Nowhere in Europe has the rise of anti-Semitism and terrorism been of greater concern than in France. The French Jewish population of 500,000 is the third largest in the world, behind only those in Israel and the United States. In response to the dual threat of Jew-hatred and terror, the French Jewish community maintains an organization to help protect its institutions and empower its members. The efforts can be instructive for Jewish communities and others in Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere.
Eric de Rothschild is tall, elegant and soft-spoken. He is a French scion of the venerable banking family whose wealth and service is a storied part of European history. His communal and philanthropic efforts have included leadership of the Paris Grand Synagogue and the French Shoah Memorial museum. More recently his dedication to combating anti-Semitism has led to his current position as president of the Service de Protection de la Communauté Juive (SPCJ), the Jewish Community Security Service of France. A non-profit organization with a small staff and about 2,000 volunteers, its mission is “to protect Jewish life in its pluralistic expression.” Founded in 1980 after the bombing of the rue Copernic synagogue, its role has grown in response to the rise of anti-Semitism and terrorism.
Mr. de Rothschild and the SPCJ’s chief executive, Tali Ohayon, recently addressed a large delegation from the Jewish Agency for Israel during a meeting in Paris. Their presentations, and especially videos offered by Ms. Ohayon, revealed a variety of exercises and precautions. Working in cooperation with government authorities the SPCJ identified more than 800 acts of anti-Semitism throughout France in 2015. Although comprising less than one percent of the total population, Jews were the target of 40 percent of racist crimes and 49 percent of racist acts of violence. The acts ranged from verbal and texted threats to physical assaults, perpetrated mostly by Muslim extremists. Perhaps the best known assault was the attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris where 29 people were held hostage and four were murdered.
Anti-Semitism has prompted some of France’s Jews to emigrate, about 15,000 to Israel in the past two years, but most remain in place for now. Specially trained SPCJ volunteers offer protection at synagogues, community centers, organizations, and other Jewish gatherings. The rise of anti-Semitic terror has also prompted a new focus on individual preparedness graphically illustrated by Tali Ohayon. Her videos showed various Jewish cohorts training in the martial arts and other techniques to fend off attackers.
One exercise paired young men and women, with an assailant brandishing an imitation knife and the other person the target seeking to protect him- or herself. Both wore protective headgear and layers of outerwear to prevent injury as they engaged in rigorous punching, tugging and kicking. During each encounter coaches were urging specific moves to help the victim prevail.
Another video showed a gymnasium filled with hundreds of young adults, each shadow boxing against an imaginary opponent. For an extended period the trainees bounced up and down and side-to-side, feinting, weaving and thrusting jabs alternately left and right. This was one phase of an hour-long training session.
A third video included about 30 children ages 8 and 9, divided into pairs, wearing headgear and thick boxing gloves. At the sound of a whistle they began landing punches on each other. As a coach called out encouragement to be aggressive, amid the sound of punches one could hear an occasional “oo-ee,” the French equivalent of “ouch.” The value of such programs in promoting awareness, self-confidence and defense capabilities seems self-evident.
Wondering about preparedness in the American Jewish community, I spoke with David Dabscheck, President and co-founder of the non-profit Community Security Service in the United States. CSS provides protection and security training for Jewish institutions, much as the SPCJ does in France. The organization receives support from many law enforcement agencies and the Department of Homeland Security. Still, Mr. Dabscheck said, “the threat is increasing and it necessitates intensive community engagement around security. In this regard, we train members of the Jewish community so they can also help protect synagogues, community institutions and events.”
CSS was founded in 2007. Active largely in the Northeast it plans to expand to other locations as well. Its 3,000 members are trained to deal with a variety of situations, from biological and chemical terrorism to active shooter threats. But demand outstrips current resources, Mr. Dabscheck said, adding, “We receive requests from across the country for help with security issues.” Because the CSS is able to provide only limited advice in some places, he hopes that additional resources become available before another terrorist attack strikes the Jewish community.
Eric de Rothschild, born in 1940, was too young to remember the Nazi horrors during World War II, but he and his family suffered the scars. His father Alain de Rothschild had been arrested by the Vichy government and imprisoned in a French concentration camp during the war. Alain’s banking acumen, post-war philanthropy and support for French Jewry foretold his son’s similar interests. The legacy lives on in sentiments expressed by Eric de Rothschild in 2016. The “murderous attacks in Paris and Saint-Denis demonstrate once again that violence committed against the Jewish community is . . . a harbinger of even greater threats against our country’s democracy and republican values,” he said. His fervid commitment to the protection of the Jewish community arises in part from memory of a time when there was no Israel and little means of defense for besieged local Jewish communities.