Jewish leaders expressed growing frustration this week with continuing anti-Semitic violence in Europe following the torching of a Jewish community center in Paris early Sunday.
“We are fed up with the cycle of anti-Jewish violence, followed by denouncements by political leaders, the [French] government and the head of state,” Serge Cwajgenbaum, secretary general of the European Jewish Congress, said in a phone interview from his office in Paris. “We see very little reaction coming from the grass roots, from the teachers’ union … from the civil society.”
David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said that because of the frequency of such attacks, “there is a danger” of them becoming routine.
“I don’t doubt the sincerity of the French government in wishing to respond forcefully, but the problem is serious and only becoming more so,” he said. “In essence, this is an assault on French society by those — be they Muslim or far right extremists — who refuse to abide by the rules and norms of France.”
French Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin said Tuesday that there have been 160 anti-Semitic attacks against people and property in the first seven months of this year, compared with 75 during the comparable period last year.
“These are obnoxious acts against the spirit and foundations of our country and require the total mobilization of the Republic of France,” he said following a meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who hastily flew to Paris Tuesday in the wake of the attack on the Jewish center.
Emanuel Weintraub, a member of the executive of the CRIF, the umbrella organization of Jewish groups in France, said the fire at the Jewish center, located near Bastille square, was discovered by a policeman at 3:30 a.m. Sunday. He said the building was formerly a synagogue established by Jews of Turkish and Greek origin who came to France in the 1920s.
“It was a small synagogue and when they needed a bigger synagogue [within the last 40 years], they moved and this became a club for senior citizens and a soup kitchen for poor Jews,” he said. “It had about 200 members and was a place for people to go to play chess and cards.”
But Weintraub said the center’s activities were so low key that few knew it existed. There were two Stars of David on the center, which occupied the first floor of a five-story apartment building. The blaze did not spread beyond the interior of the center.
Weintraub said the arsonists entered the Jewish center through an unlocked back door. Using red felt pens, they scrawled anti-Semitic messages in broken French throughout the center, including “Without Jews the world would be happy,” “Jews Out” and “Hitler=France.”
The arsonists also poured a combustible substance, perhaps gasoline, throughout the center and lit a match before fleeing, Weintraub said.
No arrests had been made by midweek. Weintraub said police did not know if the arsonists were Muslims or neo-Nazis. An unknown Muslim group claimed responsibility, but authorities were skeptical.
The mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoe, visited the Jewish center Sunday and announced heightened security measures at “sensitive places.” The Israeli media has reported that Jewish schools and community centers in France will soon be equipped with closed-circuit cameras.
Shalom said that although he applauded French officials for their strong condemnations of anti-Semitic attacks, there is still a need for the “legal authorities to punish those who are carrying out these kinds of attacks. While statements are very important, actions are important, too.”
Weintraub said his organization is also upset with the French judiciary for failing to impose severe sentences for anti-Semitic actions. He noted that CRIF president Roger Cukierman said there is “benign neglect among the judges” when it comes to such cases.
“We have the government, the police, the administration, all sorts of the body politic going forward and doing things to try to stop anti-Semitic acts, and somehow the judges remain far behind,” Weintraub said. “One has the impression that the judges think anti-Semitism is just an opinion. This will have to change. … It has been proclaimed by the highest bodies of the state to be an offense and a crime when it comes to setting a place on fire.”
But Agnes Herzog of the Magistrates Union said it was “absurd to say these things happen because judges are lax.”
French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin visited the torched Jewish center hours after the blaze was extinguished and promised that those who set the fire were “liable to get a stiff penalty of up to 20 years in jail.”
“All of the country’s [police] force will be mobilized so that the culprits would be arrested as soon as possible and be severely punished,” Raffarin said.
Weintraub said he was impressed by those comments, which he said reflected a different attitude by French authorities.
“For 2 years, until April 2002, we had arson attacks and synagogues set on fire and nobody at that time told people that they could get 20 years in jail,” he said. “This is the first time this is being said.”
Cwajgenbaum said he is concerned that “what we are witnessing against Jews could rapidly become something that could spread beyond the Jewish community in France.”