An incident in late December 2001 in London caught the attention of media and highlighted a problem that should be of concern to Jews: rising anti-Semitism in France, which is home to the third-largest Jewish community in the Diaspora. At a social gathering, France's ambassador to Great Britain referred to Israel as that "(expletive) little country" that, smaller than
three French "departements" (provincial districts), is causing such worldwide trouble.
Between September 9, 2000 and November 20, 2001, 330 anti-Semitic incidents took place in Paris - about an incident a day.
The story yielded denials, re-interpretations and editorials - most of them dealing with the diplomatic and social brouhaha, but only marginally or not at all with the underlying issue: the concern in France, both in the Jewish community and the government, about a sharp and sustained increase in anti-Semitic incidents in the country that is home to Europe's largest Jewish population of over 600,000. The perpetrators are primarily young Arab immigrants, mostly from North Africa.
The issue was at the top of the agenda of the annual meeting on December 1 of the CRIF --the umbrella group of secular French Jewish organizations -- where Prime Minister Lionel Jospin was the guest of honor and expressed the government's determination to curb the attacks.
Between September 9, 2000 and November 20, 2001 - in just over a year - 330 anti-Semitic incidents took place in Paris and the Paris region, where half of France's Jews live. This is just about an incident a day. The acts included the throwing of stones at Jews leaving synagogues after service, against students leaving Hebrew school, arson attacks on Jewish communal buildings, insulting phone calls, anonymous mail and anti-Semitic graffiti. The dramatic rise in anti-Semitic violence began with the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada in September 2000 and has continued into the New Year. In January 2002, a Jewish school in the Paris suburb of Creteil was firebombed in an incident described by police as an anti-Semitic attack.
A report produced by the Jewish community's Security Service - a CRIF-related organization for the protection of French Jews, outlined a number of attacks against Jews and Jewish institutions in 2001. Among the examples was a taxi driver complaining to a passenger about "yet another Kosher restaurant" as they passed by. When she revealed that she was Jewish, he threw her out, saying, "I don't drive dirty Jews." In another episode cited by the report, a young woman was accosted on the subway with chants of "dirty Jew, we are going to finish the work of the forties...all of you will burn..."
Concerns about rising anti-Semitism have generated front-page coverage in France's major newspapers. A November 30 story in the conservative daily Le Figaro was headlined, "The new sense of insecurity of France's Jews". Two days later, the left-of-center Le Monde carried the headline: "The Jewish community is worried about a revival of anti-Semitic attacks."
Jewish leaders are concerned about the apparent laxity by government and police in confronting the problem. Chief Rabbi Joseph Sitruk told Le Figaro: "The biggest concern in the community is the feeling that the incidents are being taken for granted. Very few perpetrators have been arrested ... There seems to be a new perspective - an unconscious but very real response by the authorities that there are now between five and six million Moslems in France, but only 600,000 Jews, which means more consideration for the former..."
Prime Minister Jospin's attempt at reassurance at the CRIF dinner fell on skeptical ears. His announcement of the government's impending declaration of a national day of observance of the Holocaust in French schools was welcomed, but unlikely to lessen the Jewish community's concerns about rising anti-Semitism.
A revealing survey of public opinion on the mainly Arab-initiated attacks against Jews was conducted by SOFRES, France's leading opinion survey organization, during the year ending September 2001. The survey of 1,000 adult respondents posed an array of questions on various aspects of the Middle East conflict.
Overall, the survey found that public opinion remained more favorable toward Israel than the Palestinians, although not by much: 26 percent for Israel; 19 percent for the Palestinians; 11 percent for both, and 35 percent for neither. Egypt, Morocco and Russia ranked ahead of Israel in the category of countries receiving more positive than negative responses.
On matters related to democracy, civil liberties, ethics and tolerance, Israel ranked consistently better than the Palestinians did, but both the Israelis and Palestinians were deemed equally manipulative and living with the same sense of insecurity. And on the key issue of who was responsible for the breakdown of the peace process - a year after Arafat rejected the far-reaching Israeli peace proposal at Camp David - the French respondents held both sides equally at fault. Finally, in contrast to the widespread Jewish, and particularly Israeli, view that French policy is pro-Palestinian and pro-Arab, the respondents in the survey believed, 34 to 13, that the French government is pro-Israel.
The differences in perception between French Jews and the broader public are wide and raise questions. These relate not only to French policy in the Middle East, but also to the attitude of French authorities toward the increase in anti-Semitism at home. French Middle East policy is perceived by Jews as pro-Arab and cool toward Israel. And domestically, France still has not completed wrestling with traditional anti-Semitism and its record during World War II, as the last trial of a wartime figure - Maurice Papon - demonstrated.
Against this background, France faces a national election this year, with the openly pro-Arab Communist party part of the left coalition headed by Prime Minister Jospin, a candidate for president. On the extreme right, the ultranational anti-Semite Jean-Marie Le Pen and other smaller anti-foreign and anti-Semitic groups threaten to siphon off votes from the Conservatives, headed by President Jacques Chirac. Consequently, there is little comfort for Jewish interests in today's French politics. The question is whether, or when, a succeeding French government will find new approaches to these issues, especially when it comes to the security of the large Jewish community in France.