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“It’s a well-known secret that this community has its own gangsters,” he said. “Not many, but in powerful positions in that world. They speak the language of the other side’s criminals.”
Approximately 50 Jewish gangsters from Marseille are currently in jail, where the Jewish community offers them what services it can, according to Berrebi. One of them, identified only as Daniel S., was the subject of a feature published in August by the French weekly Marianne titled the “The revival of the Jewish Mafia.”
Bruno Benjamin, president of the Marseille Jewish community, dismisses the Jewish gangster theory.
“The Arabs have many more gangsters,” he said.
In 2002, Marseille saw the first synagogue arson attributed to anti-Semitism since World War II when the northern Or Aviv shul was burnt to the ground.
“Since the early 2000s, we’ve been seeing long periods of calm interrupted by eruptions of anti-Semitism,” Berrebi said. Jews in Marseille’s northern parts “have been hit pretty hard,” he said, since the early 2000s, when anti-Semitic attacks spiked in France.
Since then, the city’s Jewish population has gravitated away from the center and northern Marseilles in favor of middle-class neighborhoods in the city’s south, which Berrebi describes as safer. Approximately 80 percent of Marseille’s Jews now live in that part of town, he says. Arab families also are migrating from the center northward and eastward to working-class areas.
The separation is a mixed blessing, Berrebi says. While it insulates Jewish families from potential Muslim aggressors, “it means that there is a new generation growing up without knowing Jews, with a strong us-versus-them notion,” he said.
Berrebi arrived here as a boy in 1967. Like 90 percent of Marseille’s Jews, his family emigrated from North Africa shortly after the Maghreb – Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia – gained independence from France in the 1950s. Arabs also came in large numbers and settled in the same neighborhoods as the Jews.
“We used to live together. My generation and the previous one had a lot of commercial exchange with the Arabs,” he said. This familiarity prevented hate crimes, he said, “but the younger generations have lost it.”