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Letter from Strasbourg: Living with anti-Semitism

The sides are clear: The government, the Jewish community, and the moderate Muslim community versus the radical Islamic terrorists and their sympathizers

STRASBOURG — While in France this past week for a conference on Nazi ideology in contemporary European politics, I encountered firsthand the impact of rising anti-Jewish violence that has once again appeared in France.

A few hours after I arrived in Strasbourg, home to 15,000 Jews, I walked into one of the synagogues to celebrate the end of the Sukkot holiday. At the communal meal, one subject dominated our conversations: the raid.

The day before I arrived, French anti-terrorism units had conducted raids in four cities against radical Islamist terror cells, arresting 11 people.  Here in Strasbourg, one suspect shot at the police and was killed by return fire. His name was Jeremie Louis-Sydney, a French man who had converted to radical Islam while in prison for drug trafficking. His DNA was found on a grenade that exploded in a kosher store about three weeks ago on the day after Yom Kippur.

Menachem, in his early 20s, told me he was worried about all the Muslims in France. “They’re going to take over soon,” he said. Just two weeks ago and two miles away, the largest mosque in France had been inaugurated. His father, Jacob, urged him not to paint with such a broad brush, pointing out that the chief tabbi of Strasbourg had been invited to speak at the inauguration. Then Menachem told me I too should be worried, since President Obama was “also a Muslim.”

The young hothead wasn’t the only one expressing concern about the future. Shmuel, with two toddlers and an American wife, was thinking about moving to New York. He knew the difference between Salafists, with their radical and violent ideology, and moderate Islam, represented by France’s mainstream Muslim leaders. He just didn’t know if it was worth staying where he felt threatened by the Salafists.

Despite the talk, I didn’t see any of the telltale signs of insecurity. I had walked right into the synagogue without having my identification checked, and there were no security guards or police out front. On the streets, kippot were worn openly. No baseball hats covered them, as I’d seen in Brussels, about 200 miles northwest of here, or in Geneva, 200 miles to the south.

I learned firsthand that there is security awareness, though. I stopped in front of a kosher butcher to take a photo of graffiti that had been spray-painted on its front window. When I turned around, I saw two young men with kippot a few yards away, looking at me and conferring. I approached them, explained who I was, and took the opportunity to ask a few questions. They said they didn’t spend much time worrying about anti-Semitism or insecurity. It was just part of life.

French police officers during an anti-terrorism raid in Strasbourg on Saturday, October 6 (photo credit: AP/Jean Francois Badias)
French police officers during an anti-terrorism raid in Strasbourg on Saturday, October 6 (photo credit: AP/Jean Francois Badias)

Statistics from the French Jewish security agency, SPCJ, show there is cause for worry. Incidents are up 45 percent in the first eight months of 2012, compared to the same period in 2011. And SPCJ’s latest report notes that “in recent months, the actions are becoming more violent,” with four homicides and 56 assaults. More were sure to come, since the police found a target list of Jewish institutions during the anti-terror raids.

President Francois Hollande met with French Jewish leaders the next day to assure them that increased security measures were being put in place for Jewish institutions and to declare “total mobilization of the state to combat all terrorist threats.” Hollande also met with leaders of the French Muslim community to say that the acts of terrorists should not stigmatize the French Muslim community.

Richard Prasquier, the president of CRIF, the representative organization of French Jewry, said that the fight is not between the Jewish and Muslim communities, but “between those who hate the principles, values, laws and objectives of the French Republic and those who are firmly attached to them.” His Muslim counterpart, Mohammed Moussaoui, condemned the violence against Jews and Jewish institutions and declared “brotherly solidarity” with the Jewish community.

The sides are clear: The government, the Jewish community, and the moderate Muslim community versus the radical Islamic terrorists and their sympathizers. Strasbourg has seen both, with France’s interior minister and chief rabbi at the mosque inauguration and with the life and death of Jeremie Louis-Sydney.

How that battle plays out in Strasbourg and the rest of France will have a determining impact of the future of French Jewry and the future of French society. Prasquier underscored the significance of the threat by explicitly equating radical Islam and Nazism, saying, “to be indulgent of radical Islam is to be indulgent of Nazism.”

The open doors of the synagogue and the men wearing kippahs in the street should be normal acts, not risky ones. What I saw in Strasbourg is how life should be for Jews in France and everywhere.

President Hollande was right to commit to full mobilization, because France is once again facing radicals with a lethal hatred of Jews. All of France, especially its mainstream Muslim communities, needs to join that battle.

About the Author
Andrew Srulevitch is director of European affairs for the Anti-Defamation League