Iraq assault triggers anti-Semitic backlash in France

In an antiwar rally in Paris last month, four Jews were attacked by protesters.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Noam Levy doesn't stand out at Café des Arts et Métiers, a trendy Parisian eatery that straddles an eponymous Metro stop. He sips his espresso, after rolling a motor-scooter helmet beneath his seat, just as many another Frenchman might.

But on March 22, at one of Paris's many weekend demonstrations against the war in Iraq, Levy's boyish Mediterranean face was picked out as a target. Before the day was through, he would have 10 stitches in his head.

Mr. Levy is amont the latest victims in a wave of anti-Israel sentiment here that has turned, at times violently, against the French Jewish community.

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At the end of March, the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights (CNCDH), the French government's human rights watchdog group, released a report that found, of 313 acts of racist violence last year, 193 were against Jews.

"If the increase in the number of attacks aimed at the immigrant community is significant, the quantity of attacks aimed at the Jewish community has truly exploded," the report explained.

The war in Iraq is opposed by some 78 percent of France, according to a poll Sunday in the liberal daily Libération, and the massive antiwar movement has become intertwined with the movement for a Palestinian state. Signs like "No to War in Iraq, Yes to Justice for Palestine," punctuate the demonstrations.

The problem, as Jewish activists see it, isn't necessarily the support for Palestinians. It's the rejection of Israel. "It's become acceptable to not want Israel to exist," says Levy.

Antiwar protesters in the eastern city of Strasbourg shouted, "Bush, Sharon, Hitler - where is the difference?" At protests around the country, Stars of David have been drawn entwined with a swastika.

"We were expecting a rise in attacks linked to [the war in] Iraq," says Shimon Samuels, the international director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Paris. This year the center launched a harassment hotline for Jews that Dr. Samuels says receives a dozen calls a day.

About 5 million Muslims and 600,000 Jews, the largest of both populations in Western Europe, live in France. The conflict in the Middle East has had a strong echo here since the fall of 2000, when the second intifada began in in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, and tensions have been exacerbated by the war against Iraq.

The sometimes strained relationship between Jews and North Africans in France, coupled with the longstanding sympathy on the French Left for the Palestinian cause and the movement against the war, has blurred the lines between anti-Semitism, and anti-Zionism.

The trend is also being noticed elsewhere in Europe. In Belgium the Israeli daily Ha'aretz recently reported that the Jewish community is experiencing a similar combination of perceived hostility and of actual violence - including the December beating of a rabbi by North Africans. Some French and Belgian Jews say, however, that the issue is being blown out of proportion.

Some observers voice concern that the recent violence could drive European Jews to be more sympathetic to tougher stances toward Arab Muslim immigrants from France's former colonies, thus further straining relations between Jews and North Africans.

Levy says that although he opposes the Iraq war, he had not intended to take part in the March 22 protest - because he was uneasy over the anti-Israel, anti-Jewish rhetoric at rallies in Paris.

A budding photojournalist, he had taken his motor-scooter up to the neighborhood thinking he might photograph some of the banners and posters that dot the crowds chanting for an end to "George Bush's war."

But Levy, a longtime member of the leftist Jewish group Hashomer Hatzair, which supports the Palestinian cause, arrived at the demonstration just as a boy from Hashomer, this one wearing a kippah, or skullcap, was assaulted. Levy ran to see if he could help and got caught in the melee, in which a total of four people, including himself, were injured.

"They were shouting 'Death to the Jews' and 'You and your kippah have no place here,'" Levy recalls.

A group of men, mostly, he says, of North African descent, advanced on him with metal pipes.

In the days that followed, Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe condemned the attacks. "In Paris," he said, "everyone must be respected in dignity, no matter what their culture, identity or spiritual faith."

Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin called the attacks "unacceptable, intolerable," and Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkozy met with Levy and Hashomer Hatzair in a show of solidarity.

The week after the attack a collection of antiwar groups met at the offices of Hashomer Hatzair. "There is no place for anti-Semitism in the demonstrations," Arielle Denis, copresident of the Movement for Peace, announced at the end of the meeting.

The next day, 5,000 security officials marched alongside demonstrators to ensure the safety of Jewish participants.

Levy wasn't there. Hashomer Hatzair, he says, "used to have talks with people from Arab neighborhoods to interact, exchange our point of views. That time is over."

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