Wave of anti-Jewish attacks hits France

By ELIZABETH BRYANT, United Press International  |  April 1, 2002 at 7:24 AM
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PARIS, April 1 (UPI) -- A new wave of anti-Jewish attacks hit France over the weekend, capped by the destruction late Sunday of a major synagogue in Marseille.

"This is an outrage," said Emmanuel Weintraub, a leading member of the French Jewish umbrella group CRIF, in a Monday interview with United Press International. "The sort of delirium that's happening in the Middle East -- this sort of madness, we are having here as well," Weintraub said. "Which is absurd, because what does France have to do with what's happening in the Middle East?"

It is not in dispute that a slice of the spiraling Israeli-Palestinian violence has been transplanted to France. Over the past 18 months, dozens of Jewish shops, synagogues, schools and other institutions have been attacked and sometimes destroyed.

French authorities link many of the incidents to ethnic Arab youths, incensed by Israel's hard-line response to Palestinian suicide attacks.

With about 650,000 Jews and about 5 million Muslims, France has the largest population of both faiths in Western Europe.

A March report by France's Jewish student union and the activist group, SOS Racism, counted a total of 405 anti-Jewish acts in France since September 2000. Police say the number is lower.

In January, the Israeli government announced a new package of incentives for French Jews to emigrate to Israel. It coincided with a denouncement by a member of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government France was the most "anti-Semitic" country in Western Europe.

The remark prompted an outcry in France, with politicians and Jewish leaders arguing the country was not anti-Semitic, although they agreed the surge of anti-Jewish acts was troubling.

More violence occurred over Easter weekend, which coincides with the Jewish Passover holiday. Among other incidents, a synagogue in Lyon was attacked Saturday night, as was a Jewish butcher shop outside the southern city of Toulouse.

The doors of a synagogue in Strasbourg were burned, and two Jewish youths were attacked in Rhone Valley region. Late Sunday night, an arson attack razed the Marseille synagogue to the ground.

"Five of the eight Torah scrolls were burned," Weintraub said of the Marseille fire. "According to Jewish tradition, they will be buried this afternoon."

Both President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin condemned the latest wave of attacks.

While anti-Semitism did not exist in France, Chirac said Sunday "there are tensions here or there that are very dangerous, that should be taken seriously, and that demand both prevention and repression without reserve."

Chirac and Jospin, who are running in the presidential elections this month, have both made a crackdown on crime a centerpiece of their campaigns.

Jewish and Muslim leaders also are working together to calm the tensions.

In a telephone interview, Marseille's Grand Mufti Soheib Bencheikh said representatives of both communities had gathered in front of the city's destroyed synagogue Monday, in a gesture of solidarity.

But so long as the violence in the Middle East continued, he said, ethnic-Arab youths in France would likely continue their campaign of attacks.

"It's possible for the attacks to continue," said Bencheikh, who called for Western intervention in the Middle East to staunch the bloodshed, "which makes our job all the more difficult" in calming incensed Muslim youth in France.

From the Palestinian territories, Leila Shahid, the Palestinian representative to France, also called on Muslim youth here to stop attacks on Jewish institutions.

"It's the biggest crime against the Palestinian people" to stage attacks in France in response to events in the Middle East, Shahid said in an interview with France-Info radio. "Our struggle is a national struggle."

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