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Jews Question Staying in France After Anti-Semitic Attacks

FILE - French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, center, speaks at a gathering against anti-Semitism also attended by Israel's ambassador to France, Yossi Gal, left, in Creteil, east of Paris, Dec. 7, 2014.

Children spill into the Jewish Cultural Association, their cheeks red from the winter cold. The staff hands out cups of coffee to visitors, and members drop in to chat.

This is the hub of Jewish community life in Creteil, 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 have 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, who are young men from the area.

For many Jews in Creteil, 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, said there have been very few problems in Creteil. It's a place where everybody knows everyone else, and where there is a good interaction among people of different faiths.

Cautious, frightened

But the many anti-Semitic attacks in France over the years — including the killing of four Jews in 2012 — have left many French Jews wary and scared.

Roger Cukierman, president of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions (CRIF), said the Creteil incident demonstrated that although Jews have had 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."

Yet many Jews in Creteil talk instead about fitting in.

Vanessa Rouah, a kindergarten teacher at the community center who has lived in Creteil since she was a little girl, said that the city is a good community to live in and that she'd never been attacked because of her religion. She said last week's assault merely reflects a negative climate in France overall.

The town's chief rabbi, Alain Senior, said Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders have good relations. Creteil is a good place, he said, in which to live the Jewish faith. He said one can wear the hat or beard of an Orthodox Jew and not be subject to stares from others. Jews are integrated into the landscape, he said.

Other recent attacks

Still, last week's assault in Creteil was 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, who was wearing the black hat of an Orthodox Jew and was passing out Hanukkah fliers, said there has always been anti-Semitism. For 3,000 years, he said, there has been war against the Jews.

At a kosher butcher nearby, a customer called Daniel said he wanted to move to Israel. He said he did not feel at ease, and that Jews were better off in Israel.

The numbers of Jews emigrating to Israel have soared over the past couple of years. Cukierman of the CRIF predicted their number would reach 6,500 this year, double the 2013 figure.

Rabbi Senior said he'd heard a lot of 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 said. Combating anti-Semitism means changing mindsets — not just in France, but across Europe. And that, Senior said, needs commitment — and time.