France sees ‘shocking surge’ in anti-Semitic violence

Pointing to recent statistics, France’s Jewish communities have expressed alarm over a rise in anti-Semitic incidents since last March’s deadly shootings of a rabbi and three schoolchildren in Toulouse. Is it a disturbing trend, or a cyclical spike?

By Sarah LEDUC

On Saturday, June 2, three people wearing the Jewish skullcap were attacked by a group of assailants with a hammer and iron bar in the southeastern French city of Villeurbanne.

The new assault has revived fears in France’s Jewish community that anti-Semitism is on the rise in the wake of a grisly shooting that claimed the lives of four French Jews, including three children, in the southwestern city of Toulouse in March. That attack, carried out by radical Islamist Mohammed Merah, sent shockwaves through France, which is home to Western Europe’s largest Jewish community, about 500,000 people.

After Saturday’s incident, the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions, France’s most prominent Jewish association, released a statement noting the attack “was not an altercation between gangs, but a clear act of anti-Jewish violence”. The statement read the incident was “far from being an isolated act” and “part of the shocking surge of anti-Semitic violence that has followed the deadly attack at the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse”.

A ‘before- and after-Merah’

Saturday’s attack seemed to be the straw that broke the camel’s back for some in the Jewish community. The French Union of Jewish Students warned authorities of zones in which Jewish citizens are continually targets of anti-Semitic acts. And another group, the Service for the Protection of the Jewish Community (SPCJ), published a report condemning “the explosion” of anti-Semitic acts in the country since Merah’s killings. According to statistics cited in the report, which were provided by the Interior Ministry, 148 anti-Semitic incidents, of which 43 were violent, were reported between March 19 and April 30. That’s more than twice as many as the 68 recorded for the same period in 2011.

Aside from the numbers, the SPCJ is expressing concern “some of the people committing the acts feel empathy for Mohammed Merah”. The group points to several incidents in schools, including students refusing to participate in a minute of silence in honour of the Jewish victims, as well as pro-Merah graffiti found in bars.

“There is a before- and after-Merah,” said Shmuel Trigano, a professor of Sociology at the University of Paris X in the Paris-area suburbs. “Despite the widespread condemnation of the killings, there was, among certain people in France, a desire to see this type of violence continue.”

According to Trigano, who has written widely on French Jews, there is a definite link between the Merah killings and Saturday’s incident in Villeurbanne. “The attack in Villeurbanne fits into a chronological list of anti-Semitic acts that have multiplied since Merah,” he said.

‘Everyday racism’

But other specialists are more cautious in their assessment. Laurent Mucchielli, a sociologist from France’s National Centre for Scientific Research, does not see any substantial connection between Merah and the recent spike in anti-Semitic acts in France. “Levels of anti-Semitic incidents are never stable, but rise and fall quickly,” he noted. “Nothing indicates that the Merah murders and the incident in Villeurbanne are related. We should be wary of generalisations.”

While records show that there has been a steady minimum number of anti-Semitic incidents in France since the early 2000s, the recent spike is reminiscent of a similar trend in 2009, the year of the Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip that left more than 1,000 Palestinians dead. The number of anti-Semitic incidents doubled to roughly 815 in 2009 before falling sharply in 2010, and then rising again in 2011.

Numbers of other discriminatory acts fluctuate in France, as well. Mucchielli pointed to the rise in Islamophobic incidents in the wake of the Merah killings as evidence. According to Mucchielli, the killings provided fodder for “racist speech directly targeting Arabs and Muslims and a sentiment reflected in the strong showing by the [far-right] National Front in the recent French presidential elections”.

The Collective Against Islamophobia in France confirmed anti-Muslim incidents in France have indeed been on the rise after the Merah killings. “At least five Muslim institutions were defaced with Nazi tags, and there were numerous insults and assaults in the street that were directly linked to the Toulouse tragedy,” said Marcia Burnier, the group’s spokesperson.

For Mucchielli, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are facts of life in France. “But there is no indication that it’s getting worse,” he qualified. “Unfortunately, we’re talking everyday racism.”

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