PARIS — A teenage Jewish yeshiva student was stabbed and seriously wounded last Friday in a Paris suburb by a knife-wielding assailant shouting “Allahu akhbar,” Arabic for “God is great.”
The teenager, Yisrael Yifrah, 17, was stabbed in the chest at approximately 4:00 p.m. on June 4 as he left a Jewish school, the Mekor Yisrael yeshiva, in Epinay-sur-Seine, north of Paris in the rough Seine St. Denis district, officials of the local prefecture said.
The incident drew a sharp statement of condemnation from President Jacques Chirac. French leaders were said to have been angered and embarrassed by the attack, coming as it did on the eve of the international ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of the Allied landing at Normandy, just hours north of here.
“This is again happening on French soil, a country where Jews were persecuted and killed,” Le Monde, the leading French daily, wrote in a lead editorial. “And it is happening two days prior to our commemoration of 60 years to the Normandy invasion that symbolizes the beginning of the end for Nazi barbarism. Once more a Jew is attacked and stabbed in the street for being a Jew… once more Jews are victims of hatred in France.”
The victim was taken to hospital, and the attacker fled the scene. Witnesses described the attacker as a Muslim of North African or Pakistani origin, according to a French television station.
Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin visited the site where the attack occurred. He said afterward that the attack “must not go unpunished.”
Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin said he shares “the legitimate indignation of the Jews of France against this barbarous act which touches our entire national community.”
The head cleric at the Paris mosque, Dalil Boubakeur, saying that he was speaking in the name of Muslims, condemned the act and the reported accompanying cry.
A spokesman for the Representative Council of Jewish Organizations in France, known as CRIF, said that the teenager’s wounds, while grave, were not life threatening.
CRIF said the attack was an escalation of anti-Jewish violence and called on French authorities to act quickly to apprehend the stabber.
The Seine St. Denis district, where the stabbing took place, is home to tens of thousands of Jews and hundreds of thousands of Muslim immigrants from North Africa. Relations between the two groups, formerly neighborly, have deteriorated sharply in the past three years since the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada in the fall of 2000. Jewish pupils have begun removing their skullcaps, synagogues have installed electronic gates, and schools have set up walls and cameras.
Antisemitic attacks have risen throughout France during that period, spiking sharply in recent months. Physical assaults are outnumbered by attacks on Jewish sites, including synagogues and schools, and by desecration of Jewish cemeteries. The Interior Ministry reported 67 antisemitic acts in the first quarter of 2004, a 60% increase from the same period last year. Young Muslims have been blamed for most of the attacks.
Government officials, accused for close to two years of failing to take the attacks seriously, have dramatically increased their response in the past year, community and government officials say. The Ministry of Interior has recruited thousands of new police officers to boost security in the cities and suburbs. Similarly, the French public now demonstrates more sympathy than it did previously to complaints of assaults on Jews. Nearly every assault receives front-page coverage and arouses public outrage.
“The government has taken all sorts of measures to deal with this, and our synagogues are like fortresses,” said Sammy Ghozlan, president of the National Bureau for Vigilance Against Anti-Semitism. “They’ve even put on extra buses from railway stations so people don’t walk around at night. What more can we do?”
Community leaders said the stabbing attack represented a new level of antisemitic assault, the first with a deadly weapon. It comes amid an alarming increase in the intensity of anti-Jewish attacks in recent weeks.
In the past month, rabbis in Marseille and in the Parisian suburb of Creteil were attacked, and a rabbi’s son was severely beaten near his home in Paris over Shavuot.
Officials note that Muslims have also been victims of racist attacks. In March, an arson fire damaged a mosque and destroyed a Muslim prayer hall in Annecy, in southeast France.