Europe continues struggle against rising anti-Semitism

An attack on a Jewish school last weekend prompted French leaders to action.

Spurred to action by a weekend arson attack against a Jewish school, the French government has promised renewed efforts to battle persistent anti-Semitism that many French Jews say makes them fear for their safety.

"When a Jew is attacked in France, it must be clear that the whole of France is attacked," President Jacques Chirac declared Monday night, after ordering his cabinet to create a special committee to monitor and punish anti-Semitic acts.

But so long as tensions between Israel and the Palestinians remain high, Jewish analysts here say, young Muslim men in Europe are likely to continue to express their political sentiments through racist attacks.

"The climate for Jewish communities has become more difficult in Western Europe, primarily because of the overspill of the Israel-Palestine conflict and because of Islamist anti-Semitism that is increasingly influencing the attitudes of Muslim communities," says Mike Whine, spokesman for the Paris-based European Jewish Congress.

President Chirac ordered closer cooperation between police and Jewish community leaders, and tougher action by police and the courts against anti-Semitic acts, demanding: "The greatest vigilance in prevention, the greatest firmness in investigation, and the greatest severity and speed in punishment."

Tougher laws, harsher penalties

France strengthened its antiracist laws earlier this year, in the wake of a spate of attacks on Jewish establishments. Harsh new penalties for racially motivated crimes mean that the perpetrators of the arson attack on the Jewish school in Gagny, north of Paris, face up to 20 years in prison if caught.

Interior Ministry figures suggest that the number of anti-Semitic incidents in France has dropped by nearly half this year compared to 2002.

But synagogues are still firebombed, Jewish cemeteries desecrated, and Jewish children taunted on their way to school.

Some Jewish observers blame the general political atmosphere in Europe, where Israel is deeply unpopular because of its harsh treatment of the Palestinians, especially since the outbreak of the second "intifada" in 2000.

Anti-Zionism or anti-Semitism?

A European Union poll earlier this month found that 59 percent of Europeans see Israel as a threat to world peace: No other country polled higher.

That political sentiment "often shades into anti-Semitism," says Mr. Whine. "The continuous demonization of Israel legitimizes anti-Semitic violence."

"Disapproval and condemnation of Israel's policy in the Palestinian territories have clearly lowered the barrier - already unclear to some - between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism," said the daily Le Monde in an editorial on Monday.

"The perpetrators of these attacks confuse Jews with Israel," suggests Sarah Rembiszewski, an expert on Europe at the Stephen Roth Institute on anti-Semitism at Tel Aviv University.

Worried by their country's poor image in Europe, two top Israeli officials are visiting the Continent this week: Prime Minister Ariel Sharon held talks Monday night with Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, current president of the European Union, and Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom met with EU foreign ministers.

"Unfortunately, recently we ... noticed that some signals of anti-Semitism are back in Europe," Mr. Shalom told Reuters. He said he would ask the EU to form "a ministerial council of Europe and Israel that will fight together against this phenomenon."

In France, after several years of downplaying anti-Semitic incidents as mere hooliganism, the government "has become aware of the problem," says Ariel Goldman, a leader of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF).

"Chirac's comments were meant to persuade public opinion that anti-Semitism is not just a danger for Jews but for the French republic," Mr. Goldman adds. "I hope he succeeds."

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