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Jews Question Staying in France After Anti-Semitic Attack

French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve, center, during a gathering against anti-semitism also attended by Israeli ambassador to France Yossi Gal, left, in Creteil, east of Paris, Dec. 7, 2014.
French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve, center, during a gathering against anti-semitism also attended by Israeli ambassador to France Yossi Gal, left, in Creteil, east of Paris, Dec. 7, 2014.

Children spilled into the Jewish Cultural Association, their cheeks red from the winter cold. The staff handed out cups of coffee to visitors and members dropped in to chat. This is the hub of Jewish community life here in Creteil, located just outside Paris.

In many ways, it's an ordinary weekday. But this suburb of high-rises and manicured parks is reeling from a particularly brutal attack. Last week, three armed assailants pushed their way into an apartment in broad daylight, tying up a young Jewish couple and raping the woman. They wanted to know where "the Jews" had hidden their money.

French authorities responded swiftly. Speaking at a rally at Creteil to protest the attack, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said the fight against racism and anti-Semitism must become a national cause. An array of groups have denounced the assault. Police have arrested the suspects, young men from the area.

For many Jews here, the attack is all the more shocking because it took place in a town where they make up about one-fifth of the population.

Leon Zrihen, the Cultural Association's general secretary, says there are very few problems in Creteil. It's a place where everybody knows everyone else, where there is a good interaction among different faiths.

But the many anti-Semitic attacks over the years - including the killing of four Jews in 2012 - have left many French Jews wary and scared. Roger Cukiermen, president of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions, says this latest incident in Creteil marks another step of anti-Semitism.

"It means although we are here in this country for 2,000, although we have citizenship since the revolution - since 1791 - we are considered, we are treated by some members as pariahs, as people outside the nation. This is unbearable," said Cukiermen.

Fitting in

Yet many Jews here in Creteil talk instead about fitting in. Vanessa Rouah, a kindergarten teacher at the community center, has lived in Creteil since she was a little girl.

She says Creteil is a good community to live in. She's never been attacked because of her religion. People live alongside each other, she said adding that she believes last week's assault merely reflects a negative climate in France overall.

The town's chief rabbi Alain Senior says Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders have good relations. Creteil is a good place, he said, to live the Jewish faith.

Here in Creteil, Senior says, you can wear the hat or beard of an Orthodox Jew and people do not turn around to stare at you. Jews are integrated into the landscape.

Increase in attacks

Still, last week's assault in Creteil is not the first. Last month, a 70-year-old man was attacked. In May, two men were beaten as they left a synagogue.

At a small shopping mall near the Jewish community center, an old man called Amoshe, wearing the black hat of an Orthodox Jew passed out Hanukah flyers.

He says there has always been anti-Semitism. For 3,000 years, he says, there has been war against the Jews.

At a kosher butcher nearby, a customer called Daniel says he wants to move to Israel.

Daniel says he does not feel at ease. He says Jews are better off in Israel and they feel at home there.

The numbers of Jews emigrating to Israel have soared over the past couple of years. Cukierman of the CRIF predicts their number will reach 6,500 this year - double the 2013 figures.

Creteil's Rabbi Senior says all he hears is talk about the Aliyah - the emigration to Israel. There's a backlog for certificates of Judaism, which are necessary to make the move. Jews today are not making the decision either with serenity or reflection, he notes. Combating anti-Semitism means changing mindsets. Not just in France, but across Europe. And that, Rabbi Senior says, needs commitment - and time.