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'I'm scared for the future of my baby here': French Jews live in fear amid rising anti-Semitic acts

In a Parisian suburb, Myriam sits at her parents' dinner table, the Shabbat candles flickering before her. T...

Posted: Nov 30, 2018 10:58 AM
Updated: Nov 30, 2018 10:58 AM

In a Parisian suburb, Myriam sits at her parents' dinner table, the Shabbat candles flickering before her. Together with her husband and newborn son she takes stock of the painful week she's had. It's a regular conversation for many French Jews.

Myriam, who did not want to give her last name over fears for her own safety, questions whether France is a country where her family can prosper, a place they can still call home.

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According to the Jewish Agency for Israel, 55,000 French Jews have left the country since the year 2000.

"I'm scared of the future of my baby here," Myriam told CNN.

"I hope that he will have a future here, and you know Jewish communities are a part of the history of France."

Earlier this month, the French government said that anti-Semitic acts had increased by 69% over the first nine months of 2018. The new statistics coincided with the announcement of a 5 million euro government fund to combat anti-Semitism in schools and a pledge to tackle online hate speech.

A CNN/ComRes poll published earlier this week revealed that one out of five French adults between 18-34 said they'd never heard of the Holocaust.

Frederic Potier, the man charged with leading the government's plans to tackle anti-Semitism, said the poll's findings were shocking.

"I'm really surprised by this number because in our country... 20% is a lot," he said.

When asked by CNN as to why the number was so high, he answered: "I will not say that we don't have any problems, yes we do. We have some problems, some teachers have difficulties to teach the Holocaust."

Arthur Reverchon, a history teacher who works with children in Paris, says Holocaust education is a large part of the program in secondary schools and often comes up in exams.

"The history curriculum taught to kids between the ages of 11-13 deals largely with the birth of Judaism. With regards to anti-Semitism in France, the Dreyfus affair is on the curriculum in middle school (13-14) and in high school (16-17), this allows us to delve into the issue of anti-Semitism in France and in Europe. The Holocaust constitutes a large part of the program in secondary school."

"On the whole, I think the Holocaust is well taught in the curriculum and it's wrong to say it's difficult to teach the Holocaust in French schools, particularly in the suburbs," Reverchon told CNN.

"I taught in three different schools, all three were difficult and in the suburbs, but I never had any difficulty teaching the Holocaust, my students were always receptive. If there are examples, and I'm not denying their existence, they are globally isolated events."

Violent attacks

Since 2006, when Ilan Halimi, a young Jewish man, was kidnapped and killed, 11 people have died in anti-Semitic attacks in France.

In 2015, a gunman killed four people in a kosher supermarket in Paris as people watched the story unfold on television. Three years earlier, four people, including three young children, were gunned down in an attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse, shocking the country.

In 2017, Sarah Halimi, a 65-year-old Orthodox Jewish woman, was murdered in her apartment, dragged from her bed and thrown from the balcony in an anti-Semitic attack which shocked the nation.

Earlier this year, hundreds took to the streets to protest after Mireille Knoll, an 85-year-old French Holocaust survivor, was slain in her apartment in what French authorities have described as an anti-Semitic hate crime.

That list of fatal attacks almost included Nathaniel Azoulay, an 18-year-old Parisian who told CNN how he was attacked by a man wielding a saw after a traffic altercation. Azoulay says the man had been civil toward him initially.

"He was talking to me normally, but at some point, his speech changed when he saw the kippah," said Azoulay, referring to his head covering.

The man's aggression prompted Azoulay and his brother to flee their car, running as fast as they could toward safety. Though both trained in Krav Maga, the self-defense system used by the Israel Defense Forces and taught in Jewish community centers in France, neither could escape the assailant.

"He started hurling anti-Semitic insults, 'f***king Jew, you're gonna die on this road,'" said Azoulay. "He wanted us to die... he stabbed my brother with the saw and my brother could not protect himself with his Krav Maga moves."

Azoulay says he tried to save his brother, who had been pushed to the floor with the saw aimed at his neck, but a group of the attacker's friends arrived and surrounded the siblings.

"The attacker was shouting: 'They're f***ing Jews we can beat up, come, hit them,'" said Azoulay.

