Terrorism Link Seen in Attack On Paris Rabbi

By Marc Perelman

Published January 10, 2003, issue of January 10, 2003.
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A series of assaults against a Paris rabbi may be the work of an organized group rather than the latest in a long list of seemingly spontaneous antisemitic acts, say French Jewish communal officials.

Rabbi Gabriel Farhi, 34, was lightly wounded when he was attacked in his Reform synagogue on Rue Pétion last Friday by a helmeted man screaming “God is great” in Arabic. On Monday, his car was set afire in the parking lot of his home.

A fire at his synagogue last May was labeled an accident by police. However, this week’s incidents, as well as threatening messages received before both the synagogue fire and the stabbing, are forcing investigators to take a new look at what seems to be a coordinated harassment campaign against the rabbi, possibly by Islamic elements.

“Initially, the police thought and I thought this was another spontaneous antisemitic attack, but this is too much; there is clearly more to it,” said Francis Lentschner, vice president of France’s relatively small Reform movement, known locally as the Liberal movement. “It looks we are talking about professionals.”

The police opened an investigation but declined to comment. Calls seeking comment from the Paris prosecutor’s office handling the case went unreturned.

French President Jacques Chirac denounced “this odious act” Monday and sent a letter to Farhi in which he assured him of his government’s determination to fight against “unacceptable behaviors.”

Nicolas Sarkozy, the French interior minister who has become the darling of many French in general and Jews in particular for his tough anti-crime rhetoric, received a delegation of Liberal Jews Wednesday and updated them on the first elements of the investigation.

He was slated to be one of several senior politicians, intellectuals and religious figures attending a solidarity prayer vigil later that day at the main synagogue of the Liberal movement on Rue Gaston de Caillavet.

The events have reignited fears of antisemitic violence in France after six months of relative quiet following the election of a right-wing government on a law-and-order platform.

They also follow explicit threats against Jews by Al Qaeda, and the coordinated attacks on an Israeli-owned hotel and an Israeli airliner in Kenya in November.

After Farhi was stabbed in his small synagogue before Sabbath, Jewish communal leaders in France expressed hope that it was an isolated incident at a time when the number of antisemitic attacks had fallen drastically.

But after his car was set ablaze on Monday, it became obvious that Farhi was a designated target.

Farhi’s personality — a Liberal rabbi strongly engaged in interreligious dialogue and in the peace movement — has even prompted some speculation that he might have been the victim of right-wing Jews infuriated by his positions. Neo-Nazis have also been suggested as possible culprits.

But while law enforcement officials and Jewish organizational leaders were careful not to exclude those possibilities, the strongest initial suspicions point to Muslim radicals.

On Friday morning, the main synagogue of the Liberal movement received an anonymous letter warning that the rabbi would pay in person for the fate of the Palestinians.

The letter, bearing the headline “Killing,” mentioned the rabbi’s home address and referred to the fire at the synagogue back in May.

“We will skin Rabbi Farhi alive and avenge the blood of our Palestinian brothers,” the letter read. “After setting fire to the synagogue, we will take vengeance directly against him.”

Similarly, Farhi received several e-mails before the fire at his synagogue in May mentioning the exact date on which the arson would take place. Tellingly, at least one of the e-mails was traced by the French police to Internet cafes in Kuwait or Algeria, Lentschner said. If proven, this would indicate a possible Islamic connection not only in France, but abroad.

Nevertheless, police at the time declared that the fire was an accident caused by the aging electrical system.

Whether or not the police intentionally buried the information or considered the threat and the fire coincidental remains unclear, but French Jews have often accused law-enforcement authorities — especially under the previous Socialist government — of not thoroughly investigating antisemitic acts.

Besides the possible Islamic connection, the e-mails and the letter, which contain his home address and an awareness of his connection to the Liberal movement, also show a degree of planning. Moreover, Lentschner said whoever torched Farhi’s car waited patiently for a neighbor repairing his car in the parking lot to leave the scene before acting quickly. He added that the police are now providing protection to Farhi at home and at the synagogue.

The incident added a dramatic twist to the furious debate prompted by the decision last month by the board of one of Paris’s main universities to call for the suspension of an agreement between the European Union and Israel. The call for a suspension, targeted especially at academic and scientific cooperation with Israeli institutions, was meant to protest Israeli policies toward the Palestinians.

The decision of the board of the Pierre and Marie Curie University, reported last week in the Forward but little noticed in France because of the holiday season, prompted condemnations by the French authorities and leading intellectuals. On Monday, Le Monde, the leading newspaper in France, condemned the campaign in its lead editorial and Jewish groups organized a demonstration in front of the university.

As a result, the president of the university issued a statement Monday in which he said the university was not willing to cut ties with Israeli universities. He proposed instead that the E.U. expand its educational accord to include Palestinian universities. On Tuesday, the board of another university that was supposed to vote on a motion calling for a suspension of the Israel-E.U. agreement finally decided against it.

“They backed down because of all the pressure coming from everywhere,” said Patrick Klugman, chairman of the French Jewish student union, who first raised the alarm in December. “But the atmosphere on campus and in school is still a big worry.”

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