PARIS — The father of one of the latest Jewish beating victims in the French capital’s 19th district has no plans to leave his home anytime soon.
Nor does he have any intention of asking his son Dan to hide his religious identity.
The 17-year-old and two other teens were wearing kippot when they were beaten Sept. 6 on the same street as another Jewish teen in June. The victims suffered minor fractures and bruises.
Speaking to JTA at the computer software company where he works, the father, Thierry, who asked that his last name not be used for security reasons, said he refuses to “let them stop us from living.”
Anti-Semitism in not new to the 19th district, the northeastern area of Paris that’s home to the city’s largest Jewish community – some 30,000 people – made up mostly of low-income, Orthodox Jews. France has western Europe’s largest Jewish population, approximately 600,000.
Some Jewish activists here were initially optimistic that the latest attack – which French officials immediately attributed to racism – would help shift the analysis of ethnic tensions in the poor, immigrant-heavy neighbourhood.
This summer’s string of violence intensified a debate over whether anti-Jewishness is a deeply rooted problem among youths in the working-class district or whether random Jewish-vs.-Muslim gang violence instigated by outsiders from nearby ghettos is to blame for ethnic tensions and is being overblown by skittish French Jews.
“We’re at a crossroads,” said Raphael Haddad, 26, president of the French Student Union, UEJF. “Today there are these two theses being debated in France, and our work is to show what is due to racist crime and what is based on simply gang violence.”
Since last week, however, racist motives for the incident are in doubt, because police sources reported that one suspect was Jewish. Now officials and the Jewish community, which was also quick to label the attack anti-Semitic, are facing questions from a skeptical French public.
The skepticism no doubt grew last Sept. 17 when Paris prosecutors said the teens were not attacked because of anti-Semitism. Five of the six suspects questioned in the assault were indicted for group “voluntary violence,” the French Press Agency reported. The suspects are aged 16 to 23.
“Did the political world and the organizational milieu lack caution?” the Le Monde daily asked Sept. 17.
The same article quoted spokespeople from the Paris mayor’s office and the interior minister’s office saying they had made their conclusions based on police information given to them. Prosecutors have maintained that anti-Semitism played a role in the June assault of Rudy Haddad.
When anti-Semitic incidents rose sharply between 2000 and 2004, at the height of tensions between Israel and the Palestinians, the atmosphere was often likened to the horrors of the World War II era, sparking sensitivity among the French.
That tone of skepticism sometimes turns into hostility toward French Jews, who already face accusations of pushing their own agenda at the expense of other minorities, and of presumably influencing the government.
“Because of systematically crying wolf, the Jews risk to lose all credit,” said one reader comment on the moderate-left daily Liberation website. It was one of hundreds of such postings about the revelation that one of the suspected attackers was Jewish.
The 19th district suffers from a high degree of violent crime in general. But Jewish leaders and most of the district’s Jews vehemently deny the gang-violence argument, often heard after Haddad, 17, was attacked in June. Haddad ended up in a coma. Prosecutors in that case are charging two young men of “attempted murder and group violence aggravated by their anti-Semitic character.”
Thierry is exasperated by the notion that the incidents stem from gang violence.
“These gangs don’t exist – all that is just a media circus,” he told JTA. He cited a French TV report quoting the secretary of the National Police Union as saying the Sept. 6 incident “might not be anti-Semitic but just a settling of scores between gangs.”
Yet despite such reports, in the first days following the latest crime, many officials and the media suggested the recent attack appeared different from the one on Haddad mainly because the victims – one in law school, and all in rigorous academic programs – did not appear involved in interethnic skirmishes.