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France looks for answers against anti-Semitism

Elizabeth Bryant Paris
March 29, 2018

Some people in France hope the outrage over the killing of 85-year-old Mireille Knoll may turn the tide against an upsurge in anti-Semitism in the country. Others are not so sure. Elizabeth Bryant reports from Paris.

Anti-Semitism protesters in Paris
Image: DW/E. Bryant

Parisians braved blustery winds and returned to the streets this week, not to denounce a spate of terror attacks in recent years, but the older scourge of anti-Semitism that some say is taking on a new, increasingly violent turn.

The sea of protesters Wednesday night included Jews and Muslims, rabbis and school children, who marched shoulder-to-shoulder from the Place de La Nation to the modest apartment where 85-year-old Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll was stabbed and then burnt last week, in what police believe was an anti-Semitic attack.

For some, the throng amounted to an affirmation of the country's essential values, unbroken by waves of terrorism and hate crimes. But the march did not necessarily resonate in the gritty suburbs circling the capital and other parts of France, where radical Islam and untended grievances have helped to craft a new, more violent form of anti-Semitism.

The march also took on political overtones, as protesters booed and heckled far-left and far-right political leaders who briefly joined the crowd. "I think it's high time that Jews make some noise and act," Alain Beit, who represents a Jewish LGBT association, told DW. "Anti-Semitism is strong, and things are getting more and more dangerous. Now there is noise, but what is the next step?"

Protests in Paris against anti-Semitism
The protests united campaigners from all walks of life, but many want to know how politicians plan to combat anti-SemitismImage: Reuters/G. Fuentes

Two men have been arrested over the killing of Knoll, who escaped the horrific 1942 Vel' d'Hiv roundup of roughly 13,000 Jews. The deportation of these Jews to Nazi concentration camps — with some help from police in occupied France — remains engraved in French history. Just like the plaques outside Paris elementary schools, where Jewish children were shipped away during World War II, most of them never to return.

An uptick in violence

Knoll's killing appears eerily similar to that of 65-year-old Orthodox Jew Sarah Halimi last year, who was beaten and thrown out of her window. A judge last month confirmed Halimi's killing was fuelled by anti-Semitism. The attacks are only two examples of several particularly horrific hate crimes in recent years targeting France's 550,000-strong Jewish community, the largest in Western Europe.

Read moreTaking on racism and hate speech in France

Indeed, daily violence against Jews rose by 22 percent in 2017 compared to the year before, according to French Interior Ministry statistics. French Jews have also been immigrating to Israel in record numbers in recent years. The Jewish Agency recorded 20,000 making the Aliyah [the return from the diaspora to Israel — the ed.] between 2014 and 2016.

Fear of growing anti-Semitism in France

"It's serious when we haven't found a solution to issues like anti-Semitism, radical Islam and terrorism," Jewish Consistory President Joel Mergui said in an interview. "We must not get used to anti-Semitism and barbaric acts like we've just witnessed."

A number of Jews attending Wednesday's march found the turnout heartening, compared to more tepid public reactions following other anti-Semitic incidents.

"It's good, but we'd like to see a crowd for education (against anti-Semitism) as well," said Sylvie Azogui.

Daniel Corwin, marching with friends who included a Palestinian protester, recalled his father's experience living in Nazi-occupied Paris.

"His best friend had to wear a yellow star," he told DW. "One day, he wasn't allowed to wear new clothes and go out. And one day, he was missing, murdered along with millions of other people."

Politically charged

Even as Jews call for a stronger public reaction to anti-Semitism, Wednesday's march sparked a fierce debate over who had the right to take part.

At a corner, 25-year-old pharmacy student Shimon Marciano watched a phalanx of television cameras hovering around far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen, as she was heckled by a crowd.

While Knoll's son called for the demonstration to be open to all, Jewish leaders denounced the planned participation of Le Pen and far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon on the grounds that their parties have anti-Semitic members.

Marine Le Pen attending the anti-Semitic march in Paris
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen (center) and far-left politicians came under fire for taking part in the marchImage: Reuters/G. Fuentes

"I think the National Front people have no right to be here," said Marciano, who sported a kippah. "And although we think its good that so many people are here, the government needs to do more with tough and concrete measures."

Successive French governments have tried to crack down against Jewish attacks, and President Emmanuel Macron has vowed to do the same. Upcoming measures reportedly include video campaigns denouncing anti-Semitism.

Jewish Consistory President Mergui believes authorities also should increase sanctions for anti-Semitic acts at schools and prisons. "We need mentalities to change," he said, "and for those who are responsible for the acts to be fearful — not society."

Reaching out to the suburbs

But sociologist Martine Cohen believes the Jewish community should also reach out — beyond mainstream Muslim leaders who consistently denounce anti-Semitic attacks, but carry little credibility among angry and disenfranchized Muslim youth, considered to be among the key perpetrators.

"They have a vision of Jews as those who have everything," Cohen told DW, describing common stereotypes in some neighborhoods. "Of people who are integrated — and, to top it off, those who get a lot of attention when there's any issue of anti-Semitism."

Still, Cohen believes the spate of terror and anti-Semitic attacks is tilting the public response. "It's not just a question of a Jewish demonstration," she said of the Paris march. "All kinds of associations are jumping in, with the idea of 'were not leaving the Jews [to fend for themselves].'"

Walking alongside a Jewish friend at the march, Valerie Bougault said she found it "unbelievable" that anti-Semitism was still present in France.

"I do not want to believe anti-Semitism is growing," added Bougault, who works for an association commemorating Jewish children deported during World War II. "We've been doing a great job in schools explaining what anti-Semitism is. Our hope is education — and I'm full of hope."