Marseille, France — At a time when Jewish institutions across France resemble military fortresses for their security, entering the great synagogue and main Jewish center of this picturesque city on the Mediterranean coast is as easy as pushing open the front door.
The only obstacles on a recent Sunday were 20 children scampering around on their break from Hebrew school.
That same day in Paris, prosecutors announced that they may never catch all the known 10 members of a domestic, jihadist network described by French authorities as “very dangerous” and responsible for detonating a grenade in a kosher store near Paris last month.
Days earlier, French Jewry’s security unit, the SPCJ, reported a 45 percent rise in anti-Semitic attacks this year, mostly by Muslims – part of an “explosion” of incidents after the March 19 killings of three children and a rabbi in Toulouse by a French-born Muslim extremist. Terrorists may try to infiltrate synagogues on reconnaissance missions, SPCJ also warned recently.
Yet while the 350,000 Jews in and around Paris – more than any other city in Europe – have seen violent convulsions with increasing frequency, Jews here in France’s second-largest Jewish community have enjoyed relative calm.
But many of the 80,000 or so Jews who live in relative peace next to an estimated 250,000 Arabs in this seaside city of 800,000 worry that things could get worse.
In Marseille, Jewish leaders and laymen say they wear their kipahs without fear of attack, offering varying explanations for how the peace is maintained: Some cite interfaith dialogue, others point to geographic segregation and a few make mention of the deterrent threat of Jewish gangsters.
From 2009 to 2011, there were twice as many anti-Semitic attacks per capita in Paris proper than in Marseille, according to an analysis of 1,397 incidents recorded by SPCJ. Only 59 attacks were registered here in those years, compared to 340 in Paris proper.
Michele Teboul, the regional representative of the CRIF umbrella group of French Jewish communities, says these relatively low figures are part of “the miracle of Marseille.” She credits mainly the work of an interfaith dialogue group that the municipality established in 1991.
But Teboul, a businesswoman and mother of three, is worried that this effect is wearing off as “mosques continue to preach hatred” and the city’s Jewish and Muslim communities drift apart physically and mentally.
Elie Berrebi, director of Marseille’s Central Jewish Consistory – the institution responsible for administering religious services for French Jews – describes the presence of “a small but well-positioned” Jewish mafia as a deterrent to would-be Muslim aggressors, saying that attacking Jews here carries special risks.