PARIS — The two sieges that transfixed the world last Friday epitomize the problem Islamic radicalism poses in the heart of Europe: it’s a danger to civilized society generally, but especially to Jews.
Now it’s time for authorities to wake up to the problem and confront it, French Jewish leaders said after the hostage crisis at the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket at Porte de Vincennes in Paris’ 12th arrondissement that claimed the lives of four people.
“France is still under threat by those targeting it,” French President Francois Hollande said in an address Friday. “Unity is our best weapon. Unity to show our determination to fight against all that may divide us and first and foremost to be implacable when it comes to racism and anti-Semitism. Because today, in that kosher shop, it was a terrifying anti-Semitic act that was committed.”
Several thousand people gathered outside the kosher market for a vigil Saturday evening to commemorate the four victims of the attack.
Among the dead were Yoav Hattab, a 21-year-old son of a Tunisian rabbi who now lives in Paris. He recently returned from a Birthright trip. The other victims were Yohan Cohen, 22; Philippe Braham, 45, and François-Michel Saada, 55.
The Jan. 7 attack at Charlie Hebdo, a satirical newspaper that drew admirers and detractors for its provocative cartoons, was described by many in France as a national shock akin to 9/11. Tens of thousands of protesters gathered in Paris to memorialize the dead and express their support for press freedom.
Last week’s attacks came on the heels of a long period of increased anti-Semitic attacks in France that grew worse during last summer’s war in Gaza. Since then, synagogues have been set ablaze, Jews have been attacked and Jewish institutions have been threatened. In 2014, a record number of French Jews, some 7,000 people, left for Israel – many citing fears for their future in France.
In a statement, Simone Rodan-Benazquen, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Paris office, citing a number of recent violent anti-Semitic attacks in France, said: “We have warned that the menace of rising anti-Semitism threatens French society at large. The Charlie Hebdo massacre makes clear that the war against France’s democratic values is in high gear.”
Despite assurances the government is committed to fighting anti-Semitism, French Jews are facing the Islamic jihadists alone, said Chlomik Zenouda, vice-president of National Bureau for Vigilance Against Anti-Semitism. “Thousands showed up to protest the Charlie Hebdo killings. That’s nice. But they gathered at a square where just a few months ago public officials stood idly as around them calls were heard to slaughter the Jews. No one came out to protest that – no one but the Jews,” said Zenouda, referring to inflammatory rhetoric at Gaza war protests held last summer at Place de la Republique.
Near the supermarket site Friday, schools were put on lockdown or evacuated. Synagogue services in Paris were cancelled, reportedly for the first time since World War II.
The Hyper Cacher market is located on the easternmost edge of Paris, bordering Saint-Mandé – a heavily Jewish suburb with many kosher shops and restaurants. Just a quarter mile away from Hyper Cacher is the century-old Synagogue de Vincennes, which long has catered to the community’s sizable Ashkenazi population. The synagogue is adjacent to another congregation, Beth Raphael, founded in 2005 to serve to the growing population of Jews of North African descent.
On Friday, Cours de Vincennes, usually a lively boulevard with a street market, was nearly abandoned. The only sound was that of police convoys heading to the Hyper Cacher nearby. Meanwhile, police ordered shops closed on the rue de Rosiers in Paris’ Marais district, a Jewish area teeming with shoppers before Shabbat.
France announced Monday that it will increase security at Jewish institutions, including Jewish schools, with soldiers.
Nearly 5,000 security forces and police will be deployed to protect the country’s 700 Jewish schools, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuves said in a meeting with parents at a Jewish school south of Paris near the Hyper Cacher attack.
The promise came a day after Hollande said in a meeting with French Jewish leaders in the wake of Hyper Cacher attack that France would move to protect synagogues and Jewish schools, including using the military.
On Sunday, nearly 500 people attended an aliyah fair organized before the Charlie Hebdo massacre by the Jewish Agency and attended by Israeli Foreign Minister Avidgor Liberman, who was in Paris for Sunday’s mass rally, and Jewish Agency chair Natan Sharansky.
The day before, in an interview in the Atlantic conducted before last week’s violence, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said the emancipation of the Jews was a “founding principle” of the republic and that if Jews were to leave, “The French Republic will be judged a failure.”
Shimon Samuels, the Paris-based director of international affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, told JTA France needs to face up to the danger of radical Islamists and recognize it for what it is, and not excuse it away.
“A culture of excuse exonerates the perpetrators as disaffected, alienated, frustrated, unemployed,” he said. “No other group of frustrated unemployed has resorted to such behaviour.”
Samuels urged the government to declare a state of emergency and crack down on Islamist groups. Other Jewish groups in France have issued similar calls.