Je Suis Juif

The murderous attack on Jews in the Hypercacher market in Paris in early January 2015, killing four innocent shabbat shoppers, which followed the murderous attack on the satirists and staff at Charlie Hebdo, is probably the turning point in a string of attacks on Jews qua Jews in France that have over time destabilized French Jewry, making it deeply fearful of the future.

The anti-Jewish attack comes after the murderous attack in Toulouse in March 20012 carried out by Mohammed Merah, a young man radicalized in prison (as well as in the community) and by trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan, who killed three Jewish children and a rabbi. It comes after the murderous attack by Mehdi Nemmouche on Jews and others at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. Nemmouche was in Syria and had confirmed ties with ISIS.

It comes after thousands of marchers in Paris a year ago in January screamed “Juif, la France n’est pas a toi”—“Jew, France is not yours.” Marchers shouted “Get out of France” and complained Hitler’s gas chambers had failed to do the job fully. It comes after thousands this past July marching in solidarity with Palestinians from Bastille Square broke away screaming “Death to the Jews” and attacked the Don Abravanel synagogue in Paris; a week later a kosher grocery was burned in suburban Saucelles.

It comes after other events, including a home invasion in suburban Creteil in December where assailants raped a woman and robbed a family targeted because “they were Jewish.”

And now the brazen armed anti-Semitic attack in Paris was executed by yet another French radical Islamist, Almedy Coulhaby, tied to ISIS, who was linked with the Kouachi brothers, who were themselves radicalized jihadists tied to Al Queda and ISIS, were in Syria, and planned and carried out the attack on Charlie Hebdo. Apparently, the Hypercacher was a Jewish target but of secondary choice, for Coulhaby had first sought to take over a Jewish school but was thwarted by an auto accident and the intervention of a local policewoman, Clarissa Jean-Phillipe, whom he killed.

It comes in the context, Natasha Lehrer reported in the Guardian, [Jan. 15, 2015] where fifty percent of racist attacks in France target Jews, who are merely one percent of the population, where violent racist attacks are way up in 2014-15, and where violence against Jews is highest among all states in the European Union.

What is the larger context in which such attacks have become ubiquitous? What are the social dynamics? Who are the recruits for such mayhem, how are they mobilized? And what can be done and will be done about it by the French state? Prime Minister Manuel Valls opines before the French Assembly that such anti-Semitic attacks on Jews are “inadmissible” and are frontal assaults on the very being of the French Republic, which first emancipated the Jews over two centuries ago, but in the Vichy period failed to live up to principle and protect them. Yet French politicians have wrung their hands before and promised that the Jews would be protected….

A report of the French SPCJ [Service de Protection de la Communauté Juive] called Antisemitisme in 2013 observes that such anti-Semitic attacks in France climbed in frequency over the past generation since the 1990s and were mostly carried out by young men of French North African or African background who were themselves marginal figures in France. In a country where perhaps six million immigrants from North Africa have settled and sit uneasily in and outside the society, we are talking largely about second generation figures, inadequately integrated, who are unemployed, underemployed, alienated, and angry. These youths grow up in segregated neighborhoods on the outskirts of metropolitan areas—banlieus — living between two worlds, French and immigrant. French Islamist scholar Olivier Roy talks about the upsurge and circulating power in these areas of a “globalized Islam” a broad militant Islamic resentment at Western dominance, anti-imperialism, and anti-semitism. In France, which is stubbornly unknowing about ways to effectively integrate and offer space to newcomers, and where most immigrant communities strongly retain old ways, these second generation figures grow up amidst the social and cultural dislocations of European global capitalism and migration subject to powerful currents of disaffection and to alternative street influences shaped by petty delinquency, crime, and drugs, media and internet rebellion, and the oppositional jihadist culture of radical Islam.

These disconsolate Muslim offspring are citizens of France in name only, not economically, socially, or culturally. They reject the minority status their parents earlier accepted. The inner workings of their enclave communities are obscure to French authorities, and mujahedeen are therefore relatively free to enter and to prepare, recruit, and mobilize youths for jihad far from effective surveillance. Some of these criminal youths are further radicalized by militant Islamists in the prisons. Others circulate freely to the east through the European Union to Turkey and Syria and Iraq where they receive armed training and return to become members of clandestine networks that threaten peace and order and the safety of Jews. Most are religious novices, barely lightly rooted in Islamic thought or devotion, thrill-seekers searching through action for significance and for “glory and esteem in the eyes of friends, and through friends, eternal respect and remembrance in the wider world.”[Scott Attran, Testimony to U.S. Senate, March 2010.]

Islamist scholar Olivier Roy said just months before the events in Paris: “For over twenty years we have been watching the same phenomenon: the radicalisation of a fringe of the youth, whether of Muslim origin, or of converts who are looking for a cause. These young people are not integrated into the Muslim community, in France or anywhere else…..” [Olivier Roy, Open Democracy, Oct. 8, 2014.]

Historians and commentators who seek the sources of such antagonism to the Jews differ in their understandings of what is going on. Brown historian Maude Mandel in Muslims and Jews in France thoughtfully traces the history of conflict between French Jews and Muslims, both of whom hail largely commonly from North African lands but have since migration fared differently in France. Resentments born of differential integration and opportunities and of normal frictions intensified by the play of Middle Eastern politics in France lurk in the background and are part of the picture. But such history as Mandel traces stops in 2000 and focuses on the topic of inter-communal relations in general. One cannot help but ask whether additional factors are at play during the early 21st century in an enlarged landscape shaped by spreading conflict and burgeoning radical Islam and whether claims about larger inter-communal relations track satisfactorily on the behaviors of this segment of radicalized youth.

Personally, I find promising the framework for understanding youth radicalization that is being developed and in the interdisciplinary Minerva Project titled “Motivation, Ideology, and Social Process in Radicalization.” This ambitious effort to understand the radicalization of Muslim youth emphasizes heavily the search for significance by such individuals at transitional stages, their search for identity, and the enabling context provided by radical social networks. [] Any significant response by the French state to diminish conflict and dampen attacks must not merely address the police and security aspects of the problem, which are crucial, or look at broad inter-communal relations, but also focus in upon the underlying isolation, apartness, resentment, and failed integration of this segment.

In response to recent events, Prime Minister Manuel Valls has announced the beefing up of French security forces – new hires, new equipment, new powers of investigation and modes of cooperation with other national security agencies throughout Europe. For the present, thousands of French police are deployed nearby sensitive government buildings and in front of Jewish institutions, synagogues, schools, and groceries, while European security services explore new ways of cooperating to combat ease of movement in the borderless European bloc. Valls stresses the threat stemming from the large number of radicalized youths suspected of links to networks active in Syria and Iraq. He also addresses the threat related to the lack of border controls and security checks stemming from the Shengen agreement underwriting free movement in the European bloc. Valls has also announced that sixty new Muslim clerics are to be recruited to work in the prisons, with new special sections to be set aside for extremist detainees. The French government is also actively informing the public about ways of preventing youth radicalization.

But such measures thus far hardly penetrate the separate spaces where such youth are or address the larger context of unemployment, underemployment, and alienation that underwrites a rich recruiting ground. In addition to security initiatives, the French state will need also to address economic policy, banlieu policing strategies, social policy, and schooling initiatives to begin to change the context where such dangerous radicalism breeds. It is no easy road to go down and create the desired results.

About the Author
Kenneth Waltzer is former director of Jewish Studies at Michigan State University and a progressive opponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. He a historian of the Holocaust completing a book on the rescue of children and youths at Buchenwald. He directed the Academic Engagement Network 2015-2019.