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France Grapples With Increased Anti-Semitic Attacks - 2002-04-17


A series of attacks on Jewish synagogues, schools and cemeteries in France is being blamed by French officials on the worsening crisis in the Middle East. Police have stepped-up patrols at potential targets, and French leaders have called for an immediate halt to the attacks. But anti-Jewish incidents show no signs of abating.

French police have said they are tallying up to a dozen anti-Jewish incidents daily, since Israel began its military offensive in Palestinian territories at the end of March in response to a series of deadly suicide bombings against Israelis. The incidents range from the scrawling of anti-Jewish graffiti to physical attacks on Jews and their places of worship, study or recreation.

Police said no organized element seems to be behind the attacks, but they suspect that disaffected young men from North African immigrant families are responsible for most of them. One police officer said these youths believe they are defending the Palestinian cause, as violence escalates in the Middle East, by targeting symbols of Judaism.

Police have taken about 40 people into custody since the wave of anti-Jewish violence began, but most have been released. Most of those who remain in detention have been identified as being of North African origin. Many of them have police records for crimes, including vandalism, theft or drug-peddling. Some are minors.

French President Jacques Chirac has denounced the attacks as scandalous, and urged his fellow citizens to defend France's social cohesion. His rival in upcoming presidential elections, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, has warned that the passions inflaming the Middle East must not flare up in France, which prides itself on seeing all citizens as equally French.

The government has boosted police protection in Jewish neighborhoods and at likely Jewish targets. But Roger Cukierman, who leads an umbrella group of French Jewish organizations, said more needs to be done.

"Things can only be stopped, if the police are arresting aggressors and making strong examples with a lot of publicity," he said.

Mr. Cukierman said French government denunciations of Israeli tactics in the West Bank, along with media coverage of the Middle East conflict, have inflamed the situation in France.

The Palestinian representative in Paris and some Muslim religious leaders have urged Arabs in France not to take out their hatred for Israeli actions on the Jews of France. But some French Jews have said those responsible for the attacks have neither the inclination nor the interest in making such a distinction.

A French human rights group, called the League Against Racism, said many Jews are beginning to develop a fortress mentality, in the face of the authorities' inability to stop the attacks. The group said some Jews are unwilling to even talk about the attacks, while others want to create their own security militia.

Paris lawyer Sam Pisar, a Polish-born Jew who survived Auschwitz and two other Nazi concentration camps, has lived in France for most of his life. He said the anti-Jewish climate in France today is as bad as it has been since World War II.

"Not enough is being done to stem the whole thing. People are just letting it go, and praying that it will not explode. I think it could become much worse. It needs careful and rapid attention," Mr. Pisar said.

With nearly 700,000 Jews and up to 5 million Muslims, France has the biggest such communities in Europe. French politicians, religious leaders and commentators are worried that the anti-Jewish attacks - and the Arab-Israeli crisis - could cause a fundamental rupture between two groups that have so far coexisted peacefully in France, and lead to a foreign conflict being played out on French soil.