(JTA) — My friend Alain Azria gave me a puzzled look when I told him, with some indignation and disbelief in my voice, that I had just heard talk of killing Jews at an unauthorized anti-Israel demonstration in Paris.
I had heard one young black man with a Parisian accent telling a dozen friends loudly but without shouting: “Okay, guys. Let’s go hunt some Jews” on July 17.
His friend answered: “Let’s break their heads,” to which the first speaker replied: “Catch them fast, kill them slow.” The group blended into a mass of thousands of people who were marching toward the Gare du Nord train station while shouting slogans accusing Israel of genocide.
My shock stemmed from the fact that while anti-Semitic violence accounts for a fair share of my reporting here in Europe, I have personally been insulated from it — perhaps because I live in Holland, where such occurrences are rarer, or maybe because I had lived most of my life in Israel, where one receives only a theoretical understanding of the phenomenon.
But for Alain, a freelance news photographer who specializes in documenting France’s anti-Semitism problem, this was just another day at the office. Which is to say he didn’t really have time for my astonished discovery of the banal. “OK, OK, welcome to Paris. Now let’s move it along,” he said as he took us on a shortcut designed to reach the station before the procession.
Over the course of the following fortnight, as Israel’s fight against Hamas in Gaza continued to fan the already considerable flames of anti-Semitic violence and incitement across the continent, I would come to better understand Alain’s apparent nonchalance at the hate fest he was documenting.
This understanding came through frequent visits to Paris — including the scene of one attempted pogrom — and discussions with professed anti-Semites there. But it also grew out of observing unprecedented phenomena gripping the area around my own home in The Hague, which Dutch media has dubbed “the Sharia triangle.”
Shocked by how acceptable anti-Semitism has become in France, I was glad to be back home in the Netherlands, a country where I chose to settle in part because of its strong tradition of tolerance. But in Schilderswijk, my neighborhood of The Hague where roughly half of the population is Muslim, hundreds demonstrated three times since July 7 at rallies that featured flags of the ISIS terrorist group and calls to slaughter the Jews. On Sunday, the protesters were back on the street, hurling stones at police.
Central to my understanding of the banalization of anti-Semitic violence in Europe were the July 20 riots in Sarcelles, a northern suburb of Paris with many Muslims but with a Jewish population large enough to earn it the nickname of “little Jerusalem.”
There, I saw riot police fending off a predominantly Arab mob that, unable to reach the main local synagogue, had smashed the windows of Jewish and non-Jewish businesses while chanting “death to the Jews” in Arabic and French. The avenue leading to the synagogue was shrouded in a cloud of tear gas and black smoke that rose from several fires that crackled cheerfully on the asphalt and tram tracks. Nearby, rioters hurled a firebomb at a synagogue, resulting in little damage. It was the ninth assault on a French synagogue since July 8, when Israel’s attack on Hamas began.
The temporary breakdown of rule of law may seem strange to many Americans, but is normal in France, where police often opt to contain rather than bust illegal behavior by Arabs from the suburbs of large cities, to “let sleeping dogs lie,” as Sammy Ghozlan, a French former police commissioner and founder of the National Bureau of Vigilance Against Anti-Semitism, told me. “We call these areas ‘the lost territories’ because they are no-go areas for police, who fear the escalation of a minor incident into a repeat of the 2005 riots,” he said. “You have such areas in Israel, too,” he reminded me.
More than the breakdown of public order, I was surprised by the drilled response of local Jews. Within minutes of the eruption of the riots in Sarcelles, 100 of them gathered with baseball bats and other weapons. Surrounding the besieged synagogue, they started singing the French anthem. I asked several of them when they began relying on their own strength for their defense. The older ones said it has been like this for many years. The teenagers said: “Since forever.”
Stuck at the train station of Sarcelles — the riots disrupted train traffic, and taxi drivers generally avoid the area after dark — I overheard an Algerian man explaining to a Congolese woman that it was the Jews of Sarcelles who struck first. “Like always, first they attack or steal or kill, then they bring the media to lie about it,” said the man, who identified himself to me as Mohammed abu-Chaich, a security guard at Charles de Gaulle Airport. “I hate Jews, I’m not ashamed to say it. They initiated the war in Algeria just to kill Arabs,” abu-Chaich, who is in his 40s, told me of his country’s civil war, waged by Islamists. “Hitler killed them for similar reasons,” he added loudly as others around him nodded approvingly.
Feeling sad from my conversation with abu-Chaich (I didn’t tell him I was Jewish) I went into a Cameroonian restaurant for dinner. It wasn’t long before I ended up chatting with some of the patrons about Africa — a continent where I have worked and which I love. Ten minutes into the conversation, two of my interlocutors invited me to stay with them during my next visit to Yaounde.
I was feeling tipsy from the cheap banana beer and happy to have my new Cameroonian friends restore my faith in mankind, when one of them began speaking hopefully of the bright future that lay ahead for his country when it finally taps its massive reserves of liquid gas. “It will be heaven,” he said. “I just hope the Jews don’t take it away from us like they did in Germany before Hitler used that gas to kill them.”