A string of antisemitic incidents in the aftermath of the torture and murder of a young Jewish vendor is fueling concerns that anti-Jewish feelings are spreading in France’s black community.
The incidents — three physical attacks allegedly committed by blacks of Muslim descent — occurred in recent days, following the extradition from Ivory Coast last weekend of Youssouf Fofana, the alleged leader of the gang that kidnapped and murdered 21-year-old Ilan Halimi. The alleged involvement of blacks has added a new twist to the wave of antisemitic incidents in recent years, which mostly were the work of young Muslims of North African descent responding to the Palestinian intifada.
A judge charged Fofana for the premeditated murder of Halimi, with the aggravated circumstance that the crime was motivated by race, after evidence surfaced that the gang had targeted Halimi because they believed that Jews are rich and the community would pay a ransom. Fofana has told investigators that the plot was not motivated by ethnicity, but by money, and has denied that he killed Halimi.
“This affair has transformed Fofana into a hero in the eyes of quite a few people,” said Sammy Ghozlan, president of the National Office of Vigilance Against Anti-Semitism, a former police chief who has been criticized by some Jewish groups for what they say is his tendency to exaggerate the antisemitic threat. “The attitude of [black] people has changed in recent years.”
Patrick Klugman, vice-president of the anti-racism group SOS Racism, said that recent events “have reawakened the fears of Jews after a period of calm and is creating tensions with the black community and this is very worrying.”
The attacks and their aftermath have prompted some virulent exchanges on the Internet. An e-mail allegedly sent by a small group of black radicals known as Tribu K.A to several Jewish and antiracist organizations warned against any effort to deny Fofana a fair trial.
“We will take special care of your rabbis’ sidelocks,” the group threatened, adding, “Let the brother be judged fairly or you will pay.”
Black-Jewish tensions were virtually unheard of in France a few years ago, but they began to surface after well-known comedian Dieudonné Mbala Mbala started accusing Jews of controlling the world and enslaving blacks, prompting a flurry of defamation lawsuits by Jewish organizations.
Dieudonné, who is of African origin and made his name a decade ago while partnering with a Jewish humorist, has made a series of statements about Jews and Israel in his shows and in the media. In addition to stating that Jews played a “central role” in the 15th-century slave trade, he most famously appeared in December 2003 on a popular French television program dressed as an Orthodox Jew and performed the Nazi salute while shouting “IsraHeil.”
All the defamation charges against him have so far been rejected by the courts.
Dieudonné is also considering running in next year’s presidential elections on a far-left platform. Late last month, Julien Dray, the spokesman for the main opposition socialist party, blamed the Halimi murder on the “Dieudonné effect.” In response, the comic issued a statement calling Dray the “Zionist militant” and demanding that he apologize.
Last weekend, three antisemitic attacks took place in the Parisian suburb of Sarcelles, where 20% of the city’s 58,000 inhabitants are Jewish.
On March 3, a local rabbi’s 17-year-old son was attacked by two black men near their synagogue, suffering a broken nose. That same afternoon, an 18-year-old man was attacked by a group of five men, who insulted him and stole his cell phone. Four of them were black and the fifth was of Arab origin, according to the police. The next night, a 28-year-old man wearing a yarmulke was verbally and physically abused by four men and suffered a dislocated shoulder, according to police sources. The culprits, four underage black men, have been arrested and charged.
Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy announced at a meeting with families and local officials that further police reinforcements would be deployed in Sarcelles, which is located in an area that was engulfed by several days of rioting by young Arab immigrants a few months ago.
Other antisemitic incidents have taken place in the country’s second largest city, Lyons, and the nearby suburb of Villeurbanne, where a sizable Jewish community lives.
According to a poll taken by the weekly newsmagazine Paris-Match after the Halimi murder but before the recent incidents, nearly two-thirds of the French believe antisemitism is currently rising.
Ghozlan, who in 2000 founded the Antisemitism Vigilance Bureau to monitor anti-Jewish acts in France, has pointed out that at least two Jews — a doctor and a high-school student — had been beaten up by blacks of Muslim origin in the Paris area just before the grim ordeal of Halimi was revealed.
According to the police, Halimi, a cell phone vendor, was lured into a trap by a young girl. He was held for three weeks in a basement by a gang of youths of mixed origins whose leaders made frantic and disjointed demands for ransom to his family. He was beaten and burned with cigarettes and acid. His body was dumped, half-naked, on rail tracks near Paris. He died on his way to the hospital.
The crime has caused considerable commotion in France because of its gruesome nature and in the Jewish community by the revelations that Halimi had been targeted because of his religion.
Despite the swift reaction from the authorities and the decision to prosecute the murder as a hate crime, the Halimi affair and other recent incidents have revived the heated discussions in some Jewish circles about the need to set up self-defense groups or leave the country. Such talk had waned after a sharp drop in the number of antisemitic incidents last year, but is starting to pick up again.
In a statement issued Wednesday and titled “France in danger!,” the CRIF, the Jewish umbrella organization, warned the authorities that “this insurrectional situation risks creating uncontrolable self-defense reactions. We solemnly ask the president of the Republic to declare war on antisemitism and give back some confidence to all citizens. Let’s make no mistake! The Jews are the sentinels of the Republic and the violences directed against them today will tomorrow hit the rest of the population. The unity of the nation is in danger.”
An online petition addressed to the U.S. Congress and calling for Jews to seek asylum in the United States has gathered more than 5,200 signatures.