Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

20 Iyar 5762 - May 2, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








The Smell of Burning Sifrei Torah in France

by Arnon Yaffe reporting from Paris

The acrid smell of cinder and ash was still rising from the pile of siddurim, machzorim, gemoras, tallisos, scorched tables and chairs, blackened walls and broken iron beams--all that remains of Or Aviv, a beis knesses in a mixed Jewish-Arab neighborhood of North Marseille. The six hundred Jewish families, immigrants from North Africa who built the beis knesses twenty years ago, stood saying Tehillim. Ten thousand Jews attended the burial of the five sifrei Torah burned in the aron kodesh. Their scorched remains were carried on a litter and covered with a tallis.

On the first night of Chol Hamoed Pesach, several firebombs were thrown into the beis knesses library, burning it to the ground along with the classrooms, sifrei Torah, gemoras and siddurim. Since then hardly a day goes by without attacks on botei knesses, Jewish schools and cemeteries or beatings and verbal attacks somewhere in France. The incidence of antisemitism in the country shot up following the series of suicide bombings in Israel during Pesach.

That Shabbos thousands of Arabs and other Frenchmen from the Green Party and other leftist organizations shouted, "Death to the Jews!" in the streets of Marseille.

On Monday the Jews beheld the results--charred sifrei Torah--during a solemn procession accompanied by shofar blasts. When they reached the geniza at the cemetery the rav of the beis knesses, Rav Avraham Chayoun, said the harm done to the sifrei Torah touched all Jews. This was the first time since World War II that sifrei Torah were burned in an antisemitic attack.

Five hundred miles north of Marseille, in Lyons, the gates leading to one of the city's botei knesses are charred. A band of Arabs broke into the courtyard with stolen cars and ignited them. In Parisian suburbs firebombs have missed their marks. This time President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Jospin condemned the arson attacks as antisemitic incidents and sent police reinforcements to safeguard botei knesses and Jewish neighborhoods. It was right before the presidential elections. Chirac paid an official visit, as a show of solidarity with the Jewish community, to the beis knesses where he accused the government of impotence.

Few recall the periods of Jewish persecution in France. The expulsion of the Jews during the Middle Ages and later the antisemitic Vichy regime during the Second World War, mar France to this day. But according to Chirac and Jospin, this is not French antisemitism but an import from the Middle East.

"France is not antisemitic," said Chirac in an interview on a Jewish radio station, insisting that recent incidents in his country are just ripples from the Israeli-Palestinian war. Jospin says the solution to the problem in France is replacing Sharon. Both of them compare the Jews and the Arabs in France as if they are engaged in a two-way battle, calling on both communities not to bring the war between the Israelis and the Palestinians to France. "But we would never burn a mosque," Jews in Marseille told them.

Blaming the Jews for their Own Problems

Government authorities and the media still insist that incidents of antisemitism are offshoots of IDF activities in refugee camps and in Ramalla, refusing to inquire whether their own actions may also lie at the root of the problem. Thus the State of Israel is also held responsible for Arab violence in France.

"Arab neighborhoods are irate at the State of Israel and harm Jews," wrote the weekly Liberation. "But conflagrations and the foolishness are not legitimate reasons to forgive the burning of synagogues and Jewish schools." The forty Arabs arrested so far are presented as unfortunate victims of circumstance, and are treated with clemency.

But based on the slogans at Palestinian demonstrations, Arab youths may not be so innocent. In the heart of Paris, protestors hold banners equating the Mogen Dovid to a swastika and shouting, "Jihad!" French television feeds on antisemitic propaganda. In suburban schools the word Jew is invariably accompanied with an epithet.

The Mufti of Marseille agreed to call on his followers to demonstrate solidarity with the Palestinians without harming Jews, but his statement was itself inflammatory: "Our natural form of solidarity with the Palestinians, who are the victims of murder and daily humiliation by bloodthirsty Israeli leaders, should not cause us to forget that we can coexist with Jews in France. In a secular country we can speak with them."

Alone in the Republic

Even before the latest wave of antisemitism, the Jewish magazine L'Arash wrote that the Jews of France feel isolated, disliked and abandoned in the Republic of France.

France is by no means an antisemitic country. The Jews are well off, hold important positions in the French establishment and in the business world and have free access to all trades. The chareidi kehillos have been expanding and developing; they have yeshivos, botei medrash and Jewish schools.

Yet there is antisemitism in intellectual circles. A Jew who associates himself with Israel is not considered an upstanding Frenchman. Human rights and anti-racism organizations have adopted antisemitism as part of their platforms. Instead of defending Jews even these groups condemn them all, except for Jews who support Palestinian terror.

