewish school in Villeurbanne, Lyon on Saturday June 2, beating them with iron bars, according to L’Express newspaper.
Two of the victims were hospitalised and five of the suspected assailants were detained. Interior Minister Manuel Valls said the assailants had wielded a hammer and an iron bar. Both victims wore Jewish skullcaps. Valls called the incident an attack on the French Republic and pledged police would hunt down the suspects. A national body charged with combating anti-Semitism said the attackers were likely of North African extraction. The agency said the attackers shouted anti-Semitic insults at the victims before attacking them. An estimated half a million Jewish people live in France — western Europe’s largest Jewish community. There are some 5 million Muslim immigrants.
Israeli and European Jewish media have been tracking developments and showing increasing concern for the safety of Jews in France and elsewhere in Europe who manifest their faith in any outward and identifiable manner.
Marianne’s report was printed in the wake of the beating of the Jewish youngsters in Villeurbanne, an incident that has increased alarm among French Jews.
As Commentary magazine reported at the time: “Joël Mergui, president of the Central Consistory, an umbrella organization working to coordinate local Jewish communities, said the country’s Jews were under constant attack.
“Not a week passes without anti-Semitic assaults in France. I refuse to believe Jews will be forced to choose between security and their Jewish identity.”
The chief rabbi of the Grand Synagogue in Lyon, Richard Wertenschlag, called the atmosphere “unbearable. These incidents are becoming more and more frequent, so much so, alas, as to make one take them for granted,” he said.
Although French authorities talked about a crackdown on Muslim extremists after the March 2011 Toulouse shootings (where an Islamist gunman murdered three Jewish children and one of their fathers in a shooting spree outside a Jewish school), the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF) told Le Figaro that incidents such as the one in Villeurbanne were becoming commonplace, claiming that in the month after the Toulouse affair, there were more than 140 attacks on Jews.
The problem, according to Commentary magazine is not just the scale of the assaults but also the unwillingness of many to confront the source of the problem. “Though attacks against Jews in Western Europe seem to be the province of Muslim immigrants, it is a mistake to view this violence as solely the result of the importation of Middle Eastern attitudes. The flow of raw hate speech against Jews from Cairo and Tehran and other Arab and Muslim capitals is not to be underestimated, but the willingness of European intellectuals to lend their support to the demonisation of the Jewish state has given these sentiments a patina of undeserved legitimacy…”, the magazine wrote.
RIGHT: The CNCDH, an official human rights body, tracks all reported racist incidents in France.
A report in Le Parisien noted that ahead of the 70th anniversary of the Vel d’Hiv Roundup, a poll for the Union of Jewish Students of France (UEJF), showed that 60% of 18-24 year olds responding had never heard of the affair. Le Parisien said “Vel d’Hiv is one of the darkest episodes of collaboration with the Nazi regime: 13,152 men, women and children arrested by French police on 16 and July 17, 1942, were held at the Winter Velodrome and then deported to Auschwitz. In 1995 Paris Mayor and later president Jacques Chirac apologising for the event, called “it a black stain that lies forever on our history”.
According to the CSA poll for UEJF only 58% of French people know what the event refers to. Less well informed still only 33% of 15-17 year olds had heard of it while 75% of those 65 and older had experienced the event. “As we commemorate the 70th anniversary, this ignorance is both impressive and disturbing”, Jonathan Hayoun, president of the UEJF told the paper. “Less than a third of the students questioned know it was French police who carried out the arrests and it is worrying that so little is known today of this critical page in the history of our country even as anti-Semitism again raises its head,” he added.
One ray of light: the CSA poll also showed that 85% of those questioned considered it important to pass on the memory of the Holocaust. At the official commemoration of the event on the former Vel d’Hiv site, attended by Socialist President Francois Hollande, Jonathan Hayoun called on the head of state to make “the fight against racism and anti-Semitism a major national cause”.
The magazine Marianne’s Malik Ait-Aoudia and Martine Gozlan interviewed young Muslims, local Imams, Rabbis, the Jewish victims and local authorities in Villeurbanne, identifying on one hand the “increasing alarm” felt by the Jewish community and on the other imported extremist sentiments rooted in the Middle East conflict and the West’s wars in general, expressed by young French-born converts to Islam.
Interviewed near the Villeurbanne school two unnamed Muslim youths spoke to the reporters in inflammatory terms chillingly reminiscent of earlier epochs in Europe’s history: “Listen a Jew is a Zionist and a Zionist is a Jew, anything else is merely wrapping paper designed to make us believe that these are harmless people even though they support the Palestinian genocide”. Or again: “The Jews are the enemies of Islam. Since Mohammed’s time it has been thus. The Jews have plotted… the Jews are not true believers they killed prophets like Jesus and tried to assassinate Mohammed … the Jews are rich, they are everywhere, they own the banks, they dominate the world.”
Separately the reporters met other, again unidentified Muslims outside the Rahma mosque who, discussing the 23-year-old Toulouse assassin said: ” Mohammed Merah was just a young man like us and yet he tied up the entire French police force for many days and killed Jews just as the Israeli soldiers kill Palestinian children.” The mention of the name Merah was enough, the Marianne reporters noted, to unleash a flow of angry recriminations from other members of the same Muslim group: “We were shocked by the minute’s silence held in all French schools for the Jewish children who were Merah’s victims, because for the thousands of Palestinian, Afghani and Iraqi children there is no such silence.”
For their part Jewish school and community leaders interviewed (and unlike the anonymous Muslim youths) all identified by name, raised concerns that are increasingly more widely heard in France.
Michele Vianes, a strong supporter of secularism in French schools and founder of the association “Regards de femmes” told the reporters: “the problems and tensions highlighted in the article start in school itself. Did you know that in kindergarten and elementary school canteens they use yellow disks to distinguish Jewish children’s food and green disks to mark young Muslims food”! At the Communist party’s Saint-Fons headquarters Andre Gerin, a former communist mayor of Venissieux has published a pamphlet: “The ghettoes of the Republic” in which he decries the “hatred being vented” and lambasts the “don’t care attitude of all political parties. We are playing with a possible civil war here”, he warned.
Reacting to the comments his attackers had made, Levi, the 19-year-old Jewish victim from the Villeurbanne school told the reporters: “Yes, we know very well that in their heads they believe they are Palestinians and they consider us to be Israelis. Except that we are not involved in that conflict, we are in France, we are in Villeurbanne…”
An unidentified spokesman for the Rahma mosque, which is close to the school where the incident occurred said: “The attack is unacceptable, the full weight of the law must be brought to bear. Here at the mosque we try to make people listen to a message of peace. But we have huge problems with the young ‘Salafistes’ (or followers of Wahhabism, an extremist Islamic sect). They are arrogant know-alls particularly when they are in packs. We have no control over what they say in the street or in the neighbourhoods where they live.”
According to Marianne the Commission nationale consultative des droits de l’Homme (CNCDH) an official human rights agency, has tracked all forms of racism since 1991. Its data for a 20-year period suggests that reported incidents of anti-Semitism are on the rise. According to CNCDH’s Spring 2012 report, of 389 anti-Semitic incidents reported in 2011, 129 were ‘aggressions’ or ‘violent acts’ and 260 were threats. Of these 129, 57 involved violence against individuals including 13 minors. Thirty-five synagogues, consistories and places of prayer were targeted along with seven Jewish cemeteries. Police arrested 36 offenders 28 of whom were minors. Nineteen ‘aggressions’ were attributed to ‘people of North African origin and of the Muslim faith’ while 15 were perpetrated by neo-Nazis.
Story: Ken Pottinger