France's angry young Muslims

Last week's attack on a Jewish soccer team is the most recent in a wave of anti-Semitic incidents.

School's out in the immigrant projects in this working-class suburb north of Paris. Between the serried ranks of tower blocks, kids play pick-up soccer, challenge each other beneath basketball hoops, or just hang out.

Last Wednesday night, though, a gang of these youths were a lot less peaceable. Wearing masks and hoods; wielding iron bars, heavy steel balls and lengths of barbed wire, they swarmed onto a soccer field just down the road and set about beating up the Jewish team practicing there.

The goalkeeper, a 15-year-old boy, ended up in a hospital, needing seven stitches in his head. The attack was the worst incident in a recent wave of anti-Semitic violence in France that has seen synagogues burned, a Jewish cemetery desecrated, and Jewish school buses stoned.

Anti-Semitism is nothing new in France. But the current burst of virulence has given it a new twist: the perpetrators are not the traditional extreme-right-wing white supremacists. They are more often boys from North African immigrant families who say they are avenging the Palestinians' plight in the West Bank.

"You see what Ariel Sharon is doing in Palestine, you see the Israeli tanks in the streets there destroying everything," says 16-year-old Karim, who was born in the projects to Algerian immigrant parents.

"This (attack on the Jewish soccer players) was like supporting the Palestinians," he says. "Beating people up is not right, but at the same time...."

Television images of Israeli soldiers battling – and killing – Palestinians in their current offensive in the West Bank have inflamed many young people of Arab extraction here. Since the beginning of the latest Palestinian uprising 18 months ago, say Jewish residents of Bondy, they have been repeatedly harassed, insulted, and spat at on their way to and from the local synagogue on Saturdays.

This sort of abuse has disturbed what had been good relations between Arabs and Jews in Bondy. Many people from both communities came to France from the same town in Algeria after Algerian independence in 1962, and the older generations know one another well.

"The head of the Muslim community here and I were friends in Algeria and we are still friends" says Roger Benhamou, a retired lawyer who leads the local 350- family-strong Jewish community.

"I always handled inheritance questions for Algerians here because I am an expert in Islamic law, and when my son took over from me, the Muslim association asked him to do all the legal paperwork for the construction of a mosque," Mr. Benhamou recalls.

Charles Chemla, a retired Jewish subway driver who lives in a rundown apartment block a few hundred yards from the soccer field, says he has no problems with his Arab and African neighbors.

"Parents tell their kids to help us carry our shopping when we come back from the market," says Mr. Chemla. "We respect our neighbors, and they respect us."

But, on the walls of the stairway leading to Chemla's fifth-floor walkup, someone has scrawled "Long live Islam," followed by a vulgar reference to Jews.

"That's just the kids," says Chemla. "They are imbeciles."

Bondy's mayor, Gilbert Roger, agrees. "There is a very big difference in approach between the adults and the kids" in the projects, he says.

"The kids don't practice Islam, but they use it to give themselves an identity."

Unhappy with their lack of integration into French society, "they try to identify themselves with another world" such as the global Muslim community, says Mr. Roger. But they do so with little political sense or understanding, says Mouloud Aounit, who heads the Movement against Racism and for Friendship Between Peoples.

"These kids are lost, they feel badly treated, and they unload their revolt against anything they can demonize," he suggests. "Sometimes it's the police, now it is synagogues and Jewish schools. But I don't think this is political or ideological anti-Semitism."

The authorities in Bondy, however, are worried that there is more to it than that. "We have to find out why a bunch of 14- to 16-year-olds got together to do this anti-Semitic act," says Roger. "There has to be someone behind it, but the question is who?"

Benhamou, the leader of the Jewish community, suspects Islamists.

"There are Islamic cells in France who are using (events in the Middle East) to set the communities here against one another," he says. "There is a lot of manipulation by extremists, which is very dangerous."

The Bondy police have no clues yet: Nobody has yet been arrested in connection with last week's assault.

Indeed, nobody has been arrested either for the arson attack on Bondy's synagogue in October 2000 that burned down half of the building, nor for any of the petty attacks that worshippers have suffered.

Now, riot police guard the temple at night, and police officers are on hand on Saturdays to protect people coming to pray on the Sabbath.

Meanwhile, Mr. Roger is trying to turn junior soccer matches into teach-ins that might break down barriers. The idea, he says, is to get teachers or journalists to lead debates about Middle Eastern politics and local issues before soccer games, "so as to dispel confused ideas" in the youngsters' minds.

"It's a question of education, especially civic education," says Roger. "Talking about the conflicts would help a lot more than putting a policeman on every street corner."

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