PARIS — The spike of anti-Semitic attacks across Europe during Israel’s three-week war in Gaza has struck a raw nerve here, reviving fears among French Jews that the violence of the second intifadah years has returned to their country.
During the intifadah earlier in the decade, a sustained surge in attacks against French Jews and the government’s perceived lacklustre response prompted many Jews to fear for their future in France, with some leaving the country.
The government’s belated crackdown on the violence and the election in May 2007 of a new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, with warm ties to Israel and the Jewish community allayed the fears of many and helped tamper anti-Semitic attacks.
But the attacks returned this month with the latest conflagration in the Middle East, enraging French Muslims and resulting in near-daily assaults against Jews for the duration of the Gaza war.
“They are more worried about their safety. They are more afraid than before,” said Rabbi Mendel Belinow, leader of a Chabad Lubavitch synagogue and outreach centre in the northern Paris suburb of Saint-Denis that was firebombed Jan. 11.
Two of the nine Molotov cocktails thrown at his synagogue ignited, burning part of the centre’s cafeteria. No injuries were reported, though the rabbi was in the building at the time and was believed to have been a target.
The synagogue, located in a heavily immigrant suburb known for its high crime and poverty rates, also was attacked in 2005, when “Death to the Jews” was scrawled on its inner walls.
Over the past few weeks, the Jewish community has seen attacks ranging from firebombings to stabbings. The government’s inability to protect them from violence, despite the efforts of French authorities, has generated a renewed sense of unease in the French Jewish community, which numbers roughly 600,000 in a country of 60 million. France has five million to six million Muslims.
“It’s harder to reassure them now,” Belinow said of his approximately 160 congregants.
While the current ceasefire between Israel and Hamas is expected to diminish anti-Jewish violence, pro-Palestinian groups have promised to continue with their anti-Israel protests. Such demonstrations in France, which have drawn tens of thousands, commonly have ended in riots and are a mouthpiece for virulent anti-Zionism, including the burning of Israeli flags. Jews and synagogues have been attacked during and following protests by a fringe of violent youths.
Jewish community leaders warn that fears of further attack will disrupt the daily routines of Jews and intimidate them into hiding their religious identity – and if the volatile situation is not controlled, to flee the country.
Oren Toledano, the director of the Paris-based aliyah department for the Jewish Agency for Israel, said that in the past three weeks, his phone has begun ringing off the hook again, with many French Jews considering aliyah calling to accelerate the process.
As the government fine tunes its security measures, community dialogue activists say the Gaza war destroyed years of efforts to prevent a repetition of the violent reaction in France to the second intifadah.