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Anti-Semitic Attacks Surge in France - 2004-07-12

Anti-Semitic attacks have surged in France in recent months, but an attack Friday on a young woman on a Paris-area commuter train has particularly shaken the country. Critics argue most French people have not taken problems of racism and anti-Semitism seriously enough. There are some community efforts to ease racial and religious divisions.

Each year for the past decade, French Rabbi Michel Serfaty has accompanied several dozen high-school students on a trip to visit Jewish sites in Europe. Mr. Serfaty is a Jew from Morocco, who heads a synagogue in the town of Ris Orangis, outside Paris.

The students on his trips are also of North African origin, but they are Muslims. Rabbi Serfaty says by working on a local level, Jewish leaders can help reduce incidents of anti-Semitism that have soared in France during the past four years. Many of the attacks against Jews are blamed on young Muslims. France has Western Europe's largest populations of Jews and Muslims.

Perhaps none of the incidents has launched as much debate as the attack Friday against a young mother, sitting on a commuter train with her baby. A gang of youths tore the 23-year-old woman's clothes, cut off her hair, and drew Nazi swastikas on her stomach.

The attackers allegedly assumed she was Jewish. The woman was not.

Apparently, nobody on the train came to her rescue or called local authorities to identify the assailants. Police are searching for them.

The attack has sparked sharp condemnation from Muslim and Jewish leaders, and from an array of top politicians. President Jacques Chirac called it shameful. Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin said indifference to violence is evidence of, what he called, "something wrong" in French society.

A senior member of France's Jewish Council, Bernard Kanovich, agrees that anti-Semitism is not just a problem between the country's Muslims and Jews. Mr. Kanovich says anti-Semitism represents a danger for all of France, but he says ethnic and religious communities are mostly confronting each other, rather than finding ways to solve their differences.

But there are notable exceptions, like in the southern port city of Marseilles, where Salah Bariki is a Muslim leader who works to bring young people of all faiths together. Mr. Bariki says he has seen progress. He says, in his city, Muslims and Jews see each other daily, and they begin to understand each other's backgrounds. He says Marseilles' Jewish community has also been active in promoting interfaith dialogue.

In Ris Orangis, Rabbi Serfaty was attacked by young Muslims last year, as he was walking to his synagogue, but that did not shake his hope for interfaith dialogue. He is working with Muslim leaders to organize a Muslim-Jewish friendship day later this year.