Physical attacks on Jews in France increased by 45% last year, and verbal attacks increased by 71%, according to a new report prepared by CRIF, the umbrella group of French Jewish organizations. That is bad enough news. But to make matters worse, the French ambassador to the United States has been quoted as claiming that antisemitism in France actually decreased by 48% last year.
The French ambassador, Jean-David Levitte, made the claim of a 48% decrease during a speech in New York last October. In view of other reports to the contrary, we wrote to the ambassador to ask him the basis for that figure.
During the four weeks that we waited for Levitte’s reply, there were numerous antisemitic attacks. Arsonists attacked and damaged Merkaz Hatorah, a Jewish school in the Paris suburb of Gagny. A mob of French soccer fans shouting “Filthy Jew!” assaulted an Israeli man in a Paris restaurant, compelling a police officer to use lethal force to stop the attack.
And speakers at a conference held by CRIF in November reported that “in many suburbs of Paris, few Jewish young people still attend public school because of violence or threats of violence, mainly from African and North African Arab students. Jewish parents have placed their children in private Jewish schools, many of which were established in the past few years.”
Levitte eventually wrote back to say that the correct figure for 2006 was actually a 3% decrease, not a 48% decrease. Apparently the higher figure actually applied to 2005, not 2006, as he had claimed in his October speech in New York. New evidence, however, has since emerged to challenge even that 3% figure.
To begin with, there are the troubling figures cited in the recently released CRIF report. Then last month, the Israeli Foreign Ministry, together with the Office of the Prime Minister and the Jewish Agency for Israel, released a report about rising antisemitism in Europe in 2006 which found a 20% rise in France, from 300 reported antisemitic incidents in 2005 to 360 last year.
Lest there be any doubt about the seriousness of these figures, we need only recall what happened to Ilan Halimi, the young French Jew tortured and murdered by an antisemitic Muslim gang. More than a year has passed since the killing, and yet some disturbing questions remain unanswered.
Halimi was recently reburied in Jerusalem, and at the funeral his family and friends asked pointed questions about the residents of the apartment house where he was held hostage and brutalized. According to media reports, some of them knew what was going on but chose to remain silent. “It’s almost impossible to believe that people knew a boy was being tortured in their own apartment building and they simply did not bother to call the police,” said Ilan’s mother, Ruth Halimi. “If they had bothered to call, Ilan might still be alive. But they didn’t.”
The response of those neighbors is frighteningly reminiscent of the infamous case of Kitty Genovese, a young woman who was repeatedly assaulted and then stabbed to death outside her Queens apartment building in March 1964. Dozens of neighbors either witnessed or heard some part of the attack, yet did nothing.
The episode became permanently burned into the American public’s conscience and over the years has been the focus of much soul searching. The reaction of the neighbors in that case has been studied extensively by social scientists and is known as the “Bad Samaritan Complex” or the “Genovese Syndrome.”
One would hope that the French public will take the Halimi case as seriously. The response of the French neighbors should be labeled “Halimi Syndrome” and made the subject of thorough study and analysis.
One also would hope that a decline in antisemitic incidents during the last months of 2006, as noted in the CRIF report, will continue. But it’s still too early to know if that decline indicates a trend. In the meantime, the French government has some questions to answer.
First, have teachers in France been encouraged to speak with their students about the behavior of the neighbors in the Halimi case? Shouldn’t this episode be used to teach young people the horrific consequences of indifference to human suffering?
Second, how does the French government’s claim of a 3% decrease in antisemitism last year square with the Israeli government’s report of a 20% increase in antisemitic incidents, and the CRIF report of a 45% rise in physical attacks?
And third, what specific steps has the government taken against the North African Arab youths who, according to French Jewish groups, are continuing to perpetrate violence against Jewish students?
Edward Koch, a member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, served as mayor of New York City from 1978 to 1989. Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. They are co-authors of the forthcoming “Confronting Antisemitism and the Holocaust” (Palgrave Macmillan).