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An anti-Semitic attack sparks solidarity - and a push to leave France

Elizabeth Bryant, Creteil, France
December 11, 2014

A brutal anti-Semitic assault in a Paris suburb has stunned residents - Jewish and otherwise - who were used to living in relative harmony. Elizabeth Bryant reports from Creteil, France.

A protest against anti-semitism in Creteil
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/AP Photo/Remy de la Mauviniere

Children spill into the Jewish Cultural Association of Creteil, chattering excitedly, cheeks bright from the cold. The Nespresso machine is going full swing, and Secretary General Leon Zrihen is wandering around, a telephone glued to his ear.

In many ways, it's an ordinary weekday in this center - the hub of Jewish community life in Creteil. But this nondescript Paris suburb of high-rises and manicured parks is reeling from a particularly brutal anti-Semitic attack. Last week, three armed assailants allegedly elbowed their way into an apartment in broad daylight, tying up a young Jewish couple, raping the woman and demanding where "the Jews" had hidden their money.

The response has been swift and frontal. The government and an array of groups have strongly denounced the assault. Authorities have arrested the suspects, all young men from the area. And on Sunday (07.12.2014), hundreds of people - Jews and non-Jews - demonstrated against anti-Semitism in the neighborhood where the attack took place.

"We must make the fight against racism and anti-Semitism a great national cause," said French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, who attended the rally. In recent months, he said, anti-Semitic attacks have soared 90 percent in France, home to Western Europe's largest Jewish population.

Still pariahs?

Nonetheless, the attack has shaken an already watchful Jewish community, and revived long simmering questions about whether they want to remain here.

For many Creteil residents, the incident is all the more shocking in a town where Jews make up roughly one-fifth of the town's population - and live in relative harmony with residents of different faiths. "Generally, Creteil is very calm," Zrihen of the Jewish center told DW. "It's a place where everybody knows everyone else."

France is no stranger to anti-Semitic acts. The list of incidents is long and stretches back decades, but a few particularly horrific incidents stand out. Among them: the 2006 kidnapping and killing of a young Jewish man outside Paris; the 2012 shooting of a four people at a Jewish school in Toulouse; and the stinging, anti-Jewish jabs of controversial French comic Dieudonne M'bala M'bala.

Leon Zrihen
Zrihen runs Creteil's Jewish community centerImage: DW/Elizabeth Bryant

The assault in Creteil "means anti-Semitism has achieved an additional step," said Roger Cukierman, head of France's leading Jewish organization CRIF, in a telephone interview. "It means that although we have been in this country for 2,000 years, although we have citizenship since the Revolution, we are treated by some as pariahs. This is unbearable."

Mixed community

In Creteil, however, many talk instead of fitting in.

"The big paradox is that Creteil is where you can be a Jew in France in tranquility," said resident Michel Zerbib, who helped organize Sunday's rally. "You can study the Torah, eat Kosher. There are Jewish stores and schools. Things were pretty good here, in an ocean of mounting anti-Semitism."

Teacher Vanessa Rouah agrees. "I've lived in Creteil since I was nine-years-old," she said. 'I've never been accosted because of my religion. We live very well with others. It's true we've had this anti-Semitic attack, but it only reflects the overall climate."

A mall near the Jewish center in Creteil
A mix of people live in the Paris suburbImage: DW/Elizabeth Bryant

Still, last week's incident is not the first here. Last month, a 70-year-old man was assaulted in another break-in linked to the same suspects, authorities say. And in May, two brothers were beaten by men wearing brass knuckles as they left a synagogue.

"There's always been anti-Semitism," said an old man passing out Hanukkah flyers at a nearby shopping mall. He gave only his first name, Amoshe. "For 3,000 years there's been war against the Jews. I don't believe in peace."

At a Kosher butcher nearby, a customer called Daniel said he wanted to move to Israel. "I don't feel at ease here, generally," he said. "We're much better off in Israel. We feel at home there."

Trend toward Israel

The numbers of French Jews making the Aliyah, or immigration to Israel, has soared over the past two years. Cukierman of the CRIF, predicts a record 6,500 Jews will have made the move by year's end, roughly double the figure for 2013.

In Creteil, Rabbi Alain Senior says the push to leave is so strong that the local Jewish Consistory, which delivers certificates of Judaism, faces a three-month backlog of Aliyah applicants.

Rabbi Alain Senior
Rabbi Senior has seen a rise in the number of local Jews planning to IsraelImage: DW/Elizabeth Bryant

"There's a climate of worry, of uncertainty and of insecurity that is pushing Jews to consider the Aliyah," he says. "You shouldn't flee France for Israel - you should go to Israel as a choice. But it's not necessarily a choice that's being made serenely and with reflection."

In some ways, however, last week's attack has closed ranks here, sparked sometimes surprising acts of solidarity. Resident Zerbib describes a veiled Muslim women passing a synagogue last weekend where he and fellow organizers were planning Sunday's rally. "She had a big, friendly smile," he said. "And she called out, 'Shabbat shalom!'"

Alain Aktas, a Kurd from Turkey, works at a post office near the apartment where the attack took place. "We heard nothing," he said. "This is a place where everyone lives together. I moved here to be accepted - and to accept everyone."

For his part, Rabbi Senior shares the government's view that a larger campaign is needed to fight anti-Semitism. "Not just in France, but across Europe where there's a strong wave of anti-Semitism," he added.

"It's about changing mindsets. It means finding ways to make people think respectfully and fairly about people who are different from them," he said. "Today Jews are the target, but tomorrow it could be Muslims."

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