News correspondents sent to Israel have no real understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or of Jewish history. They are easily snared by Palestinian propaganda and become willing conduits for lies promulgated by Palestinian spokesmen.

Jacques Trenero, a Jewish antisemitism researcher, says news desks mold reports on the State of Israel. Descriptions of Palestinian terrorists bring to mind the early Christians of Bethlehem. Palestinian casualties seem like victims of Roman crucifixion and Israel is accused of setting out to eradicate Christian sites in Bethlehem.

Communal Support for Antisemitism

France's Arabs do not operate in a vacuum. If they did not feel widespread moral support, they would not hurl firebombs in the streets and beat Jews. Youths from the suburbs are simply foot soldiers.

While religious Jews suffer from physical abuse, secular Jews are the victims of slander and other forms of intellectual abuse. Philosopher Alain Finkelkraut says, "All evil is cast upon the State of Israel, and the situation is presented as if Arab terrorism does not exist. Anyone who does not voice opinions like Jose Seramgo, the Spanish writer and Nobel Prize laureate who compared Israel's actions in Ramalla to Nazi crimes in Auschwitz . . . is not heard today in France."

Finkelkraut has suffered verbal attacks on a wide front. "I am called upon to be a good Jew, which means, essentially a Palestinian. . . I am also required to support Arafat. If I meet these requirements I am considered kosher. If I show reservations, I am a bad Jew, an accomplice of Sharon, and therefore a Nazi. The pro-Palestinians claim the State of Israel is taking cover behind the Holocaust. Yet they, led by Arafat, have not stopped describing Israel as a Nazi state. They transpose the order of events. In their minds botei knesses have turned into branches of the `Israeli Reich.' Thus by torching them they attack the Reich."

The Nazi banners attract thousands of Frenchmen to demonstrations in support of Palestinian terrorism. In one recent demonstration 30,000 Arabs and other Frenchmen marched together, shouting, "Hitler has a son: Sharon."

Meanwhile government authorities have remained silent. Although the use of Nazi symbols is illegal in France, the law is not enforced at Palestinian demonstrations.

Stefen Rozes, head of a French institute that conducts public opinion polls, says the Left has returned to 19th century antisemitism, to the days of Karl Marx and Alfred Dreyfus. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, "Their goal is to seek justification for the Holocaust, to free Europe from feelings of guilt and to pave a road to a new holocaust. Ever since Seramgo spoke, the comparisons have spread throughout the European Union in the form of graffiti in public places. The propaganda is reminiscent of Hitler's campaign, which was intended to taint the image of the Jews in the eyes of the Europeans of his day. European leaders must remember that it is dangerous to whitewash Arafat's terror campaign and to demonize Sharon."

Members of anti-racism organizations, the Greens, Communists and other leftists, march under Hamas and Hizbollah banners. But when a protest against antisemitism was held recently, even heads of right-wing organizations were conspicuously absent. The 200,000 Jewish participants, waving both Israeli and French flags in the Place de la Bastille, went back home to continue living with palpable threats to their safety and feelings of isolation from their fellow countrymen.

The Palestinians have adopted the symbols of old-fashioned Christian antisemitism and spread them around Europe in all the media in the guise of criticism of Israeli policy. Arafat not only brought terrorism to Israel, but also brought antisemitism to the world.

A group of Jewish intellectuals founded a monthly magazine called, Observation du Monde Juif to analyze this new antisemitism: public indifference and silence in the face of attacks on Jews.

The Jew has been reduced to the level of marginalized immigrants or foreigners and is compared to Muslim immigrants. Jews are not recognized part of France. They are no longer considered legitimate members of the national community as they were following World War II. They are defined as a separate entity which is a loaded move in France. To the French nothing was worse than the communal factionalism of the past.

The Jews cannot be compared to the French Muslims. For 200 years the Jews assimilated into French society and achieved equal rights. They thought of themselves and were thought of as Frenchmen. Today they are identified with the State of Israel, particularly those who wear yarmulkes.

Islam has not meshed with French society. Violent young Muslims live a life of crime presented to them as revolutionary, and as usual the Jews are the victims. The French government does not know which approach to take in dealing with Islam. Islamic terrorism and crime is beginning to take root and spread in the suburbs of Paris. Meanwhile the Arabs are absolved of all guilt by attributing their behavior to social problems.

