At a synagogue that has been torched twice by the anti-Semitic vandals who roam the outskirts of Paris, the former grand rabbi of Israel on Wednesday told of a past that still echoes in today’s uneasy Europe.
Rabbi Israel Meir Lau described an incident in Nazi-occupied Poland when Gestapo soldiers on motorcycles surrounded a wooden synagogue whose congregation had taken refuge in the courtyard. The rolling marauders hurled torches, setting the temple ablaze, then gunned down a man who ran through flames to save the Torah, Lau told members of the synagogue of Villepinte, a high-crime suburb of Paris.
“The Jews felt then that all their hearts died in the flames,” the white-bearded Lau said. “When your synagogue was attacked here, hearts all over the Jewish world felt your pain.”
The pain was felt beyond the Jewish world as well: The rabbi spoke at the closing ceremony of a three-day conference that was organized by UNESCO and the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center to address anti-Semitism.
These are uneasy times to be Jewish in Europe. The war in Iraq exacerbated a steady wave of aggression against Jewish targets in France that began about three years ago: vandalism of synagogues and kosher stores, insults in schools and subways, beatings of men wearing orthodox garb. The assailants tend to be young men of North African descent.
In Britain, recent statistics show a jump in anti-Semitic incidents as well. And in Belgium, the ominous growth of two forces offers a glimpse at a potentially ugly future: the Arab-European League, a militant Arab-nationalist party that has been accused of inciting riots, and the Vlaams Blok, a far-right party with a neo-Nazi past. During pro-Palestinian marches in Antwerp last year, police warned Jewish citizens not to go to temple on a Saturday because their safety could not be guaranteed.
The everyday menace on the streets here “is a harrowing truth right now,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Wiesenthal Center. Cooper helped organize the conference that drew Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders, academics, diplomats and political leaders such as French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.
Sarkozy took office last year with a law-and-order agenda. He vowed to encourage the integration of the Muslim community into French society. And he declared he would crack down on anti-Semitism.
Jewish leaders say Sarkozy recognized a problem that the previous center-left government had downplayed or ignored. That Socialist-led government’s failure to respond to issues involving crime, immigration and ethnic conflict contributed to the Socialists’ surprise loss in last year’s presidential primary to Jean-Marie Le Pen of the far-right National Front party; Le Pen lost the runoff to President Jacques Chirac.
“We are a long way from where we were from the previous government, which wouldn’t admit there were anti-Semitic hate crimes here,” Cooper said.
The Villepinte synagogue is an outpost of the siege mentality felt by the world’s third largest Jewish community. The town of Villepinte is in the Seine Saint Denis area north of Paris, some of the toughest turf in France, where youth crime, Islamic fundamentalism, immigration and militant leftism converge in a volatile mix.
Demographics play a fundamental role: France has about 6 million Muslims, Europe’s biggest Islamic population. Many youths of Arab descent instinctively see Jews and Americans as enemies, police experts say. International conflicts such as the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, the Sept. 11 attacks and the war in Iraq trigger waves of political fervor here that sometimes are accompanied by violence. Shortly before the war in Iraq, a Jewish student was assaulted by antiwar marchers in Paris.
The Villepinte synagogue sits on a small hill with a view of narrow streets lined by well-kept townhouses. On the other side of the high fence separating the synagogue and townhouses from the Muslim community, the presence of women wearing veils or African robes attests to the area’s ethnic mix.
It is not uncommon for Jewish worshippers to be subjected to rocks and insults on their way to services. In October 2000, the synagogue was hit by six Molotov cocktails, the second arson attack in less than a decade.
The causes are complex, according to retired police commander Sammy Ghozlan, who in addition to leading bands that play for Jewish events has created a program to fight hate crimes in the Paris area.
The industrial suburbs are known as the “Red Belt” because of the longtime dominance by the Communist Party and other leftist groups. And as the population has become increasingly Muslim, the influence of Islamic fundamentalists has spread among nominally Westernized young people looking for a cause.
Some municipal leaders incite anti-Jewish feeling among Muslim youths, Ghozlan asserted, with campaigns for solidarity with the Palestinian cause: community newsletters, documentaries, art shows. The anti-Israel politics of the French left increasingly cross the line between merely disliking the Israeli government and generalized anti-Semitism, critics say.
“It’s a factor of incitement,” said Ghozlan, who speaks Arabic as well as Hebrew because his family came here from Algeria after it gained independence in the early 1960s. “They are angry about the Palestinians. And who do they attack? The closest target: the Jewish community.”
The Wiesenthal Center has applied pressure in high and low places. It encourages groups like Ghozlan’s that help victims of crime gain access to a government seen as sometimes unresponsive or uncaring. Rabbi Marvin Hier, the Wiesenthal Center dean and founder, met Tuesday with Chirac to lobby for tougher hate crime laws and more explicit public condemnation of anti-Semitism.
Politically, Jewish leaders say, European governments must wake up to the surge of Islamic extremists, neo-Nazi parties and even hard-line leftists.