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Marseille's culture clash: An old hatred acquires a new face

Part 3 of 3: Anti-Semitism has a long history in Europe. But Jews are feeling increasingly threatened by what they see as a new wave of prejudice – brewed in part by burgeoning extremism in Muslim communities.

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    Rioters face riot police following a pro-Palestinian demonstration in Sarcelles, north of Paris, in July 2014. In France and across Europe, Jews are feeling a new wave of anti-Semitism, which coincides – but is not necessarily due to – a newly vocal, anti-Israel European Muslim community.
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France, like much of Europe these days, is in a period of social tumult. Far-right parties like the National Front are gaining ground and influencing local governmentsMuslims face worsening Islamophobia. And the outrage that many Muslims feel about Western and Israeli policies in the Mideast is fostering a very old problem: anti-Semitism. Marseille, a multicultural city on the Mediterranean, offers a vantage point onto these related issues. 

Today, the Monitor reports on how anti-Semitism is rearing its head again in Europe, but now more connected to Muslims than neo-Nazis.

After a Jewish-owned pharmacy was set on fire outside Paris, in a blaze of anti-Israel protest that swept across Europe this summer, Hagay Sobol, a local Jewish leader in the port city of Marseille, reached out to an unlikely ally: a pro-Palestinian Muslim leader.

Mr. Sobol, a red-headed father of four, published a joint letter with Nassera Benmarnia in the local media. It stated that the two city councilors were putting aside their differences – without abandoning their respective positions – amid fear that radicalization was growing on both sides.

Their move was criticized by some Jews and Muslims alike, when positions were hardening at a time of war. But he says their attempt to find common ground, even if just a small example, is informative across Europe, where Jews feel increasingly threatened by what they perceive as a new wave of anti-Semitism and fear some of the extremism brewing in Muslim communities.

"We come from very different positions, and we don't agree on what is going on in the Middle East, but we are French and we both want peace,” he says.

Even in Marseille, he says, where religious groups have worked harmoniously in the past, Mr. Sobol worries that extremists are testing the limits. “The model of cohabitation in Marseille, that is ancient and that has until now worked, is starting to break down with radicalization,” he says.

'A watershed summer'

Anti-Semitism has a long, grim history in Europe. Jews have faced frequent, often government-led hatred and expulsion for centuries. More recently, political anti-Israeli sentiment, stemming from policies toward the West Bank and Gaza Strip, has grown as well.

But this summer, it was the fact that many European Muslims were at the forefront of anti-Israel protests that signaled a shift.

Jochen Bittnera political editor for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit, wrote in a New York Times opinion piece in September, that in Germany the "new anti-Semitism does not originate solely with the typical white-supremacist neo-Nazi; instead, the ugly truth that many in Europe don’t want to confront is that much of the anti-Jewish animus originates with European people of Muslim background.”

As Europe grapples with radicalization of Muslims, some of them converts, Jewish leaders worry about a more virulent strain of anti-Semitism emerging, especially through the help of social media that easily incited crowds this summer. “This summer was a watershed moment for us,” says Shimon Samuels, who directs the European office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Paris, a Jewish human rights organization.

Jews in Europe have been troubled by “lone wolf” terrorists, including of a gunmen that killed three children and a rabbi outside a Jewish school in Toulouse, France, in 2012, and the deaths of four at a Jewish museum in Brussels this May, by a French suspect who had returned from Syria.

France, like other European nations, has braced for more attacks, and while Jewish leaders stress that all Europeans are at risk by attacks on the West, Jews are the natural target of radical Islamists. "The risk is not theoretical, it is unfortunately real,” says the Grand Rabbi of Paris, Haim Korsia, speaking with foreign journalists last month.

Newly vocal migrant communities

Such fears come as anti-Semitic acts have surged this year. In France, recorded incidents of public anti-Semitism, including vandalism or violence, rose by 91 percent from January to the end of July, compared with the same period the year before, according to figures cited by the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France.

In Britain, the Jewish charity Community Security Trust reported that July had more anti-Semitic acts than any other month on record. And Germany was so shocked by the anti-Jewish rhetoric on its streets this summer that German Chancellor Angela Merkel made a rare appearance at a peace march. “It hurts me when I hear that young Jewish parents are asking if it's safe to raise their children here or elderly ask if it was right to stay here,” she told the crowd.

Anti-Semitism has flared in Germany, like elsewhere, in the 70 years since World War II, but what was new this summer was the widespread presence of migrant populations at the marches, says Peter Ullrich, an expert on social movements and anti-Semitism at the Technical University of Berlin. “A new quality is that migrant populations are becoming more [apt] to organize and address the general public sphere and not just their own communities."

Muslim protesters in Germany reflect the changing demographics of Europe, where the framing of the German government’s unbending support for Israel doesn't resonate for many new Muslim immigrants. “A Palestinian family here, who doesn’t subscribe to historic responsibilities [of World War II], feels burdened by Germany’s framing of the conflict,” Mr. Ullrich says.

Islamophobia and anti-Semitism

In Marseille, the city has attempted to mitigate inter-religious tensions through an organization called Esperance, which fosters cooperation among religious groups. And many say it’s worked.

But some Muslims in Marseille say they resent that anti-Israel protest gets labeled anti-Semitic. They say Islamophobia is a far greater societal problem than anti-Semitism.

“France is against Islam,” says Omar Djellil, a Muslim activist in Marseille. He criticizes the actions of Ms. Benmarnia, who declined to be interviewed. Still, he says, he agrees with her and Sobol that radicalization everywhere is growing. “We live in a moment in which it’s the extremists who are winning,” he says.

And for that reason alone, Sobol says that any attempt to bridge divides is worth it. Radicalization in Muslim communities is a real concern for Europe's Jews, he says. Some of them have responded by fleeing France. Some 5,000 Jews are expected to leave the country for Israel this year. But Sobol says he considers that a form of radicalization that does not address the real issues.

He says that if more moderate voices don’t emerge to address the discontent, extremism will be victorious. It’s especially worrisome in France, which has Europe’s largest Jewish and Muslim communities – and the largest European contingent of jihadis fighting in the Middle East. 

“In Germany in the [1930s], not everyone was a Nazi,” and yet they were still able to set the country on course towards the Holocaust, Sobol says. “If we don’t act, the radicals could get stronger.”

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