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Anti-Semitism at ground level in France


Craig S. Smith, The New York Times, March 23, 2006
SARCELLES, France - In working- class Parisian suburbs like this one, heavily populated by North African immigrants, the word "Jew" is now a standard epithet. It appears in graffiti on middle school walls, neighborhood playgrounds and on the tongues of the young.

"It's blacks and Arabs on one side and Jews on the other," said Sebastian Daranal, a young black man standing in the parking lot of a government-subsidized housing project with two friends.

Eight men beat the son of a rabbi here earlier in March. Another Jew was attacked the next day.

In the wake of last month's torture and murder of Ilan Halimi, a 23-year- old Jew, attention has focused on an undeniable problem: anti-Semitism among France's second-generation immigrant youth, whose high jobless rate the government is trying to address with a law drawing widespread protests across the country.

Schools are the battleground over anti-Semitism and teachers complain that the government has done little despite many proposals.

"The minister of education has done nothing," said Jean-Pierre Obin, an inspector general of education in France, who wrote a report in 2004 that called anti-Semitism "ubiquitous" in the 61 schools surveyed. "He prefers not to talk about it."

Obin wrote in the report that he had found "a stupefying and cruel reality: In France, Jewish children - and they are alone in this case - can no longer be educated in just any school."

Ianis Roder, 34, a middle school history teacher northeast of Paris, said he was stunned by what he witnessed after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The next day, someone spray-painted in a stairwell of the school the image of an airplane crashing into the World Trade Center beside the words, "Death to the U.S., Death to Jews." When he told his class a few months later that Hitler had killed six million Jews, one boy blurted out, "He would have made a good Muslim!"

Roder says he hears something disturbing almost every week.

Even today, he said, there is widespread belief that the attacks of Sept. 11 were a Jewish plot and that Jews were notified beforehand.

Barbara Lefébvre, a history teacher who has taught in several of the working-class suburbs, said many people minimize the anti-Semitism among France's youth.

"They say, 'That's the way the kids talk, they don't mean it in the same way that you or I would,'" she said.

Lefébvre, who is Jewish, said she had to argue with the principal of her school to get an investigation when a student wrote "dirty Jew" on a notebook used by her class several years ago. The student, a French-Arab boy, was given just two hours of detention.

France was the first European country to offer Jews full citizenship and it has done as much as any to exorcise the ghosts of Nazi collaboration. But the postwar climate for Jews has steadily soured as attention has focused on the Palestinian cause and Muslims have moved here in large numbers.

With the outbreak of the second Palestinian Intifada against Israel in 2000, anti-Semitic attacks in France skyrocketed. While the number of reported incidents has fallen since peaking in 2004, anti-Semitism is now entrenched in many of the country's working-class housing projects.

Among the Arab communities of North Africa, there was no postwar sense of Holocaust guilt. If anything, distress over the creation of Israel in 1948 served to reinforce anger at Jews to the point that successive waves of anti- Jewish riots drove most of North Africa's Jews to Israel and Europe - primarily France - in the 1950s and 1960s.

Some people say that many of the North African Arabs who subsequently moved to France carried anti-Jewish prejudices with them and passed them on to a second-generation, where they have been reinforced by support for the Palestinian cause. French guilt over colonialism has made it harder to counter.

"As long as anti-Semitism came from the extreme right there was a reaction," said Lefébvre, who has written about anti-Semitism and sexism in schools. "But when it came from that part of the population that itself was a victim of racism, no one wanted to see it."

Sitting in a room hung with posters decrying racism at a youth center in La Courneuve, a suburb on the outskirts of Paris, Yannis, 16-year-old son of a French father and Algerian mother, said racist talk was common.

"We've become used to it, hearing it day after day, so we've all started to speak like that," he said, adding that even 7-year-olds say, "Don't eat like a Jew."

Fahima, 14, doing her homework beside him, told about a confrontation she had with a Jewish teacher two years ago.

"He said, 'You blacks and Arabs will never get apartments in Paris,'" she said, explaining that he meant the students would not manage to move out of the poor suburbs.

Fahima, who is French-Algerian, said she retorted, "You Jews only have apartments there because you were picked on during the war.

"I was mean," she said. "But I'm not anti-Semitic."

Some schools have tried to defuse the problem without addressing it directly.

After a Jewish girl was harassed in Saint-Ouen two years ago, the administration of her school decided to show "Night and Fog," a haunting 1955 documentary film that includes graphic footage of Nazi death camps. Initially, teachers feared that showing the movie risked inciting confusing comparisons between the Holocaust and the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, but they relented.

Indeed, at the end of the film, one boy - not a Muslim - asked how Jews who had known such suffering could treat Palestinians "the same way." No one responded, though Carole Diamant, a philosophy teacher, spoke to him privately after the session.

"I felt like we were on a wire," she said, describing the tension. Since then, the school has included the Holocaust in a broader program on genocide.

Anti-Semitism is felt most acutely in communities like Sarcelles, where many North Africans settled in the 1950s and 1960s. It is home to one of the most concentrated Jewish communities in France, surrounded by an unsightly sprawl of apartment blocks that house the North African and Sub-Saharan immigrants who arrived later.

France has a well-established Jewish community with European roots many of whose members occupy the upper echelons of society. But the poorer North African Jews whose more recent arrival swelled the community's numbers into the largest in Europe are the ones bear the brunt of the anti-Semitism in working class neighborhoods.

Each time anti-Semitic attacks make news, the Interior Ministry promises increased security around Jewish institutions.

But "more police aren't the answer because it remains in the spirit of the people," said Marc Djebali, a spokesman for the Jews of Sarcelles.

The deteriorating climate has led thousands of French Jews to move to Israel in the past five years, including about 3,300 last year, a 35-year high.

"When our parents came, it was paradise here," said Murielle Brami, whose parents immigrated to France to escape anti-Jewish riots in their native Tunisia.

Now she avoids certain neighborhoods even in the daytime and no longer allows her son to wear a yarmulke in the street.

Keywords: France, Global Jews, Global Judaism, anti-Semitism, youth, education