In cartoons appearing in Le Monde and Liberation the evil Israeli is always depicted as a chareidi Jew--in other words, a Jew anywhere he goes, indistinguishable from an Israeli. The Liberation cartoonist was caught copying a caricature from a newspaper in pre-War France. Instead of a Jewish butcher hacking at Frenchmen of bygone days in the periodical Je Suis Partout, now Sharon appears as the butcher.

Le Monde's Planteau always depicts Arafat as a Palestinian child. One analyst says that Arafat often resembles the well-known Christian as he appears in paintings as a martyr.

Why does a reputable newspaper like Le Monde publish cheap Palestinian propaganda, while failing to report on the attacks against Jews over the past 16 months, except for offhand admonitions that the Jews deserve it and Sharon is to blame?

Moving to Israel

Moving to Israel is not seen as a viable solution. The Jewish Agency says antisemitism is not driving Jews to leave for Israel. French aliyah decreased to 1,200 immigrants per year, most of whom are religious, though the option of full Jewish life is available in France. The botei medrash are packed and no other place outside of Israel has more kosher restaurants than Paris.

For now, most French Jews do not see a reason to leave. They prefer to live in dilapidated housing conditions in suburbs where they are pestered and plagued by Arabs. Their children imitate popular youth culture and lose their Jewish identity unless they are spared by the chareidi Otzar HaTorah educational network. They are willing to live with antisemitism, some experiencing it up close, others only at a distance.

France After the Elections

When the results of Le Pen's election upset were announced to the public last week, France went into a state of shock. At the Socialist Party headquarters all of the leading high- society invitees burst into tears. Thousands of young people took to the streets shouting, "Shame! Shame!" Since then there have been constant demonstrations against Le Pen.

Neither the politicians nor the commentators knew how to describe the victory of a personage the likes of Le Pen, who is often referred to as a fascist antisemite. "Far-right" may be too mild for the National Front Party head who spoke nostalgically of the Vichy Government, infamous for its collaboration with the Nazis. "The Vichy Regime's values of family, state and work should be reestablished in France," he said.

Based on external appearances all looked fine during the election race. Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, who eventually posted a humiliating third-place finish, rehabilitated the economy during his five years in office, renewing growth and reducing unemployment. He was an honest politician and one of the last pro-Israelis in the Socialist Party.

Yet Jospin's speeches lacked charisma and vision. His middle- class supporters from the Left, the Center and the Greens were concerned over the possibility of tax increases and neglect of the lower classes. Critics say his campaign was flawed because he sought the center votes although in an increasingly polarized France the center has all but disappeared.

The results from the polls showed one-third of the electorate voted along radical Stalinist or reactionary Fascist lines, one-third with the traditional Right and one-third with the traditional Left. Following the elections one stunned politician said, "We had better not return to the 1930s," referring to a period when half of France worshipped Stalin.

Now the radical Left has aligned itself with Le Pen in its hatred for the U.S., the Jews and Israel. Both have pledged to abandon the euro and return to the franc, to withdraw from the European Union and to remove the sanctions imposed on Saddam Hussein. (Le Pen's wife runs an aid foundation for Iraqi children.)

The Jews are beginning to feel pressed from three sides: Arab attackers, Le Pen supporters and xenophobia. Even at demonstrations against Le Pen racism, antisemitic shouts against Israel can be heard. The very same leftwing, anti- globalization groups that march against racism organize antisemitic demonstrations against Israel. New antisemitism versus old antisemitism.

Le Pen has recently concealed his antisemitism under shrouds of incitement against Arab immigrants, from whom he pledged to revoke rights and government allowances.

Both Jospin and Chirac either overlooked or ignored the signs that something was amiss in France. The fact that 16 presidential candidates were running was already symptomatic. For almost two years suburban Arabs have been perpetrating violent attacks against Jews yet no one has denounced them openly. Blue-collar workers on the peripheries of the major cities have also been suffering more and more from crime and extortion by young Arabs who grew up there, but authorities have left them unprotected. Meanwhile Le Pen presented himself as an outcast like them.

At the moment everyone is sure Chirac will command a large majority. He has assumed his new task of waging battle against Le Pen and has declined the traditional confrontation with him. "There is nothing to be said about hatred toward the values held by the Republic," he says. "We will not tolerate racism, antisemitism and intolerance."

Polls forecast he will receive 80 percent of the vote, but this figure includes would-be Jospin voters and votes against Le Pen. Immediately following the last round of elections the socialists announced their support for Chirac in order to halt Le Pen.

Many want a large margin to send a message that France rejects Le Pen and what he stands for. What the message France's voters are sending will be clear only on May 5.


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