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Killing of French Jew Sparks Fears of Rising Anti-Semitism


The brutal killing of a Jewish telephone salesman in France this month is stoking fears of rising anti-Semitism. Just a few years ago, the country experienced a wave of attacks against Jews and Jewish institutions. Many French Jews now worry about more violence to come.

Children pour out of class one recent afternoon at the Cohen-Tenoudji Jewish school, located in the Paris suburb of Savigny-sur-Orge. The school is brightly decorated with magic-marker posters about Jerusalem and about an upcoming religious holiday. But the school is also enclosed by a tall metal fence. And parents like Jean-Francois Zerdoun, here picking up his 11-year-old son Simon, say they are worried about their children's safety.

Zerdoun says there's a growing sense of insecurity in France. He said French police have not cracked down hard enough against tough, mostly Muslim youths, blamed for attacks against Jews and others. Zerdoun speaks from experience. A number of Muslim youngsters hurled pebbles at him two years ago, as he was returning from synagogue with his son.

The concerns of Zerdoun and other Jews in France have heightened since the death earlier this month of 23-year-old Jewish salesman Ilam Halimi. Halimi was found naked, handcuffed and covered with burns near railway tracks outside Paris. He died on the way to the hospital.

Halimi was allegedly held by a gang calling itself "The Barbarians." Although its members appear to come from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds, police also seized papers attesting to the gang's apparent support of fundamentalist Islam and of Palestinian causes. The gang reportedly has tried to target other Jews in the past.

Halimi's death has sparked outrage and worry in France. This past weekend, tens of thousands of French took to the streets of Paris and other major cities to protest racism and anti-Semitism. A poll published Sunday found the majority of French believe both are on the rise here.

For many Jews in France, who comprise Europe's largest Jewish community, Halimi's death caps a rise of anti-Semitic incidents that began six years ago. The French government's response has reduced the numbers of anti-Semitic attacks, but not the sense of insecurity on the part of Jews like Lise Payen Touitou.

Touitou, whose son attends the suburban Jewish school, says people fear violence even in affluent neighborhoods. She notes the school has lots of security, much more so, she believes, than in non-Jewish schools.

In conversations at the Cohen Tenoudji school and elsewhere, French Jews say they have notched up their habitual wariness since Halimi's killing. Boys and young men think twice before venturing outdoors wearing skull caps and prayer shawls. Parents are forbidding their children to use public transport in rough areas. And a few are emigrating to Israel.

In some cases, the precautions aren't new. Enrollment in Jewish schools like Cohen Tenoudji has soared in recent years, in part because parents think they provide a safer environment for their children. So has the aliya, or Jewish emigration to Israel.

David Roche, European general director for the Jewish Agency for Israel, says more than 3,000 French Jews immigrated to Israel last year - the highest number in 30 years.

Roche says he doesn't believe there's a direct link between anti-Semitic acts and the aliya to Israel. Many French Jews live well in France, and they choose to emigrate to Israel for a variety of other factors. Still, he adds, Jews feel uneasy and the recent killing has only increased this sentiment.

But other Jews are trying to build bonds with France's six-million-strong Muslim community, which is also the largest in Western Europe. That's the case of Michel Serfaty, the rabbi of the Ris-Orangis synagogue outside Paris.

Rabbi Serfaty is the first to admit that relations between French Jews and Muslims are uneasy at best. Most like Serfaty, a Moroccan Jew, are ethnic North Africans.

Serfaty says communication between first-generation North African Jews and Muslims like himself is easy. But he says it's not the same with the young generation. On both sides, the Jews and Muslims tend to stick to themselves.

For the past decade, Serfaty has organized youth visits to Nazi concentration camps in Poland* and other Holocaust memorials. Many youngsters on the tours are French Muslims. Last year, he also organized a Jewish-Muslim friendship tour around France.

His synagogue sits next to a Protestant church and a Muslim cultural center. He has good relations with leaders of both faiths.

Rabbi Serfaty agrees the Jewish community is living in fear since Halimi's killing. Some Jews will likely leave France because they believe Islamic radicals are gaining a foothold. But he believes those decisions are unacceptable. "We have to stay calm and let justice do its work," he said.

* - Corrected 8 March 2006

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