Paris — For the past 14 years, French Jews have grown accustomed to coming under attack during periods of conflict in the Middle East from hostile elements within their country’s large Arab and Muslim communities.
One recent incident, however, stood out: the July 13 riot by Palestinian sympathizers outside the Synagogue de la Roquette in central Paris that trapped some 200 terrified people inside the building. The incident sparked a street brawl between the rioters and dozens of Jewish men who arrived to defend the synagogue.
“In people’s minds, there will be a before and after the Synagogue de la Roquette,” Joel Mergui, president of the Consistoire, French Jewry’s central religious services organization, told the French newsweekly Le Nouvel Observateur. The incident at the synagogue involved pro-Palestinian protesters who had reportedly just come from a large demonstration against Israel’s airstrikes in Gaza.
The violence drew a stern rebuke from French President Francois Hollande.
“There cannot be disturbances and disruptions, intrusions or attempted intrusions in places of worship,” Hollande said during a television interview the next day. “Not in synagogues like what happened yesterday, but I’d say the same about mosques, churches, temples.”
Since Israel launched its military operation against Hamas in Gaza, Jewish houses of worship in and around Paris have been targets.
On the Friday before the violence at the Synagogue de la Roquette, a firebomb was hurled at the entrance to a synagogue in the Paris suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois. The next day, an angry pro-Palestinian crowd gathered outside a synagogue in Paris’ Belleville neighborhood and chanted about slaughtering Jews. And on the same day as the Roquette synagogue incident, rioters also attacked the nearby Synagogue de la rue des Tournelles.
The riot outside the Synagogue de la Roquette stood out because of the terror of those inside the shul who had assembled for a gathering in solidarity with Israel. But video footage from the violence outside highlights another reason the incident seemed to some like a watershed moment: The ferocious and unusual response to the threat by young Jewish men who pushed back the pro-Palestinian rioters.
Their action resonated with many in France’s vibrant Jewish community of 600,000 who increasingly feel they must rely on themselves for their safety.