"We tried to run back to the car. He attacked me again with the saw on my back but I had a big jacket. His friends were going towards my brother and pushing him on the ground. I managed to grab the saw. I grabbed the sharp side so it cut my fingers and I had to get it stitched up at the hospital."

Azoulay says the attack came to a halt only after the father of the attacker pleaded with his son to stop.

Azoulay's brother was injured in the attack and police investigated. But a trial has yet to begin.

France, which is home to the largest Jewish population in Europe, also hosts a large Muslim community.

The relationship between the two communities has deteriorated steadily as the politics of the Middle East has reverberated in France.

It's visible in the working-class Parisian suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois, which once had a thriving Jewish community.

The community center and synagogue were once full. But a member of the community told CNN the numbers have dropped dramatically.

Fear has forced many to leave for other parts of Paris or in some cases, leave the country altogether.

Malika, a local Muslim resident who didn't give CNN her last name, says she is sad to see members of the Jewish community move away from the area, but it doesn't surprise her.

"They are right to be afraid because the conflict in Palestine has reached here and that's why we're in this situation," she said.

"When I see a Jew next to my place, or on the street I say: 'We are the same family.' They have nothing to do with what's going on in Palestine. They are afraid for their children and that's crazy."

The turning point

Yonathan Arfi, vice president of CRIF, an umbrella body for Jewish groups in France, says there have been "several hundred attacks" since 2000, with the nature of those attacks changing markedly.

He cites the start of the second intifada in the West Bank and Gaza in 2000 as the moment the attacks on the Jewish community began to change.

"Before it was graffiti on buildings, now it ends up with (the) killing of people and terrorism, so we see that the nature of anti-Semitism has changed dramatically," said Arfi.

"These attacks were committed by young people identifying with Palestinians considering Jews guilty of the things happening in the Middle East, I would say."

While traditional anti-Semitism is not a new phenomenon in France, the government is battling against what has been coined as the "new anti-Semitism," which it says spills out of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Potier says there is a divergence between both the "old" and "new" strains of anti-Semitism, which are equally destructive.

"What we call in France the new anti-Semitism is coming from radical Muslims, but as I say every day, the new anti-Semitism uses very old messages like the Protocol of the Elders of Zion, the theory that Jews have money and power," Potier said. "... both are completely linked. There is a common point between the far-right and radical Muslims.

"When you are talking about Jews and money for instance, it is the same cliché, it is the same stereotypes that are being used by these groups. So, when you are educating people, about religious beliefs, what is Israel, what is Zionism, you are using the same tools."

Hakim El Karoui, a senior fellow at the Institut Montaigne who has previously worked for the French Ministry for Economy and Finance and has advised the government on anti-Semitism, says the lack of familiarity between the two communities is a huge factor in creating tension.

Increasing segregation between the communities is a dangerous reality that is leading to even less interaction and understanding between communities, often prompting more tension, he says.

"What has happened in a lot of working-class neighborhoods is that where Arab and Jews once lived together, the Jews have left," El Karoui told CNN.

"They (the Jewish community) left Seine-Saint-Denis, they went to the west side of Paris and therefore they don't know each other anymore," El Karoui said.

"I'm pretty worried about the deterioration of the situation and I think the best answer to this issue should obviously be coming from the government but also from the Muslim community.

"It needs to say out loud: 'You have no right to say this.' It needs to say, 'You are wrong. You are making a mistake by saying this because in the end your words will come back against you.' The fact that there's a lot of silence on this topic is a problem."

The government hopes its new plan can begin to tackle the roots of anti-Semitism within France.

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced the mobilization of a national team tasked with educating children in schools across the country on the dangers of anti-Semitism.

He also promised to make tackling online hate speech a national priority, as well as introducing an anti-racism prize named after Halimi, a 23-year-old tortured and murdered in an anti-Semitic attack in 2006. There are also plans for an online complaint procedure to allow users to register attacks with authorities.

But For Myriam and her family, the question of whether her son can live safely in the country of his birth remains a difficult one.

The violence toward France's Jewish community scares her, and while she says the government has tried to act, she is clear that more needs to be done.

"For over 10 years, the government makes efforts, for sure, in terms of legislation and policies, but it's not enough," she says.

"The first priority is to recognize that the problem, the heart of the problem, it's the radical Islam. First, name the problem. And then, it's more education."

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