JERUSALEM — The strange case of the assault on French Rabbi Gabriel Farhi turns ever stranger.
Early in the evening of Friday, January 3, Farhi called the police to say he had been stabbed by a helmeted man screaming “God is great” in Arabic as he prepared to enter his small Paris synagogue. Later on, he presented himself, with torn shirt and wounded stomach, in a hospital emergency room. He was released shortly thereafter.
The incident, as well a fire set in the rabbi’s car the following Monday and a fire at the rabbi’s synagogue last May, forced police to investigate what seemed to have been a coordinated harassment campaign against the rabbi, possibly by Islamic elements.
On January 20, however, the iconoclastic weekly magazine Marianne published an article quoting unnamed police and medical sources stating that the rabbi’s wound appeared to be self-inflicted. The next day, the mainstream daily Figaro picked up on the story. And on January 22, Farhi, 34, the son of Rabbi Daniel Farhi, who in 1977 established France’s tiny Reform movement, was forced to defend his version at a hastily arranged press conference at his lawyer’s office.
Referring to himself as “a man of religion and … a man of peace,” Farhi, who has become known for spearheading Jewish-Muslim dialogue, said accusations that he had stabbed himself were “unfounded” and equivalent to “a second attack even more violent than the first.”
He accused skeptical police officers of being behind the allegations. “From the first minute I was heard by the [police] I wasn’t ‘Rabbi Gabriel Farhi — victim,’ but I was a suspect,” he said.
Rumors involving the identity of the attacker had circulated almost immediately after the stabbing, even within the highly fractionalized Jewish community itself. Returning home early on the morning after the stabbing from a weekend in Normandy, Francis Lentschner, vice president of the French Jewish Liberal Movement, said he found his community “overrun by rumors.”
Among these was one, widely whispered among Reform Jews stung by their long-standing rejection by France’s Orthodox communities, alleging that a Jewish extremist was behind the attack, perhaps a member of the right-wing Betar movement or of the new French branch of the Jewish Defense League.
Farhi’s attorney, Michel Zaoui, said, “all the possibilities are open. The Jewish religious or political extremist trail, involving Betar or the JDL, and the Arab trail. I am not excluding any possibility.”
Lentschner was more cryptic in his response: “I cannot believe an extremist Jew did this like I cannot believe an Israeli Jew killed the prime minister of Israel.”
Clémant Veil-Reynal, legal affairs correspondent for France’s Channel 3 and president of the Association of French Jewish Journalists, said allegations that the attacker was Jewish is “the most grotesque of all the rumors.”
Nobody disputes the fact that the wound was light and required no stitches and that there were no witnesses to the attack. According to Marianne magazine, a medical report indicated that the gash in Farhi’s shirt did not match the lesion on his belly.
Zaoui, a prominent trial attorney, argues that neither the police nor the medical reports alludes to a possible “self-mutilation,” as Marianne, naming no sources, claimed they did.
The attack came after a two-year period that saw a sharp rise in attacks against French Jews, including a fire eight months ago that severely damaged Farhi’s synagogue in the 11th Arrondissement. On January 6, the Monday following the knifing, the rabbi’s car was torched outside his home. No one has accused the rabbi of involvement in those incidents.
In terms of the Jewish community’s image in the press, said Veil-Reynal, who has spent much of the past two years publicly denouncing the wave of antisemitism in France, “it would be a disaster” if Farhi were found to have engaged in an act of self-mutilation.
Meanwhile, after appearing healthy and vigorous at his press conference, Farhi is taking an extended break. “He is on sick leave through February,” a secretary in his office told the Forward.
“Well, he’s not sick, but he is resting. He is tired,” explained Michel Muscat, secretary-general of the Liberal Movement. “In any event, he is not responding to journalists.”
Many are predicting the case will go unresolved or will be handled very slowly. “This is the kind of case that may just be forgotten,” said Veil-Reynal. “Almost every aspect of it is strange, and it is politically hyper-sensitive.”
If nothing else, the case has exposed the deep rifts that characterize French Jewry, where the Reform movement is virtually boycotted by Orthodoxy.
While four high-ranking French officials attended a solidarity event held days after the attack on Farhi, not a single Orthodox rabbi attended. “Let’s just say that I would have been very pleased if an Orthodox rabbi had come and leave it at that,” Lentschner said.