Paris: On a pair of aisle seats in the ornate ballroom of City Hall here, with a white-haired cantor intoning in the background and an Israeli flag hanging on the front stage next to the colors of France, Sylvain and Ninette Smadja talked about life for Parisian Jews in recent weeks.
A schoolmate threw a pinecone at their 15-year-old daughter in public school a few weeks ago as French opposition to the anticipated American war against Iraq intensified. Now Sylvain and Ninette keep their Magen David chains tucked out of sight, and their 12-year-old son is "very frightened."
The parents are not scared, said Sylvain Smadja, a fiftyish immigrant from Tunisia, because they can move to Israel if the situation in France gets worse.
In the City Hall lobby during the intermission of a mayoral reception this week attended by some 1,200 French Jews, Jean Taieb told a similar story. Some Jewish friends were accosted a few weeks ago and called anti-Semitic names.
"It was Arabs. On the street," he said.
"Jewish people are afraid because of the situation in the Middle East," said Taieb, who came here with his family from Tunisia in 1967 after the Six-Day War.
With the approach of the U.S. deadline for Iraq’s disarmament and the likely start of the second Gulf War, physical attacks on Jewish institutions and verbal attacks on French Jews, already frequent in recent years, have become more frequent, some members of the Jewish community say.
Only an increased police presence on the streets of Paris, instituted last year by Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, has kept Arab violence and Jewish concerns in check, Taieb said.
In the restaurant of the UNESCO headquarters, overlooking the field where Capt. Alfred Dreyfus had his epaulets removed a century ago, Avram Yitzchak, supervising the kashrut of a lunch being served to a visiting rabbinical delegation from the U.S., points to his head. When he goes out these days, the Israeli native says, he wears a cap over his black kipa. But his bushy red beard still marks him as a Jew.
"I don’t feel safe," Yitzchak said. He is afraid of local Arabs.
Outnumbered in France 10 to 1, the country’s 500,000 Jews are caught in the middle of the heated and sometimes violent debate over the American war effort.
The French government leads European opposition to the war along with Germany and indicated this week it would veto the next U.S.-sponsored resolution in the United Nations imposing a deadline on Iraq. The country’s Arab residents, mostly emigres from northern Africa, are against an attack on Arab Iraq.
French Jews, many leaning toward support for the American position (many because of the threat Iraq poses to Israel) are uncomfortable expressing their feelings in public.
"We are afraid to speak out. We are afraid to speak about Israel," Sylvain Smadja said.
Roger Cukierman, president of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France, the country’s major Jewish umbrella organization, says the situation in France is "no different" than in Germany or England, where vocal Muslim populations have made an effort, often with anti-Semitic overtones, to intimidate supporters of the war on Iraq.
"The atmosphere is very bad," he said this week during the Second European Encounter Between Jews and Catholics, a two-day dialogue meeting sponsored by the World Jewish Congress and the European Jewish Congress.
Anti-Semitism in Europe was the topic of one of the sessions attended by Jewish leaders from Europe and high-ranking officials of the Catholic Church, including the archbishop of Paris. If war comes, Cukierman said, "things may get worse."
France announced that 700 Jewish sites in the country would require police protection after the war starts.
Citing the attack on a Jewish boy in a public school here last month, Cukierman said anti-Jewish sentiments among school-age children are on the rise, but physical attacks on Jews have decreased in recent months, a result of the high-visibility police presence.
"We are in a period of remission" of anti-Jewish attacks, said Serge Cwajgenbaun, secretary general of the European Jewish Congress. "Who knows when the period of anti-Semitism will appear again?"
"It is very tempting to say France is anti-Semitic," said Francois Zimeray, a French member of European Parliament. But, he added, public anti-Semitic statements find little support here.
"It is not possible now to say the Jews are the people who killed Jesus," Zimeray said. "You don’t hear this, but you hear the Jews are the people who kill children in Bethlehem" as part of Israel’s response to the intifada.
Spurred by reports of anti-Semitism in France, members of the delegation from the North American Boards of Rabbis, which took part in the Jewish-Catholic dialogue, had considered wearing caps instead of kipas and concealing Israeli flag lapel pins. But seeing the two-man police motorcycle detail that accompanied the visitors around Paris, the delegates decided to keep their Jewish symbols in sight.
The police escort "is a sign of the times," said Rabbi Marc Schneier, NABOR president, who has led past missions in Prague, Berlin and Buenos Aires that did not require a constant security presence.
Rabbi Schneier said he chose Paris for NABOR’s annual conference, attended by 35 rabbis from all denominations of Judaism, to "express concern over the rise of anti-Semitism in France, and to urge the country’s dominant Catholic Church to raise its voice in protest."
The Church, he said, has "tremendous influence [as a] moral voice within French society."
Noting comments by Sarkozy at City Hall and the announcement last month that the French Education Ministry is beginning a new educational campaign against anti-Semitism, Rabbi Schneier said "both the Catholic Church and the French government are committed to combating anti-Semitism."
In addition to anti-Semitism, other issues raised by Jewish participants in the dialogue sessions included the conversion of Jews, continuing statements by Catholic representatives that Christianity has superseded Judaism, and the opening of baptismal records in Eastern Europe of Jews who were given refuge in Catholic homes during the Holocaust and were raised as Catholics.
One of those Catholic-raised Jews, Jean-Marie Lustiger, now archbishop of Paris, downplayed the rise of anti-Semitism as a unique phenomenon in French society. He said general violence, comparable to crime in American inner cities, is increasing in France.
"Anti-Semitism," the cardinal said, "is born on the wings of violence."
Dalil Doubakeur, rector of the Muslim Institute of the Mosque of Paris, which sheltered Jewish families during the Holocaust, hosted the NABOR rabbis. Doubakeur told them he had cautioned worshipers at his mosque, the largest one in France, against participating in anti-Jewish acts of violence.
"We cannot accept aggression," he said, calling the mosque in London where several participants in the 9-11 terrorist attacks had received their Islamic training "not our mosque."
"We need to build a world of brotherhood between Jews and Muslims," Doubakeur said.
Sarkozy in his City Hall speech acknowledged that many French Jews are unsure about their future here and whether they should leave.
The need to ask "that very question," the interior minister said, "is an insult to our republic and to our values. I cannot accept anyone feeling afraid."
Actual Jewish migration is rare, Cukierman said. "Many are talking" about moving to Israel or the United States, he said. "Very few are leaving."
Sylvain Smadja said he knows when he will seriously consider taking his family to Israel to live: "If Islam becomes stronger.
"The government is now for the Muslims," he said. "The French government is anti-American but not anti-Israel. If the French government becomes more anti-Semitic, then …"